How do you know if you’re a good writer?

Last month, there was an article in the online Huffington Post by Brook Warner, with the subtitle: “3 Ways to Get Validation of Your Writing’.  I agree with most of what she says:

“Writing stands out to me as the craft that people most easily dismiss and judge.  Because of its accessibility – anyone can do it and everyone seems to be doing it – writing is to the arts what running is to sports.  There are elites and there are hobbyists.  Unlike music, art and film, there’s a low barrier to entry.  You don’t need an instrument other than your hand, a canvas other than a piece of paper; not do you need a team, a budget, or outsider talent to practice your craft.  Everyone thinks they can do it, and the truth is that a lot of people do it well.  One of the great difficulties publishing faces right now is that there are many, many good books worthy of being published, but rather than finding ways to celebrate hobbyists and emerging talent (which is what’s happening in film), the industry has instead turned its back and turned up its nose at the very people who make possible what they do for a living: aspiring authors.

“So how, given this climate where the odds for success are stacked against you, the industry itself has no vested interest in you until you prove yourself a talent, and everyone thinks they can write, how are you supposed to know whether what you’re writing is worthwhile?”

She mentions three places to start:

1. Get a professional opinion

“You have to pay for this, but it’s worthwhile to get your work assessed at some point in your writing process, sooner rather than later.  This is a high level opinion from someone who knows good writing.  People who read for a living are qualified to pick apart your work and tell you what’s working and not working. . . . Your family and friends are not good readers for your work.  While all readers are subjective, family and friends are the most subjective. . . .”

She mentions that her company She Writes Press offers an assessment of 25 pages of an author’s work.  But apparently, this is part of an expensive co-operative-publishing package.  I think it can be money well invested if one selects a real professional reviewer.

2. Submit your work to contests and at conferences

“Judges of literary of literary contests are selected because they are readers.  They love good books and good writing, and they have wisdom and expertise to impart.  Contests are valuable not just for the accolades you might get, but for the feedback. It’s a cheap way to see what a stranger thinks of your work. . . .”

In my experience, one doesn’t get good quality feedback from most contests.  There tends to be cursory and superficial, or non-existent feedback.  What I have found to be useful is the ‘batting average’ one gets from submitting a particular work to multiple contests.  I have entered Sable Shadow & The Presence in about ten contests.  It has won eight awards ranging from honourable mention (2) to runner up (2) to winner (4) of the fiction category.  I must be doing something right, and this is consistent with my own view that Sable Shadows is a serious, quality piece of work.

3. Submit your work to an agent or publisher

“Many writers I know are so eager to pitch agents and editors that they go out too early, before their books or proposals are fully cooked.  But if you’re suffering from a need to know whether there’s any merit to your project, I believe (though some may disagree with me) that it doesn’t hurt to send to  a handful of agents or editors (not both at the same time) to test the waters. . . .”

I have done this with all six of my published books, but I’m still using my original publisher.  The amount of feedback I have received has been is essentially zero.  It should be said, however, that there is a skill in approaching an agent, as I have learned from reading the 2015 Guide to  Literary Agents.  A considerable amount of effort is required to produce a winning proposal.

Ms Warner poses another question at the close of her blog: “How do I know if I’m done?”  Her point is that if you’re a serious writer, you’re never done.  You keep on learning and writing with greater skill.  I agree completely.

I think I would be inclined to add a fourth item: Read and Write Book Reviews.  I find that reading good quality, recommended books, exposes me to the diverse techniques and skills of other authors.  And when I require myself to write a review of the book, I force myself to identify what I admired about the writing and what I felt didn’t work.

Review: Where My Heart Used to Beat

Christian Faulks’ new novel is the story of a male psychologist, Robert, told in the first person.


Sebastian Faulks

Robert is a middle-aged and living alone with his dog.  There is a girl friend  who ditches him for incongruous reasons.  His social life seems rather awkward, and his practice somewhat neglected.  Robert was two when his father was killed in the First World War; he was brought up by his mother in rural England in constrained financial circumstances.  Robert, however, was a good student: selected for grammar school, and able to get a place at a good university, he joined a partnership with others psychologists who ran a care home for people with severe psychological problems.

