Wednesday, January 30, 2008

THE HEART OF THE FOREST

Question: Do you know when something you've written is good? Can you tell?

As long as I've been writing, I've been in a hurry to get something to an editor. Pretty much as soon as it's done, it's off and I'm on to another project (or lately, collapsed in a chair somewhere contemplating my naval.)

This comes home to me at the end of every book when I write a note to the editor to accompany the manuscript and it invariably says something along the lines of, "Please let me know if this works. I honestly can't tell. I can fix it if it doesn't, but I just don't know."

A story is such a wandering journey. So much of it is nuance. There's a fine line between saying too much and not saying enough. Add twisting plots, mysteries within mysteries, feelings darting all over the map, secrets, half truths and all the rest and it gets pretty dense inside a book, like traveling through the lightly wooded outskirts of a forest full of deciduous trees deeper and deeper until the evergreen trees are so thick they block the light. By the end of writing a book, that's where you've been, in the heart of the forest, and even though you've found your way out again, is it possible you left those who made the journey with you stranded inside?

I used to have my daughter read the completed book before I sent it, but she's busier now and besides, my editor has to read it, then the copyeditor and then me two more times before it sees print. I trust one of us will figure out if the beast has a heart, but who knows? Critique partners can be invaluable, but at the end of the day, it's one person's opinion, right? That's true for the writer, the editor, the agent, the reader. One opinion at a time.

So, do you know? Can you tell if your book is good? How?

12 comments:

Paty Jager said...

WOW! How do I know if my book is good? That's a hard one.

I've poured my heart an soul into Gambling on an Angel and my daughters love that book and some people I've talked to think it was good, yet the reviewers weren't overly energetic about it.

I've had rave reviews on Marshal in Petticoats which was a farcical romp which has now turned into a 5 book deal. With the second book being fast and fun and this third book another heart and soul book.

Then there's the one up for an EPPIE award- The contemporary that I took a stab at writing. I wasn't as immersed in that book, yet it is getting rave reviews and ending up a finalist.

So how do I know if a book is good? I don't. I just go with the gut feeling of what I want or need to write. The contemporary I'm spinning in my head right now is going to be a heart and soul book. I can feel that already. Does that mean others will think it's good? Who knows. But it's the book that wants to be written.

Interesting blog, Alice!

Alice Sharpe said...

Paty, Not every book is going to get a rave review. I haven't read your contemporary yet -- please, Lord, let me get through this deadline! -- but it's great it's up for an award. I was emailing some Intrigue writers yesterday and one of them mentioned she could see no correlation between her reviews and eventual sales.

I think you're right. I think you just go with your gut and see what happens.

Lori Barber said...

Alice, nice thought provoking blog. I think it's often times in the eye of the beholder or who's holding and reading the book at a given time.

I've written stories that I put my heart and soul into and they didn't garner much attention. On the other hand, I've quickly scribbled down stories that received great praises. Sometimes I think it's an alignment issue. My brain is temporarily functioning in high gear, critiquers are in the right mood and frame of mind to marry themselves with the story, and the editor is in a euphoric moment when she reaches for my story and reads it.

As long as one is passionate about what they are writing don't change course or abandon it. What is written from the heart opens doors into the souls of others.

If there's a secret formula I believe it comes in the shape of a big box of chocolates. Take two to get writing flow started, take another two to keep the flow going, take two to reward yourself. Break time, take two more. To insure your critique partners, agents and editors will rave about your story pass that big box chocolates to them too. That's my brand of sweet writing success.
Lori

Alice Sharpe said...

Well, Lori, I am glad to finally have the key to making this thing work. I obviously have not been buying a big enough box of chocolates! I am going to Sees right now to stock up on supplies. Once, years ago, I sent a two pound box of Sees to a former editor. I wasn't aware that Sees, at that time anyway, didn't sell on the East coast and so the chocolates were met with open enthusiasm. We all became good friends in that little office -- the mystery of why is now clear to me.

I have sent no chocolates to my current editor nor to reviewers nor to my readers.

I have not been eating chocolate, either.

Ack!

Thanks, Lori. I love your secret formula....

Elisabeth Naughton said...

Chocolate? That's all there is to it? Sheesh, Lori, why didn't you tell us all that months (years!) ago!?!

LOLOL.

