When is it Good Enough?

March 15th, 2013

Judging from the response to the job advertisement for his Majesty’s Inquisition, there is some interest in putting me to the question, and I see several inquiries that already have my brain a-stewing.  Probably it’ll take me some time to get to them, but before I do, let us begin this interrogation with the question that started it…

Laura asks:

When did you know an idea was good enough to pursue and when you started writing, at what point did you realize your novel was good enough to go public?

Good enough, good enough, when is it good enough?  I think the quick answer to this is that every writer worth their salt always thinks their writing is the best thing evah.  And that every writer worth their salt always thinks their writing is worthless shit.

The task of writing a novel is huge, complex and challenging far beyond any writing that most people will ever take on.  When I sat down to write The First Law the longest thing I’d written before was my undergraduate dissertation.  The First Law is some 50 times longer.  There’s a certain arrogance required to think, ‘yeah, I’m going to have a go at that.’  There’s also a certain arrogance required to expect you can grip the attention of a fickle reader through the awesome power of you words alone, and to keep them entertained for hours, days, weeks at a stretch, to make them want to expend their valuable free time listening to you rather than watching X-Factor, or playing with their kids or, I don’t know, moaning about the ending of Mass Effect on the internet.  You’ve got to think you’re one pretty goddamn entertaining motherfucker to pull that off, right?  If you didn’t feel pretty damn clever about what you were doing you’d never get past page 1.  You’d never deserve to get past page 1.  If you don’t love your work, how can you expect anyone else to be even mildly entertained by it?

A writer has to have confidence.  So that when someone says, ‘I didn’t like this book much,’ you can push past the agonising pain in your heart that you think will make you die and say, ‘I don’t care.  Other people will love it.  And they’ll love my next thing even more.  Because I’m great.’  Confidence gives you the drive to continue, throw time and energy down a well, even though the task is huge and the odds of any level of success rather tiny.

But confidence alone is not enough.  Indeed confidence alone is fatal.  You have to have doubt as well.  You need a little voice inside your head always asking, is it possible that this incredibly elaborate, pompous and overblown scene you just wrote is not actually the best scene evah written by humanity, but could it, in fact, actually be quite bad?

You need doubt so that when someone says, ‘I didn’t like this book much,’ you can push past the agonising pain in your heart that you think will make you die and ask yourself, ‘have they got a point?  what can I learn from this?’  Because doubts lead to questions, and self-analysis, and fine-tuning, and it is the long pressure of refinement and reviewing and consideration and re-writing that crushes the crap down into diamonds.  Even the most apparently fluid and effortless writers achieve that sense of effortlessness through a vast amount of effort.  A lot of time and energy spent honing the craft in general, a lot of time and energy spent reviewing individual pieces of writing.

Confidence and doubt, therefore, are the bipolar yin and yang of the writerly life.  The simultaneous presence of these two powerful forces in great abundance may be what makes some writers, AHEM, kind of difficult to be around on occasion.  And an imbalance in the force?  BIG problem.  Too much confidence?  Self-important dreck.  Too much doubt?  Zero progress.

Vital in keeping these twin extremes of towering self-confidence and cringing self-hatred in some kind of productive balance, therefore, are the opinions of people outside your own head.  Yes, they do exist, and time spent in their company is a positive thing for a writer.  Do you have people you can trust?  And I don’t mean trust to hug you and tell you how great you are and plump up another cushion, though that’s all well and good in its place.  I mean someone you can trust to kick you in the face when you need it.  Right in the face.  However clever you are, you won’t have thought of everything.  You won’t believe the things you haven’t thought of until they’re pointed out to you.  Struggling with the details, it’s easy to get way too close to what you’re doing, and miss the forest for the trees.  Taking on someone else’s viewpoint only broadens your own.  The opinions of trusted readers, or indeed a professional editor, are worth their weight in gold to a writer.  Although opinions don’t weigh anything.  Exactly the sort of sloppy metaphor a good reader would kick you in the face for using.

To haul the runaway train of my pontificating back to the question – I’m not a huge believer in ideas alone.  Ideas are like assholes, everyone’s got at least one, and I personally like well-used, tried and tested second-hand ideas with a nice patina of age and love.  It’s the execution that makes a great book, the insanely complex interaction of voice, style, plot, pacing, characters, dialogue, and everything else.  So I don’t know that an idea alone is ever worth pursuing.  When did I feel writing in a more general sense was worth pursuing, then?  Pretty much from the first few paragraphs I wrote, the second time I tried in my mid-twenties (I’d tried just after leaving university and it hadn’t really come to much).  Logen’s personality and manner of expression, his world-weary catchphrases, the nature of Glokta’s internal monologue, appeared straight away.  There was just something about the voices that emerged.  I started to become fascinated by how I could structure and pace a scene or a paragraph, exploring my own instincts for what worked and what didn’t.  I just enjoyed writing  and going over, editing, fine-tuning the writing right from the start.

