Thursday 18 October 2012

If Writing is Subjective, How Do I Improve?

I recently took part in an event that brought it home to me how subjective writing is. I was a finalist in a local book festival for a piece of 250 word flash fiction. 12 of us read out our pieces, and we voted for a winner.

All these pieces were 'good', however you want to judge good. They were tight, they followed their character's POV or their theme through, they contained deft imagery and interesting description.

You know what? I liked some of them more than others. There were pieces on flying machines, sister-in-laws coveting their brother-in-law, anecdotes about grandchildren and stories of an understudy going on stage. Yes, interesting writing and a 'good writer' will hold my interest on any topic, but I have little interest in flying machines to begin with. However well written his piece was, however much it held my interest, I was naturally more predisposed to like the piece about the understudy because it was more 'my thing.'

I only had a couple of votes to cast, so however great the flying machines piece was, *it did not get my vote*. The grandchild anecdote was funny, so everybody voted for that in droves. (This has really made me think about the role of humour in my writing - I tend to write fast paced, thriller type pieces - can those be funny too? Can I be funny? *pulls face*)

I realised this is exactly what agents face. They have tons of submissions and some of them, yes, can be dismissed because they see the writing as weak or the character unbelievable or the plot makes no sense.

But some of it? Just isn't their thing, and however interesting you  make it, they aren't going to take it. They only have a couple of votes.

I often see people say that writing is subjective, and I agree that there is no magic level of writing that will guarantee you an agent or publication of any kind. Luck comes into it.

But having been to this event, I do realise how a well written piece about flying machines held my interest more than a badly written piece would have. Even if it didn't get my vote. I do know how useful writing advice on websites has been, and from critique partners, in improving my own writing. I do feel like my writing gets 'better' whatever better is, and however subjective that is.

What do you think? Do you welcome writing advice? If it is all subjective how do you know what's 'good' and 'bad'?

And can I make my thrillers funny? Anyone know a good joke?


  1. This is something I wonder about all the time. Obviously there are certain cases when writing is just plain bad, but the rest of it comes down to what other people like. It sort of comes back to that saying: Opinions are like bumholes ... everyone has one!

    Also, I think you can have humour in thrillers - but not too much, and not too often. ;) Maybe dark humour would work!

  2. We can't appeal to everyone, but fortunately we don't have to - just takes that one publisher or editor, and then a group of target readers.
    I think you could do a little humor in a thriller.
    And I am very open to all suggestions when it comes to writing!

  3. What Alex said. And yes, you can make thrillers funny. I find that the best of the "serious" novels, YA or otherwise, have a sprinkling of humor. Usually it's wry or dark, but humor all the same.

  4. I think there are some basic principles of story-telling we can get "right" and improve upon. The flying machine story clearly did something right in the story-telling department, even if it wasn't your thing. It may not have been the "thing" for most of the people at that book festival event, but as Alex pointed out, if one agent, or one publisher at that event loved it, the author may end up with a publishing contract.

    We can get caught up with advice--do this, do that, add humour, don't go overboard with humour, etc. I think the first thing you have to do is write the story that's in you. Be true to the story first. Then be yourself. If you want a career in writing, you aren't going to build a readership on the strength of one book. Your regular readers are those that like you as a writer, so you need to let your voice shine through. If you're not naturally funny, don't force it in your work. It'll sound forced, and it's not you. Be true to yourself.

    That's my 2-cents. :)

  5. While nothing in writing is objective (except maybe a few grammar rules... maybe), I think there are some things that are less subjective than others. For example, you almost always want strong characters (be they good or bad) and consistency within the world you've created. As for everything else, I think the best thing you can do for your writing is let as many people from as many different places read it as possible. If only one person makes a comment about something, that can be written off as an opinion. But if many people mention it, it might be something to look into.

    As for a thriller joke, hmm... here's one:
    "Knock Knock"
    "Who's there?"
    "Viper who?"
    "The vindow viper. I'm here to vash and vipe your vindows."

    :-) Sorry, I couldn't resist!

  6. Haha Tobi, good one! When you think about it it's amazing anyone ever gets a publisher/agent - right desk, right day, right mood etc. Personally I think a little humour can be good in any genre if handled right. Who doesn't like a laugh afterall?

  7. Between my critique partner's suggestions and those of my beta readers, I think it was pretty easy to see what advice worked best with the story I was trying to tell. Quite often two or three of them would say something similar, which really only makes it clear that it's advice I need to take seriously. There were other tidbits that I didn't necessarily use because it wasn't what I was going for, or because I know there are things coming up later in the story that will make that more clear. All in all, I think we know deep down which things to take to heart and which things are good suggestions but don't work with our stories.

    I think there are general bits of writing advice we find that are worth listening to and others are simply subjective. I honestly sometimes don't know how to tell the difference, especially when it's coming from an agent.

  8. critiques should be objective: does story flow? are characters built up? is it confusing? we should also crit genre we enjoy or we might not get through the crit! then there are some stories that are told so well, the genre is moot...i totally believe writing is subjective because people will gravitate to their genre in a bookstore & agents look for mass appeal. know your audience target and thats who you want to like your book!

  9. Although what makes a book better is subjective, I think in general readers can tell on instinct whether a book appeals to them or not. Good thoughts!

  10. i welcome critiques. always. i do temper how i respond to critiques based on who is giving the advice and their level of expertise, how much i trust their opinion, etc. then decide on how i want to proceed. i know my story best, after all. i do have to think carefully about a major point if three or more people agree on something, however.

    as for the humor issue, i'd have to agree with colin. i wouldn't force it. humor is great in any genre, if it fits the voice of the character.

  11. This is a tough one. I do welcome writing advice but you always have to remember that it is subjective. If someone doesn't like something about your story you shouldn't automatically change it. It's your book and it helps to think about the reasoning behind their opinion but it doesn't mean someone else won't love what they hate.

  12. Kyra - dark humour is a good suggestion, thank you! And I agree, everyone has a different opinion!

    Alex - that's true, not everyone will love what we do.

    Delia - wry humour might be a good idea, thank you for the sugggestion.

    Colin, thank you, you are right we have to find our own voice and let that shine through. You are right also in that the flying machine man only needs a flying machine lover to do well!

    Tobi - love the joke, ha ha! Thank you for that. And yes I agree a few opinions then see what is common I think!

    Suzanne - I agree, we all like a laugh ;)

    Jaime - I def. think if several people mention it is something to change but if only one does then you can use your own judgement. A very good point.

    Tara- that's true, we must all know our audience!

    Nicole - definitely what appeals to someone is v. instinctual sometimes!

    Valerie - yes that's true, you have to think carefully if lots of people say it.

    Crystal - that's true yes. I think a good rule of thumb has been suggested by a couple of people above, that if a few people mention it, consider it, and if only one does then use your own judgement.

    Thanks everyone for commenting!


Please comment, I'd love to know what you think! :)