Writing—So Easy a Caveman Can Do It
Reblogged with permission from Kristen Lamb’s blog – We Are Not Alone, http://warriorwriters.wordpress.com/2014/03/07/writing-so-easy-a-caveman-can-do-it/
Recently a Facebook friend shared a post with me regarding Indie Musicians versus Indie Authors. It appears our culture has a fascination and reverence for the Indie Musician whereas Indie Authors face an immediate stigma. We authors have to continually prove ourselves, whereas musicians don’t (at least not in the same way). My friend seemed perplexed, but to me it’s very simple.
We’re not even going to address the flood of “bad” books. Many writers rush to publish before they’re ready, don’t secure proper editing, etc. But I feel the issue is deeper and it reflects one of the many challenges authors face and always will.
People give automatic respect to a musician because not everyone can play an instrument or sing. Simple. It’s clear that artist can do something many cannot.
As writers, we have an insidious enemy. People believe what we do is easy. If we are good writers, we make it look effortless. I recall being a kid watching the Olympics. The gymnasts made those handsprings look like nothing. Being four years old, I dove in…and broke my arm…twice (because I’m an overachiever that way).
The blunt truth is everyone has a story to tell. They do. Every life can be fascinating in the hands of a skilled author. Every idea can be masterful in the hands of a wordsmith. Ah, but the general public assumption is that the only thing standing between them and being J.K. Rowling is merely sitting down and finishing the story. Many believe that, because they’re literate and have command of their native language that they can do what we do.
Of course, this isn’t the case (as we know all too well). A trained author draws the reader into a world of magic where the audience doesn’t notice the wires and mirrors, only the floating woman. We blend plot arc and character arc to drive tension.
We must develop layered, dimensional “people” and blend in setting and world-building where it’s so integrated it’s probably unnoticed. In fact, if people do notice, likely that section needs edit. Great dialogue is a skill. Subtext, theme, and on and on.
Readers generally don’t appreciate how we’ve done this, they only know we’ve created this magic when they get lost in the book, when they can find no “good” place for a bookmark. This is one of the reasons I strongly caution novelists starting “writing blogs.”
Readers don’t care about structure, POV, word echoes, verb issues, or formatting unless we screw them up. Only other writers care about how we use our tools. Readers care about the finished product.
Why Do I Mention This?
Most of us will face mass opposition when making the decision to write for a living. People see so much writing all around them, they take it for granted.
Many years ago, I got my start as a technical writer and copy writer/editor. I remember an acquaintance making a snarky comment about how there was no money in writing and essentially it was all foolishness (he was a stock broker). I’d finally grown enough of a spine that I stood up to him.
Me: You watch movies and television I assume.
Jerk: Of course.
Me: And when you’re learning a software program, I assume you use the Help tools.
Jerk: Yes *strange face*
Me: And magazines? Articles? The news? I assume you enjoy those too.
Jerk: *getting quiet*
Me: Then there are commercials, textbooks and the Internet. I’d wager you use Google.
Jerk: What are you saying?
Me: Last I checked, the Internet involved a lot of words. No writing, and the Internet is just a super expensive picture book. And, perhaps I’m out of line, but I’d imagine someone wrote the screenplays to the shows and movies you enjoy. I can’t see Hollywood paying a hundred million dollars for actors to just “riff.” Someone wrote the instructions to put together your computer desk and wrote those textbooks you used to train you for your career. And I’d even go so far as to say someone wrote those novels you enjoy and the magazine and news articles you consume regularly.
Humans have been so spoiled with writing for so many centuries, they frequently dismiss it. Centuries ago there was far more reverence for the writer, but this was in the days when most people were illiterate. Only a handful of special people had the time, money, education to write (or read).
The wonderful side of public education and widespread literacy is this means more readers. Yes, those early authors were legends, but most of us would cry if we had the same book sales. There was no such thing as selling millions of books.
Of course the dark side is that humans have a tendency to take things for granted. We all do it. We assume if we paid our bill, we’ll have power. If we call 911, someone will answer. If the roads are a mess, someone will repair them. And writing? Everyone can do that.
Stand Firm to the Truth
We know what we do is anything but easy, but we must be vigilant against this widespread perception or it will lead to self-doubt, giving up, being hypercritical of our own work, or seeking to please everyone with our story.
Those of you who’ve followed this blog know I have a thing for little “sayings.” Often I put them on Post-It Notes to remind me. One of my go-to phrases is, If you cannot defeat them, distract them.
I’ve been in writing groups where the writer took every last comment/criticism as if it were gospel. When we are new, most of us lack confidence. This can lead to the Book-By-Committee. We keep changing the plot, the characters, the dialogue because one person frowned (and we didn’t realize they merely had gas).
