Wednesday, November 3, 2010

How Do You Know Your Book Is Good Enough?

The question came up in two different places today. On the Amazon Kindle Community discussion board, it came up indirectly. There was a lively debate about getting someone else to edit your manuscript - and someone wondered how you could judge the quality of a freelance editor.

Then Dean Wesley Smith posted about whether the publishing industry was a proper arbiter of writing quality. And if not (and he thought not) how do you judge yourself?

So how does a writer know if the book is good enough to publish? Who can you trust to judge it for you?

Ny answer to that question is: You can't pawn that basic responsibility off on someone else. You may need an editor, but you're the boss. It's one of the basic skills you need to publish anything.

Dean has some great advice on his blog about how to acquire these skills, but here are some things I think will help any writer develop basic judging skills:

1. Learn your craft. Read, write, take classes, join critique groups. Don't ask your teachers and group mates to tell you how good your work is. They don't know - that's your job. The reason you take classes and join groups is to learn what they have to teach, not what you demand of them. What they offer may not be exactly what your current story needs at the moment, but you have a TON to learn. So you'd better get started. And one great way to learn is to help other people with their stories.

2. Get experience with real world publishing. Even if you intend to only self-publish, you need to learn the business. So write short fiction (or poetry or articles or songs) and start submitting it to markets. Get things published so you can get through the process. You need to see what it's like to be edited. You need to learn not to take it personally, and you need to learn to stand up for yourself when you are edited by an idiot. You need a variety of experiences so that you know what is normal and what isn't.

3. Get yourself a slush pile. You can't judge your work until you've established some standards of your own. So start judging. If you can't get a gig being a first reader for a publication or competition, create your own competition. Find a magazine that publishes the kind of fiction you like, get your hands on a year's worth of issues, and then read through them all and pick a "best of year" story, and two runners up.

Nothing will give you perspective better than having to judge 100 professional level stories, rank them all, and pick only 1-3 of them for honors.

They say nobody can edit themselves, and maybe that's true, or maybe it isn't. (Both Isaac Asimov and Rex Stout were famous for having manuscripts that were ready to publish straight out of their typewriters.) But even if you can't judge your own work, you can surround yourself with intelligent, honest and skillful people who can give you perspective. To do that, though, you must have the skills to judge the judges.

As for my dare progress: I did a little writing - not measurable stuff - and I read through two chapters, but haven't prepared the full critique.


stu said...

It helps at this point if you happen to have a friend whom you suspect is an infinitely better writer than you are.

The Daring Novelist said...

True, but that raises the first quesetion back up again: how do you know (or even suspect) they are better?

At first you won't know. But the more experience you have, the more you will be able to tell.

Mary said...

Oh,yeah. It's been duplicated in the lab: the better you are, the more you are able to see your own flaws. (Plus, of course, you assume you are normal so good writers overestimate the compeition, and bad, underestimate.)

The Daring Novelist said...

Mary: yeah, I've read a few of those studies.

In one they found that there is a small subset who can't judge their own work even if they are taught to judge others reasonably well - but most people, once they get a good grasp on the larger picture, become very good at judging themselves.