Ever since I began writing, when I was eleven, I’ve craved feedbackabout my work. A lot of beginning writers are afraid to let others readtheir work, but not me. My first role as a writer has always been toentertain, and the primary way to gauge my success is to solicitfeedback.
Now, having crossed to the other side, I occasionally have theopportunity to review the work of aspiring authors. Sometimes I’masked, and sometime I do the asking. This is one of the most rewardingaspects of being published–people actually respect your opinion aboutsomething. (Boy, do I have them fooled!) 😉
To me, the first step in becoming a published author is to write coherent sentences. Yes, a good plot goes a long way, but if you write really clunky prose, yours will be an uphill battle. I know there are plenty of clunky writers out there making millions, but good writing helps maximize your chances. And really, who aspires to be the poorly-reviewed hack with the big bank account? Actually, don’t answer that. I don’t want to know.
The novels I love the most embed a great story within poetic prose. These don’t come around very often, but the experience of reading them is truly electrifying. I’m not going to build a list here, but a few off the top of my head from varying genres: Deliverance by James Dickey, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Juror by George Dawes Green, The Shining by Stephen King, Mystic River by Dennis Lehane, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.
Obviously, the pieces I review come from writers of differentexperience levels. Sometimes it’s a selection from their first book,sometimes it’s something from book 4, sometimes they’ve only writtenpoetry before and are trying their hand at prose. As you might expect,some of this work is great and some is scary bad. But I firmly believethat if you possess the tiniest bit of natural ability, combine it withhard work, and be completely honest with yourself, you can make it as awriter. The honesty bit is important…you absolutely must be your ownworst critic and never be content with what you write. You may beimpressed from time to time, but I think the moment you decide you’regood is the moment you stop getting better. And most of us have plentyof room to improve.
To be honest, most of the pieces I review are not ready forpublication. Overwriting is very common, as is overwrought description.Poor rhythm is a problem. Perhaps the most obvious difference betweenbeginning writers and those with more experience is the attention todetail. New writers are often generic in their descriptions of scenesand situations, and thus make it difficult for a reader to suspend hisor her belief. Good writers describe with economic precision. Awell-chosen word here or there makes all the difference.
But I don’t care how much a piece of shit your first story is, if youhold yourself to a high standard, your next one will probably bebetter. Still, you must be honest with yourself. When well-read peopleoffer feedback, listen to them. When writers offer feedback, listen.There is no right or wrong when it comes to literature, but even if youdisagree with certain opinions, there is usually something you canlearn from them. Having published two books does not make me anexpert–far from it. But when it comes to my own work, I never dismissany opinion. The very fact that someone took the time to consider mywork enough to express an opinion obliges me to evaluate it. And thereis almost always something I agree with…usually quite a bit ofsomething.
I was looking through my box of old projects tonight and ran across thefirst typed story I ever wrote. Below is the first paragraph of thatstory reproduced with all spelling and grammar mistakes intact. I wrotethis when I was seventeen. It’s not very good. By this time in mycareer I had handwritten maybe ten other stories (which to my dismay Icannot find), and still my skills were feeble at best. It was fourteenyears between this story and the year my first novel sold. I did notsell one piece of fiction in between. Not one. For those of us withaverage skills or average education, it’s a hard fucking road topublication.
But man, it feels good when you get there.
If you have ever been in South Texas during the summer, (or spring or fall, for that matter) you know just how miserably hot it can get. Not Death Valley dry-hot, or deadly Sahara Desert-hot, but sweltering, humid, sweat-wrenching-hot, with temperatures in the 90’s, but head-indexes in the 120’s. That’s how it was on this steaming mid-October day in the small town of Port Johnston, a coastal rural community between Port O’ Connor and Corpus Christi on the Texas Gulf Coast. Port Johnston was not exactly what you would call a bustling community, but it did have it’s fair (but small) share of enterprise. On the north end of town was the familiar small-town Dairy Queen, which drew its biggest crowd 6 a.m. every morning when the old, retired cronies of Port Johnston gathered to drink coffee and discuss the weather, oil prices, and the Dallas Cowboys. On Main Street, which, as you might guess, ran straight through the middle of town (north-south) were the usual small businesses such as the General Store, the Drug Store, and of course the Town Hall, which was right in the middle of the town square. There were a few more stores, an Affiliated Stop-N-Shop, a liquor store, a hardware store, and then on the far south end of town was the town’s only real restaurant, Southern Bar-B-Q. Southern Bar-B-Q was most well known for the never-ending smoke that swirled away from the place. You always knew who worked there, if not for the monogrammed shirts, then by the smell of the person, which was of sizzling briskets, and mesquite-smoke. What a way to be marked.