Thursday, April 12

On the Importance of Self-Analysis

I recently did a Google search on "J. J. Westendarp", just to see what the results would be. I purposely limited the search to things presented within the last three months, since I've seen most everything that has popped out with the words "J. J. Westendarp" and "Spiral X" in the same setting. Google Alerts is good about that. However, it missed one because a blog poster mistakenly kept naming the book "Spiral" instead of its actual name. The post? A psychological evaluation on a "double-bind", which according to Wikipedia* means: emotionally distressing dilemma in communication in which an individual (or group) receives two or more conflicting messages, in which one message negates the other. This creates a situation in which a successful response to one message results in a failed response to the other (and vice versa), so that the person will be automatically wrong regardless of response.

 The context in which the poster presented the observation resulted from reading the sample for Spiral X, and dealt with what is arguably my biggest failing in my debut novel, that of stamping out rampant passive voice. See, it tended to mix in with bits of active voice, and the blogger felt this created a double bind within themselves. They had conflicting thoughts about the sample, and hence could not see themselves going all in on buying the product. Please note that the sample was merely the catalyst for the post, and that the presence of double bind writing was something they had seen in a lot of indie publications, so it wasn't specific to the sample, just the last example of what they were talking about.

Which leads me to the topic of this blog post. Every writer starts somewhere. A lot of writers have good natural instincts and can write a solid story without much effort. Many writers struggle with the intricacies of the process, of dealing with the idea of having something so large broken down into little things that all must line up correctly in order to make sense. Writing is hard, no matter the skill level, which is why a writer cannot operate in a vacuum. They need people who are willing to take on the burden of reading unfinished manuscripts and providing valuable feedback. They need people they can turn to for advice on what might be wrong with a scene or a character or a plot device. Most importantly, they need people who do none of these things yet still support them in their efforts to become a writer. Even with all of that though, the author still needs the ability to self-evaluate and realize where they need to get better.

Last year I talked with an aspiring author who was looking to self-publish a novel that she had been working hard on for a few years. Like, taking classes and such in order to get better at the art of writing, kind of hard. Given that I had gone through the process of self-publishing, and knew of the pratfalls that came with such a decision, I offered to look over her novel just as one last set of eyes before she took the plunge. Given that she was set to release the novel in a little over a week, I figured it was in as polished a shape as she could get it. She accepted and I got the file and converted it over to my Kindle.

In short, the novel was the exact opposite of ready for release. Numerous mechanical and logical mistakes existed just on the first page and continued to pile up as I kept reading. Even in the context that certain things "would make sense later", many of the things occurring wouldn't have lined up even in the best of situations. I made it less than 10% of the way into the novel before I had to stop. For a novel close to 150,000 words, that's pretty bad. I sent back a note to the aspiring author with as much constructive criticism as I could with the final note of suggesting she put the novel aside for a few years and work on new projects to get better as a writer, then come back to it with her new knowledge in tow. I also took the first page of the book and did an editing pass, offering comments and pointing out the mechanical and logical errors I found. Her response? To find someone else to get a second opinion. She didn't want to believe the things I told her, and went the route of hoping someone else would tell her what she wanted to hear.

Which brings me to the original point of self-evaluation. An author must possess this ability or they will get exactly nowhere with their writing. This is especially true if you ask for and receive feedback. It's okay to take a stance on a plot device or the way a character behaves, I have done so on this very blog in regards to Cheryl's hypocrisy, but when people start pointing out inconsistencies, and logical or mechanical errors, it's time to step back and listen to what they're saying. Then once they are finished look into exactly what they're talking about and work to understand what the error is and correct it. Through this process, you get a bit of knowledge going forward on how to avoid that particular error.

Each new writing experience is just that, experience. My first novel was a wreck. My second, a bit better. My third was a fan fiction piece that was good enough to publish as an episodic novel that was very well received. My fourth, Spiral X, is good enough for people to pay money to read. My ratings on Goodreads and Amazon are proof enough for that. I think White Rock will follow the trend of me getting better, simply based on an ability to self-analyze and make use of the constructive criticism I have received so far.

So writers, never be afraid to self-analyze. Certainly never be afraid to put something to the side and come back to it later. You owe it to yourself and your readers to produce quality products.

* Academically speaking I don't condone the use of Wikipedia for information, but it's a good place to start.

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