A Bit of Wisdom
In last Tuesday’s post, I gave some (what I hope was) humorous novelist advice, which it behooves everyone not to follow. For this week’s post, I figure I’ll try my hand at some actual words of wisdom. Though I have only one work in progress at present, it is a fairly sizeable project for me, and the most recent in a fairly long line of stories that make up my writing experience. All this to say, throughout my admittedly fledgling career, I’d like to think I’ve learned a thing or two. Maybe they’re lessons you already know, but I find that reading the perspectives of others can be helpful, or at least validating. Feel free to share your own advice in the comments section.
1. As much as we all can teach, there is still more to learn. Never close your mind to a new idea because you think you’ve tapped out all its potential or learned all of its facts, secrets, and subtleties.
2. Stop listening to people who have nothing good to say. This is a tricky one. So many writers are so obsessed with “taking criticism” as the pinnacle of authorly virtue that they never stop to think that sometimes, people can just be real jerks. I’m not saying ignore critiques, because thoughtfully constructed advice is the best way to gain feedback on your skills. But there are some reviewers who just get off on, even brag about, how harshly they critique, how “brutal” they are, how they “have nothing nice to say and feel bad about that.” (No they don’t, by the way, they revel in it.) Even the worst of pieces has it potential, and if a critic can see ONLY bad, they’re no better than a critic who sees ONLY good. Neither is helpful: one inflates confidence, the other ransacks your dreams for recreation. A good review is balanced, telling you what is good, what is so-so, and what needs work. All writers get critiqued, so don’t think this advice means to laugh off any critique. But if someone says “I feel like I just read a whole bunch of BS” or “I’m pretty sure that isn’t actually a story” or something of the like, and has no suggestions for improvement and no evidence that they even read your piece other than a page of snide remarks, their advice isn’t worth it. Listen to the reviewer who balances the bad (“This character seems awfully flat.”), the so-so (“Do you really need a mud-wrestling scene on the zeppelin?”), and the good (“I wasn’t sure what to make of that intro sequence, but it really panned out.”). Also, if their version of “rewrites” turn your tale into a whole new story, divorced from your own vision, then do consider what their motives really are.
3. Stop taking advice exclusively from people who have only good to say. Yes, I know, it feels good. A fan with nothing but praise is a real delight. At first. But any fans of the “Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion” know how irksome an adoring fan can become. This person will shower your work with praise, sometimes so nebulous that you’re not even sure they read the work at all. “It’s good” or “cool” are often the extend of their reviews. Sometimes the reviews are long, in-depth, and truly involved, but all they are is positive. This doesn’t mean your fan is bad or a liar, just that they might feel awkward criticizing you, or that they might not be well equipped to do so. If they can’t find a single weak spot in a 150 page manuscript, you’re either a writing god, they’re too shy to speak up, or they just don’t know where or how to spot a flaw, by no fault of their own. So, don’t ignore them, but consider getting a second opinion if the rough draft you wrote at 3:15 am comes back from this person spotless. Heed the good, but always seek improvement.
4. Your basic plot has already been done, don’t be ashamed of that. Seriously, think about your novel and reduce it to it’s core elements. Now pick any other work by another author, especially one from your bookshelf, and do the same to their work. Is there a bit of overlap? Probably. If not, try another book. You’ll find it, I promise. But, and I can’t stress this enough, don’t let that discourage you. Every story has in some way been told, it’s the telling that makes it original. Some folks harped on James Cameron’s “Avatar” for being a knock off of any number of other movies (“Dances with Wolves”, “Fern Gully”, “Last Samurai”), but just looking at that list invalidates their argument. If his is a rip off, so are all the others. True fact: A genre known as the “captivity narrative” was insanely popular a long while ago, and its core elements were a person being separated from their folk, living amongst another tribe, learning its ways, then deciding whether or not to stay or return home. Having a genre does not make you unoriginal. My defense of giant blue space people aside, the point is that if you take off the dressings of any tale, you will find another just like it. It’s those dressings that make the tale worth reading. Otherwise, the sentence “There is a protagonist and a conflict that is in some way resolved, for better or worse,” would serve as the only existing work of literature, because no other tale can be told. All this to say, you can still be original. The tale you tell will be different than any tale told before, because you’re telling it. Don’t just rip off Tolkien and say it’s original because you’re telling the tale, that’s a cop out. What I mean is, tell the story you want to tell, the way you want it told. It will come out original if you’re true to your vision, regardless of basic similarities to other works at their most skeletal levels.
