Developing A Smell-O-Meter: How Do You Tell If What You’ve Written Is Good?

I’m participating in an interesting discussion on Facebook today about  . . . you guessed it! Developing A Smell-O-Meter: How Do You Tell If What You’ve Written Is Good? It’s a topic I’ve been considering a lot now that my books are released and feedback is trickling back to me. I always knew A Spark of Heavenly Fire was good – even when it was bad, I knew it was good. I can’t tell you how I know – probably that smell-o-meter. Or perhaps an ingrained feeling for the flow of a story. That belief kept me going through multiple rewrites and hundreds of rejections. It’s nice to know that agents and publishers do not know what individual readers like. Today, Malcolm R. Campbell, author of The Sun Singer, left me a message on my facebook wall: I just finished reading A SPARK OF HEAVENLY FIRE. When I stay up past my bedtime multiple nights in a row just to read a little bit more, I know I’ve found a winner of a book. Darned good, Pat.

On the other hand, I never got a sense of More Deaths Than One. Even after all the rewrites, it just didn’t seem to be as good as I wanted it to be. I entered it into a contest on eighteen months ago, where the first chapter was posted for people to vote on. Lazarus Barnhill, author of The Mecine People and Lacey Took a Holiday, was impressed with that first chapter of More Deaths Than One, and he eventually became one of the book’s first readers. When he finished it, I asked if he was disappointed in the book. He said no and gave a little laugh. When I finally got up the nerve to ask why the laugh, and he said, “I laughed because anyone who knows anything about writing would know how good it is.”

So, apparently my smell-o-meter works only half the time.

As for telling if sentences, words, paragraphs, scenes are any good, it’s mostly a matter of reading them, changing a word, reading them again, changing another word until the piece flows. If the words flow and if the story flows (and if  the story is worth telling), you don’t need a smell-o-meter. It will be good.

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5 Responses to “Developing A Smell-O-Meter: How Do You Tell If What You’ve Written Is Good?”

  1. otherlisa Says:

    Heh. My Smell-O-Meter only works on other peoples’ books!

  2. Suzanne Says:

    I’m afraid my smell-o-meter works much better on other people’s books as well. Maybe that’s why I like critiquing so much and have had several people as me to mentor them in their writing.

  3. Scotti Cohn Says:

    I have to wonder if the terms “good” and “bad” are all that useful when evaluating the creative arts, including writing. I mean, you can look at the work from a “technical” standpoint and judge whether it is “well written.” But that doesn’t necessarily translate into “good” (for example, an editor or agent might say — “This is very well written” or “You write well” BUT…)

    That said, I have to say that I felt confident from the start that One Wolf Howls (my picture book) was good. I have not felt that strongly about a picture book manuscript of mine either before or since. I keep waiting and hoping it will happen again.

  4. Helen Says:

    I too felt confident right from the very first thought that the novel I am writing is good. The feed back I have had so far from a wide variety of people has been positive. As I plough on with the writing I remain confident that this good.

    I guess for me a good book captures my imagination. The writer is able to write in a way that makes me feel I am part of the story they are telling rather than on the outside looking in.

    I still consider myself very much a novice in the writing world, but I think sometimes you just know deep in your gut that you are on to a winner. The only problem is how you get it out!

  5. June Says:

    Having only written one novel, I don’t have a lot of experience with my smell-o-meter. I have had good feedback from readers I chose to critique my book. I think I am better at this point evaluating other writers than my own.

    But I do feel good about what I have written and since it is being edited by Second Wind Publishing as we speak, I guess time will tell.

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