Thursday, January 20, 2011

How Do You Know if Your Writing is Getting Better?

Not knowing is the worst
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A reader asked...
For writers who, like me, have yet to publish anything (For pay) it'd be nice to better gauge where we're improving, and what weaknesses are still holding us back, are there some exercises or self-study things we can do to figure it out, so we know where to go from there?
Oh boy, this one's a toughie. There really are no checklists that will say if you're improving or not. And it's something that's really hard to tell on our own, because it's hard to be subjective about our own work. But I know how frustrated I was by this very same thing, so I'll do my best to try to provide some way to help here.

I did do a post on the tour that gave guidelines for some general level ranges, and that could help some to see where you might be and what skills you might focus on to get to the next level.You can also look at old critiques to see what comments you regularly got, and check new critiques to see if you're still getting those comments. If the feedback is the same, that's a good indication that you're still making the same mistakes and might have stalled. But if you're making all new mistakes, that's an indication that you're improving. You can also look at your old and new work and try to be objective, and review it as if you were critiquing someone else.

To give examples on how you might go about this, I went through old files and found some of my writing from as far back as college. It might help to share some of those and critique myself to see where I improved and where I needed work. Hopefully it'll give you ideas for things to look for in your own work, and questions to ask, like, are you still telling emotions through adverbs or are you dramatizing scenes? Is there a solid POV or is the narrator floating about somehow? Are you giving the reader reasons to care about your characters?

1992-ish:This is from an idea I had that became my training novel. This draft was handwritten in pencil, so that shows you how long ago I wrote it. Eventually I wrote it "for real" with the intent to sell, but these pages aren't there yet. This is the opening of the first chapter.
The Griff Inn was a dark, dreary little tavern that sat on the end of an equally dark and dreary street. Its windows were dirty, its floors unswept and its customers were an accurate cross-reference of the riff raff of Kintari. It drew the thieves as easily as the murderers, and that naturally brought in the charlatans, the highwaymen and the local scum.

Let's just say it was not the moral backbone of the city and leave it at that, shall we?
It was, however, Aradelle's destination and she walked through the darkened streets with none of the fear the average person would feel in the same situation.
I cringe reading this. It's all told, there's this weird omniscient first person-esque narrator, there's no hook. Now, it's not horrific, as it has a bit of a voice that's kinda nice, and I can see the beginnings of my style starting to come through. There's storytelling, weak as it is, and it's going somewhere (eventually). To critique myself, I'd say I need to work on POV in a big way and work on showing, not telling. Get deeper in the head of my POV (and pick a real POV) and show the world through their eyes. Since I'm following Aradelle here, she'd be my choice. (And a decade later she was).

1995-ish: Same story a few years later. Again, the opening chapter.
Akeem rubbed his eyes and prayed he hadn't heard Breon correctly. 

"What do you mean you lost the body?"

Breon glanced at his comrades helplessly before answering. 

"It was in the back room of the Inn but when I sent Heslyn back for it is was gone."

"You mean you left the body alone?"

"Well, I guess..."

"Oh, Breon, how could you? How am I supposed to explain to the mayor's wife that we lost her husband's body?" He paused again to run his fingers through his hair. "Do you have any idea where the body went?"
The three men looked at each other sheepishly, a sign that Akeem took to mean no.

"You do have people looking for it, right?

"Oh sure, we've got Taashar and Everald out right now." Breon looked from Heslyn to Brandir for agreement. They both bobbed their heads helpfully. 

"Kren," Akeem called to his advisor and scribe,"How long before we have to tell the Lady Alizine about this?"
Better, but not great. I have a POV here finally, Akeem, but I'm not solid in his head and I'm still telling. There's not much voice yet, but a sense of it is there. It does start off a lot better, though. There's a fun hook, a goal, something going on. This is a workable scene and I could fix this with not a lot of trouble. Get rid of the telling (like the "he paused to run his fingers through his hair" and the "before answering") and add some internalization to get a better sense of who these characters are. I'd want to avoid introducing seven characters in the first page. Replace all those adverbs with stronger verbs and nouns to show the actions. But you can see that there's a story building and with some tweaking, I could make this work. It's not a bad rough draft, actually. It needs a lot of work, but the underlying structure is okay.

2003: I set the fantasy aside and wrote a YA sci fi. Again, the opening page.
Nadine stared out the window overlooking her soon-to-be-ex-home and sighed. There it was, hanging in the cold, black void of space. Though billions lived on it, Earth was alone.

