If you want a true adventure in professional non-affirmation, write a book sometime and watch the world as you know it spin wildly off its axis. Aside from the astonishing number of rejections you’ll get from publishers and agents – astonishing! – people with whom you have virtually no association will trip over themselves to give you writing advice, mountains of it. Folks, my advice to you is to pay real close attention to the advisor’s actual street cred (Published? You like, not just appreciate, what they write?), and to protect what you know to be the heartbeat of your own story. As I should, I stew about writing – mine, yours, that of people alive and dead – and want to share. So, with the caveat that I’m not published and write commercial fiction probably not up your alley, I’m offering my two cents on the subject.
When I was a newbie, I was distracted from the fact that much of the counsel I received was spurious because of the earnestness with which this counsel was delivered. It is touching, in a way, that someone would put such thought into a critique, but I’ve learned this thoughtfulness, no matter how ardent, should not warrant de facto edits on my/your part to my/your story. Here are the types of critics I’ve encountered in my creative meanderings and how I suggest you think of them.
1. The Intellectual. This person read Keats (or is it Yeats? I always get the two confused…) in college. Their minds crave only Deep, Meaningful Literature, and anything written by someone whose last name is not K’Yeats will ultimately fall beneath their dignity. Even if you do write DML, understand that this person’s comments are really given to support his or her need to feel competent and are not an honest, straightforward response to your work, although it’s likely the guy/gal is not aware of this. Here are the warning signs that mark interactions with overly intellectual types:
– They prefer Flannery O’Connor’s “Mystery and Manners” to Stephen King’s “On Writing.” King gives you the friendly fireside chat that can help you think constructively about your writing, while O’Connor evangelizes on the one true path to salvation that starts to feel abusive after about 20 pages. I’m not knocking Flannery – her stories are exquisite, her imagery haunting and lovely – but how she thinks about writing is not altogether helpful in my opinion.
– They scorn the use of all adverbs. This is tricky, ’cause weak writing does rely on adverbs for the kind of heavy lifting better left to verbs, and adverbs are often the culprit when you ingest a concept that feels slipshod, where the dissonance of a passage rankles in your gut like sour milk after you lift your eyes off the page. That said, adverbs are a delightful seasoning to the overall flavor of a piece, and, sometimes, the only vehicle for evoking a kind of modern vernacular I particularly enjoy. I think it’s a bad idea to lock them completely out of the playroom, and I’m not just talking dialogue.
– They don’t actually write. There’s too much reverence and profundity (I don’t think this is in fact a word) tied up in the idea of writing for them to put pen to paper, so they don’t. Writing is, on one level, grunty, with no intellectual holy grail granted at the end of your effort, and I find it better to talk with people who’ve put their backs into it so I know they understand in reality, not hypothetically, how to make their narrative go.
2. The Genre Reader. This one’s easier to spot: he or she will tell you your story needs more explosives or sex or medical terminology because these are the only stories he or she reads. These critics have but one response to your work, and when you tell them you didn’t intend to write action/erotica/a medical thriller, they will say, “Yebbut you need more explosives/sex/medical terminology.” You’re probably not writing for them. Smile politely and walk away.
3. The Socializer. Whereas Intellectuals think no one can write, Socializers think anyone can, and these critics almost motivate me to violence. They’re usually perky and beaming with goodwill, and their participation in a writer’s group is no different to them than going out for happy hour to toss back a beer with friends. Their advice – or, worse, encouragement – is thoughtless and often baseless, and there is no civil way to tell these people to shut up and go away. You have to just sit there and endure their drivel, which may include comments such as, “I’m not sure you realize how hot hell really is when you say ‘hot as hell,’ or “I think your main character should always wear pink because it’s such a romantic color.” If, God forbid, a Socializer shares some writing, you’re in for, at best, something along the order of a twelve-year-old’s ‘Dear Diary’ entry, and, what, for crying out loud, can you offer by way of commentary on that where you don’t sound like an ass? Nothing, and that’ll be your number one clue you’ve a Socializer in your midst. No one will say anything, you’ll see lots of thoughtful nods, hear a few non-commital “ahs,” and the group will move on. Bring your ipod to these sessions so you can discreetly avoid these careless participants and the poisonous rage they may cause you to feel. Do not, under any circumstances, bring your pick ax.
Advice-givers are cross-pollinated, of course, so you’ll find intellectual genre readers, or socializers who think they’re smart. The most difficult part of these interactions for me used to be navigating them, and weathering the resulting doubts and diversions that have sometimes taken me months to resolve. In spite of the angst I’ve wrestled with following these exchanges, however, I will continue to seek them from time to time, to offer up my vomit for others to inspect, if you will. I recommend you do, too.
It will keep you honest. As you’ve already guessed by reading the above, I’ve looked long and hard at the more unenlightened motivations of people who read and comment on other people’s writing, but I’ve also had to look long and hard at my own, which I’m guessing are consistent for all of us struggling to tell our stories. Mine revolve around a lot more than getting good, objective advice, like validation for my ideas and appreciation for the way I lay them out. More often than not, I’m also looking to pass the buck on my workload, to find some way to lighten the burden of editorial refinement that makes writing so personal and so hard.
The only person who can improve my writing is, ultimately, me; but other writers have shared crucial insights I would never, never have discovered on my own. Too, I’ve developed a permanent sense for when I should listen and when I shouldn’t, what about my stories is up for sale and what should be left alone, and, consequently, my final take on the whole proposition is that it’s important to engage, to solicit feedback so that you can know your own work. Once you’ve developed this sensitivity, you won’t need to reach out as often, and I think you’ll go back to your cave a better writer.
So, I hope you’ve found my take on writing advice interesting if not helpful. I’d love to hear what you think of my ideas, and I do mean that rhetorically. Mostly rhetorically, that is. Take that, all you intellectual adverb haters out there. 😉