How do you Know Your Fiction is Cooked?

During the process of migrating from Blogger to WordPress I lost a few early posts. For some unknown reason they didn’t transfer and since nobody ever read them it seemed a shame they got abandoned down in Google’s basement. I’ve resurrected them here just for you. Sweet!

Fresh from the compost heap:

The process of editing and writing sometimes feels bulimic. Write. Purge. Write. Purge. Etc. I recently read a book that was enjoyable but it felt just enough underdone that I wished it was cooked a bit longer. Everyone has a preference right? Do you like your fiction rare, medium, or well done? Raw is unevenly heated, chewy and unappealing but overdone is hard and dry, unpalatable.

Run with me here – the analogy sorta works.

Figuring out the answer is difficult. Hard labor is required to grasp the subtleties. I easily understand how authors think they’re ready to dish up and put it on the table when it’s not quite sautéed to taste.

How do you tell when you’re done? There’s no oven timer that dings and makes you realize, “ah, my story is cooked!”

Do you have a barometer for evaluating when your writing is good enough that someone might actually like to read it? If so, hand over the ideas. I’m sick of the merry-go-round of suggestions that all conflict with one another…and these are recommendations coming from people who are supposed to be savvy in the industry. I have no idea who to believe or what has real merit.

Getting caught up in a story so much that I have to turn the page and discover what happens next is a good sign, but I still read plenty of mediocre books because I like something. Forgettable plots spontaneously re-spawn like video game heroes. Strong characters, unique settings, great atmosphere – all of these can carry me past poor writing and shaky structure and flawed plots. The tricky part seems to be finding and fixing the pitfalls in your entre before the dinner guests arrive.

Occasionally I pick up a story I haven’t worked on recently and read, forgetting that I wrote it and am entertained. I know. Completely self-gratuitous and egocentric. But if I enjoy the result perhaps someone else might too. Of course there’s always that little question of – maybe I just love my characters so unreasonably that they totally suck and I just don’t care and believe they’re awesome even in the harsh light of are-you-a-complete-idiot sideways eye-roll from polite beta-readers.

I’m speaking hypothetically of course. *whistling*

Then there’s the joy-kill camp on the other side of the river that suggests if you laugh at your own humor, enjoy your own characters, are intrigued by your own plots – then you aren’t capable of seeing past your own myopic POV. These are the folks who drop by just to confirm your writing sucks and everyone hates you. The ambassador of that especially encouraging crowd has been visiting me lately. Cue the melancholy music.

So brilliant peeps, what’s the secret? Fill me in because I’m obviously not getting it – or I’m associating with the wrong crowd. What temperature is your oven dialed to? Do you drag out the BBQ, get the grill heated up, or start a bonfire in preparation for cooking a plot? When do you know it’s done?

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  1. #1 by Traci Kenworth on April 21, 2012 - 6:42 am

    For me, it’s when I know there’s nothing else I could possibly do to the story to make it better. That’s not to say if an agent or editor asks for revisions I wouldn’t be up to that, it’s just that when I feel the story’s gone as far as I can take it, I let go.

    • #2 by Leslie on April 21, 2012 - 6:12 pm

      That makes perfect sense to me. The challenge is dotting the last”i” and crossing the last “t” and setting is aside…without picking it up again weeks or months later and making another pass. It’s the letting go part I’m struggling with. 😉

  2. #3 by Red Tash on April 21, 2012 - 9:08 am

    I’m not sure if this got cut off on Triberr, or maybe I just like hearing my own voice…but I’m C&Ping here, either way:

    Red Tash
    Excellent points. I think the answer is that you start small, submit your work for feedback from your intended audience, and deal with what feedback you get. If you feel like you’ve expressed yourself as best you possibly can, and you’re not taking a half-baked approach to what you’re serving, then over time you can judge how well you’re hitting the mark by whether or not people get it, like it, etc.

    When I was a journalist, I had editors for every assignment. Rarely did I get a clarification question from them. That was a point of pride, to me. Honestly, I think fiction is much more challenging, because we are often working in worlds that are 100% foreign to the reader. In my case, we’re talking outer space, monster headspace, time travel, and Bloomington, IN. Then there’s my current WIP, in the fairy realm…so, yeah. Not at all the same as a full-color photo-illustrated article about the local area foreign exchange students. I think even the phone interview I did with a convicted murderer was easier than writing and self-editing fiction. No, I’m SURE it was.

