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Meanwhile, Back at Square One

Zagotta, The Orange Umbrella 22x30 [1]The first two novels I wrote appeared in serial form in a biweekly magazine, back around the turn of the century, when I basically bet that I could stay one step ahead of a pretty relentless deadline and/or still be churning out words when the fledgling magazine went belly up. I’ve always had a huge fondness for those novels, not so much for the content, but for the exhilaration of meeting that deadline, and for the audacity of thinking I could do so.

“Here are these training wheels, bub – now go hit the speedway.”

One of the novels I later published under the Bafflegab Books imprint and it continues to sell steady ones of copies to this day. The other remained an unexploited resource which, recently finding myself temporarily between projects, I took into my head to resurrect, edit, and fling unto the world. That was the plan. Let me tell you why it didn’t work out.

The novel kinda sucked.

Well, not completely. But it sure was an immature work, the work of a novelist just learning his craft, and it had all the flaws that such novels often have: weak structure; meandering storyline; cardboard characters; cliché thoughts and phrases; unsatisfying resolve. Eager though I was to add it to the Bafflegab backlist, I just constantly found myself thinking, “Well, that doesn’t work,” and, “Gee, I’d never let me get away with that now,” and, ultimately, “Crap, I can’t use this at all.” To pawn it off as a new work, or even a resurrected old one, wouldn’t reflect well on my brand. My fans, such as they are, would inevitably find themselves asking, “Jeez, JV, what were you thinking and/or smoking; what are you thinking and/or smoking now?”

So back into the trunk went this cherished child. And back to square one went its peeved and peevish parent. Now I was no longer between projects, I was without projects, and that’s not a happy place for a guy like me to be. It makes me very nervous not to know what I’m going to be writing next.

It makes me want to throw up in my mouth.

And it makes me wonder, not for the first time or even the tenth or hundredth time, what’s the difference between good writing and bad writing? In such circumstances, I return to certain touchstones – answers I really trust – including one evergreen set of guidelines laid out not by a writer but by an artist, the estimable painter, teacher and art-show jurist Donna Zagotta, who clearly and deftly defines the keystones of the creative experience, not just for artists but for writers and for anyone.

Here’s what Donna has to say:

“As far as the guidelines that I use when I’m jurying, they are the same standards I set for myself in my own work. Here are some of the things I look for:

– Work that is personal, unique, creative, and imaginative.

– Work that contains a personal visual language.

– Work that is well put together and creatively designed.

– Work that is fully resolved and contains a complete statement.

– Work that communicates something meaningful, whether a subject is present or not.

– Work that contains beauty. Not beauty for pretty’s sake, but the kind of beauty that results when the artist is authentically engaged with process, design, subject, and meaning.

– Most of all, I look for work that contains the artist’s passion.”

Using this as a checklist for my own work, I’m able to see, clearly and objectively, that, yep, that early effort of mine really did kind of suck. Fortunately, I can measure my later works against the same standards and conclude, “Hey, yeah, not so bad.” That’s called growth, campers, and as a writer I sometimes think that growth is the best I can really hope for in the end.

But what makes Donna’s checklist so useful is how it sets me free from the whole this sucks paradigm in the first place. It takes the subjective and renders it objective. It helps me gauge how much, exactly, I do or do not suck.

Consider something like, “work that is fully resolved and contains a complete statement.” Now that’s a measuring stick that actually measures something. Viewing my early novel through this lens, I can say, “Well, I don’t see a full resolution or a complete statement in this work, so by those standards it’s not what it needs to be.” Not only does this help me see my work more accurately and precisely, it removes a certain emotional burden. It’s not that the work sucks or I suck, really, it’s just that – in this specific way – it’s not where it needs to be.

Using guidelines like Donna’s (or any other ones I might invent, borrow or steal), I can thus bring a necessary measure of objectivity to my own work. I can decide whether something is worth doing, and whether the thing I’m doing is doing what I want it to do. This wasn’t an issue for me back when I wrote my first novels. I was just trying to learn my craft. I knew that. I also knew how fortunate I was to have found a nice magazine to pay me while I learned. But I’m playing for higher stakes now. I know what (my) quality work looks like, and if I’m clear-eyed and honest with myself, I must commit myself to accepting nothing less.

So now – *sigh* – I’m back at square one, framing my next novel and facing the daunting question of whether it’s worth my time, energy, passion and power to execute. I don’t know what this new novel will be, but thanks to Donna Zagotta, I know what it should be – and must be, if it is to be executed at all.

Take another look at Donna’s guidelines. View your own work through the filter of them. Move past the binary value judgment of this rules/this sucks and ask yourself whether your work – objectively, honestly – passes her tests. If it does, great. If it doesn’t, well, you know where your next challenges lie.

So how do you deal with square one? How do you determine whether you’re “digging a hole in the right place,” and how do you evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of that beautiful hole? What other resources do you draw upon when it’s nothing but you and the blank page and you, frankly, don’t know where to turn next?

About John Vorhaus [2]

John Vorhaus has written seven novels, including Lucy in the Sky, The California Roll, The Albuquerque Turkey and The Texas Twist, plus the Killer Poker series and (with Annie Duke) Decide to Play Great Poker. His books on writing include The Comic Toolbox, How to Write Good and Creativity Rules!