26 January 2011

The heart, mind and murder test for writers

How do we know what’s good?

Seriously, how do you decide, when you’ve finished writing, or even when you’re smack bang in the middle of whatever you’re working on, that what you’ve written is good?

It’s no coincidence that most writers get better the more that they write. We gain experience and with experience comes better judgement and the ability to analyse our own scribblings.

We can also get feedback from other people. That’s always a pretty brill idea too, especially when you’ve invested so much of yourself in a project that you can’t see the pencils from the original piece of wood that people make pencils out of.

Don’t worry. I know that doesn’t make sense.

So yeah, feedback is great, but I’m interested in how a writer can better understand their own work. What system can we use to make these initial decisions about the quality of our writing?

I do the following. Subconsciously mostly, I suspect. But it seems to do the trick.

Run it past your heart

Sometimes you just know, don’t you? Sometimes you’ll write a paragraph or sentence – even a word – and you’ll know that it pushes all the buttons you intended to push.

This button pushing is why we started writing. It’s why we continue to write. It’s an amazing feeling when you’re on a roll and the words are flowing from your brainbox to the page.

But much of the time, it doesn’t work like that. You need to think harder and longer to make sure you’re expressing yourself in the best way possible. And that’s fine. Perfectly normal.

The writer who can sit down and write instant, perfect prose is both rare and probably lying. For the rest of us, the challenge comes when we’ve finished our thinking and our expressing and we have to make a decision. Is this piece of writing any good?

At this point I run it past my heart. By that I mean I look for an emotional response. If something doesn’t sit right, even if I think I know the reasons why, I will more than likely cut, start again or try something different.

If you read your own writing and think, ‘I’m not sure if this is up to scratch,’ it’s almost certainly not up to scratch. Be bold when you know that you can do better.

Consult your mind

Once your work has passed the heart test, it’s time to talk technical.

Of course, there are some very simple things you need to do. Like check your spelling, grammar and all that jazz. But more than that, you need to analyse your writing’s aesthetics. How are the sentences structured? Do they have rhythm?

I’m going to take a small diversion here. Indulge me for a second.

There’s often some debate about whether a piece of writing can survive or be brilliant if it’s either a) a great story but technically flawed, or b) technically excellent but slightly tedious.

My view is why be satisfied with either of those options? If you’ve got a great story to tell, tell it as beautifully and as elegantly as you possibly can. If you’re a gifted writer, find a story that allows your prose to shine as it should.

Getting it right is incredibly difficult and extremely hard work. But it has to be worth it. Reach for the stars, you know?

Anyway, back to the system.

If your writing hits the right emotional buttons, but is technically all over the place, something needs to change. Either cut or go back and make some improvements. Do some serious editing.

I’m going to repeat myself. Be bold when you know that you can do better.

Sharpen the axe

Murder your darlings. There, I said it. Two years I’ve been running this blog and that’s the first time I’ve used that often (over?) used piece of advice. It had to happen sometime.

Even if you’re writing passes the heart test with flying colours, even if it sails through the mind exam without any problems whatsoever, you may still need to murder your darlings.

Sometimes, even when we know that something is completely fantastic, when we put it into a wider context or revisit its original aims, we might not be able to use it.

And that’s when it’s tough to let go. That’s when you really do have to be bold. Expect feelings of sadness. Don’t be surprised if you cry.

But make sure you hang on to your work. Don’t murder your darlings and dump them in the nearest word-shaped canal. Just slap them round the chops and copy and paste them into a separate document.

Good writing is good writing. If you can use a discarded piece of work on another project, then you certainly should. So long as it fits there, of course. It might be that this perfect prose really is destined for the canal.

That’s why there are three tests. Only the very best writing makes it through them all.

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  • http://scribbleplay.com Christopher

    Exceptional advice, Iain. I’ll have to keep the last bit in mind regarding saving the work that falls under the axe.

    • http://writeforyourlife.net Iain Broome

      Thanks Christopher, much appreciated. I think we’re all guilty of getting rid of paragraphs and sentences when they don’t fit what we’re doing, but it’s more than likely that they’ll be perfectly suitable elsewhere. I use either Simplenote or a simple plain text file to keep snippets of discarded work.

