Exposing The Grand Illusion – part 3
In previous articles regarding The Grand Illusion I have placed emphasis on ‘external’ perceptions (what many authors in the self-publishing community view about the publishing industry, including technologies). In this article, I want to discuss an internal dimension, the process of self assessment/self writing worth.
By its very nature, this is a heavily subjective viewpoint, and it represents my views, no one else’s. I use my own experiences in select places. What I hope this article will do is not dissuade writers from writing, but, where applicable, allow some readers to put into perspective what effort is required to achieve quality writing, fit for readers. I contend that the lack of this perspective, contributes to The Grand Illusion
My target audience are authors who are still in the process of ‘getting there’. For the sake of putting into perspective what I mean, let’s say that ‘getting there’ is publishing at least several books, each which sells 5000 units plus. This means there is consistency and it also means that it can’t have been a fluke. My target audience is also directed to authors who want to achieve this stated objective – not those who simply enjoy selling a few books to family members, friends, etc.
I have not ‘got there’. My career as an author is still a work in progress. What I want to share with you are views and experiences drawn from my efforts, failures and successes, as well as viewing other authors through the eyes of a publisher and editor, and a friend of many midlist writers.
An important foundation for writing is believing in one’s potential. There is a fine line between self-doubt and self-confidence. It is critical that writers believe in their work, but it is as easy to be over-confident than it is to turn off the computer in despair. It is a vexing part of being a writer – a struggle that is entirely personal. There is little point in exploring the nuances of what causes the highs and lows of writing, but an area that I do want to focus on is the importance of gaining a sense of ‘how good’ one’s writing is. Perhaps this helps with the confidence, but it should not be driven by it.
There are several markers that signify that a writer has achieved, or is positioned well to achieve, quality writing:
- Considerable Practice. It is a well known principle that the craft of writing is one that requires writing, more writing, and then more writing again. A reasonable marker in this category is for a writer to have written a lot over a lengthy period of time.
- Training and Experience. Aside from writing, there needs to be training, whether it is formal or informal, or a combination, that sharpens the craft. It starts with the basics, from core literacy, to nuances of style. It includes critical reading, and, to some extent, some degree of ‘realistic’ self-criticism. Formal training by reputable companies/institutions, is of high value.
- Quality Critique Group Participation. Writers need to be given frank feedback from fellow writers, preferably consisting of those with experience in the craft. It needs to be honest without being hurtful, pointing out strengths as well as areas needing improvement; and for the writer, ego needs to be left outside, and there needs to be a genuine willingness to learn. The most destructive force for an author is to be defensive about her or his work. I have often witnessed authors blaming everything except themselves for poor critiques.
- Gaining Professional and Semi-Professional Feedback. Along with having a good critique group, an essential marker for assessing one’s writing (and by proxy, improving one’s writing), is to submit work to publishers, agents, and markets where there are numerous readers, all of whom can give the author a chance to receive feedback. Some of the feedback may be professional opinion, while on other occasions it may be success with minor works, or in minor markets. It can come in the form of praise and criticism from detached reviewers. A writer has to expose her or his work to the world of professionals in the industry, as well as the reading public – there will be poor feedback, and authors have to dodge the ‘trolls’ and the like, but without such exposure, the writer is working in the dark, incapable of determining their writing worth, and seriously stymied in growth.
- Getting ‘True’ Wins. Every success is a marker that the author has achieved something of value. The more the success the greater the value. This is a self-evident category but there are nuances worth noting. Firstly, an author needs to be smart about defining ‘success’ or a ‘win’. An acceptance of a short story with a ‘for the love’ market isn’t the same as a semi-pro or pro market. Selling ebooks for low cost or nothing may be a good strategy for exposure, but the sales numbers distorts the measure of quality, and it is quality that will have the most far reaching results for an author’s career. Sometimes opportune marketing opportunities may arise, and these, too, must be taken into consideration. Not all figures are equal.
To illustrate these points, I will provide the reader with a general overview of my personal approach to my writing career, and how it assists me with measuring my writing worth.
I have been writing and creating characters, plots and worlds since the age of 10 and stupidly didn’t make the serious move toward professional writing for many, many years. Then, one day, the epiphany came, and I set out to conquer the world. I began by writing a novel, and when I completed it, a fantasy piece of around 200k words, which I thought was pretty good. I got rejected a fair bit. On returning to my work on occasion, I found weaknesses, many weaknesses, which was at first surprising. It didn’t take long for me to discover an interesting psychological phenomenon – I could not accurately judge the quality of my work.
It took a while, but I decided to join a writing group to improve my skills, and get pointers on how to break into the market. This I did and I am fortunate to still be in that group for quite a few years now. I learned so much from these fellow authors, the most important being that I had what it takes, but I had a long way to go to achieve my goals. As simple as that.
In my writing group we had a monthly short story writing challenge, which exercised our skills (in fact, the challenge is still going, and I have not missed a single one in all those years). I discovered I liked writing short fiction, that it dramatically improved my writing skills, and it gave me the opportunity to submit the work to the short story markets (magazines, anthologies, ezines, etc).
I have reached a point in my writing career that I now publish on average, one short fiction piece per month. Where at first I published my stories in ‘for the love’ market, now I am selling my stories in the middle market range, a few in pro. These are clear markers that publishers like my work, and view them as suitable for the reading public. My stories improved because I wrote a lot, got them critiqued in my group (and others), and I paid attention to what editors and reviewers wrote about my work.
Over time I have written and published a young teen fantasy novel and in retrospect, it could have been written better, but on the other hand it is far better than my first long fiction efforts, and it was ready for publishing. I am ready to more comfortably write long fiction, and my prolonged effort in short fiction worked for me.
For other authors there can and will be other routes to take, versus my short fiction mode. I will say, however, that if there is a clear and helpful marker for assessing worth of writing for a beginning writer, it is the short fiction market. I would recommend it, if an author is amenable to short fiction writing.
So, back to the Grand Illusion, the point of this article. If writers don’t follow the majority of processes outlined above, they will not be able to measure the worth of their writing. Without this insight, it will be like writing in the dark. A writer will not know whether they are ready for publishing or not. They may have an overblown view of their writing capability and plow ahead with the inevitable disappointment. In terms of the Grand Illusion, the dynamic that concerns me the most is the collective impact of untrained, underdeveloped writers espousing their ‘great’ five-star rated work. Many of these writers join groups of like-minded, similarly underdeveloped writers, reinforcing inaccurate measurements of writing worth, and often participating in forums, blog sites, and free/paid ‘writers courses’. They contribute to the flood of poor, self-published work in the market.
For an author to be in control of his or her writing career (if a career is wanted), the author needs to have a good sense of writing worth – she or he needs to be able to measure capability based on the markers described above. With this knowledge, the writer can improve, can realistically time when to go to a given market with an appropriate level of quality work, and, if necessary, help decide if the career is the right choice or not. There is only one thing worse than not being ready to publish – it is being overconfident when not being ready to publish. I also believe, with strong markers to measure one’s ability, that it can combat lack of confidence – in other words, it never hurts to know where you stand.