Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Pen And The Tuning Fork

At one time at a MileHi con (in Denver) Connie Willis said something that has haunted me ever since. And probably not in the way she meant it to haunt people. She was talking about shameless self-promoters – I think Diana Wynne Jones called them “God or Shakespeare” in Deep Secret – and said that they had to know what they said wasn’t true because in the dark of night, in the solitude of our own souls, we knew exactly how good or bad we were.

Since then I’ve been praying she’s wrong, because in the dark of night, or the light of day about the most confident I ever get about my books is “they might, possibly, perhaps be pretty good.”

Mind you, ten years after writing a book – which is about the soonest I can stand to open it – I’ve been known to open it and go “Oh, wow, I wrote this?” And there was of course the experience of hitting my head and getting a last minute request for a couple of short stories while recovering. The resulting stories were news to me when I got the contributor’s copy and other than one factual mistake on guns (which I might have made while I was well, writing under pressure) I can say they are pretty good stories. I can say so because I don’t remember writing them.

However, we can’t go on hitting our heads all the time – at least I hope not – so how can we tell when our stories are good? How can we tell we’ve hit what we’re aiming for?

I bring you bad tidings. I think Connie Willis was wrong. You can’t. And I can’t. At least, in the secret recesses of the night, no angel has ever come down (or up) to tell me the true worth of my life’s work.

If you’re doing any art (yes, I’m cringing, since really, I’d prefer to be considered a master craftswoman) properly, you’re wrapping so much of yourself in it that you cannot step back and see it objectively – unless you wait ten years or so. (It’s sort of like seeing your home objectively. At least I can’t. It’s only when I’ve been away for a month or so, that I can come back and go “this kitchen needs SOMETHING on that wall.”)

Oh, there are circumstances under which you have some idea that what you’ve written is a step up or a new technique for you. This is usually while you’re learning it. You can feel yourself straining to weave it in. This happened to me (still does somewhat) for years and years as I struggled with plot. Or as I tried to weave in background fleshing with action.

These were techniques I’d realized I needed while reading other books (that’s one way to tell what you’re missing, though not necessarily the relative worth of what you have) and which I’d studied and applied, consciously. (I think this accounts for new artists/writers thinking their stuff is great. It’s the “wow, I can’t believe I can do this at all.)

There is only one problem with that. Once you master a technique, it becomes part of you. And then you don’t notice you’re doing it – until ten years later. Or until you go back and try to analyze your book (though this is an imperfect and difficult ability.) Or – and this is important – until someone tells you that you managed it – particularly if they didn’t know what you were trying for.

And here we hit upon the only “tuning fork” you can use to evaluate your work. The eyes of others.

The problem is that others are not objective, just as you aren’t. When selecting first readers, you must take the following into account: their feelings towards you; their feelings towards your writing (if your mom hates the idea of your writing, she’s not going to be objective); their experience with the field/reading in general; their ATTITUDE towards what you’re writing, in general (for instance, it would be foolhardy to give my boys erotic romance to read. Not that I’ve ever written that.)

Two general guidelines – if someone always tells you he loves your writing, he might make a great spouse (probably not. It would be very bad for your character) but he is not good first readers. And if someone always tells you he hates your writing, it’s just the same thing (only please, don’t marry him.)

If you don’t have time to carefully vet one first reader, get ten volunteers. If all of them point to the same problem, you probably have it. If three of them point to the same problem, there’s a good chance you have it. Most of the time you’ll find they don’t agree, but when they do it’s time to pay attention. (And by problem I don’t mean typos. We all make typos, and you’ll usually have only one or two readers who find them – out of any group. I mean problems in characterization, action, world building, dialogue, etc. The difficult stuff.)

This doesn’t mean you know how to revise – remember my article on that? – but it means you can read books with an eye to stealing techniques and know how to do it right next time.

So – who is your first reader? Do you have first readers? How many? What has your experience been like? And do you know exactly how good or bad a writer you are – in the middle of the night? (It’s entirely possible I’m odd. It wouldn’t be the first time.)
UPDATE Tangentially related and something I can't speak to but the author of this post can:


MataPam said...

