At What Point Do Your Realize You’re Good?

Earlier this week, a writer friend and I touched on the topic of the infamous Delany Clarion circle. For those not familiar with this ritual, when Sam Delany teaches at Clarion, he has an optional group get-together in which he taps you with his God stick and tells you whether or not he thinks you’ll make it as a writer.

I have a lot of mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it’s now optional, so it’s not like he forces you to stand up among your peers and receive his wisdom. On the other hand, the sheer audacity of anyone presuming to guess – let alone “know” – whether or not someone will “make it” as a writer really pisses me off.

As my friend pointed out, however:

1) some people need to be told early on to quit, because so many of them are just bad.

The flip side to this is:

2) anybody who can be so easily disuaded from writing probably isn’t going to be a writer anyway (imagine what they’d do when Jim Baen called them a “twit,” SH called one of their stories too “didactic” to publish, and random web surfers and blog personalities crawled out of the woodwork to decry that they were crap writers and straw feminists to boot!).

This got me to thinking about when I knew I was any good at writing – at what point did I realize it was worth it to keep trudging on? When did I decide that I wasn’t deluding myself?

I’d always been the “best writer” in every writing class I attended, from age 14, right up through college, but that wasn’t much of a pool to draw from. There were so many crap writers that it was pretty easy to stand out. But in real life, you’re competing with a lot of people who are a lot better than you are, and every step of the way, you’re reminded of just how tough it is to publish anything, let alone make a living doing it.

At Clarion, you meet all the other kids who were the “best writer” in class, and for me, it was the first time I was in a room full of people who were on par with me. There was no “best writer” anymore. And at every party, every instructor sighed and said, “Some of the best writers I’ve taught put everything they write into a drawer, and you never hear from them after Clarion. So you can’t really tell who’ll keep writing and who won’t. Talent isn’t everything in this business.”

No, it’s persistence.

My buddy Patrick said something to the effect of, “All you can do is keep writing and getting better and sending stuff off. At some point, the forces might all converge, and you’ll sign a contract and hopefully another one and another one after that. But until then, you just keep writing and be the best you can be so that by the time you get signed, you’re really good.”

How do you know you’re good, though? Does Sam Delany have to tap you with his God stick? Do you have to have a mentor pushing you the whole way? And so what if you’re “good”? “Good” doesn’t seem to have much bearing on who gets published (take a look at the bestseller shelves).

I’ve had some really down times. The last one was when tDW came back from the Agent and she said she loved it, but it didn’t start until page 200 and needed a year’s worth of rewrites.

It was like getting hit in the gut. I’ve been writing this book on and off for something like six years. At what point do you give it up? If not give up writing all together, then at least give up the project?

But I love this book, so I bit down my depression over the whole, “Doesn’t really get going until page 200 part,” and started the big rewrite. I kept up with God’s War as well, and kept sending out stories.

When I sold “Wonder Maul Doll,” and “The Women of Our Occupation,” this year, I was a little stunned. I realized, perhaps for the first time, that I wasn’t writing bad stories. They just needed to find the right markets. I’d never seen so many positive rejections (except for “Two Girls,” which also needs to find a home). It was just a matter of finding the stories’ target market. One of my writing buddies, who’s an SF/F critic, pointed out that one of the toughest sells in the short SF/F form is explicitly feminist fiction. Still. Really.

It doesn’t help that I’m not all that good in short form.

So when do you know you’re good? Maybe you have to have a contract or a dozen, or an agent.


But my realization came last night.

I was sitting in bed poring over my copy of tDW, doing line edits. I hadn’t managed to get past the prologue this week because the idea of doing so much work seemed overwhelming.

Then, as I sat in bed and read, I kept reading. And reading. Not because I had to, no – because I wanted to.

I stayed up half an hour past my bedtime thinking, “Just one more chapter! They’re short! I want to see what happens!”

My rewriting process concentrated on two POV strings, which meant I hadn’t read the entire book from start to finish in a long, long time. I’d reshuffled the chapters since then, cut about 100 pages, and rewritten long sections.

My own book was keeping me up past my bedtime. A book that should be stale as old sheets at this point.

When I finally put it aside, I thought, “Wow. This is good.”

I may never sell it. It might end up in a drawer. But that was the moment it finally dawned on me: I’m getting better at this. It’s moved beyond mere, “Oh, yea, I guess I have some talent,” to “Holy crap, it almost looks like I know what I’m doing.”

There’s a long road to travel yet, and I intend to keep pushing myself, getting better, watching the words bloom into something far greater than I intended, but for now, I know it myself. I don’t need anybody else to pat me on the head and declare it.

I think I’m good.

I don’t need anybody to tell me that.

So I’m either delusional, or good.

Whether or not I’ll “make it” (whatever “making it” means), isn’t up to anybody, however. Not even (especially not even) me. You just keep writing. You keep getting better. You keep sending it out.

After awhile, you do it because you can’t imagine not doing. For somebody to quit at this point, I don’t know – I guess you’d have to get a gut-bomb far worse than agents telling you your story doesn’t start until page 200 and a publisher telling you you’re a twit.

You would have to get hit by a bus.

I would, anyway.

Let’s hope I don’t.

I have a lot of books to write.

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