Just like me.

She could make out Florida's peninsula; a fat, blue-green finger covered by white cloudy smudges. Her house was there, somewhere south of the blue spot that was Lake Okeechobee.

Last week, her stuff had been stacked in her room, but now it was all gone, given to friends or thrown away. All that remained was crammed into a 24 by 24 box with a nine-digit number stenciled across the side. Her life. Squared. 

Photos of friends she'd never see again, the gold medal she'd won at the Interstate Gymnastics Competition, the worn stuffed pig her father had given her when she was three, the brand new driver's license she'd never get to use. Most precious was Kyle's letter, sweet words that told her how much he'd miss her, how much he loved her and would always love her, even when she was a trillion miles away.

She sighed again. Life was so unfair.
I know I can see improvement, so I hope you guys can, too. Nadine is a solid POV, and the internalization are her opinions about her situations. I've set up a situation here, though the hook is a bit weak. I'm taking too long to get started, tossing in too much backstory (the "what's in the box" para is too long). I hear voice here, though it's not quite where it will be in a few more years. But it's not far off. I can see here it's not so much about the writing skill, but the story and the plot. The text needs tweaking, some trimming out the slow parts and getting a bit more "what's about to happen" in there. Even though I'm in her head and voice, she's telling a bit much to get some of that background in. It's not terrible, but it could be stronger. Again, a decent first draft (though this was a polished draft to me at the time)

2006: I went back to my fantasy premise (I still love the idea of that novel and one day hope to make it work). The opening pages.
The dead man sat on a rock just above the high tide line and the way he eyed the children made Aradelle reach for her knives. Yet her hand hesitated over the rapier. She needed the man’s soul, but she’d prefer not to take it where the children might see. Nerves tight, she waited behind curtains of old nets tangled over the skeletal beams of a decade-old shipwreck. 

Lightning crackled across the water. The children squealed. A heartbeat later, their high-pitched giggles merged with a deep rumbling. 

“Priestess, are we too late?” Durshuur whispered from deeper within the wreck’s shadows. His golden eyes shimmered, and in the dim light, his elongated pupils looked almost normal.

“For the others, yes, but not these.” 

Two little boys darted in and out of the waves, flinging small crabs at each other. A red-haired girl played in the tide pools the unusually low tide had uncovered, shrieking when a crab flew her way. Aradelle longed to race out and chase them away. She didn’t lest she scare the dead man.

Durshuur knelt, peeked over her shoulder. “Will he try to take all three?”

“If he can. The fisherman’s twins disappeared together.” Lost in the woods, or so Sepeluk’s magistrate had claimed that morning. He’d been organizing search parties when they’d arrived. It was only a matter of time until they found the bodies and made her task harder. 

“Maybe the twins really are missing?” 

She frowned and Durshuur quickly looked away. 

“Of course not. Apologies, Priestess.”
This is only a year before I started The Shifter, and it really surprises me how little of my voice I see. It was much stronger in my earlier work. Here, I'm trying hard to sound "like a fantasy novel" and that sucked the life out of my writing. I finally made Aradelle my POV, and I feel in her head for the most part. It's not as close as I'd like, and a little tweaking is in order there to yank out some repetitious words and a few spots where I pull away from her head. Overall, it's not bad, and this did get me some nice rejections, but there's nothing about it to grab a reader either. If I critiqued this today, I'd tell myself I'm trying too hard to tell a story, not Aradelle's story, and that shows. I'm focused more on the setting, the mood, the tone, and not nearly as much on the goal of the POV and how she feels about it. Her feelings and motives are tucked in a bit, but they're more afterthoughts. I don't think anyone cares what's going on here. Without that care, why bother to read on? 

2007: Just for fun, let's post up the very first draft of the opening of The Shifter.
Stealing eggs is a lot harder than stealing the whole chicken. With chickens, you just grab a hen, stuff her in a sack and make your escape. But for eggs, you have to stick your hand under a sleeping chicken. Chickens don’t like this. They wake all spooked and start pecking holes in your arm. Or your face, if it’s close. And they squawk something terrible.

The trick is to wake the chicken first, then go for the eggs. I’m embarrassed to say how long it took me to figure this out.

“Good morning little hen.” The chicken blinked awake and cocked her head at me. She flapped her wings a bit as I lifted her off the nest, but didn’t fuss. Soft down floated around my head like dandelion fluff.

