The rallying cry of the aspiring writer is typically some variation of “could you look at this for me? I really can’t tell if it’s any good or not.”
This is fair. This is a completely normal reaction to reviewing your own work. This is something that happens to literally everyone who writes, even published authors I have spoken to who’ve got large fanbases clamoring for their work and an agent/editor talking about how much fun their writing is to read on a regular basis.
You have to take a step back, though, and really look at your writing if you find yourself saying that out loud so often. If you write, you probably read. You know what story structure looks like. You know what a good hook looks like, and you know that it makes certain promises to the audience that you need to fulfill over the course of the story. You know that if you set the tone by opening with a sweeping action scene, your story better include bigger and better action later on, and you need to pepper the low-key sections of the narrative with hints and foreshadowing. You know that twists need to be properly led up to so that a reader can go back, look at everything that happened before and see that the twist was actually inevitable knowing what they do after it happened, even if they didn’t realize while they were reading up to it.
It is incredibly hard to do this as a writer because your story is going to feel boring. It’s going to feel really boring. Even my favorite of my own work, the stuff I get excited to have thought up, feels boring to me. This is because I wrote it and rewrote it in my head a hundred different times between the spark of creation and actually finishing up the final draft. It’s like reading a book over and over and over, eventually even a flawless literary classic is going to become boring because you know everything that’s going to happen.
But you can be objective. This is a power you have as a writer, and you’ll become a hell of a lot less neurotic once you master it. Before you send your story to your beta readers, to your friends who will give you hopefully-honest critiques, really buckle down and ask yourself: Do you think that reading this is a huge waste of time for those friends and beloved readers? If it is, why? Is the twist not properly foreshadowed? Okay, fix it. Is your lead character unbelievably boring? If you know that s/he is, then make the proper adjustments. If you’re sending your story around to be read, on some level you know it isn’t that bad. It’s not a gigantic waste of space even if you feel bored by it. What you’re looking for is a series of subjective critiques from an audience, and when many of those audience members agree on something you have a blind spot for, you fix it. You may be tired of the story but you have to remember it’s completely new to these people and could invoke the sense of wonder and happiness you got when you first thought it up, but sustained throughout the narrative for them while it eroded away for you through your rewrites and tweaks.
You can say you’re not sure if it’s good or not, but at least turn that question on yourself and ask why it might not be good before you send it out. And for the love of god, stop with the “I think this is terrible but would you look at it for me” that I see infesting so many creative writing groups. That’s the equivalent of “whoa this food seems off, smell it for me” and all it does it put yourself down without any upside.
That’s my short rant.
Here’s my longer book recommendation.
I read An Accident of Stars in one sitting partly because I was afraid I’d have trouble picking it back up again if I put it down. That sounds harsher than I mean it to be, but I can see it being a deeply divisive book because I myself came out with divisive opinions on it. I will start with the bad and end with the good, because that’s basically what the book does. I found the first half of it a trudge. After hearing from so many reviewers what a subversive take on portal fantasy this is, I was kind of astonished to find the first 40-50% were perfectly in line with any 80 or 90s portal fantasy novel you might pick up at a used book sale. The major difference was in creating a secondary world with different gender and racial defaults than our own, and with the predominantly female cast coming at it from a variety of angles. You have an older mentor type figure, a black woman who literally chose to live in a medieval society over Thatcher’s England because the place with the riding tauntauns, blood magic and dueling pantheons still managed to be more pleasant to live in as a racial minority and a woman. You have her backing the wrong successor to the throne, and everything going to hell, and many years later our protagonist finds herself falling into the same world and being forced to deal with the fall out. My problem was that so much of it went unexplored. A setting where polyamory is considered the social norm and monogamous couples are regarded as weird barbarians was fascinating, but never really explored in any depth. Same with a world where gender inequality has never existed (that we know of) and the woman hold half if not more of the power. It almost feels like Meadows had a list of boxes she wanted to check off as she went along – and don’t get me wrong, inclusive stuff is always good even if it’s set dressing – but quite a bit of it felt hollow until the second half of the story when the actual subversion started. I wish there were more hints of it early on instead of feeling so by the numbers, even though I now see it was all setting things up to knock them down.
I think the second half of the book made the entirety worth reading but I’m dismayed to see how many reviews on Goodreads and similar listed it as “didn’t finish book” citing a lot of the same problems I had with the first half. I recommend it in part because the entire product ended up being a net good, and because I think the second book is going to be way better in every way now that most of the pieces have been put on the board and we don’t need to wade through a bunch of secondary world terms and have things told to us rather than shown.
In all honesty, and this is a personal criticism rather than something objectively wrong with the book, I wish that the language had been toned down enough to market it as young adult. It would be a really good YA book touching on a lot of things that teenagers would benefit from. Growing up my circle of friends was a gay guy, a lesbian couple, a bisexual girl and a straight girl who later came out as trans. I was pretty steeped in what was dubbed those alternative lifestyles before they became the mainstream, and we were all voracious readers. I remember most of them getting really frustrated at how difficult it was to track down YA books with characters resembling them at all, since those books tended to default to straight white males and the occasional female who either acted like a traditional male action hero or ended up falling into harmful and misogynistic storylines. Outside of some stuff like The Merro Tree and many of the books from Mercedes Lackey, you didn’t get a whole lot of LGBTQ+ perspectives or even racial minority ones, for that matter. I think every single person from that circle of friends would have fallen in love with this book if they read it at 14-15. A fantasy world where the default state of queer characters is not to be relentlessly shit on and tortured for cheap emotional value is exactly what we need more of, especially for vulnerable demographics. I wish this was being marketed directly to them and filling shelves next to The Hunger Games and Harry Potter.
Anyone who knows me should realize that saying something should be YA is not a slight against it at all, too – I consider YA one of the most important things in the world of books, because it builds and solidifies world views during the ages when you’re most malleable. God knows I’d probably be a terrible person if I hadn’t gotten into early feminist stuff like Tamora Pierce’s library or The Enchanted Forest novels fairly young instead of drowning in a sea of toxic D&D fiction (I still love Drizzt though) and rote Star Wars/Star Trek licensed books.