I’m 20,000 words into Book Two of a trilogy. I sent the first book out to trusted beta readers. Every beta reader loved the book…save one. Characters all the other readers enjoyed, the one beta despised. The main group loved the description, the human flaws, the layers of complex plot. The critical beta recommended tearing down and starting over.
Now, in “The Old Days” I would have ignored what nine people said to please ONE. I’d have cried and indulged in gratuitous self-pity and believed I could never write a novel. Woe is me. I’d have trashed the book and started over.
Now? Pfft. I have rhino skin. I’m beyond the point where I need hand-holding and ego-stroking (blogging will beat that out of you).
Are all this one beta’s comments bad or utterly misguided? Not at all. I took the detailed notes the beta gave and sent them to those who loved the book. I genuinely wanted the truth. “Hey, did you guys feel/see any of these things? Is a total rewrite something I should consider? I think many of the ‘problems’ can be fixed with a handful of sentences. But, if I need a complete tear-down, now is the time to tell me.”
I’ve written the Book-By-Committee and it is an ugly beast that pleases no one.
I recently picked up a piece of my early writing that was slayed by a well-meaning critique group. As a more mature writer and editor, I saw that they’d benevolently edited the life out of my work. They were injecting their genre, preferences, and voice onto my work. And I eagerly gobbled it down and rendered a solid piece of writing a soulless Frankenstein mess.
Critique and editing are critical, but we must handle with care. First, we need thick skin. Professionals should not have to be coddled and handheld. We can offer a thoughtful, articulated defense as to why we made certain decisions, but this is different from being defensive. One is the product of confidence and the other is the Goo of Doubt.
If all ten beta readers saw the same thing? Houston, we have a problem. One? I still should listen, but with care. If I don’t, I risk overworking a book trying to attain the unattainable—perfection.
I actually found it funny how this experience elucidated points I’ve been making lately. We can NEVER write a book everyone loves. We can’t. It was almost laughable looking at my edits. Lines of dialogue the others highlighted with “LOVE, LOVE, LOVE IT!” were the same lines the critical beta advised I delete.
But, this is why we must stand firm and remain true. I could cry and go back and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and I will still have at least one person (likely more) who doesn’t like final product. This is why we must learn to keep pressing forward and ship.
Learn the Art of Discernment
Being a professional author cannot be a democracy where everyone has an equal vote (unless you just want to go crazy). In ways, we have to be more of a benevolent dictatorship. Learn to say, “I hear your concerns and I’ll take them under advisement.” Why? Because everyone has opinions and advice, but only we will live with the consequences.
Remember, If you cannot defeat them, distract them. Trying to write the book that all demographics will love is a fruitless endeavor. It’s a distraction which will lead to defeat. Keep writing. Failure isn’t bad, it’s the tuition we pay for success. Understand that the world can believe what we do is easy, but they have a right to be wrong. We know better. Choose which voices to listen to. Part of maturity is learning the art of discernment.
Be brave enough to hand your work to someone who might hate it. The one beta who didn’t like my book? Doesn’t read this genre, hates description and has vastly different preferences than I do for pleasure reading. I knew I’d get my literary @$$ handed to me when I passed it over. BUT, this beta picked up on things the others missed 😉 .
Maybe I’m unwilling to completely burn the book to the ground and start over, but that doesn’t mean this beta didn’t point out areas that people who LOVE the genre missed. Areas that WILL make a far stronger book. Surrounding ourselves with yes-men doesn’t inspire growth. This is why rhino skin is SO valuable.
We can hand our work to someone we suspect will HATE it. But then we can sift through all the commentary and search for diamonds. If we’re too sensitive, we might miss that ONE comment that takes the book to a whole new level. Okay, this beta reader wanted to shoot 330 pages out of 331 in the face, BUT on Page 287? That’s a great point.
***And I am being hyperbolic. We should seek out those who will give our book the trial of fire, but we don’t have to hand it to people who will destroy our will to ever write again.***
Learn to select what applies and leave the rest on the table. Criticism, opinions and advice are like a giant buffet. We select what to put on our plate, then later we choose what we gobble down or throw away. This is true in writing and in life.
People might believe writers are all starving, broke deadbeats chain-smoking outside of coffee bars when they aren’t writing bad poetry. They have the right to be wrong. People can believe what we do is easy. Hey, it means we are doing our jobs well. Others will criticize, but we choose whether that drives us or distracts us.
Kristen Lamb is the author of the #1 best-selling books. Her latest is Rise of the Machines.
Kristen has guided writers of all levels, from unpublished green peas to NY Times best-selling big fish, how to use social media to create a solid platform and brand. Most importantly, Kristen helps authors of all levels connect to their READERS and then maintain a relationship that grows into a long-term fan base. She is the C.E.O. of WANA International and the founder of WANATribe, the social network for writers.
To contact Kristen, e-mail kristen at wana intl dot com.