Welcome back to Dear Adroit! Once a month, I take questions from teenage Adroit readers and do my best to give them guidance. In our August Edition, we discuss how to know if your writing is “good,” who you should ask to edit your writing, and why everyone makes snide jokes about genre fiction.
I love writing, but I’m never sure my writing is good. I never know who to ask to edit it—do I ask my friends? They’re willing to read it, but is their advice good? Other than that, who do I ask? Teachers? Parents? Help!
I hesitate to use terms like “good” or “bad” writing. Rather, you want to determine what it is that you like to read, what writing skills you want to develop, and what you want your writing to express. The quality of writing is relative to the reader. Before you can decide whether you think your writing is “good” or not, you need to determine your own definition of “good.”
For example, I’ve noticed that my favorite poems are centered around surreal, uncanny imagery, and have a smooth, musical rhythm. So when I’m working on a poem and see that I wrote something bland like “the bird flew to the tree,” I try to craft that image into something more surprising, yet still concise. Look at your favorite pieces of writing and try to distinguish a common thread. Maybe you’re a short story writer who loves dialogue-heavy prose, or maybe you’re a playwright who loves work with gothic elements. All of these factors will influence your definition of what “good” writing is.
Right now, I’m reading both “A Village Life” by Louise Gluck and “O Holy Insurgency” by Mary Biddinger. Both are amazing books, but I know that Mary Biddinger’s poetry is much more resonant with my style and my vision of what I want my writing to be. And that doesn’t mean that there is nothing for me to learn from Louise Gluck—even if I’m not the type of writer to depict serene villages in the Mediterranean, I still think that Louise Gluck is an amazing writer. Just reading her work and noticing what she does to make her poems effective is a great education for me. In short, “good” is an ever-changing definition—I wonder how many people are reading this and thinking, “Are you kidding? Louise Gluck is my guiding light of inspiration!”
As far as editing goes, that can vary. My parents do not know much about poetry, so I would never approach them for editing advice, and my non-literary friends don’t even understand my poems, so that’s also a no. It’s nice to hear what the non-writer folk think, but if your friends think that poetry always rhymes and hate their English classes, you may want to take what they say with a grain of salt.
I find that it’s incredibly helpful to have a small (or large) community of writer friends that you can exchange work with. Whether you find these people by editing for a journal, attending a writing workshop, posting online, or even by joining a club at school, it’s important that you have some writer friends who are always willing to exchange work with you. And when you edit your friends’ work and see what is effective or not in their writing, those observations will help you with your own writing as well.
Once you have some solid critique exchanges going, keep in mind that you don’t always have to accept someone’s edits. No matter what any friend, editor, or teacher tells you, your opinion of your work always comes first. The trick, though, is to read and write enough to view your writing objectively. And how do you develop an objective point-of-view? Practice.
I’ve been hearing lots of divisions between literary and genre fiction lately, and it shreds my nonexistent heart since I love reading and writing both literary and genre fiction. I’ve heard people who I respect say that even if we started now and read to the end of our lives, there’d still be no way to read all the great literature in the world. As a result, I’m having a bit of a crisis—is it even worth it to read and write genre fiction, considering that there are “greater” books out there? Time is, after all, limited.
I wish I were joking.
Genre fiction is sort of the literary world’s big inside joke. Walk into a room of Serious Writers and say “genre fiction” and everyone will start snickering in superiority.
Okay, so genre fiction isn’t all bad. It just gets a negative reputation because of the state of the publishing world. If you’re a literary fiction writer, you’re going to want to publish via independent presses. This summer, I’m working for Dzanc Books, an independent publisher, and it’s really refreshing to see a publishing house truly care about the novel’s literary merit, rather than how much money it will make. But unfortunately, most big publishing houses need money to stay alive and pay hundreds of employees. That’s why when you’re at Barnes & Noble, you’re not going to find an array of novels from independent literary publishers— instead, you will find an entire section dedicated to “new teen paranormal romance.”
Generally speaking, the really big publishing houses are looking to publish manuscripts that are going to make them money, and for better or for worse, most people like to read trashy vampire romance novels, as opposed to “Ulysses.” This is what genre fiction refers to– science fiction, romance, fantasy, etc. When “Twilight” and “Fifty Shades of Grey” are the poster-children for the entire romance and fantasy genres, it’s kind of hard to not make fun of genre fiction.
If it makes you happy to read genre fiction, do it. Life’s too short to read all of “Infinite Jest” just so that you can brag to your friends about how cultured you are. Sure, it may seem like a better use of your time to read “the classics,” as opposed to a YA novel about werewolves, but I binge watch “Gossip Girl” on Netflix all the time, so it could always be worse!
Anything on your mind? I want to hear it. E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you just might be featured in a forthcoming edition of Dear Adroit!