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When I swam in high school and college, we sometimes did distances where we would wait until the coach whistled to signal a change in stroke or speed.  I remember swimming while listening, convinced over and over again that I might have heard a whistle until the real whistle sounded, which was unmistakable.  Even though the real whistle couldn't be missed and couldn't be mistaken for anything else, the next time we did that kind of swim I found myself thinking, "Was that a whistle?  Did I just hear a whistle?"

When I'm reading slush, the same thing happens.  I'll read a story that's pretty competent, and I'll wonder if it's the real deal and I should put it in the hold folder.  I'll think that over and over again through multiple manuscripts until I actually read a story that is the real deal, one that makes me sit up and pay attention by the time I've reached the middle of the second page or so (and often even in the first paragraph).  When I read one like that, I wonder how I possibly could have considered the earlier ones.  The really good stuff is clearly and unmistakably the real deal.  Still, if I haven't seen one in a while I'll start to think that maybe the manuscript I'm reading now is truly good and I'm just missing it, as if I'm suffering from a sudden onset of editorial tone deafness, and that the story I'm considering at the moment would knock the socks off of anyone else who would be reading it except for me at that second.

It's weird when I doubt my understanding of what is good.  Thank goodness that every once in a while a manuscript is so clearly better than the rest that it resets my quality meters, and I can go on with confidence.

Of course, and it should go without saying, I have the exact same problem with my own writing.  Sometimes I can tell when I've plugged into a solid, righteous line of words, but much of the time I waver between thinking that what I'm trying to get onto the page is pure genius, or it is not only boring, but also banal, naive and poorly conceived.  The real quandary with my own stuff is that I'm never a particularly good judge of when it is truly working.  Thank goodness I've learned some self-editing techniques.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 26th, 2007 06:51 pm (UTC)
Most writers tend to be poor judges of their own work. Despite my overblown ego even I am often unable to judge my work properly; I believe most writers experience the same problem.

I've reached a point in my writing career where I know if something I've written is competent...but a good story has to have more than "competence" going for it, imo. That's when a second reader comes in handy.

I have a good writing group that critiques my work dispassionately and fairly. I'm pretty lucky in that regard....
Aug. 26th, 2007 06:56 pm (UTC)
Jim, that's so true about the story reading! Sometimes reading slush, I'll come across that "phantom whistle" story, and I'll go "Hmmm," and set it aside. But I won't read a "real whistle" story during that sitting. And I'll forget about the phantom story, and continue reading and putting on those "really get you" stories on the pile. Then I come back to the hold pile a long time later, and go through and read everything there together, and I wonder "What the heck was I thinking with THAT story?"
Aug. 26th, 2007 07:35 pm (UTC)
Yes, that's exactly how reading slush feels. What a great analogy.
Aug. 27th, 2007 11:28 pm (UTC)
doubting your own word is normal. I have the "whistle" problem when it comes to critique groups. I'll check and double check to make sure I can stand behind my crit, then I'll read other people's responses and wonder if I just missed something in the story.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )