Thursday, January 10, 2013

What Makes A Good Writer?

As you may or might not have noticed, my Goodreads profile contains the somewhat confrontational statement: "No author who rates their own book five stars could write a five-star book". It's something I get asked about with some regularity, along with the question 'how can I become a good writer?' Luckily for me, my job is rather simplified by the fact that both questions share a common answer.

Now, I'm not claiming I am a good writer--indeed it's very humbling when people choose to come to me and seek advice--but I have spent quite a bit of time reading and thinking on the topic of becoming a good writer--in hopes of getting there, myself, one day--and it's hard for me to think of an act more directed at becoming a good writer than writing to other writers about the properties of good writing as I understand them.

In many of the messages I receive, people tell me that they often feel hopeless, that they can't seem to finish their work, and that when they look back at what they have done, they are frustrated with how far short it falls of what they intended. They tell me that they read books by skilled writers and feel like they'll never get there--some aren't even sure how to find the path that leads from where they are to becoming a skilled writer.

If you share these same doubts and concerns, then that's a great sign, because in my experience, that's exactly what it feels like to be a good writer. When great writers talk about writing, it is often in terms of disappointment in their work, in not being able to realize their vision. Just think of all the famous cases of legendary authors who wanted their work destroyed when they died because it wasn't 'good enough': Virgil insisted the Aeneid be burned, or Kafka, who did destroy 90% of his writings, or Gogol, who fed his follow-up to Dead Souls page by page into the fire.

The Library of Burned Books would be vast indeed.

To be perfectly honest, I am often inclined to feel the same way: here I am, smack-dab in the middle of my own literary endeavor--having now written more on this than any other single work--and I find myself thinking "what's the point?" It's no Shakespeare, no Aristotle, no Mervyn Peake. If anyone reads it, I feel I can guarantee that there are better books out there they could have been reading, instead. But then, I remind myself: that's how all great writers think--and it's that very thought that made them into great writers in the first place.

Imagine two authors each write a book; at the end, one of them sits and thinks "this is a really great book" while the other one thinks "this book really isn't good enough". Which author is going to try to improve his work? The one who thinks that he needs to. What makes a great writer is that nagging sense that you aren't one yet, and so you need to keep at it.

That feeling will never go away, and it shouldn't ever go away, because it's the thing that drives you, the thing that ensures that you don't sit on your laurels, churn out crap, and let yourself be happy with less. "But wait," says my loyal reader, "aren't you the guy who was just writing about how that kind of authorial perfectionism is destructive to writers?" 

Yes, I was--and it's very perceptive of you to notice--but, while a sense of incompleteness, of literary sensucht--is vital to becoming a great writer, it is not the only thing, it's just the first step. Once we recognize the permanence of that feeling, that it will always be there, driving us, then we have to realize, rationally, that we can't use doubt to tell us when we're done. Our work will never be as perfect as we can imagine it might be, and we'll never be able to accurately judge what we've made, so naturally, we'll think 'it could be better', but things could always be better, infinitely. So, if we let that doubt rule us, then we will never actually produce anything.

"One more iteration?"

So, give into that doubt when it will make your writing better, ignore it when it makes writing impossible. How will you know? That part comes only with experience. If you never seem to finish anything, then you're stuck too much on your doubt. If you constantly write reams of pages that get out of hand and stop making sense, then you're not listening closely enough to your doubt.

So, if you already have a healthy sense of doubt then congratulations: you have the tools at your disposal to become a great writer. Just make sure that you accept that is natural for it to be there, and it will always be there, and that it's there to help you be better. Don't try to escape it or deny it--learn to live with it and use it.

The Power of Doubt
Better that than the alternative: there are loads of authors out there who just don't have that little voice. They already think they're great, they read their own work and can't think of a single way to make it better--meanwhile, you have an internal editing tool that reveals to you what you need to work on.

