November 2013

What is Good Writing, Anyway?

// Author: Jordan Locke // 8 Comments

When I wrote my first novel, I had no way of knowing if it was awesome or pure rubbish. I showed it to a few people to get their opinions, and they told me my writing was good.

But I had close relationships with these people. I’m sure they wanted to give me encouragement; they weren’t going to tell me I sucked. And even if they truly liked my story, they weren’t editors or agents, or even writers.

The first real test was when I queried agents. Their responses would give me some hint of whether I was any good, I thought. Well, every agent rejected me. Standard rejection letters, no real feedback on my writing. Agents have hundreds of queries from wantabe writers to shift through every week. They have clients to serve, editors to woo. They don’t have time to critique every author.

With no requests, no feedback and only one novel under my belt, I figured my writing wasn’t quite ready for prime time. So, I studied the craft and kept writing. Five years later, for my fifth book, I received two offers of representation from well-respected agents. I assume that means my writing is good, right?

I still don’t know.

I have a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts. Generally, I enjoyed my classes, but one frustration stemmed from how to determine what is good art and what is mediocre. You’ve all seen a Jackson Pollack (paint splatters on canvas) or Picasso’s Seated Woman (a portrait broken into pieces). I like both painter’s works, but even though I’m an artist by trade, I can’t tell you why these paintings are good, why the artists are considered masters. When my professor preferred one student’s abstract sculpture over another’s, did that make it better? It’s just her opinion, right?

Truth is, art is subjective.

Honestly, it’s impossible for me to know for sure how good my writing is. I can be fairly confident my final draft is better than my first draft and that my most recent book is better than the first one I wrote, but whether my work is high-quality stuff, I can’t tell.

While writing my last novel, I questioned whether it was good enough. When in the middle of the writing process, I’m too close to the work to know. My colleague said she really liked it, but she also had tons of suggestions on how to fix it. After revisions, I sent it to my agent, who told me it was really solid, said it was great. I still had doubts. Then I sent it to a couple of friends for final proofing and got glowing reviews. Okay, maybe it is good, after all.

Than again, others may disagree.

I have read some award-winning novels that I just don’t get. The author ignores so many of the rules. Repetitive words. Improper punctuation. Nonexistent plot. And to be honest, I didn’t find these books particularly interesting. Not my thing, I guess.

Then, there are those novels that take me away. The writing is heartbreakingly beautiful. Or the plot is so absorbing that I can’t put the book down. Who wouldn’t find this pure genius?

In the end, neither agent nor publisher nor critic can tell you if a book is good. Only you can decide for yourself if something is worth reading. I may or may not agree with you.

Tell me in the comment section: how do you determine if a book is good?

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This Thing Called Voice

// Author: Jordan Locke // 11 Comments

Back when I was working on my first novel, after I had something loosely resembling a draft, I thought I’d better learn about the craft. While reading a book on writing, I discovered the term voice. According to some well-respected experts, voice is the be-all-end-all of why an agent decides to offer representation.

I wondered, what is this voice thing, anyway? Why use the word when referring to writing? Voice is speaking. Writing is, well, something else.

Of course, in a way, writing is speaking on paper. Back before books were invented, cavemen would tell stories by the campfire for hours. Some were made up, I’m sure, while others were passed down through generations.

Well, if voice is so important, and you happen to be a great storyteller, why not just record yourself and transcribe it? No need to edit draft after draft, right?

Wrong.

Consider some of the most engaging speakers on the planet. Do you think they just walked up to the podium and started talking? No. They, and their speechwriters, went through many drafts. They worked for weeks to get the wording perfect. And, of course, they all had lots of practice and years of study. The best speakers have fine-tuned their voice.

A novel is even harder to write. It needs to engage the reader for many hours. The plot has to follow a logical path, the characters must be fully developed, and the writing needs to be crisp rather than a meandering mess. Those first words put down on paper are probably not ready for publication.

Of course, voice is subjective. What one agent loves, another will find too flowery or too stark.

My writing has evolved over the years. The first and second books I wrote were intended for adults. I realized, though, that my voice is geared more toward a younger audience. I tend to write shorter novels, shorter chapters and shorter sentences. Honestly, the vocabulary I use is more limited than most adult writers. Also, I had what I thought was a killer idea for a teen novel, and I enjoy writing to a younger crowd.

My writing voice is not my natural speaking voice. I have read many books on writing and tend to follow the advice. My first drafts are mostly rubbish. Only by polishing and re-polishing can I create something remotely readable.

While talking to a friend of mine, I mentioned how much effort it takes to make writing sound casual, like the words had come easily from my mouth. It seems counterintuitive, I know, but the more you work at it, the more natural the writing sounds.

For me, at least, writing is not merely speaking on paper. This thing called voice takes work.

Tell me in the comment section, what does voice mean to you?

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