“Don’t move.”

Two words I didn’t want to hear with someone else’s chicken in my hands. 

I froze. The chicken didn’t. Now spooked, her scaly feet flailed above the eggs that should have been my breakfast. 

A watchguard with a rapier aimed at my chest smiled. Most times I enjoyed handsome men smiling at me in the moonlight, but his wasn’t a friendly smile. I’d learned to tell the difference between smiles a lot faster than I’d figured out the egg thing. 

“So Heclar,” he said, “you do have a thief. Guess I was wrong.”
It's easy to see I found my voice and my stride here. A solid sense of POV and character, a good hook, solid writing. You care about this character and what's going on with her. It has some bumpy spots I later smoothed out, but it's not that far off from what was eventually published. A huge difference from what I wrote back in 1992, eh? 

I don't know if this answered the question or not (I hope it did help). Often the writing gets to a polished level before the storytelling does, so look there as well for improvement. A story that grabs with writing that needs a lot of polish is a step in the right direction, too. Or you might be at the stage where the writing is good, you're doing everything you should be doing, it's just a matter of finding the story that makes readers care.

It's not easy to know if you're getting anywhere or just doing the same thing over and over, but the more objective you can be about your writing, the better the odds of spotting improvement. And the things you might need to improve to move forward.

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  1. Oh I've been waiting to see this one. I can't believe how many of these I read! How wonderful that you can share with everyone here.

  2. Was a fun post to do. I think you've read all but the first few, since they were handwritten or typed on an actual typewriter!

  3. This was a fun read. Thanks for sharing so many snippets of your work, I can definitely see the change and growth. And, as someone who hasn't read The Shifter, I now want to :-)

  4. This is wonderful. I think all published authors should post snippets of their early work.

  5. This is great. Thank you for sharing so many pieces of your early work. I love what you said about growing if you're making new mistakes. (I don't suppose a person ever gets to the point where their work is completely mistakeless? Sigh.)

  6. Count me in as a new reader who can't wait to get her hands on The Shifter! The chicken set-up is priceless.

    It's so funny that this posted now. I just found a story that I wrote in seventh grade and rewrote in eighth. Baby Bookworm is ridiculous, and I think it'll be fun to put her ridiculousness up for the internet to see. :)

  7. Very interesting to see how your writing evolved! Love the voice in the final excerpt you posted - very funny :D

  8. Awesome post, Janice!

    Just wanted to add that some of the ways I know my writing has improved is from

    1. Putting my work in a share your work forum on a writing website (AW) to let others critique it. I take those crits very serious and really pay attention to what I can learn from them and apply them in my future writing. Ex. Too many adverbs, too many dialogue tags, Use shorter sentences for action scenes, etc.

    2. Read other people's posted work and pay close attention to the comments/critiques/suggestions made to those pieces and learn from that. That's where I first heard of purple prose, which you so wonderfully explained :-)

    3. Critique other people's work. It's amazing how much I have learned by reading and noticing things in their writing. It makes me aware of those things in my own writing.

    4. Most importantly, be receptive to constructive criticism or you will get NOWHERE!!!! Seriously, sometimes crits on your work can sting and burn and make you want to look the other way (partly from anger and partly as a way of self-preservation to your ego), but give it some time to sit and think about it and consider it and suddenly things start to make sense and you can learn some amazing things.

    Just thought I'd throw that in there :-) Thanks again for always being so open and honest about your writing. Sometimes it's so easy to forget that even the great writers how to start somewhere and have all improved and continue to do so.


  9. Rachel: Very cool! I love hearing that (the Shifter part)It was fun to find this old stuff and re-read it, even if it was a bit painful.

    Tessa: I do, too. I think it would help to see how other writers evolve and that they go through what everyone else does. Would make those early growing pains a lot easier to handle.

    Chicory: I think you do get to a "mistakeless" point from a general skill level, but every book is going to have it's own share of mistakes and things to improve. But those would be more on the story side I bet.

    Bookworm: Thanks, I love my chickens. :) You should post it! It would be fun. We could start a trend, get others to do it...

    Danya: Thanks! I found it interesting that the voice in the first sample sounds a lot like he final. When I Had no clue what I was doing, my voice was there, then I lost it as I learned, then I got it back once I figured stuff out.