Deep thoughts, Alice. And I have no answer either. I think sometimes you know when an idea, plot, story works and when it doesn't. I can honestly say the early books I wrote, while fun and emotional and some of my favs, had elements that made them not sellable. But I had to write them to get to where I am now. When I wrote the book I signed my agent with, I knew I'd written something good. I just felt it. Of course, I thought all the interest and wins and enthusiasm it garnered would translate into a sale, but it hasn't. Yet. So I'm not a good judge.

The book I'm revising now has left me with gaps in my eyelashes as I've pulled them out in frustration. Even before sending to my agent originally, it pushed me to the edge. When I sent it I knew there was something not right with it, but I couldn't put my finger on what that was. I didn't send it to my CPs because I was already so sick of looking at it and didn't want anyone else's opinion. My agent liked it, but she was that outside viewpoint I needed to see what needed fixing. Like you, it's not always obvious to me. Now that I'm closing in on finishing the edits she suggested though, I'm back thinking it's not too bad. Her suggestions have really made it a better book, and for that I'm thankful. Is it good? I don't know. I guess we'll see after I finish editing and send it to her.

On the flip side, I'm really excited about the wip I stopped working on to do these edits. I have that "this could really be something good" feeling I had before I signed with my agent. I'm eager to get back to that one.

Alice Sharpe said...

Eli, I don't know if enthusiasm for a project is a telling factor in its eventual success, but it sure makes the journey more enjoyable.

It's all so subjective. And sometimes, it seems random, too. Well, I guess there's a reason why Barbara Cartland and John Steinback existed in the same world, isn't there?

Genene said...

Gosh, Alice, I had this wise, witty response written, then my network connection hiccuped and it disappeared into cyberspace. So now you'll get one of my usual sit-on-the-fence responses. LOL!

Actually, the gist of what I had written before was that I can usually tell if a story works for me by letting it sit for at least a few days before rereading it. Of course, deadlines can take away that luxury.

It's also very helpful to have someone else read a story. Even if they just tell me where something didn't work for them, I can go back and fix it, because it's usually the same place that I wasn't quite happy with.

However, as others have said, just because I think a story is good doesn't mean it will resonate with others.

Now that Lori has revealed "the secret" is chocolate, I won't have to worry about that minor detail.

Just wish I had known the secret before my book went to reviewers! I'm still waiting for reviews to come back -- still waiting for validation or approval from outside myself? Hmm. Definitely some lessons in that!

Thanks for the thought-provoking blog, Alice!

Alice Sharpe said...

Genene -- The only trouble with believing the good is that you are then left in the position of having to believe the bad. Keep in mind that a review is one person's opinion and don't allow a poor one to invalidate your accomplishments.

I have a friend who said something along the lines of this : "Get a good review and quote it on your website and enjoy the heck out of it. Ignore a bad one, the reviewer obviously is stupid." I think it's pretty good advice.

Karen Duvall said...

Alice, what a fascinating question! And so hard to answer. But I have three words for you: I don't know.

Seriously, I don't know. Like you said, it's so subjective. And like Eli, I can love something one minute and love it not-so-much the next. Thank goodness for CPs who lend that objectivity that's so desperately needed. At least I need it.

We all hear the stories about the writers who sincerely believe their novel will take the literary world by storm and become a number one bestseller, if they could just get past those *)$^*#) agent gatekeepers holding them back from the glory they deserve! Puhleese. What kind of judgment do those people have?

I'm excited about the book I just finished, and I feel it's the best book I've ever written, and I like it. I think it's good. But the handful of rejections I've received so far from my queries to agents make me have second thoughts. That's stupid, I know, but it's a knee-jerk reaction. If so-and-so doesn't like the concept for the book, no one else will, either. Of course that's bullshit, but like I said, it's a knee-jerk reaction. Heh.

No one's read the full manuscript for KNIGHT'S CURSE yet, but I have sent out 5 requested partials, so there is hope.

Alice Sharpe said...

Karen, Of course there's hope. If a writer needs to combine perseverance, talent and passion, she also needs to bind it together with hope.

Those knee jerk reactions are impossible to avoid, at times. I guess we just have to learn to live with them. My fingers are crossed that some agent takes a look at Knight's Curse and immediately sees a market and a plan!!!! (Love the title, btw)

Danita Cahill said...

It is a hard one, Alice.

One day my book is great. The next day it's pure crapola. So, I guess I can't really tell. I get gut feelings, but are those feelings right? I dunno. That's why I have CPs and a couple of first readers to help tell me.

Good, honest blog.

Genene said...

LOL, Alice! I love your friend's advice!