Occasionally, I take a bunch of time to type up a comment on someone else’s blog or LiveJournal, and think to myself Why don’t I ever put stuff like this on my own blog? Andrew Wheeler promotes the occasional comment to a full-fledged post, so why not me?
So, over on Kate Elliott’s* space, an aspiring professional writer asks a question that I won’t quote, because she had permission to reprint but I didn’t but it essentially boils down to: How does a person know when their writing is good enough? with a side of I want to write bestsellers.
You can click on the link above to see other peoples’ answers; many of the respondents have much more knowledge and experience than I do. But I thought that many of the answers focused on which skills to attain or which goals to shoot for, not to mention the theory of writing for bestsellerdom. There wasn’t a lot of process a writer could use to judge their own work.
So I wrote this comment:
My take: The questioner should grab a book off the shelf that is reasonably similar to the writer’s own work. It should also be someone who has reached a level of success the writer aspires to (as best they can tell, anyway).
Then retype the first chapter of that book. Just sit down and retype it. Pay attention to the mix of sentence lengths and structures. Pay attention to the amount of dialog, scene description, physical action. How much is narration to the reader? How distinctive is the voice?
Then reread one of that author’s books, while creating a plot outline. When are the main characters introduced? When is the main problem established? How long are the big conflict scenes, and how many are there? How is exposition handled.
Armed with all that information, the questioner should sit down at a clean table and lay out the successful author’s first chapter and their own side-by-side. Are the questioner’s sentences as vivid as the pro’s? Are they as economical? More concise? Does the story start as quickly?
I don’t see anything wrong with wanting to write bestsellers. It’s not something a writer can completely control, like their genre, but there are things a writer can do/not do that that will improve their chances.
As an added bonus for readers of this blog, I learned a great deal about analyzing prose by seeing Sol Stein do it in his book Stein On Writing and seeing James D. Macdonald do it in his long Learn Writing With Uncle Jim thread on AW.
That’s how it seems to me, at least, and I know I still have a lot to learn.
* Spirit Gate=terrific book.