Monday, January 30, 2006

The Measure of Success

Don't measure yourself by what you have accomplished,
but by what you should have accomplished with your ability.
--John Wooden

Yesterday, I read that "It's impossible to objectively discern quality. All we have to do so is popularity and financial success."

I disagree. If you buy into that, then everything that sells in volumes must be good, and whatever doesn't must be bad.

The reality is that there are some elements of writing that are down to taste. But there are also elements that are subject to evaluation, like the grammar, the technicalities of writing, even the way a story is told.

I evaluate short story submissions for a magazine and I have an elaborate system of grading. Every story gets marked with a point value in each of the following categories:

~ Hook
Did it grab me, get my attention, draw me in?
~ Grammar
Are there lots of typos or very few mistakes? This shows me how seriously the writer takes their work.
~ Characterization
Are the people believable? Do I want to spend time with them? This doesn't mean are they good or right - I love Dennis Milne - but are they coming through in a way that I want to stay with them to see what happens?
~ Concept
Is it original, or has this been done a zillion times before?
~ Writing
Overall, is it strong? Are there POV problems, like 1st to 3rd person switches? Is the voice consistent?
~ Ending
Is it clear, understandable? Does it satisfy the points raised in the story? This doesn't mean every problem needs to be solved, but if not, I hope I understand why it can't be solved. I need a sense of closure for a short story.

Beyond that, there's a degree of subjectivity. If two stories are tied even for scores and it's down to me to decide, it'll end up being the one I like better. That's where the taste comes in.

Every day, writers can face the temptation to do 'what sells' instead of what speaks to them. But real writers, writers serious about their craft and their vision, are going to follow what's in their heart. They're going to strive to improve their technical writing, as well as their storytelling and character development. They're going to work harder to make sure they deliver to their faithful readers, and feel they've put out a story they can hold their head high over, because they've given it their all.

I'm not going to start writing conspiracy theories about the geneology of Christ because that's selling today. Nor am I going to write about boy wizards. There are plenty who will copy what is selling, try to cash in on a sure thing and make a buck on the coattails of others.

But the real artists are the ones who write what they love to write, regardless of the current trends. Sometimes that means waiting to taste success. Ian Rankin was ten books into the Rebus series before fame and fortune. Imagine if he'd been saying before that, "I have to ditch this because it isn't selling enough."

Sales are not necessarily indicators of quality, or talent, or what is good. They may be nothing more than an indicator that somehow, some company was persuaded to drop a bundle on promoting this clunker, for whatever reason.

A friend with Hollywood ties told me that even box office flops make more money than the average book will ever bring in in its shelf-life. And I know from screenwriting guides that you can make a pile of cash just getting your screenplay optioned - not even necessarily made into a film. If we're judging by money then, all the truly talented must be screenwriters and the hacks, the wannabe writers, are sticking with books.

Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is
the key to success. If you love what you are
doing, you will be successful.

- Albert Schweitzer

Amen to that!

And now, to lighten the mood for Boy Kim:

1. New Rule: Stop giving me that pop-up ad for! There's a
reason you don't talk to people for 25 years. Because you don't particularly
like them! Besides, I already know what the captain of the football team is
doing these days: mowing my lawn.

2. New Rule: Don't eat anything that's served to you out a window unless
you're a seagull. People are acting all shocked that a human finger was
found in a bowl of Wendy's chili. Hey, it cost less than a dollar. What did
you expect it to contain, trout?

3. New Rule: Stop saying that teenage boys who have sex with their hot,
blonde teachers are permanently damaged. I have a better description for
these kids: lucky bastards.

4. New Rule: Deleted. Sorry. I thought this one might offend people.

5. New Rule: Ladies, leave your eyebrows alone. Here's how much men care
about your eyebrows: do you have two of them? Okay, we're done.

6. New Rule: There's no such thing as flavored water. There's a whole aisle
of this crap at the supermarket - water, but without that watery taste.
Sorry, but flavored water is called a soft drink. You want flavored water?
Pour some scotch over ice and let it melt. That's your flavored water.

7. New Rule: Stop f***ing with old people. Target is introducing a
redesigned pill bottle that's square, with a bigger label. And the top is
now the bottom. And by the time grandpa figures out how to open it, his ass
will be in the morgue. Congratulations, Target, you just solved the Social
Security crisis.

8. New Rule: The more complicated the Starbucks order, the bigger the
asshole. If you walk into a Starbucks and order a "decaf grande half-soy,
half-low fat, iced vanilla, double-shot, gingerbread cappuccino, extra dry,
light ice, with one Sweet-n'-Low and one NutraSweet," ooh, you're a huge

9. New Rule: I'm not the cashier! By the time I look up from sliding my
card, entering my PIN number, pressing "Enter," verifying the amount,
deciding, no, I don't want cash back, and pressing "Enter" again, the kid
who is supposed to be ringing me up is standing there eating my Almond Joy.

10. New Rule: Just because your tattoo has Chinese characters in it doesn't
make you spiritual. It's right above the crack of your ass. And it
translates to "beef with broccoli." The last time you did anything
spiritual, you were praying to God you weren't pregnant. You're not
spiritual. You're just high.

11. New Rule: Competitive eating isn't a sport. It's one of the seven deadly
sins. ESPN recently televised the US Open of Competitive Eating, because
watching those athletes at the poker table was just too damned exciting.
What's next, competitive farting? Oh wait. They're already doing that. It's
called "The Howard Stern Show."

