"Quality is never an accident. It is always the result of intelligent effort."
Last week, I suggested that there is no good writing; or rather, that “good” is actually a heaping handful of different flavored candies. I like peppermint. You like caramel.
Whenever the question of “good” comes up, the inevitable, easily anticipated “it’s all subjective” line will soon to follow, just like a trailer follows a semi-truck.
Here’s an analogy: some people have said, “Sex is like pizza; even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.”
That sounds reasonable on the surface. Maybe, but what if you're in prison? Is prison pizza still pretty good? That’s dark, I know. Suddenly, we’re speaking to a very quiet room.
There certainly is a lot of taste and personality involved in what one reader likes versus what another reader likes. But, I can’t help that notice some things are liked more and some things are liked less, which makes me wonder if some evaluation might exist, despite all the hormone-ish subjectivity.
And experts evaluate quality in film and book all the time. Are they consistent, or merely reporting through a filter of their own taste buds?
Here are a few ideas. These are considerations, not yardsticks. They’re intended for me, as a writer, to evaluate my work with something alongside of taste and enjoyment.
Authorial Intent and Relative Comparison—We could call it “fitness of purpose.” An author may just aim for a novel of a specific flavor: fun, emotional, philosophical, idea-driven, zombies, post-apocalyptic-mole-folk, or what-have-you. If we have a notion of what the author intended (and that can be a big question in itself), we can compare it to other novels of a type to see how it matches up. Yep. that is hard when we’ve roamed far beyond our own flavor profile.
Surprise, Originality, Insights—Aside from just comparing reactions and similar titles, we can consider how what new elements were brought into the chosen arena, whether it’s elements of fun, emotion, or philosophy. I think a zombie novel with new ideas, emotions, action, and arguments is going to be much better to read than one that rehashes the same old stuff we’ve seen. (Consider the film Maggie for an example of a new approach to a zombie film. It’s got great emotion and philosophy, but it lacked in action, so comes off weak as a zombie flick.)
Focus and Relevance—A story is composed of characters and incidents (the events of the story). Some of those elements will relate directly to, and speak of, the authorial intent of the work. Some will be random elements that either weren’t related or failed to support the core material the way the author wanted. The more unrelated material, the less focused it is on the kind of story the author intended. (Or the author intended something we just don’t grasp, which is a bag of mixed nuts. Again, intent is a viper here.)
Execution—This is a big ball of wax, and those other examples run alongside of execution again. If a work excelled in all of the above areas, but still feature docile character arcs, flat characters, sparse incidents, bloated scene construction, meandering and uninspiring language, etc. Well, it’s still something we can examine and criticize.
These aren’t listed for a way to criticize other works, though they might serve as the beginning of that too. Instead, they’re the ideas I consider when I evaluate my own work, to see if I have a worth project set in front of me or not. And that’s why intent is such a viper. In other works, it can be a big black pit. But I know at some point what my intent is for my own work.
What I don’t do is quibble over the worthiness, the nobility, of the intent. I see no need to criticize a story that only wants to be a good time, or that only wants to illustrate a philosophical idea, or only wants to explore an idea.
Salability and Market Appeal? Well, those just aren’t my forte, so I don’t give them much thought. It’s a fair ball for any writer who does care, though.
Writer of speculative fiction. Current work in progress is an untitled dark fantasy novella.