Saturday, July 16, 2011

You Own the Farm, Too

I've tried to stay away from internet discussions of writing craft and theory for years. At least with random people on a forum. You can really only get the basics. So I abandoned Absolute Write years ago.

I hang on the Kindle Boards a lot. The people are nice, the signatures are nice, and it's THE place to learn about indie publishing. But after a few aggravating discussions, I'm keeping entirely out of any discussion of craft and theory. If I can tell that's what a thread title is hinting at, I don't even click, because I know I'll be tempted to jump in and then it'll cause way more anxiety that it's worth.

It's funny. The "gatekeepers" are optional now. We're free to publish novellas and short story collections and even plays. We can write an entire novel in second person like it was the crazy '80s again (like the smash hit Bright Lights, Big City). But other writers want to jump in and give you hard rules even faster than the conservative old publishers! It's kind of like Animal Farm. The new bosses are worse than the old. Luckily, we've all learned to walk around on our hind hooves, and no one can lock us out of the house. Some writers would force you to write in the way they do, but they can't. So don't ask them what they think. Because they know they can't force you, they try to scare you, instead.

When you join a critique group, you get most benefit from learning how to pick apart someone else's work. You eventually learn to translate that to your own work, becoming more objective about it. You will get good macro-level notes from some people, but it's only occasional. It will basically happen for one of two reasons:

1. The person understands what you are trying to do because they like what you're trying to do. When choosing beta readers, choose people who like the type of work you're writing! YOU CAN'T MAKE EVERYONE HAPPY. Don't bother with the opinion of people you could never please with the piece you wrote.

2. The person is an editor. Maybe that's not their job. They're probably another writer. But they have the ability to see what you're trying to do, how you're not achieving it, and what can help you achieve it. These people are fucking GOLDEN. I took workshops from a writer like this, and I learned so much. And to some degree, I think I learned to take developing fiction for what it's trying to be, not what I want it to be. So I have ended up with quite a few people who want me to read for them.

So my advice is that if you've put in your dues, do what you want to. Know what rules you're breaking and why, and how you can make it work anyway. Then, if you want, ask people of type 1 or 2 for feedback. But please don't ask for the general consensus on if prologues are okay or how much goddamn profanity you should use. You'll get a billion different answers, and each one will be correct for that person if they were writing your story. But they're not. And as we all know, prudes are always the loudest about making their opinions known, so you're going to hear the most about the least interesting possibility, screeched in the name of "the readers," who are apparently too moronic to deal with anything not spoonfed to them from a baby food jar. They'll even cite studies of what readers prefer!

Maybe their readers. My readers expect my writing to occasionally be difficult and a bit experimental, so that's obviously what they want from me. Because I haven't tried to write to the lowest common denominator, my small audience is better than their audience. My readers are more adventurous and curious, and want to experience something new, not mentally chew cud.

For  me, there's nothing more exciting than when a writer pulls off something you never thought anyone could. It would be awesome if everyone would keep an open mind and let each story speak for itself instead of having rules that apply across the board even when a writer manages to break the rule but pull it off. You miss out on a lot of great art when you think that way, and nothing is ever lost by approaching new experiences with an open mind.


  1. Agreed, most of these so called 'rules' are just nonsense. You can always name at least two or three great novels that break the rules people quote.

    People seem to forget that the best way to get readers is to *write the best book that you can*. Which will be the one truest to yourself, and your own individual tastes. Not one that seems like it's just come off a production line of writers following rules like they're building flat-pack furniture.

  2. I write for an ideal reader, and that ideal reader is myself. I try to write the sort of stuff I would want to stumble across. People think that means that a writer thinks his shit don't stink, but I regularly fail to write up to the standard of something I, as a reader, would really be excited to read.

    I know some people write for a spouse or someone else close, and I think that can work as well. Like you said, the main thing is to not write like you're a production line worker.