12. New Rule: I don't need a bigger mega M&M. If I'm extra hungry for M&Ms,
I'll go nuts and eat two.

13. New Rule: If you're going to insist on making movies based on crappy,
old television shows, then you have to give everyone in the Cineplex a
remote so we can see what's playing on the other screens. Let's remember the
reason something was a television show in the first place is that the idea
wasn't good enough to be a movie.

14. New Rule: No more gift registries. You know, it used to be just for
weddings. Now it's for babies and new homes and graduations from rehab.
Picking out the stuff you want and having other people buy it for you isn't
gift giving, it's the white people version of looting.

15. New Rule (and this one is long overdue): No more bathroom attendants.
After I zip up, some guy is offering me a towel and a mint like I just had
sex with George Michael. I can't even tell if he's supposed to be there, or
just some freak with a fetish. Don't want to be on your webcam, dude. I just
want to wash my hands.

16. New Rule: When I ask how old your toddler is, I don't need to know in
months. "27 Months." "He's two," will do just fine. He's not a cheese. And I
didn't really care in the first place.


R.J. Baker said...

Wow, good tidbits and then a rant that would make Dennis Miller proud, and not a sexual one in the lot. You disappoint me...ok, th teenage boy with the teacher and the george Michael ones were drive bys.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I was trying for the 'sexy angry' thing. Good thing you didn't make typos on 'tidbits' and leave out a few letters in the middle...

Nobody sent me sex jokes today. So I couldn't torment you with anything other than my mind.

Evil Kev said...

"It's impossible to objectively discern quality. All we have to do so is popularity and financial success."

It's easy to discern quality. If I like it, then it has quality.

Now back to my "Dukes of Hazzard" reruns...

Sandra Ruttan said...

Which means I have quality.

Though that doesn't necessarily mean I have taste...

R.J. Baker said...

Taste is in the, er, mouth of the beholder.

M. G. Tarquini said...

But the real artists are the ones who write what they love to write, regardless of the current trends.

So there's hope for BROTHERS? in some ill-defined tasteful future?

Trace said...

OH. My. GOD! I just laughed my freakin' ass off! Priceless. I needed this today.

Trace said...

I love the pic, Sandra. You're a cutie-pie.

Bernita said...

Loved this.
I don't love easy.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Thx Bernita - high praise indeed then!

Glad to provide a laugh, and apparently not because of my picture. Who'd've thunk it?

MG, yes there's hope! You'll get there!

And RJ, if taste is all in the mouth, then (these comments removed by the Blogger moderator)

Boy Kim said...

You're a sweetie as always, young Sandra.

I have to take you to task about #7 though. When you get to a certain age, fucking with old people is your only option. Unless you're prepared to pay. Or are very VERY lucky.

Ok, so I just read the rest of #7 for the first time. Sorry for misinterpretating. Like that's never happened before.

Sandra Ruttan said...

A sweetie or taste sweet?

Some day, I suppose I'll only get to fuck with old people too. Maybe there is still hope for you. (tee hee)

Boy Kim said...

Tee hee indeed!

And for now, I'll say you're a sweetie.

You are willing to dress up in a sheep's costume, aren't you?

Sandra Ruttan said...

You're baaaa-ad.

(I can't believe I'm posting this)

Boy Kim said...

You know what? Neither can I. Would you like me to crawl back under my stone?

Sandra Ruttan said...

Never in a million years! On days that redefine feeling blue, you bring a smile to my face. Thx.

Erik Ivan James said...

Sandra, you're much more entertaining than my placemat:)

Dana Y. T. Lin said...

HAHahaha! You're crazy, Sandra! And hey - I LOVE competitive eating, just ask MG, I'm writing about it!

Sandra Ruttan said...

How exactly is that categorized? Most refined? Least dignified? Stuffs mouth like a pig? Who knew you could ingest food through your nose?

Sandra Ruttan said...

And erik, then I guess I met a certain someone's standard for writing. For I have entertained, and done it without the grass skirt, lei and pole!

Anonymous said...

LOL on number 10. Now I know why those folks gets heckled in China town!!

R.J. Baker said...

Did I hear lay?

R.J. Baker said...

And pole?

Sandra Ruttan said...

Well, I was thinking that if my job is only to entertain, a lei, a pole and a grass skirt would be about all the gimmicks I'd need. The rest is just (this comment deleted by Blogger moderator).

R.J. Baker said...

Boy you have allot of comments deleted by the Blogger moderator...what's up with that?

Sandra Ruttan said...

I guess I'm supposed to tone down the suggestive nature of my comments?

Guess I'll have to whisper this one in your ear. Or the Blogger moderator will come spank me.

R.J. Baker said...

Whisper louder...

Mark Pettus said...


Margaret Atwood, John Updike, Faulkner... any of these writers are examples of objective quality. Remember Silas Marner? How about The Old Man and the Sea?

Whoever wrote that sentence was probably talking about themselves, and was probably right.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Mark, you can find it on Lee Goldberg's blog from yesterday. JA Konrath was the one who said it.

I'll let you form your own opinion about what he meant.

RJ, mffs pstts blshpa

R.J. Baker said...

Is that pig Latin?

Sandra Ruttan said...


doc said...

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Sandra Ruttan said...

Thanks doc. I bet everyone asks you what's up...