What Constitutes Good Writing

In terms of eventually placing your work, now that you’ve been provided with some information about marketing at least some short fiction, what is your reaction to the assigned Pat Walsh chapters in relationship to submitting stories and books to market, to Ellen Datlow’s Q&A responses, and Sara Olson’s essay, including what Sara said about the number and placement of outright writing errors that they might overlook and still buy a story?

The first thing that really sticks out in my mind when I’m reading articles and chapters like the ones listed above is that this industry is extremely competitive. That cannot be underestimated. Submitting work is not for the lazy or faint-of-heart. It requires an intense amount of discipline, dedication, perseverance, and tenacity. In addition to what I learned from the assigned readings, I would also like to add something that author Bob Mayer said in a keynote speech at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference last weekend. He said that in all his years of observing human beings in stressful situations (he’s been a West Point graduate, special ops commander, a black belt in martial arts, a master’s in education, has published 70 novels, some that made the NYT’s Bestseller list), he’s discovered that only about 5% have the capacity for internally-driven change.

What that means is that most people won’t change unless they have no choice. They will stay in their habitual behavior even when it’s not working. And they will avoid stepping out of their comfort zones at all cost.

I really took that to heart in relationship to everything we’re learning in this MFA program, and in relationship to the questions in this discussion thread. My takeaway is that if we get too attached to anything, we’re not going to grow and improve as writers.

I want to learn how to stay committed to what I’m passionate about while at the same time staying open to feedback. That means any kind of feedback. When I submit a piece of writing, I really believe it’s the best I’m capable of at the moment I hit send. The key words in that sentence are AT THAT MOMENT.

Another wonderful quote I picked up at the conference was, “I never edit better than five seconds after I hit send.”

I’m always astonished by how I can submit a piece of work and truly believe it’s the best I’m capable of at the moment I hit send, then later look at it and see glaring errors, such as: problems with the plot and character development, not enough conflict and tension, telling rather than showing, over-explaining things to the reader, passive language, weak verbs, excessive gerunding, excessive prepositions and conjunctions, and on and on and on.

But the other side of the coin is when I really believe I got it right and the reader doesn’t “get it.” So it’s not just about being open to feedback; it’s also about learning to trust my own judgment, and finding a balance between the two.

I think writing teaches us how to be a true warrior: free, fluid, flexible, formless, fierce, impeccable, creative and cunning, no self-pity, nothing to defend, patient, open to all feedback, but also confident in one’s own decisions, knowing why those choices were made, watching to see the response to those choices, trusting one’s own internal locus of control, and having confidence enough to hold on to what we believe in, but also the confidence to let go of something and experiment.

So when I look at my work now, like revising my science-fiction short story for the portfolio, I imagine I’m someone else reading it (in this case Michaela) and I scrutinize every word, every sentence, every paragraph, every scene, and the piece as a whole. I sort through all the things I know about what makes good writing and use it as a litmus test. I read something similar (in this case Ready Player One because it has a first person character who spends most of his life in virtual reality) and then I read my own work immediately afterward and make comparisons to see if mine flows as well as a published work of fiction and if it meets the standards of a published work of fiction.

Yet, even after all that, I know from experience that when I get it back from Michaela all marked up, I’ll think, “How did I not see that?”

And then I begin revising again.

In my mind, I can always learn more about good writing, but more importantly I think it’s about learning how to be a warrior, to always stay fluid, flexible, creative, open, and playful. Sort of like the characters we love in novels like The Martian or Ready Player One. They don’t know everything. They make mistakes, but they ALWAYS pick themselves up and start again in new and creative ways.

That’s what I think Bob Mayer meant when he said, “Only about 5% of people are capable of internally-driven change.” You have to learn how to stay committed and open and flexible and creative and disciplined and persevere and all the other things.

Discipline and perseverance are what get the story finished and submitted. But it’s all that other stuff that helps us take in the feedback and start over again in new and creative ways, to incorporate new things we learn, to let go of what might not be working and try things we hadn’t considered before, then revise and submit again.

I think that’s how a person goes from the award-winning worst submission ever that Pat Walsh talked about, to getting to the top of the slush pile, and then eventually into print.

That was a super-long answer to the question, but I really needed to say all those things to myself, to remind myself that I can learn and grow and improve. I don’t believe the quality of a piece of writing is so much “on the page” as it is inside of me. A piece of writing is forever “in process” until it’s not. But the writing on any given day, in any given submission, doesn’t really tell me whether or not I am a good writer. I know I’m a good writer when I can see the improvement from one submission to the next. Then I know that I have inside of me the capacity to write something that will one day be published.