How Do You Know
by Sarah A. Hoyt
How do you know if your writing is really good?
A lot of beginning writers are tormented by this question. I know I was.
Fortunately (!) I was lucky (!!) to come up in the days when my only way to publication was to submit and sell to editors. So I soon evolved the answer “if it sells, it is good.”
I evolved this answer, even though I — objectively — knew d*mn well that this wasn’t true. However, it was functionally true. Let me attempt to explain.
I’m not sure if there is such a thing as “objectively good.” I’m not sure of this, because 99% of NYT mega bestselling books would go against the wall with force if I were fool enough to read them after reading the synopsis. To me, Terry Pratchett is objectively good, but I have tons of friends whose opinion I respect, who can’t read him. In the same way, I find Twilight and its spawn “sickish” and dumb, but I have very smart friends who love the books. And don’t get me started on Dan Brown. Just don’t.
But even if there were such a thing as “objectively good” it wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea.
Take Patricia Wentworth (please.) Objectively I can tell you everything that is wrong with her Miss Silver mysteries: to wit, several of them can only work if all characters are as dumb as a box full of hammers; they’re more woman in peril thrillers/romances than mysteries; they’re repetitive — if you read one, you know how the others will go.
And yet… and yet, I own every one of them I can get my hands on, and I re-read them often over months at a time.
Why? Well, I know they’re not “good” as far as I understand writer technique but they are low-tension rides with the certainty that in the end evil (and she writes great evil women, particularly) will be defeated, innocence avenged, and good flourish (even good that’s dumb as a box full of hammers.) They are, essentially, cozy and comforting. Taking apart their structural flaws is like pointing out flaws in the weave of your security blanket: granted that it’s all true, who cares? At certain times they serve my purposes in reading them. And that’s all you need to know.
Even back then, when I was trying to tell myself “what sells to an editor is good” what I really meant was “it advances my purpose of making a living from fiction.” I didn’t mean it was good. How could I? I knew the other stuff those magazines and houses published, and most of them were anything but good. More, I was aware of the fact that to be accepted by most magazines (houses are a little harder to aim for. None but Baen have a distinctive identity) I didn’t need so much to be “good” as to be what they wanted me to be/expected me to be.
However, I had to pretend the standard meant something to live with myself. And having that validation kept me from driving myself crazy.
I imagine what it’s like to be a newby now “What do I write?” “What is good?” “If it’s not selling, is it because it’s bad, or is it because I haven’t promoted enough?”
I’m going to dispose of the “good thing” right now. From now onto forever, when that thought comes into your head, remember “Sarah Hoyt says it’s good enough.”
How can Sarah Hoyt say it’s good enough without having seen your work? Because Sarah Hoyt has trouble imagining — unless you’re actually writing in such a way that the sentences don’t make any sense (say “the wide purpleness swam languidly”) or that the meaning doesn’t carry from a sentence to the next anything worse than stuff she had to read for college in the seventies, or stuff that’s been assigned to her kids in high school very recently.
Worse, I can’t imagine anything that’s worse than what I call “the worst book in the world” which fails to engage the reader by taking side excursions into irrelevant stuff, the author contradicts herself four times in the first three pages, the characters are repulsive, the action ridiculous… and yet that book (indie published) has six sequels and the author is living from the proceeds.
In fact, if you managed to write anything worse than that, it would be a work of genius JUST on the basis of that, and by itself that might deserve a place in world literature.
As for selling — this might change, everything about indie seems to change every other day — but for now what seems to make a difference is to have several pieces of writing (under the same name) out there. It maximizes people’s ability to find you.
However, other than that, there’s not much doing. The (Ric) Locke theorem specifies that for every piece of writing, not matter how horrible, in a world with millions of readers, you’ll find x thousand that think your book is the best thing ever written. The x is some number larger than 1 and possibly extending past a thousand.
So, keep writing, keep trying, don’t worry about being good or bad. Ask yourself “Good according to whom?” And “bad according to whom?”
If you’re bad according to yourself, then do try to fix the areas that bother you. Study from those authors you admire. This falls under the principle of “don’t sell sausage you’re not willing to eat.”
Other than that, ignore critics, don’t read reviews, keep working and keep publishing.
And if anyone asks you why you think this or that is good tell them that Sarah Hoyt said it was good enough.