Sunday, April 17, 2011

Practice makes perfect? Maybe not.

by: Joelle Charbonneau

The more I write, the better I get at the craft of writing. That makes sense, right? Practice makes perfect. However, maybe it is just me, but I’ve also found that the more I write the harder it is for me to discern whether or not the story is any good.

I just completed my 9th manuscript. The first 4 will never see the light of day, which is a good thing. Some should never be read by anyone. Others are in genres I really have no interest in writing in again. They were great practice, but I don’t really want readers to flip through the pages. Four of the other books are either published or under contract. This most recent one is not. Is it good enough to be? I really don’t know.

When I started writing, I assumed that my ability to judge my skill level would improve. And on some level that is true. I am much better at judging the pacing of a scene, or crafting quick dialogue and choosing my words carefully to create the setting. But somewhere along the line I lost the ability to judge my own story. I can tell you if the individual pieces work, but no matter how much time passes, I can’t seem to make a judgment on whether the overall story comes together.

I felt this way when revising my 8th manuscript – MURDER FOR CHOIR – and was terrified when I sent it to my agent. I thought I had too much going on in the book and that she was going to tell me it sucked. Every day that passed between sending it to her and hearing the verdict made me chew my nails and even more certain that the book was terrible. Turns out she loved it. Several editors felt the same way.

Yay! The book sold fast.

Crap! I learned that I no longer have a clue if what I am writing is any good.

Now here I am revising my 9th book trying not to despair at my lack of ability to see the forest through the trees. Do I think the idea for the story is good? Yes. Am I doing it justice? The hell if I know.

So, I guess my question is this – do you ever have trouble gauging the quality of your own work? If so, can you tell me how you get through it because at the moment I can use all the help I can get.


Gerald So said...

Hi, Joelle.

I tend to think no one can objectively judge his/her own work. Creators are inextricably attached to what they create. They can compensate somewhat by putting the work away for a while and looking at it again later, trying to put themselves in the place of someone who's never seen the work, but ultimately, the work has to be judged by someone else (agent, editor, etc.).

We all have days we think our work-in-progress is crap. It may be helpful to discard your worst and best opinions of your work and just push on to a draft you think is worth submitting. The point when you can't think of what else to revise may be a good time to submit and let your agent/editor advise you from there.

I've heard many writers say the more they write, the harder it gets. This makes sense for writers trying to create new situations and new characters with each new novel, trying to make it seem as if their series protags are encountering new people and places. Practice only makes perfect for repetitive tasks like trying to write more or less the same book over and over.

Joelle Charbonneau said...

Hi Gerald! I'm glad to know I'm not alone in on the days I think what I'm writing is crap! And you're right. The minute I'm done revising this thing I'm not going to agonize. I'll send it off and see what happens.

Blythe Gifford said...

Daily. Hourly. The same work is brilliant and hopeless.
I do think, when I sit back, that I have some idea about the body of work and the individual pieces in retrospect. (Which are the best, for example.) But at the time, not so much. Here's one case in which an agent really, really helps.

Linda Nagata said...

This is why I'm wildly jealous of those who have readily available and interested beta readers. A few words of praise and encouragement can go a long way in this business toward restoring confidence. Of course the other head-tangling reality (for those of us who have mastered self-doubt) is that just because an agent or editor loves it, that doesn't mean anyone else will! ;-)

Best of luck with the 9th book!

Dana King said...

I'm on the yo-yo every day. Now I write them the best I can and let others tell me if it's any good.

My previous life as a musician has served me well as a writer. I used to practice passages until they were as good as I could get them, then decide to play them just a little better. Crash and burn. With writing I've learned to write as well as I can and try to improve each sentence, but if I see I'm only re-arranging furniture, I call it done. That's as well as I can write it. It stands or falls there.

I guess what I'm saying is, I only worry whether it's as good as I can write it. Everything else is out of my control.

Sara J. Henry said...

If at some point you don't decide your manuscript is the most absurd, stupidest manuscript ever written and that (depending on what phase this is) your agent must have been delusional to sign you and your publisher equally or more delusional to buy it - you're not doing your job.

Or you just aren't normal.

Mike Dennis said...

Good post, Joelle. I think that because our writing comes from within us--from our souls, if you will--then we lose any objective sense about the piece. Especially right after we write it.

Now, you can look at something you wrote years ago and see the flaws. We all can do that, I think. But that's because our insight is boosted by the passage of time away from the piece itself. This kind of timeout gives our objective sense a chance to return.

I always think everything I write is good the minute I write it. Sometimes it'll take me anywhere from twenty minutes to three years to realize it's not going to work, but I need that time to pass to allow my reasoning to re-enter my brain.

Meanwhile, that's why God invented beta readers.

Sarah M. Anderson said...

I'm with you, Joelle. The farther along the learning curve I get, the worse my own perspective is.

Thea said...

Hi Joelle, thanks for sharing this. I can get myself into a panic if I don't watch it. I often feel like what I'm working on is a failure, an uncomfortable feeling when under contract. :)

Jon McGoran said...

I'm with the yo-yoers, but to make life easier: odd-numbered days I'm a genius; even numbered days I suck