But writing something you like and believing anyone else will like it are two very different things.  So when I had maybe 30,000 words I finally plucked up the nerve to show it to my family.  They are people to plump a cushion when it’s needed, for sure, but they can also swing a boot when it’s required, and between them they know a lot about writing in one way or another.  I was literally crapping my pants while they read it.  But when my mother turned to me and said, ‘you know, this isn’t nearly as bad as I was expecting,’ I knew I was onto something, and I started to get more methodical and planned the entire series out much more seriously.

When did I know it was good enough to go public?  I think right from around this time I knew writing was something I was going to continue to do as a serious hobby, if you like, hoping to perhaps get published at some point.  I had dreams of international mega-stardom, of course, but trying to be realistic (heh) I was really hoping just for enough supplementary income to make it worthwhile.  I certainly thought I was going to finish the first book and make some effort to get it published, see what happened.  So after two or three years of part-time work I finished the first book, took on a lot of comments and criticism from my family, made a lot of changes, and reached a point where I didn’t see immediate ways to improve it.

I don’t know that I necessarily felt it was ready, no book is ever perfect, or anywhere near, but I made a decision that it was about as good as I was going to make it at that point, further reviews were yielding rapidly diminishing returns, and it was time to see whether I could get any interest from a publisher before committing another three or four years of my life to this particular project at this particular time.  So I prepared an approach and started trying to find an agent, and picked up maybe half a dozen rejections over six months.  Which are crushing, of course, especially since you don’t necessarily get any feedback, just an anonymous no.  So immediately you begin to doubt.  Is it extremely uncommercial?  Is it too violent?  Too profane?  Too ambitious?  Too weird?  Does it start too slow?  Too fast?  Is there an uncertain tone teetering between humour and cynicism?  Is it just, not very good?  I think I’d maybe got a third of the way through a draft of Before They are Hanged and decided to try something simpler and tighter, wrote the first few chapters of something else, some of the ideas for which would later be absorbed into Best Served Cold.  Then I got the offer from Gollancz, and the rest, as they say, is history.  Well, actually, the rest was a year and a half of hard work on the manuscript before the book was even published, taking it apart and putting it back together with a new start in reaction to comments from my editor and others, but that’s another story…

Taking the question from the point of view of where I am now, a seasoned and consummate professional (ha) – how do you know a book’s finished, as it were?  Again, no book is ever the best it can be.  There are always big and small improvements that can be made, opinions that can be listened to and acted on, tinkerings, cuts and fine-tunings.  Clearly I’m a lot more experienced than I was (no, really) and I achieve a better result much more quickly (no, really), am much more economical and structured with my revision.  So when I finish a first draft there’s usually a lot of work to do to the start of the book, much less to the end, and I go through making the larger changes, re-writes, additions, and end up with a second draft that is pretty much complete and consistent.  Then there are a few rounds of revision focusing on different areas – characters, setting, voice, detail of language, and so on (click on the process tab in the categories bar and you’ll find a lot more discussion of exactly how I go about some of this stuff).  Revising a book is a bit like pouring cement.  When you first do it it’s all runny and you can mash it about with ease into new shapes.  Introduce a race of brain-eating aliens?  Bah, why not?  But with each round of review it stiffens and hardens a little bit more and becomes tougher to alter, until you need a rock drill to change one ‘this’ to a ‘that’.  In a sense the book is ready when I reach a point of bafflement and exhaustion with it, making the smallest changes seems like a vast and frightening effort, and I can no longer really tell whether I’m improving it or not.  I hate it – it’s ready!  Of course by then you’ve hopefully made massive strides since the first draft and, in any case, if you’ve timed it right production are kicking your door down for a manuscript, so however good it is is going to have to be good enough.

So, in summary – when is it good enough?  It’s always been the best there is.  And it’s never good enough…

Incidentally, let’s try and keep the comments here to the topic here.  Questions that arise from this directly, go ahead.  Any further general inquiries, report to the House of Questions…

Posted in advice, process, The Inquisition by Joe Abercrombie on March 15th, 2013.

18 comments so far

  • Truls Mehus says:

    Best motherfucking post I ever read about the humble replies from successful authors.

    Humble means, “the biggest task is simply writing it, everyone can do that”

    Successful means, “got enough cash to pretend to write a follow-up novel for a few years, before actually starting”

    As stated before, your characters are without a doubt the most perfectly flawed creations I ever read. And the way you write dialogue and thoughts keeps me in the gutter, still close to dying poor and lonely because, “I could never do that…”

    So.. Thanks!

  • Good question from Laura! It’s pretty much I had wanted to ask, but without actually getting round to adding it to your last post.

    Interesting reading as always, Joe. I’m always impressed by how coherent and informative these long blog posts of yours are. Especially since it must be still quite early in the morning there in the UK!

  • Related to Laura’s question, how did you know you were a good enough writer to even attempt such an ambitious series of novels? You say you need a certain arrogance in order to think you’ll be able to write something entertaining enough for others to read, but how did you discover that arrogance? I mean, if the longest thing you’d written before that was your undergraduate dissertation, it’s a huge leap to writing something like The First Law. Did you read other authors’ books and think “I could do better than that?” Or did you just know you could do it?

  • Chris H says:

    Greetings, Joe!