5. Playing with archetypes is fun. There’s nothing wrong with having a hulking barbarian hero, a sour tempered dwarf, and a feisty elven rogue as your protagonist party. But no two barbarians are going to be the same. Maybe yours has a fondness for hand-knitted scarves and derails an important assignment because he simply must have one that he saw at a merchant stall. Maybe your dwarf isn’t bad tempered because “he’s just like that,” maybe he has a legitimate grievance with the mining contractors that are exploiting the gold-rich area near his home and cutting into his quiet time. Maybe your elf rogue actually isn’t a very good rogue, but just always wanted to be one, hand-eye coordination notwithstanding. These are awful examples, of course, but you see my point. Just because a character can be described with an archetype at face value doesn’t mean he needs to be cut from the tale. Just make sure he or she is portrayed in a unique and engaging way. People are people, not tropes. Give them a backstory, give them hopes, fears, likes, dislikes, food allergies, phobias, fixations, all the things that make a person a person, and you’ll find that your barbarian is nothing like Conan at all.
6. Stop with the self-loathing humor. Yes, you’re a writer. Yes, it’s a hard job. Yes, it doesn’t always pay the bills. We all know that. But joking about it smells a lot more like insecurity than good humor. In this field, you have to sell your work, and part of that comes from selling yourself. Not literally, but in the sense that if a potential customer hears you cracking jokes about how that “little novel” isn’t putting a roof over your head yet, they’re pretty likely to pass you by. If you don’t like your work, why should they. Never sell someone something you wouldn’t buy.
7. Focus! Set a daily writing time and stick by it. Setting your own hours is great, and also one of the easiest ways to get profoundly lazy. Force yourself onto a schedule. If that time comes around and the muse isn’t with you, do a bit of editing, or send a letter to a potential agent or publisher. Do something writing related with that time. If not, that novel you’re working on will quickly fall off the front burner to the back, then slide off the stove altogether, until you find it next Christmas, coagulated on the base-boards like some sort of horrific eldritch abomination made of slime mold and squandered potential.
8. Don’t let someone else tell you how your tale should go. I don’t mean to ignore advice on tightening up or expanding plot elements. What I’m referring to is that inevitable conversation with a reader that always starts with, “You know what would be cool?” What follows can range anywhere from a thoughtful examination of a yet to be explored plot element, or an idea for a drag race but with dragons and laser rifles and sasquatch and also tacos. Don’t change your idea to suit everyone’s needs. You’re writing to tell the story you want to tell. If someone thinks it would be cool to tell a bit more about why the queen always cuts off her prisoners’ left ring fingers, or cut out the scene with the botched tonsillectomy, then give those ideas some thought and decide how they fit with your overall plan. This is especially true if your work isn’t yet done. Only you know how it ends, so only you know what matters. If their idea works and you like it, go with it. If it would do nothing but cater to their own desires, interests, or proclivities, then maybe they can find space for it in their novel.
9. Make notes of your characters’ traits. I say this because, with a long roster, it can be easy to let details get scrambled in your head. Remembering which character lost her mother to vehicular manslaughter is pretty easy, but smaller facts can be more easily forgotten. For instance: I owe my girlfriend a debt of gratitude for pointing out an instance when I called a character “sable haired” after having used her “fiery red hair” as a defining physical characteristic in the opening scene. I’d been thinking of another character with black hair, and so almost made a continuity error that would have driven me mad had it never caught my attention and gone on into the final copy of the work. Keep your details straight in whatever way you can!
10. You cannot please everyone. I used to get so worried about unintended implications in my work that I could hardly turn out a single story, and those I did were some of my weakest works. I was afraid of every possible implication. If the hero helped the heroine, I was implying that women needed a man’s help. If the heroine liked the hero, I was implying that women need men. If the heroine saved a young child, I was adhering to traditional stereotypes of maternal instinct and so on and so forth. In short, I couldn’t write anything that wouldn’t offend. And neither can you. I’m not saying your work should be deliberately sexist or racist or anything of the like. I have no patience for such hateful ideologies. What I mean to say is that you can be as careful as you want, and someone of some view point will still find a reason to be mad about it. You simply can’t please everyone, it is impossible. Write your story, try to keep an open mind and portray your characters fairly, as real people, not as stereotypes, and if the results offend large quantities of people, reread your work and see if you can see what went wrong from their perspective. But if you’ve been as even-handed as can be and one person is still calling you an evil, twisted, monstrous person, you may just have to accept that some folks will always find a reason to be angry.