This month’s topic: WE DON’T SUCK and WE KNOW IT
Buffalo Rising: How do you know when a piece is finished?
Alex Livingston: Concrete and measurable skills exist for writing as much as for any other kind of creative endeavor, and an analysis of the capable use of those are where the self-critique begins. I make several passes. First: spelling, grammar, etc. Second: structure, plot. Third: characterization, setting. If I have all of these things tight, the beta-readers will have nothing to say but how the piece made them feel or what it made them think about.
Gary Earl Ross: The sad truth is, a real writer is never really done with any piece. Joyce Carol Oates once said that even after a piece is published, she sees things she might have, could have, or should have done. The uncertainty writers feel about when a piece is finished says much more about the writer than about the piece itself; it says the writer is a writer, not a typist who belches words onto a page and pats himself or herself on the back.
BR: But how do you know if it’s any good?
Melody Von Smith: Boy, this is a loaded question! I know some people who think they are extraordinary writers who in fact are not even passable.
Print-on-demand and e-books have opened the floodgates for people who would like to be writers but are unwilling to put in the necessary work. Too many don’t read. They don’t proofread. They don’t like feedback. They don’t weigh criticism. Worst of all, they never revise. All they seek is validation of a literary brilliance that exists in their own minds.
MVS: For me, there are pieces I’ve re-read a few days after I wrote, and torn to bits and
stuffed in my neighbor’s garbage can. Generally, if I put a piece down and cleanse my palate with some reading, then return to it, and I still think it’s good? I decide it’s good.
Donna Hoke: I think that’s brave, but I also have not been writing as long as Melody and Gary. I’m getting better at self-assessment, but much of that confidence has come as a result of external validation–a bookstore deciding to purchase my book, or a theater wanting to produce a play.
BR: So feedback is valuable?
AL: Of course, because it is possible to write something with great technical alacrity and end up with something boring. This is the negative criticism I want to hear. “It’s all there, but I just didn’t care about it.” If a method exists to figure this out before spending months crafting something, please tell me. Like, soon.
DH: I find it very valuable and using it with discretion will almost certainly result in a better piece. The trick is to learn how to filter it, and that takes both practice and confidence.
if everyone has the same comment, my readers probably will, too. If the responses are all over the place, I
really think about what I agree with, where changes will make it better, and
what comments are more the critic’s lack of perception than my failing in
MVS: But it’s important to be honest with
yourself. Don’t not change something
because you are lazy and the task is daunting, with the excuse of “Those
people just don’t get me.”
DH: This is a
good time to say don’t use your family for feedback, because they’ll make those
excuses for you. They aren’t discerning;
they’re just proud that you wrote something. Same goes for friends.
MVS: Your best
bet is probably other writers with whom you have a professional
relationship. If you are lucky enough
(as we are!) to have that relationship blossom into friendship, that’s a bonus
and a blessing.
BR: Does everything
yes. Maybe Edward Albee has fully-formed
Pulitzer-winning pieces flow from his fingertips, but that’s far from the norm.
GER: The art to writing is revision; real writers
revise until what they have written strikes an interior chord of satisfaction.
MVS: Or until
I try to re-read it for the umpteenth time and feel like I’d rather eat glass.
DH: And even
then, it’s not really done. You just have to wait for your appetite for glass
to come back. That might be in a week, or in five years.
So, all you Buffalo Rising Readers who
write… do YOU suck? How do you
know? Tell us about your writing experiences in Buffalo!
is a magazine journalist, playwright,
crossword puzzle constructor, children’s author, and editor of Buffalo Spree
Gary Earl Ross
is a professor at the UB EOC. His writings
include the novel Blackbird Rising
and the play Matter of Intent
, winner of a
2006 Edgar Award.
Melody Von Smith
is a keyboard-wielding sociopath
believed by some to be a werewolf.