    Melanie: Great suggestions. Crits are awesome learning tools for both sides of the process. I've learned so much doing them. Heck, I've learned a lot just doing this blog and being forced to examine WHY I do what I do out of instinct. And yep, everyone starts somewhere :) All art goes thorough an ugly stage no matter what level you're at.

  10. Hadn't caught your post during the blog tour and read it...really great measurement tool. I recently went back to the first novel I wrote and was really wowed by not only how my writing style had improved...but changed. My voice is very different now.
    Edge of Your Seat Romance

  11. I think you can also get an idea of your skill level by how much you understand the terminology. For example, when you hear about showing versus telling,do you know what that means? If someone says you need to show rather than tell in your own work, do you say "But I thought I did!"? Eventually, you'd like to be able to spot those flaws in your work before someone else does, but if you can see them when they are pointed out, and know how to fix them, you're making progress.

    This applies to giving critiques, too -- do you often have good suggestions that resonate with the reader? Or do you tend to miss problems that others point out?

    One of my favorite writing books is Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King, because each chapter has exercises at the back where you edit something, and then look at their edited versions and explanations. It's a good way to check how much you're seeing and how much you're missing.

    Thanks, Janice, for sharing these examples!

  12. It was so interesting to read your early work. Thanks for sharing!

  13. Thanks for letting us get a peek at your early writing. I feel like i'm somewhere between apprentice and intermediate. Some good-'ol advice that I find useful: read a lot and write a lot. There will be stories that don't work (on any of the levels you mention) but without writing them, you won't know if you've figured out how to create voice or tell a story arc.

  14. Janice you've been on fire this week!

    Tone, POV, narrative distance and now this, it's like manna from heaven for any unpublished writer.

  15. Raquel: That's awesome that you see that. Being able to step back from your work and see it as it is is such a great skill to have. Of course, it does tend to make you revise more often, but it's worth it, lol.

    Chris: Those are great observations, and I totally agree. I can remember someone giving me advice and thinking "what the heck does that mean?" Later I knew, and I was able to look at the feedback in a whole new way.

    Ghenet: Most welcome! Thanks for reading :)

    Anna: That's my number one advice for any writer trying to develop their skill.

    Sam: Thanks! It's easy when you guy give me such great topics to work with.

  16. You know Janice, I've read this a few times now (and enjoyed it) but I kept coming back to the post because there was something about that very first 1992 excerpt that got me more than the later stuff.

    I know it was all telling and not showing, but this line: "Let's just say it was not the moral backbone of the city and leave it at that, shall we?" was really really interesting to me.
    I loved the voice in that.

    And I also think that the 1992 excerpt was simpler, whereas the later ones got less simple. I'm not saying the 1992 one is better. Just that it caught my eye and as a reader, I didn't think it was so bad, not at all.

  17. Sierra, I also like that old post, because you can see my style and voice there, even though I hadn't done much to develop it yet. It feels the most "me" until I finally found my niche with Shifter. I still cringe, but that's probably normal, LOL.

    Oh! I've been wanting to do a post on voice and you just now gave me an idea on how to do it. Thanks! More old stuff coming. :)

  18. Janice,

    Thanks for taking my inquiry so seriously, and though the answer's not as clear as I'd like, given what a struggle this issue is for me, you give me some hope for this part of the process that always tries my patience and confidence. Did I mention patience?

    I started a blog recently (On hiatus at the moment, though, due to Writer's Heartbreak, like the classic Writer's block, but with the pain you feel when you lose a friend or break up with a spouse) and I did a feature on my particular niche and mistakes I made, and sadly continue to make, and I shared some excerpts of my early stuff.

    I'm still worried what I meant to convey wasn't very clear, but then I'm more emotional than analytical by nature, especially when it comes to writing.

    I'm kind of jealous of you that way, Janice, you get the analytical parts of the process so well, but I keep hoping there's a way for writers like me who find plot more frustrating than voice to not always feel so lost.

    For those who found Janice's take on the question I posed helpful, maybe my attempt to answer my own questions on my blog will help-

    I hope I'm not being too bold here, but I sure could use more discussion on this subject at my blog, check it out if your interested.

    Take Care Janice,

  19. Well, bummer. I'm sorry it wasn't more helpful. It's a hard thing to answer, because there is no clear cut way of answering that question. A lot of it is gut feeling as you develop your craft and see where you now do something well that you used to do badly. A lot of it is hearing from crit partners, and being able to look at your work more objectively. Those are skills you develop just like you develop your writing.

