Polyscribe Mike Fox

17th July 2007
Is what I’ve written any good?

There can’t be many more subjective activities than writing. You only have to join a reading or writing group to understand how one piece of fiction can provoke a whole variety of strong and often conflicting opinions. So how do you decide if something you’ve written, a sentence, a paragraph, a story, is of the sort of quality you’d like to put your name to?

I wish I could answer that. What I can do is share some the thoughts that have arisen from my own struggles.

First of all, what do you do with other people’s opinions? Scott Fitzgerald’s letters suggest there was a time when he was almost pathetically beholden to the opinion of Edmund Wilson. But who remembers Edmund Wilson now? That’s not to say his input wasn’t valuable, but why would a writer like Fitzgerald turn consistently to someone demonstrably less adept at the arts of fiction for advice? As far as I can see he needed someone to spark off, someone he felt he could trust, someone he could confide in about feeling stuck, feeling uninspired, fearing his talent was draining away, even if that someone was often severe and uncompromising, even if that someone wrote less well.

On the other hand I have it from a good authority – someone who worked with him closely – that Seamus Heaney would only accept feedback from two or three other very established poets. That’s not to say he was arrogant: apparently his reasoning was that he had devoted so many hours of thought to the practice of writing poetry that he considered it unwise to seek the counsel of someone who had given less.

Two great writers, two contrasting approaches, both doing what they thought best for their work.

So who do you ask for help, if you ask anybody? Six or seven of my published stories were first rejected elsewhere. Most of them were unchanged, or largely so, when they found a taker. Once you’ve worked through the maze of criteria and guidelines and tailored your submission accordingly, ultimately it surely comes down to taste, but I still find it helpful to know what an editor, or anyone kind enough to give my work attention, likes or dislikes, or simply feels about it.

This can be surprising. Sometimes an experienced reader has commented on an aspect of a story, perhaps plot or character or language, that I hadn’t consciously intended. Occasionally I’ve even had things described in a story that in any objective sense simply weren’t there.

It might sound strange, but I think of this as success – something has happened in the reader’s imagination that has taken them somewhere else, to some parallel place alongside what I’ve written. The person reading my story has become a collaborator, an active participant. Quite possibly in doing this they’ve been more creative or imaginative than I have. Maybe the art of fiction is to induce states of mind, each private to the reader, each their own possession. These may or may not correspond closely to the text.

So, to return to the question, how do I know what I’ve written might be able to do this strange thing, involve the reader, cause them pleasure, or sadness or reflection? Especially when the brilliant sentence I wrote this morning barely makes sense now my blood sugar has dropped in the afternoon?

One thing I’ve noticed is that the more I believe in a character, the more he or she makes me laugh, or cry, or wonder who they really are, or what might happen to them after the story is finished, the more the feedback I’ve received suggests the reader feels the same. Except feeling the same can mean feeling something quite different, but as mentioned, that’s fine. They’ve become involved, and we have a relationship.

However, although what I feel about a passage of writing can give me some guidance. I’ve noticed that, in my own stories at least, the expression of strong feeling benefits from restraint: from fewer words, simpler words, uncluttered descriptions. Pretty well the opposite of what I thought when I first went at it. Nothing wrong with the haunting or evocative sentence, but it has more effect if the prose around it reads more simply. Every writer is also an editor, and the editor in me needs to be strict but also allow the writer in me some latitude. And my guess is that the latitude we allow ourselves, ultimately and after all the hard work, becomes the thing we call our voice.

© Mike Fox 2017

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