I Never Know

Crossposted to the Deadline Dames.

Reader Melissa P. asked earlier this week:

So MY question is, how do you know it’s good enough? Especially if you’ve never been published?

How do you know if your writing is Good Enough? How do you know if you have any chance at all?

The short answer is also the most brutal:

You don’t.

The longer answer…well. I get hate mail calling me the worst writer in the world, even though I’m making a living at it. “Good enough” is highly subjective. Plus, there’s the Inner Censor and various other considerations inside one’s own head. There has never come a point where I’ve considered anything “good enough”. Each time I’ve turned in a contracted book, it’s with the same nail-biting fear of rejection I felt when I was submitting to slushpiles. I have never felt “good enough”.

A published writer takes the critical step of submitting despite that fear. Even more importantly, this is a writer who has kept writing, despite that fear. The chances of getting published are sometimes Not Very Good, but they become Astronomically Better when you Actually Produce and Learn, not to mention Submit Your Shit Professionally.

If there was a magic pill, I would tell you. The point of this whole thing is not to get “good enough”. The point is to keep trying and learning. This ups your chances of getting published, and once published, ups your chances of having a sustainable career.

Look, every single goddamn time I send a manuscript in I’m afraid that my editor will be very quiet for a little while, then send me a request to have the advance mailed back because what I’ve sent them sucks so hugely. (This is a normal feeling, I guess, since I’ve had it every damn time.) Rationally and reasonably, I absolutely know this will not happen. (If for no other reason than my agent would strap on her bandoliers and make them Very Sorry. *snort*)

But it doesn’t stop the huge, nagging, overwhelming fear that my writing–and by extension, I–will never be Good Enough. Each time I hit the “send” button to turn in a first draft, I hear the roulette wheel spinning. It scares me to absolute death.

I’ve just learned to do it anyway. Part of it is because I have to, because, well, I like eating.

You can depend on certain markers to tell you that, if you’re not Good Enough, you’re certainly moving in the right direction. Some of those markers can include personalized rejection notes or the approval of your critique group or beta reader (though I have some mixed feelings about groups). In the end, though, I don’t know if any writer ever knows if it’s good enough; I don’t know if any writer, even the most “successful”, ever gets rid of that nagging fear. If they do, good for them–but I’m talking about my own experience here, and I’ve never gotten rid of it.

The trick is to do it anyway. You can feel the fear all you want. It’s okay (not to mention reasonable and natural) to feel fear. Writing is a tricky business, and writers get rejected. A lot. Rejection is a fact of life, and it’s dialed up to 11 when you’re a writer, especially if you submit your work to the cruel, cold world. Fear is okay.

You just have to kick the fear in the nuts and run for it. I do not know of another way around this. Set yourself the task of always learning how to be more professional, keep reading and studying your language and its rules, and try to view mistakes and setbacks as invitations to learn. Bloody, painful, messy, nasty, scar-making invitations, to be sure. But if you’re easily whipped or easily frightened, professional writing is so not the career for you.

If, on the other hand, you are stubbornly (almost pathologically) determined to do, then let the fear be itself. It can actually even turn into a friend, an engine driving you to learn more and be better. You can use it as a spur, as a wheel, as torque to pull yourself up.

Just don’t turn tail and quit writing.

How do you know if you’re Good Enough? You never do, my friend. But you can choose not to let the fear matter, and be as good as you can be. After all, that’s the way any great discovery or genius is made.

Over and out.

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