Is this where I admit that my husband and my mother are my first readers? They are both omnivorous readers, and they have this annoying habit of both finding the same problems.

"There were so many characters introduced right up front I couldn't keep track of which were the main ones."

"That fight at the end, I couldn't tell what was happening to whom, and then it was all over. I think you need more description and a longer wrapup."

What they notice is very useful, but for my major weakness, plotting, I really need to recruit other writers, or at any rate someone who understands the structure of novels consciously.

T.M. Lunsford said...

After reading this, I realize I don't have very many good first readers. In the past, the only people I've felt comfortable sharing my work with are my aunt and a few close friends, who all seem to love my work and never offer much criticism. Over the past year or so, I've found a few more discerning first readers, but it's terrifying to send off my work (which I usually think is subpar) to be read by someone else. Still, with the advent of these more discerning readers, I've found my writing improving and coming easier because of the improvements. I don't question myself as much or if I do, I'm asking myself the right questions instead of running 'round in circles.

C Kelsey said...

I tried my parents in the past as first readers. Whoa, disaster. They tend to catch a lot of the spelling errors, but then they get so hung up on them that I get six or seven phone calls in a row to correct them, rather than one call to give me it all.

The first readers who are really helpful tend to come from this blog I visit called MGC. Of course *they* never agree with one another! :-P

As for what I think of my writing in the middle of the night... I really try not to. I tend to get convinced that I should give up writing and play more video games.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

you need to recruit more readers, whether other writers or not. Perhaps barflies, now you don't have a whip hand over submissions?
Once in desperation I asked my husband to recruit ten work mates. That didn't go too well because, you know, most of them didn't read sf/f but even that was more useful than my own head.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Of course it's terrifying, but you have to defeat the fear step by step. Otherwise, think how scary it will be when a book of yours is on the shelves. And yes, you progress much faster with informed criticism. One of the things that's holding me back in art is that I'm resisting joining an artist's group because I don't have time.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


You CAN train readers. I trained my husband "no, don't give me punctuation and typos. Where did it get hard to read?" etc. The problem is, if you train them well, they often start writing themselves.

Marshall Ryan Maresca said...

I have different first readers for my SF/F work and my theatre work. My wife is excellent for the latter, not so much for the former. And I have a group established for the former. I actually feel pretty lucky, I have plenty of critique support right now that has the right balance of critical eye with supportive encouragement.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Yeah, Ryan -- I have different people for mystery and sf/f except for a core of readers who usually get thanked in my aknowledgements and who are versatile enough to "follow" me. Those are writers, so it's a different level of critique

Synova said...

I'd always thought that the fundamental Truth of all art, certain writing and visual arts too, and probably every other sort, is that you really can't tell if it's good or not, or at LEAST go from "this sucks!" to "I'm brilliant!" and back to "this sucks!" again on a weekly basis.

I also have a sort of love/hate response to the self-promoters because at some level I figure that without a measure of arrogance no one even attempts to sell a novel. Self-doubt leads to failure, but no one likes arrogance. But maybe a writer needs just a little bit of it.

Or call it confidence instead of arrogance and I suppose it's all good.

In any case... a lot of people missed Connie this year at Bubonicon. I hope she's feeling better.

Jim McCoy said...

Finding a GOOD first reader is an illusive goal for me. I have people that will read my work and tell me how awesome it is, but I know it's really not. Believe it or not, the first decent thing I've found is the Slush Pile on Baen's Bar. The people there don't know me and they are fair. It would be nice if I could find a person who could even tell me WHY they think it's awesome, since that's always the response I get from my friends.

Chris L said...

Hi Sarah,

How about the other end of the stick? It's not easy being a first reader. The material is raw and sometimes, no matter how you look at it, there are huge issues that potentailly spell doom for the project.

What do you do? How do you politely suggest ditching the whole thing and moving on to something a little more...sane?

