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Monthly Archives: September 2014

Bad Advice

Well, incomplete advice, perhaps.

There is, after all, a modicum of truth in it.

A member of my writing group recently attended a weekend conference headlined by a bestselling author, and asked about this piece of advice she heard:

“You don’t write for yourself, you write to be published.”

“What does that mean?” she asked me at our most recent meeting, and I asked the context in which it was given. She couldn’t recall. We both puzzled over it.

True: There comes a point when you clean up the typos and the grammar errors and the incoherent sentences, and make the story readable to others. Is that what the speaker meant?

True: There comes a time when you revise the story, rein in the rambling, cut out the extraneous, and ramp up the action, tension, emotion, or suspense. Sometimes, a story must be revised to fit a venue (magazine, anthology, etc.). Is that what the speaker meant?

True: If one wishes to gain an audience, one must tell a story others want to read, with intriguing premise, skillful execution, interesting characters, cohesive plot. Is that what the speaker meant?

What about the author’s part in the process? Is he or she merely a drone to serve the audience? What kind of control does the author have?

All of it.

None of it.

It’s the author’s story — the author’s time, talent, energy, ideas — but once it leaves the author’s hands and goes out into the world, it becomes the readers’ story, and they each bring their own ideas, experiences, understanding, beliefs.

But back to that advice:

“You don’t write for yourself, you write to be published.”

False: The story is, first and foremost, the author’s. He must love it first, and more than anyone else does, because he must create it, mold it, wield the pencil-shaped scalpel that cuts away the unnecessary even if it’s what he loves best.

If the author doesn’t love the work, no one else will. His disdain or boredom will bleed through every page.

False: Even if an author writes to specific guidelines for a contest, an anthology, a periodical, etc., the end result is hers. It may not win, it may not be selected or published, but perhaps there’s another venue better suited to the material. If she wants the story published, she may have to endure several rejections before it finds a home. That’s why she must love what she writes.

False: Just because a publisher is looking for a particular kind of story, or because a particular kind of story is a hot seller at the moment, does not mean that’s what must be written. There are seasons in publishing, cycles of interest among readers, but there’s always a group of cutting-edge writers. They point the way to the next big thing, whatever it may be.

Why and how do they become the cutting edge? Some are drummed up by marketing and critics and industry insiders who “just know”, but most simply write stories that interest them. Stories that are honest. Stories that speak to the mythic or the curious or the heroic. Stories that are strong on their own, without regard to someone else’s agenda or rules. Stories that are intriguing without bowing to expectations, whether those expectations be “give us something new, and discard the genre tropes” or “give us the tropes exactly as we want them”; whether those expectations be for a safe story or for a real story, safety be damned.

(There are discussions elsewhere about “safe” stories. Click here for a list of related articles at Speculative Faith. Look especially for the articles by Rebecca Luella Miller.)

The thinking that we must write only to publish is akin to saying that art is useless for its own sake. There is much I’ve written that will never be published, nor do I intend it to be. There are paintings and drawings that will never be seen, because they’re for the artist, not the world. Sculptures have been molded or chiseled then given away or destroyed, because they were not for the world to see.

The advice in question — that we don’t write for ourselves, but to be published — smacks of prostitution. What amazing things could we be doing if we weren’t selling ourselves short out on the boulevard?

My advice, such as it is:

Examine all advice.

Turn it over, wool it around, look at its origins and intent, test its truth and efficacy, and determine for yourself its worth.

Sometimes, it’s wise and we should follow it. Sometimes, it sounds wise but stifles creativity, growth, and momentum. Sometimes, there’s wisdom in the advice of many counselors. Sometimes, we stand alone.

tree on a rocky promontory in eastern Oregon (c2013, KB)

tree on a rocky promontory in eastern Oregon (c2013, KB)

 
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Posted by on September 26, 2014 in Books, Characters, Creativity, Editing, Journeys, Life, Stories, Writing

 

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Receiving Criticism and Humbling Pride

This weekend, I’ve been going back and forth with a younger writer whose feelings were offended when — in the normal course of a writers meeting last month, during the time we critiqued each other’s stories — I pointed out a grammatical error.

It’s as if I’ve declared her incompetent and attacked her storytelling.

Knowing I’m an editor, some writers have read my work and taken delight in pointing out errors real or perceived. There’s a battle for King of the Hill, and if their pride is pricked, they fight even harder to take down the one who did it. This writer has done the same, sending a list of potential grammatical errors from my soon-to-be-published novel.

I could respond in kind, and snipe or poke at her, try to one-up her, but that would feed the emotional drama and accomplish nothing.

I could simply refuse to engage, and try to be “above” it all. However, all that does is protect my pride and teach her nothing.

So, what do I do?

I thank her, discuss the various proper uses of a particular word, show how and why most examples she listed weren’t incorrect, concede another word might be better in three of the instances, and end with more thanks.

My pride was jabbed, but I knew what was coming as soon as I saw her annoyed expression and flushed cheeks, and if a person loses his ability to teach or be teachable, he loses his ability to grow and change. So, at the risk of her misunderstanding and anger, I have been unemotional but honest in my responses, hoping she sees my intentions for what they truly are: her betterment as a writer.

When we receive criticism, even if it’s covered in angst and ugliness, we can still sift it, searching even the nasty comments for any truth that might help us improve. Earlier this year, I received feedback that was delivered with a scolding and a superior tone that shut me down and made me uninterested in what the guy said. Later, after calming down and acknowledging there might be something of use, I re-read the comments and found two items that actually helped repair scenes. All the rest of the feedback? Tossed.

So, no, we don’t need to keep the crap, but fertilizer helps stuff grow. (wink and a smile)

 

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