What is Good Writing, Anyway?
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?