  • http://twitter.com/icypop Icy Sedgwick

    The “orphans” file is an awesome idea when you need to cut things out. Sometimes you’ll be writing something else and go “Oh! That bit I cut is just what I need to make this piece come together!” and it also serves as a handy Muse.doc when you’re stuck for anything to write. Flick through the stuff you’ve cut and you’ll more than likely think of something new to do with it. So they’re not being cut…just put on the subs bench until they’re needed to score the winning goal in the World Cup.

    • http://writeforyourlife.net Iain Broome

      Absolutely, I did this all the time when I was writing my novel. Inevitably, I had to make huge cuts from time to time, but more often than not I was able to take the really good stuff (that passed tests one and two) and use it in others parts of the story.

      Also, all football metaphors are more than welcome.

  • http://davidgjourney.blogspot.com/ David Griffin

    Excellent post Iain, thanks!

    After what I consider to be a final draft, I’ll leave it for at least a month then read through it in one sitting – where possible, attempting to read the words as another reader would. Trying to distance myself from my own words is an ongoing learning process for me! Often, where the rhythm of sentences is broken, these tend to stick out more at this stage. Then once those final corrections/amends are done, I’ll attempt to read the whole novel out loud. This really shows up flow-stoppers, convoluted or cluttered sentences, etc.

    And of course now, applying running it past my heart, consulting my mind and “murdering my darlings” as you’ve written helps a lot too –– I’m certain I’ve applied these already, also in a subconscious sort of way. Bringing them to the fore can only benefit my final editing, thanks for bringing them to our attention!
    :-)

    • http://writeforyourlife.net Iain Broome

      No worries, like I say, I think a lot of this happens subconsciously. But it’s important we do test our writing and make decisions about quality. It’s so easy, when the going gets tough, to say, ‘that will be fine.’ Every single time I’ve done that, I’ve been bitten on the arse. Either I’ve had to do more work at a later date or, thankfully, my agent has picked me up on it.

  • http://twitter.com/SeanPlatt Sean Platt

    I love to murder my darlings.

    When I first started to write, chopping was the hardest thing for me to do.

    Not anymore.

    Because I know a good chunk of what I put down is total drivel, it’s easy for me to write from the heart and without pause!

    • http://writeforyourlife.net Iain Broome

      You definitely get better the more experience you have of editing your work. Initially, it can seem wasteful to get rid of what feels like good writing, but it’s all about appropriateness, I think. Does this writing work in context? Is it doing what I need it to do?

      If the answer is no, it’s got to go! And I definitely should have used that rhyme somehwere in this post. Damn it!

  • http://www.labanan.blogspot.com Jan

    ah! good.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with the advice to keep the “orphans” (love that!), especially in novel writing, as sometimes the feel that it isn’t working is more to do with pacing and the unfolding of the story. For me anyway.

    When it comes to endings, of short stories and flashes in particular, I get a physical rush, and goosebumps all over, when I think the ending is right. It’s immediate and visceral. I don’t get that every time, and I don’t write towards it – i.e. I know that not all stories need to elicit that response to be enjoyed by others.

    At the end of the day it’s such a subjective thing. Though saying that, the other day I stumbled across some doggerel I produced when climbing out of my ten year long writer’s block and it was absolutely dire. I can’t point at everything I write now and say “That’s good” objectively, but I know deep down it’s better than the crap I was writing seven years ago!

    • http://writeforyourlife.net Iain Broome

      You’re absolutely right. My orphans file (!) tends to be full of things that just didn’t quite work where they originally were. And that’s usually to do with rhythm and pacing and that type of thing. But that doesn’t mean we should get rid completely!

      Thanks for the comment Emma – all great points.

  • http://twitter.com/lindzsmilewrite Lindsay Oberst

    I have a lot of difficulty deciding if my writing is good and successful. I’m still having difficulty deciding about the opening of my last post on my blog.

    I need to develop a system, and I need more people I can show my writing to, I think. I love your thoughts, Iain.

    • http://writeforyourlife.net Iain Broome

      If you’re really not sure yourself, it’s definitely a good idea to seek feedback. The more you write, the better you get ay analysing your own work. The other thing, of course, is to not worry about it too much. Put your writing through the three tests, sure. But feel free to crack on with something new at the same time. It might take a few rounds of testing before you can be sure about whether you’re happy with your work or not.

