Writers aren’t perfect – all the time!
I was having a bit of a break from writing the other day and I was googling (research as we writers call it), and I came across this quote from the painter Vincent Van Gogh:
One must spoil as many canvases as one succeeds with
His words made me stop and think, and I decided they could just as easily be applied to writing. Not everything we create, whether a canvas or a story, is going to be perfect. We cannot, continuously, produce our very best writing. We all, artists and writers and everyone else, have “off” days.
We may not be feeling well; we may have problems – family, work, financial; we may be worried about all sorts of things – major and minor; we may just be “out of sorts”. If anything is going on in the background, then our writing will suffer.
So, I investigated further quotes by Van Gogh and here’s what I found:
I’m drawing a great deal and think it’s getting better
I long so much to make beautiful things. But beautiful things require effort – and disappointment and perseverance
I’ve just kept on ceaselessly painting in order to learn painting
Obvious, isn’t it? To succeed, you must practise, over and over again; you must face serious setbacks (rejection and criticism) and you must continue to learn your craft.
I remember years ago when I first started teaching creative writing, I had a student who wrote an entertaining short story as her homework one week. She asked me if I thought it would be worth sending off to a magazine. I suggested some likely publications and we were both delighted when, a few weeks later, her story was accepted by a well-known women’s magazine. The following week, she sent off two stories she’d written previously to the same editor. Both were rejected and she was quite indignant that they hadn’t been accepted.
Two lessons learned here: (1) women’s magazines that accept fiction rarely accept multiple submissions from the same author; they like variety. (2) In all probability, my student’s previous stories may not have been of the same standard.
And this is where we come to one of the most difficult aspects of writing – judging one’s own work. Is it any good? Or is it absolutely awful?
Best it can be
A word of caution here: I’m not talking about typos, and spelling mistakes, and grammar errors. Those should NEVER appear in your work if you are handing it to anyone else to read, whether it be a friend, a writing buddy, your favourite aunt, the local writing group, an editor or agent. There is no excuse for being unprofessional in that way. You are asking someone to spend time reading your work and the very least you can do is to make sure it’s in the best form it can be. If it’s a first draft, then say so.
But judging the CREATIVE aspect of your writing is much harder. The advice that is offered time and again is, once the first draft is finished, put it away for a while (a couple of days, a week, a month, three months, six months) so that when you come back to it, it is with as fresh a pair of eyes as possible.
I’m quite astounded sometimes when I read things I wrote years ago. Some have reduced me to tears – and not because of the typos! Others, I cringe at when I realise I’ve changed point of view far too often in a single page.
One answer is to have a clear purpose as you read through your writing. For example, I read through each chapter as I write it, looking specifically at:
- Are the characters, particular the protagonist, realistic? Do they react in ways appropriate to their personality?
- Is the protagonist active? Is he/she at the centre of the story? Does he/she make things happen, make the decisions that need making?
- Is the protagonist’s goal clear to the reader? Is it achieved (or not) in a realistic manner?
On another read, I will look at the different settings in my book: are there enough/too many; are they described in enough detail to take the reader there; am I using one particular setting too many times; and, most importantly, are my characters interacting with the settings?
You cannot check everything on a single read-through. But by having specific things to look out for, you’ll do a far better editing job. Then, when you’ve done all that, it’s entirely up to you – just trust your own judgement.
Have you heard of Janus words? Click here for this month’s article.
Good luck to all those who’ve entered the NaNoWriMo competition or are following their own version.