I have never yet seen an author who thought that they were great who didn't turn out to be awful. Whether it's some hackneyed teen comparing himself to Tolkien and Seamus Heaney or a former landscape painter who insists that his dragon wizard bondage fetish books aren't 'fantasy', or the dozens of GR authors who spam my inbox and give their own books five stars, the results always the same: badly-written cliche crap. I know some authors rate their own books just to try to skew the average, but is it really worthwhile to get that extra tenth of a point if it makes you look like an arrogant prat? Perhaps it's just me, but I tend to think discretion is the better part of self-promotion.

Then again, self-promotion is an unenviable and rotten task, and I wish I knew enough about it to give some advice. Unfortunately, the method of my success can be best described as 'insularly write for your own selfish pleasure until the mountain shows up at Mohammed's door and asks if it might stop in for a bit', which I'm pretty sure falls under serendipity instead of any reliable system. But if there is anything that has made me what I am today, for better or worse, it's a persistent sense of self doubt and the concomitant need to improve myself at every turn.

After all, the point is not to create the best book ever written, but to create the best book that you are currently capable of writing. If you find yourself looking at your work and thinking 'this could be better. but I don't know how to make it better', then that's a good place to stop, because it means you've reached your limits--you have written up to the level that you know how to write.

If you sit and think 'it could be better if I spent the next five years learning Sanskrit and Catalan history and studying the complete Shakespeare', that's also a good place to stop, because just as your book could always be infinitesimally better, so could you. If improving the book requires you to completely change yourself then stop, because if you do go and change yourself, once you're done, you'll be so different that you'd just end up writing a completely different book, anyways.

Otherwise it just become another excuse not to write. It's scary to finish something, to put work out there for critique. It's easier to just never finish, because it means we can hold onto the ideal of our perfect, unrealized book forever. So, our finicky, doubting nature might be what allows us to become a better writer, but what makes us writers is that we write, so if we can accept the unending and inexorable process of doubt, then we can also say 'this is the best I can do right now' and put something out there, knowing that an imperfect but real thing is always a better addition to the world than a perfect ideal that doesn't exist.


  1. This was extremely helpful. Thank you.

  2. Glad to read your thought about this topic.

    I myself have been struggling to defeat my self-doubt, for about three years after my first short story have been published in an anthology.

    I guees I've hit the point of changing myself (as it stated in your post) in order to satisfy my self-doubt (which, sometimes, acting like an inner-demon of me). But I've found that the change was necessary, because without it, I would completely stuck in my own self-pit of irrational fear, unable to produce anything that I once vows to myself to write and finished. I guess my prideful trait has been taken it's part in this problem .... But I'm glad, realizing and telling myself that I'm no one that special, and a perfect-perfectionism -forgive me for this bad pun- could kills the "self" inside of me, I'm glad I could overcome some of these doubts now, and could begun my writings without such voices taken it's control of my mind and fingers.

    But, still, it's not making the process of writing is any easy :))

    Thanks -again- for this post, and best of luck for your projects.

    (and, again, sorry for any grammar mistakes you'd probably spotted in this comment.)

    1. Thanks for the comment, I'm glad that you found the post interesting. I think that, as writers, most of us have very similar experiences with motivation, doubt, feeling stuck, and perfectionism. I'm so glad that you have found ways to deal with this in your own writings. Thanks for the kind wishes, and know that I hope the same for you and your future writing.

  3. This was a great post, always helpful to reread when a projects got me down. Made any progress on that Victorian SF novel? You said you were writing one of those somewhere, or maybe I'm mistaken?

    Anyways, thanks for writing this. Great stuff.

    1. Ah, cool, I'm glad you find the post useful. I know writing them often gives me motivation for working on my projects. I have made progress on that novel, yeah. Depending how the pacing for the climax turns out, I've only got a quarter or a third of it left to write, so the end is in sight. Thanks for the comment.

  4. Replies
    1. You're welcome--I'm glad you got something out of it.