    It IS part of the process though. Really. My ability to look at my work now comes from a lifetime of writing and studying writing. I wrote my first "novel" at 12, 200 hand written pages. At 25 I was trying to sell my 140K monster of a first real novel. At 40 I actually sold one. I've written probably 25 novels in my life, most of them really bad ones. I studied, I learned, and I spent many an hour frustrated and feeling like I was never ever going to get anywhere. If you keep working at it, you will get better.

    I wish I could say "do these three things and you'll get better" but there is no easy out like that.

  20. Perfect post at the right time for me!!! Thx so much for taking the time to share your knowledge.

  21. Such a great post, and exactly what I needed. I think one of the hardest lessons for a writer is learning how to gauge improvement. Thanks so much!

  22. TWL, most welcome! It really is hard to know if you're getting better. Hard to know how to give advice there, too!

  23. I know I've improved a lot since I began writing...especially since I wrote my first short story at 6.

    It's actually a decent story. But the writing and scene development needed some extreme improvement. I like to read it every once in a while, though. Just to remind myself how I started. I can still remember how frustrated I was, reading over the words I'd just written.

    "But that's not like what I imagined at ALL!"

    I hated that first story when I was 6. Refused to write anymore of my stories down on paper for years after that. It was so much better inside my head, you see, but somehow the words got all scrambled on the way to the paper.

    I've improved a lot since then (thank goodness). But I still struggle with that dreadful scrambler between what I see in my head and what comes out on the screen or paper. It's that moment that it comes out perfectly, every word describing exactly what I want it to, that I write for.

    Alas, such moments are rare. Yet beautiful all the same.

    Thanks for the wonderful article! I hope you have a great day, and happy writing!

  24. Oh, that's awesome. I wish I had a story I'd written at six. What a great reminder of how you've grown. That is the challenge--getting what's in your head on paper. There are times when it's easier, but no matter what level you're at, it can still be a struggle. You're not alone!

  25. Thanks for sharing your evolution. Mine was a bit different, but shared so many of the pratfalls. I love the opening of Shifter. The voice is great, I didn't expect chicken stealing to open a fantasy novel and you left me wanting more. What a fantastic example of good writing.

  26. I'd be embarrassed to post snippets of my early work. Oh, it's terrible. Of course, my original work was written in pencil when I was 9 years old... Then short stories at 15. My big thing is making sure I get deep in the POV character's head then describe what I see, hear, smell and feel. It wasn't always, though. My early novels were all telling. Took me a couple decades to get down the art of showing, then another decade to figure out how to tell the difference and when to use each effectively.
    In my personal experience... Many chickens are accustomed to people sticking their hands under them to get eggs and don't make much of a big deal (my experience working farms for 2 decades). But I am sure there are chickens who do. And I absolutely loved the opening... it was light and intriguing at the same time. Very different for a fantasy book (though, I also write fantasy and mine are different too). You drew me into the story with that scene if merely for the fact it was such a unique premise for the genre. Definitely made me want to know more. :-)

  27. Sasha Anderson6/03/2020 4:35 AM

    See, I thought the 1992 example DID have a clear POV - that of the omniscient narrator. Of course, if that wasn't what you were going for, that's bad. But if it was, is there any reason an omniscient narrator with an interesting voice shouldn't tell as much as you want them to? From that passage, I'd probably end up with something like this:


    The Griff Inn was a dark, dreary little tavern at the end of a dark, dreary little street. Its windows were dirty, its floors unswept and its customers... let's just say it was not the moral backbone of the city and leave it at that, shall we?

    But the thieves, murderers, charlatans, and general riff-raff of Kintari instilled no fear in Aradelle Surname as she strode towards the Griff at midnight.


    Yes, I know I've changed the story, added my own style, and that it still needs work, particularly in the second paragraph, but I've just done it quickly and wondered what you thought. Is this a reasonable way to start a story?

    1. You're right--it does have a clear omniscient narrator. If that was my goal, your edits would have helped it, and you could indeed make it work in that way.

      For me, it wasn't what I was trying to do, and I can see how I was struggling to mesh my natural first-person style (which I wasn't aware *was* my style back then) with third person and got something odd.

      But you could absolutely write a story using this voice and style, and The Book Thief does something similar (first person, yet still third person). If you want a close, yet omniscient narrator, something like my 1992 snippet could work.

      I prefer a tight POV, but that's not the only way to write. Omniscient third is just as valuable if that's what another writer prefers.