Funny how various posts around the web can be so thought-provoking. I’ve been mulling over this for a few days now, and the more I think about it, the more complicated it gets.
OK, so y’all probably want me to cut to the chase. Basically, the posts and threads have got me thinking about practical usefulness of writing communities. (And just to reassure folks who might worry–I’m not questioning administrating Evolution. That’s not the point of this rant. 🙂
I’ve been a member in various writing communities and critique groups for five years, including, but not limited to, Critters, Forward Motion, the Rumor Mill, Evolution, and Romance Divas. So it’s not like I’m coming at this without experience.
Now, so people don’t get the wrong idea … I’m not ranting about specific communities or crit groups at all, but the toxic perfectionism that is all too common in any community. And if it isn’t actively happening at X community, there’s probably a good number of people in X that have had it happen to them elsewhere.
Anyhoo. On to the rant.
Many writing communities have a publication-oriented atmosphere and attitude. This isn’t a problem; I think pursuing publication is great, so long as it’s what the writer wants to do. But attitudes and advice I’ve seen focus on writing for publication to the exclusion of writing for fun. Or they focus on writing “well.”
I know several people who have been told some variant of the following–
“Don’t use ‘was’ or ‘were’ in description; it’s passive.” (Which is actually incorrect.)
“Never use forms of ‘to be.'”
“Show, don’t tell!”
“Don’t use adverbs.”
“Don’t use speech tags.” (Like: “Bloody hell,” he growled.)
“Oh, btw, so-and-so author did something similar.” (Often with the undertone in context that because someone did that–even if the similarities are minute!–you should change your story so there are no parallels.)
“That’s too weird. It’ll never sell.”
“Don’t write [current trend]. The market is glutted and you’ll never be able to sell it.”
And so on.
Basically, advice focusing around “Don’t do that” or “You can’t.”
You know what? I have a huge problem with that. Cause both just set writers up to lose confidence in themselves and feel dejected. New writers are likely to follow advice of people who seem to be more knowledgeable writers. And that can just fuck people over.
What I’ve seen happen–a lot–is people focus on “writing well” or “writing for publication” to the exclusion of writing because they love it. They become so intent on not writing badly, on writing a “perfect” draft, that they lose their passion along the way.
In critiquing, I’ve seen a lot of writers post work that’s technically perfect. Crisp, tight prose, vivid description, proper formatting… but it doesn’t have that spark. It feels illusory, like covering up an arid desert with painted images of flowing waterfalls and lush vegetation. You can still taste the dry, dusty air.
That “spark” can make the difference between an acceptance and a rejection. If you don’t love the work … it shows. It really does.
Most of the time, writers aren’t even fully conscious of it. Many of them struggle to force the words out, battling with their inner demon cracking the “write well” whip.
You know what?
Perfect prose doesn’t matter. Take a look at what’s on the NYT bestseller lists sometime. Pay attention to the prose. Now, ask this: If the author had passed this through your crit group/writing community, how many of the critiquers would have screamed up and down that X, Y, and Z needed to be fixed or it wouldn’t sell?
I’d be willing to bet quite a lot of em.
What matters–and why writers who aren’t really that great but continue to sell in huge numbers–is the story.
Your average reader has no fucking comprehension of Writing Community Prose Rules. Your average reader doesn’t give two shits if you say “he snarled” or “she said frostily.” Your average reader doesn’t give a damn if you say “She had long brown hair” vs. “Long brown hair caught the sun’s brilliant rays, highlights shining bright gold.”
Key is, everything in moderation. Sometimes “he snarled” is the right thing to say. Sometimes using shorthand description is appropriate. Etc.
(Now, before some nitwit decides to use this as an excuse to include every single n00bist writing mistake known to man, let me point back at everything in moderation. Throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater is just as bad as toxic perfectionism.)
I’ve a huge problem with the idea that you must never do X, Y, or Z. While there’s a lot of people who will swear up and down that they don’t tell people “never”–well, maybe they don’t. But it’s sure as hell the impression that comes through. When it’s not just one or two people who hold those opinions, but the majority of people in the community… well, what the hell is a new/intermediate writer without much experience or self-confidence supposed to think?
Any so-called “writing rule” can be broken. There are no rules. Just guidelines. They exist so people who don’t known why they exist don’t make huge mistakes. But they aren’t meant to be followed to the letter, 100% of the time, and that’s how far too many people treat them.
And let’s diverge on the topic a bit more. I’ve seen writers totally change their plots or gave up a book because one supposedly experienced person told them “You can’t do [x]” or “This won’t sell.” Including me–I changed a huge subplot in the book I’m currently rewriting because one person whose opinion I then respected told me I couldn’t have more than one villain in a book. (The original subplot is going back in, btw.) I have a good friend who was told she shouldn’t write vampire fiction because it was all cliched and it wouldn’t sell.
You know what? Whether or not it “sells” doesn’t matter.
What matters is what YOU, the WRITER, get out of writing the book. What matters is that you enjoy it. That you have fun. That you write something that YOU are proud of–not something that conforms to often-conflicting Writing Community “Rules.”
Write what you love.
Write the story that sings to your heart and your soul.
Write for yourself, not for some perfectionistic “audience.”
Cause that’s what matters. That’s what’ll shine through. Cause if you betray your own heart and write something that you don’t love, not deep down … well, it’ll show. And it’ll take its toll. You might not notice it at first. Most people don’t, cause it’s like the proverbial frog in the pot of boiling water. You don’t notice it till you’re so blocked you can hardly write and then you can’t figure out why.
The story is what matters. Not perfect prose. The story is what will sell–not how pretty and prim and perfect you write.
A lot more people need to remember that.