    Maybe it would be helpful for more writers to cut their teeth in journalism, or at least in blogging. And when I say blogging, I mean some sort of blogging community where it’s not just “Oh, I went to the store and ate some cheese today.” Perhaps the kind of blogging where there’s a common social currency. “Game of Thrones Blogring,” if blogrings exist anymore (I don’t know).

    Then, you find an audience with a common interest, and they’ll totally call you out if you mischaracterized Jon Snow (or God forbid, misspelled Westoros or whatever). And little by little, you’ll find out if you’re doing good writing or not. And that’ll give you a better idea of how good you “cook.”

    Come to think of it, I think Wattpad may be working as a fiction version of that sort of thing right now. But I’m not sure it drives the reader comments you’d want.

    (And by the use of “you” in all the above, I really mean “one,” not necessarily you, personally. Your writing seems pretty good to me!)

    • #4 by Bridgette Booth on April 21, 2012 - 11:37 am

      I left a comment through Triberr and I wondered if it showed up here and there or only on Triberr.

      I’m really confused with triberr lately. Mind mush.

      • #5 by Leslie on April 21, 2012 - 6:23 pm

        Hey Bridgette. I appreciate the comment in Triberr – if it weren’t for the e-mail notification I wouldn’t know anyone had done that. For some reason it doesn’t post the comments here (I think it should). I sent an e-mail to Dino to ask if there’s something I should do. Anyhow, appreciate your efforts on BOTH fronts.

        Hope the negative comments don’t get you down. I had a recent similar experience where two readers gave feedback that was in direct contradiction about the story…it’s hard to know which might be correct. I loved the graphic too. Keep in good cheer! Bad reviews are only bad opinions and good reviews are golden truths.

    • #6 by Leslie on April 21, 2012 - 6:19 pm

      Thanks for leaving the comment here – the one from Triberr didn’t cross-post – or whatever they call it. You have so many good suggestions. Journalism must churn out a lot of frustrated fiction writers because I feel like I missed a prerequisite or something. Does that mean I have to go back to school? Again?

      I laughed about the “I went to the store and ate some cheese today”. There is something about relaying real-world events and non-fiction setting that is simpler. For me it stems from understanding how well I’ve gotten the idea across or how carefully I’ve developed the impression or scenery but when it comes to made-up nonsense inside my head (which is not always a place of sunshine and flowers), slippery slope. I’m beginning to feel like some works (novels, stories, or what-have-yous), just have to end. It may not be the best thing I’ve ever written but at least once it’s done I can move on to the next project and maybe it will be better for the experience. Of course I still want to publish my practice stuff and that’s probably a bad idea! 😉

      Thanks for visiting and playing the what-if game!

  3. #7 by corajramos on April 21, 2012 - 3:38 pm

    Great analogy. I know when it’s done after tinkering and tinkering with it, then I get that satisfied feeling washing over me. Sad to say, sometimes that feeling doesn’t come (talking blog posts here) and I have to put it out as best as I can get it.

    • #8 by Leslie on April 21, 2012 - 6:27 pm

      Whew! I haven’t experienced that wash of satisfaction. That must mean I’m still raw. Darn it! I want to be cooked, already! There are some things that no matter what I tweak or how much I tinker just simply reach the point that they need to be sent down the river. Many my metaphors are getting mixed and messy. Evaluating a work though is tough and I hate to send things out prematurely but sometimes it seems like I have to in order to move on to something new. Oh well, I guess that helps an intern somewhere learn how to move the slush pile!

  4. #9 by Alica on April 22, 2012 - 8:04 am

    My editor finally told me to stop messing with it and send my book out into the world. I’ve only done the one so far, so well see if this happens with the second one too.

    • #10 by Leslie on April 22, 2012 - 11:10 am

      I think this is the reality. I need to just tell myself done-is-done and boot it out the door, see where it lands, and move on. If the reaction is “meh” then I guess that tells me something. 😉

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