    I’ve been stalking/reading every post you’ve made on writing over the last few years. After I read The Blade Itself during my second/third year of undergrad I realized that the stuff I was writing was, well, actually publishable. Your tone, specifically how you write/wrote characters, was essentially exactly how I’d always wanted to do it. So yeah, big inspiration and all that.

    Last year I began writing my own novel. I’m now approaching the end of my first draft. I find that as I go on I develop more and more doubt.

    Well, that’s a lie. It’s a mix. I look at the characters on the page and, uh, they’re pretty awesome. Incredible, even. It takes all my effort to not just stop and reread my own shit over and over after writing a brilliant scene.

    But my doubt tends to pop up after realizing that my characters aren’t consistent. Nor is my plot. I’ve been at it for a year and a half now and while I have myself a nice outline… well, I find that I forget things. My tone has changed. Flaws have evolved. There isn’t a lot of consistency there. My fear, I suppose, is that when I finish the first draft and read the whole thing through I’m going to hate myself forever.

    So I guess my question is… did this happen to you? Did you find a lot of inconsistency in your own work? Was that just natural? Does it mean my novel is trash and I should hang myself?

    I mean, I realize this is why it is called a first draft, but still.

  • NobodyCris says:

    Thx u good sir u are the best

  • Frank Fitzpatrick says:

    It really means a lot when successful and respected authors (was that enough buttering up for you?) give such detailed responses to these questions.

    As an aspiring writer myself, it gives me great confidence knowing the even the great Abercrombie himself questions his own work and ability.

  • Graham says:

    Interesting paragraph on ideas. I read a forward written by Michael Marshall Smith to a Phillip K Dick book once where he described idea’s as the Hollywood special effects of fiction. It stands up that although ideas can wow like special effects, if you don’t have the characterisation etc you end up with something as entertaining as Battleship.

  • Panzagl says:

    “Ideas are like assholes…and I personally like well-used, tried and tested second-hand ideas with a nice patina of age and love.”


  • Typhon says:

    “But when my mother turned to me and said, ‘you know, this isn’t nearly as bad as I was expecting,’ ”
    LOL! Awesome mom. I’d never let my family read something to get their opinion. They’re WAY too “positive”. I just couldn’t trust them. Glad you have a mom whose opinion is worth listening to.

    I am curious as to how your publisher/editor effected your work? Do they suggest a change to some things and “strongly” suggest you change others? Or was it solely off what your family suggested?

  • Thile says:

    “I knew I was onto something, and I started to get more methodical and planned the entire series out much more seriously.”

    This may be too much to ask, and not sure how much you want to reveal what is “Behind the curtain” so to speak, but it kind of relates to my original question in the other thread I suppose? I can ask it a different way though – rather than how much do you actually have “planned”.


    I am guessing at some point you created the maps of the world and enough of the back story of the First Law world?

    When you are writing a novel do you go by the gardener or architect approach from there?

    You have probably answered that last one before …

  • Slogra says:

    I’m in the middle of writing a book myself. It’s probably terrible, but your post inspired me. Thanks Joe! And thanks to Laura for asking the original question. I’ll at least finish my worthless spittle and withhold final judgement until I do so.

  • AntMac says:

    You had your Mum read it?.


    lol. Mums rock, and Joes Mum helped give us The FIrst Law books, she rocks hard !. Thanks, Joes Mum!.

  • Pinkyfloyd says:

    So how do you know if you have it right? When you know you have something? As it stands I know I have something, my biggest issues is getting that something into writing. I get a few pages in, or at most a few chapters and then it goes cold and stalls. I know the idea is a valid book in progress. I know the starting scene and the ending scene as I have visualized it many times in my head with various changes that all either add or subtract from the book.

    How do you get the middle right?

  • Dogman'sBladders says:

    I didn’t know Joe was so particular about assholes, personally I find them best avoided altogether and certainly doubt they age like fine wine. Interesting read though.

  • bobbby says:

    So joe, would you like to share some changes your family, friends, editors, others suggested, but you ultimately thought these werent good enough, and did not add them in the final ?
    There would have been general suggestions “dont make it so violent/profane” etc. But were there any suggestions for any specific character or scene ?

    I suspect any changes suggested for Logen were vetoed by you…

  • Sword1001 says:

    I’d love to be a writer, but I can’t manage a simple post like this one without having to re-write it 5/6 times to make it good . . .

    Talking about the changes you made, I’m now expecting a blog post very soon detailing them . . . Not the artsy-farty stuff about pace, style, blah blah, but changes to the plot/characters themselves.

    For eg, was Logen originally going to be called Nigel? Was Jezal a ginger in early scripts? Was West his real father (“Jezal, I am you’re father”) . . . I vaguely remember you saying that a character in Red Country become much more central to the plot in your later revisions – I now assume you were refering to Temple?

  • […] you into an amazing writer. Read what Joe Abercrombie has to say about confidence and doubt here: https://joeabercrombie.com//2013/0…t-good-enough/ […]

  • […] following is an essay written by Joe for his blog in response to a question that is reflective of the issues this project deals with. Reposted here […]

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