There Is No Safety Net

by Sarah A. Hoyt

So, we’ve been talking about writers going solo and working without a net.  So far so good.  Writers can subcontract editing.  They can subcontract proofing. They can subcontract art and even document conversion.

Can they subcontract confidence?

What am I talking about, you say?  Well, I’ll be blunt.  First let me start with the fact that writers’ belief in their abilities and their abilities are often totally at odds with each other.  And rarely the way you’d expect.

Very few writers who suck on ice will believe they are the world’s gift to writing.  Oh, sure, there are a few, but those have usually got that way because of “critical acclaim” – also, they’re not usually bad as such.  They might not be to my – or your taste – but they are decent of their kind.

No, writers – absent a few strange wanna bes – after their earliest steps when everyone thinks their stuff is great because they don’t know enough to know it sucks, are alone among the creative professions by thinking, most of the time, that their stuff sucks.

I don’t know why.  Perhaps it is that we use words, which is what everyone uses to speak, normally.  So… how do you judge “good”.

Well, good is what holds your attention.  But you find out early on what holds your attention is not necessarily what holds other’s.  Besides, you have a vested interest in this world.  Otherwise you’d never have written it, right?

And then by the time you’re minimally published, you will know that people can find stuff in your books you never meant to put in.  I’ve been accused of everything and WORSE praised for things that I not only can’t see in my books but hope to heaven aren’t there.

So you get odd.  You start wondering what is there, and … is it any good?

For years, while I was unpublished, I used my writers’ group as my touchstone.  “Is it good, guys?  Is it good?”  Yeah, they were newbies too, but they lived outside my head.  And if they liked it… well… maybe other people would.

I confess for the last… five? Years I’ve used my agent mostly as a touch stone.  If the agent approved of it, well, she must know what’s marketable, right?  Even if it wasn’t true, it was encouragement…

So, now I’m agentless.  I’m putting a lot of my stuff up myself.  What sells is flabbergasting me, as it’s often my earliest, clumsiest work, or that with a really weird bend (Think back to the Muppets and HEAR this with the right voice “Nuuuuuns in SPACE!) Mind you I haven’t put up the juvenalia and won’t put that under my own name BUT well…  When you finish something… how do you know it’s good?

This has come home to me today because having finished A Few Good Men I’m trying not to rush the betas and ask how it reads and… do they think it will find an audience?  I really have no clue.  I see all the clumsy spots under a magnifying glass and I worry it sucks.

At the same time my older son and a friend who also finished work are convinced THEIRS sucks.  So… It’s like this – my husband has read son’s and says it’s quite good (And no, he’s not easy on us.  So likely he’s right.)

How do you know it’s good?

Well… first, accept you’re the worst judge of your own work.  It’s possible to gain perspective on it, sure.  First, forget you wrote it.  Then let it sit for ten years.

Oh, you don’t HAVE ten years?  Then accept.  You don’t KNOW if it’s good.  You just don’t.

Second – find ten friends.  Give manuscript to ten friends.  IF more than three find the same problem, you have an issue.  If not, ignore it.  And pay attention to the “general” feel.  Like “I couldn’t put it down.”  Or “You sent me that?  Are you sure?”  Or “Uh, it was great till chapter twenty.”  Or… if everyone is saying that (you’ll ALWAYS get a couple of those, but) or if eight people are saying one of those, then that gives you an idea where the book stands.

Third – Kris Rusch tells me after a certain level a writer is at a certain level.  Yes, I know “Oh, thank you, oh, great Sybil.  We bow before your knowledge.”  I find – though I had trouble believing it – it’s by and large true.  If you’ve written more than one “decent” story, by whatever means, chances are all of your stories are decent to an extent.  I.e. you’re not pulling beginning idiocy.  BUT… is it good?

Well, this defaults to:

Fourth – Alma Alexander told me at a con that everything you write will be someone’s favorite and someone’s most hated of your works.  This is very freeing.  Let it out.

Fifth – will it sell?  Oh, who knows?  I don’t know.  So, put it out and see.  It might shock you.  (nuuuuns.  In space!)

Sixth – You’re working without a net.  You can learn what sells, given time.  You can learn what’s good – to you at least – by reading your favorite writers and analyzing what they do.  You can have sense of where you stand – ask ten friends you trust – but in the end, you’re working without a net.

Are you going to do it?  Or are you going to go back and hide in the shadows, your words unread, your worlds unshared?

Which is it going to be?

You want to be a writer, do you?  There’s the tightrope.  Get up there and DANCE.


  1. I’m out in the middle of the tightrope, wondering what insanity got me here.

    Oh, that’s right, realizing I was too damned grownup to be scared of the monsters in the closet. Two books on Kindle, one more before Xmas, another soon after. Buy them. Or don’t. See if I care. Humph!

  2. LOL Pam. I NEED to do two novellas before Xmas, which means getting my future history right. And it will show how weird today has been that I picked up DSR to do a quick fix, and couldn’t figure out what language I’d written it in (this is valid, around this house) then realized I was holding it upside down…

    1. Perhaps a few days off . . . A diner, a museum, at least a long walk.

      Actually, I need to get out with my camera, or something and start working on improving my covers.

  3. Um. Me? Dance? I hope the floor is reinforced and everyone has been fitted with blindfolds. What has been seen cannot be unseen, after all.

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