He receives a letter from an aging army colleague, Pereira, of his father’s who lives in the south of France and who promises information about his father, as well as the opportunity to manage some psychological intellectual property.  Having accepted Pereira’s invitation to go to his house on an island in the Mediterranean, Robert discloses much of his history.  He joined the army in the Second World War and fought in North Africa, later in Italy. His experiences in Italy are told in graphic detail.  They left a lasting impression on him.  While he is on medical leave recovering from a serious wound, Robert meets an Italian girl, Luisa, and the two fall hopelessly in love.  However, the two are separated when Robert is called back to duty.  He later learns that the Italian girl has gone back to her husband.

We are brought back to the present (1970’s), and Robert is sought out by the brother-in-law of Luisa.  Luisa is very ill and wants to see Robert again.  They meet again, but I won’t give away the ending of the story.

Where My Heart Used to Beat is a solemn, somewhat pessimistic story, and one of the themes of the novel has to do with the extent to which we have choices in life.  Nonetheless, I found it hard to put down.  One is torn between sympathy for the difficulties Robert faces, and frustration that he does not make better choices for himself.  Faulks does an excellent job building Robert into an understandable, complex character.  We are aware of his thoughts and feelings as well as his actions. Some of the psychological sub-themes didn’t work for me: for example, Robert has a theory that some severe mental illnesses have cellular causes.  The arguments for the theory were rather obscure and I failed to see the relevance of the theory to the novel.  Unless it is that our choices is life are limited by the cells in our brains, but, as I say, this didn’t work for me.  What did work was the picture of a tragic life that could have been less tragic.  The story of that life is beautifully written, and attention-capturing.  Most of the events in that life are rather extraordinary.  This, I think, makes it more difficult to draw general (ordinary) conclusions from it.


There is a post on the Goodreads blog by Cynthia (26-10/15): “Elizabeth Gilbert’s Top 10 Tips to Stay Inspired and Kick-Start Your Creativity”

The To 10 are:

  1. Start writing: set a timer for 15 minutes, sit down and write anything. Stuff will start to happen.
  2. Be creative every day. Do a little bit every day.
  3. Go looking for inspiration. Seek ideas everywhere.
  4. Surround yourself with optimists. Pessimists should be avoided.
  5. Dare yourself to keep working.
  6. Trust your curiosity. If something interests you, pursue it.
  7. Create a ritual. Research and preparation are essential.
  8. Don’t believe in writer’s block.
  9. Write for yourself
  10. Imagine your reader. Tell the story to that person.

This advice is from Ms Gilbert’s book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.


Elizabeth Gilbert

The only one of these Top 10 that I agree with whole-heartedly is no. 8: Don’t Believe in Writer’s Block. In my experience, writer’s block is a self-fulfilling prophesy. Yes, there are times when I don’t feel like writing, but rather than attributing it to writer’s block, I ask myself why I don’t feel like writing. If I’m tired, that’s not a good time to start writing. Otherwise, I’ll start trying out opening phrases in my head until one of them sounds good. I’ll type it, and see where it leads me. Frequently, when I begin to feel inspired, I’ll go back and re-create that opening phrase. In this sense, for me, creativity is a trial and error process. I’ll re-read what I’ve written, an hour later, a day later, a month later and six months later. I’ll re-read it slowly and ‘loudly’ in my mind. Anything that jars me gets attention. Maybe it’s the wrong word, or phrase or emphasis. And again, I’ll try alternatives in my mind until something clicks.

I think I know what Ms Gilbert means by ’write for yourself’. It is that one should write for personal pleasure. But then she says, “I never promised the universe I would be a GOOD writer.” If one doesn’t care about being ‘good’ at a major activity (apart from exercise) what’s the point?

In my opinion, creativity can’t be forced with timers, rituals or dares. I’m at my creative best when I’m feeling alert, unencumbered by extraneous concerns, and with no visual or auditory distractions. I’ll start the process with a question like ‘how can I make the sinister nature of this character more believable?’ Suggestions will pop into my head. I don’t grab the first one or one of the first three. I find that the suggestions help me redefine the question, making it more specific.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I tend to be quite creative when I’m awake, in bed, in the dark, with no distractions. My mind will generate almost endless ideas. I just have to narrow down and refine the alternatives.