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  • http://andrewtoynbee.wordpress.com Andrew Toynbee

    Iain

    I have a separate ‘recycling’ document that lives in the same folder as my latest project – anything that’s longer than a sentence gets ‘cut-and-pasted’ into there for possible usage later. I’ve caught myself peeking inside it and thinking ‘Yeah, that was good, but it didn’t need to be in the main story’.

    Regarding ‘running it past your heart’, I re-read my Second Draft a month ago and still found a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye as I re-read the death of one of my main characters.
    I didn’t change much in that particular paragraph…(sniffs).

    • http://writeforyourlife.net Iain Broome

      Recycling is a good way of putting it. And it’s definitely a good idea to keep tabs on that document – it’s very easy to put all this stuff somewhere, but it’s even easier to forget about it or assume it’s all unsuable.

  • http://twitter.com/fionamaddock Fiona Maddock

    Very timely. I thought I’d finished the debut, despite having a couple of little niggles. The niggles grew into huge nudges. Further research into writing techniques has got me looking at it with fresh eyes. I hope I’ll reach a point where I can say I am 99.9% satisfied with it, instead of 90% as now. I still don’t know how to tell if you are as satisfied as you can be though. As for getting feedback – this is like searching for the Holy Grail. What a writer needs is professional feedback, which is hard to get if you don’t (yet) have an agent. You can pay for it, of course but everyone says ‘Don’t do that’. You can ask family and friends for their opinions but the professionals say that those opinions don’t count and they are probably right. It would be interesting to have your views on the feedpack problem, Iain..

    • http://writeforyourlife.net Iain Broome

      Well I can only tell you my experience, but I think it’s pretty typical. Well, apart from the first bit.

      I wrote the first draft of my novel as part of an MA Writing course, where I had initial feedback from tutors and other students. That said, I did plough my own furrow rather a lot and I now wish I’d have asked for more feedback back then.

      Then when I was finishing it for the second time (!) I asked someone I trusted to help me edit it. That was brilliant. Not a professional editor, but a writer who was prepared to put there own work to one side to get me over the line. I’m very grateful.

      Next I managed to get an agent and together we have turned what I thought was a good novel into something I’m extremely proud of. Having that expert and industry eye on it was invaluable. I can’t put it into words. Just a revelation.

      But then that’s why agents and editors do what they do. Some people think that they are there to fleece new authors and sell books. That’s not been my experience at all. Quite the opposite in fact.

      So my advice is to get the novel into a position that you feel like you cant take it any further on your own, then think about whether it’s time to pay for a professional editor or start approaching agents a is.

      If you’re looking for an editor, I know Gary Smailes at Bubblecow provides that service. I haven’t used him, so to speak, but he’s a sound chap and has all the credentials. I’m sure he’d be good to chat to at the very least.

      And for the record, no, I’m not on commission!

      Hope that helps Fiona (and anyone else subscribed to this thread).

      • Graz-111

        “I wrote the first draft of my novel as part of an MA Writing course, where I had initial feedback from tutors and other students. That said, I did plough my own furrow rather a lot and I now wish I’d have asked for more feedback back then.”

        I can see that in that environment as much feedback as possible would be good, (I even use the word “as” too much here). But, a friend of a friend recently sold his novel and I asked him for feedback and he wanted to see the first 2-3 pages. He was positive with what he said but he also didn’t want to read any more. He said the last thing I needed was a review, just write in your style. Of course I didn’t take his advice and asked a grammar proof reader what she thought. She said my simplistic style was pleasing for her as a reader but, a larger vocabulary would add to the story.

        The next day I was tied in knots as I went to the thesarus for every other word.

        • http://writeforyourlife.net Iain Broome

          Some of the best writers we’ve ever seen have used straigtforward language – think Ray Carver, John Cheever etc. I wouldn’t worry too much if you’re on your first draft – just get it down and then be ruthless with your editing. That’s where you’ll be able to shape your work and get it right.

  • http://www.trinities.info Jasmin Nanda

    Thanks for the wonderful advice. We often write beautiful words only to chop them off, but to keep the choppings for future use is a brilliant idea!

    • http://writeforyourlife.net Iain Broome

      No problem and you should definitely hang on to all words that might stand a chance of making their way into the final version of something, whatever it may be!

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