Someone gave me this dreaded news once. I don't have a huge ego but still, I didn't take it very well, for the first 3 or so years anyway...

Kate said...

I've got to disagree with Connie on this one. I think the shameless self-promoters either really think they're that good, or are really good at lying to themselves - I've never met any writer who could honestly evaluate their own work. We're just too close to it.

Good first readers are a rare breed. I'm lucky with mine, although I could probably stand to have a few more. People who can read something and tell you that you've given the wrong cues in the opening are worth their weight in gold - even when they weigh as much as I do.

MataPam said...


Now that the bulk of my reading is no longer slush, my plotting is bound to improve. After all, my "to read" pile includes two of yours, two of Dave's, four of Rowena's . . .

Yes, I need more readers.

Amanda Green said...

Like Kate and a couple of others, I need to find a couple more first readers. The ones I have are invaluable and aren't afraid to tell me what needs to be worked on.

Chris L., been there and done that -- from both ends of the stick. As a first reader, the best way to tell them their baby isn't as wonderful as they think is to be specific. As you point out the inconsistencies, etc., also point out the strong points as well. If you do that, they will be more apt to listen to and think about what you have to say.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I didn't even know she was ill -- having been writing, at the bottom of a well, as it were.

I don't so much have self-love as hope I don't TOTALLY suck. ;)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


There are several online crit. groups. Also, if you call your local library they might know of some.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris L,

If three people tell you it's c-r-a-p, then ditch it. But it's better to know WHY they think so.

And as a critic, are you sure that the thing is unsalvageable? Shouldn't you send them for a second opinion. In my experience, if the "student" is willing to learn, there is always something you can do with event he rawest material. Of course, the question is the willingness.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Amen on good first readers being pearls beyond price. :)
Even if one of mine -- when I can get him (G) -- puts pictures o cats in funny poses in the midst of the comments. He made his point :-P

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


yeah, to an extent you are what you read. Fact of life. Take some books you really like and diagram the plot. It will help

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Agreed. I need more too. I suggest we shangai them. Ply them with strong liquor and dancing boys/girls (whatever their preference.) :-)

Amanda Green said...

Sarah, why should they get the good liquor and dancing boys when I don't?

Kate said...


We get the dancing boys/girls and the alcohol first. We need to do proper quality control, after all.

THEN we shanghai the readers and ply them with liquor and dancing boys/girls. One presumes dancing boys/girls become more supple after being plied...

Um. I think it's a bit late for Entendre Alarm. Oops.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


We're writers. We have ALL these imaginary dancing boys and girls

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Absolutely NO using pliers on the dancers! I have to pay for any dents!

To make the dancers more supple, we er... bend them.

Kate said...


I thought dancers were naturally bendy? And now I'm thinking about three ply dancing boys getting bent and wondering just where I fit into this scenario.

Not that I'm objecting, mind you.

Amanda Green said...

Sarah, I want the real ones. Think of the inspiration I'd get from them.

MataPam said...

Amanda, stick with the imaginary ones. The real ones probably have a strong resembance to your son's college buddies. You either feel maternal or say "Thank Ghod they aren't mine!" And either way, you wind up cooking and cleaning.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


when we moved to town seventeen years ago, the college boys walking by my window were "mmmmmm" Now I find myself thinking "Barechested, in winter? What IS he thinking. Wonder if his mom knows." Sigh. Getting old, I guess.

MataPam said...

I think it's the effect of having boys about that age. We now know that they may look yummy when viewed through a window, but they are still too mentally and emotionally immature to be, well, interesting to a mature, intelligent, woman.

Really, the Imaginary Dancing Boys are a vast improvement over Real Boys in Men's Bodies.

That's why most of the Characters we write are a blend of real and imaginary. The fictional young men must be realistic, with just a pinch of Anti-Fairy Dust, to make them worth drooling over.

(Fairy Dust keeps them young.)

Darwin said...

I have one first reader that I trust implicitly. Once she gives the okay, I have second readers that I'll ask on bended knee for opinions.