Another reason writers should challenge themselves (aka, you may not be as rubbishy as you think)

I am having a drought year. By this time last year I’d won a competition and been shortlisted for three more. And I’d been commissioned to write a story broadcast on national radio.

This year. Nothing. Nada, zip and zilch. I have entered the same number of competitions and placed in absolutely none of them. All I have been commissioned to write is erotica, and so far, I haven’t even a pay cheque for those stories, and the complete dearth of good news could be depressing.

If I wasn’t challenging myself, and feeling certain that I’m a better writer than I was last year, I could easily hit the downward slope to writer’s block. It’s very tempting to use publication success and competition placements as validation of our writing skills, but when there are so many people out there who can write well, and so few opportunities to fill one of those slots, it’s a dangerous path to walk along.

So what forms of validation are okay? Well your own critical judgement is best – and if you aren’t sure about your critical judgement, then become a slush reader for a journal: most journals need readers who will wade through submissions and make preliminary judgements and nothing improves your critical acuity (and your literary cynicism) like a good wade through the slush.

Next after your judgement comes the judgement of readers you trust to be literate. So your family and friends do not count, unless they read the kind of thing you write, on a pretty constant basis. Peer group readers, from a workshop or an online critique group, are the kind of readers you want – but you have to remember that they are writers as well as readers and their judgement is going to be a bit tougher than that of the average reader. I am always surprised how generous my local reading group is, for example, compared to my writer’s group. Give them the same novel and the former can generally find value, while the latter can always find mistakes.

Professional judgement is good if you can get it – or afford it. You can pay for critique, but make sure you’re getting value for money. I have heard this year from two writers who appear to have had almost the same critique back from a national competition for which they paid extra to have feedback. Interesting, given that their writing styles are almost diametrically different. Agents are fantastic at telling it like it is, and if you don’t have an agent of your own, visit some of the excellent blogs on which agents give generic advice or critique synopses or queries.

Finally, there’s the judgement you get from an audience – go to an open mic, stand up and read your stuff. You’ll learn a lot, I promise you.

All these judgement resources help you to recognise that a dearth year is not necessarily evidence of bad writing. It might be, but then again, it might just not be your year, statistically speaking. At least, that’s what I’m hoping …