- Your mother, father, or any of your siblings.
- Your spouse or your in-laws.
- Your own children.
- Your BFFs.
- Your high school English teacher.
- Your college English teacher.
- A fancy writer who said once in a talk you remember not to write about fairies.
- All the agents who have rejected you.
- Someone offering to take your money to give you a blurb, review, or to fix your grammar and “edit” your manuscript for submission.
- Your writing group.
List of People Whose Opinion on Your Writing Does Matter:
- Possibly: your agent or editor.
One of the reasons beginners make the mistake of trusting too completely on others’ comments is that they imagine that other people have a better idea of how to write “the ideal book” (Platonic ideal of book, I wish you existed). They don’t. That is, they might know a little bit how to write their own books (but honestly, are probably reinventing this as well). But that doesn’t mean that they know how to write your book. No one does. That’s why it’s so hard.
After all, you’re not writing a book that is meant to follow certain “rules” of writing. Such a book would be of no interest to anyone to read, I think. As someone who comes from academia, I’m well aware that the writers who are read generation after generation are the ones who invent new ways of telling stories (though not necessarily new stories to tell).
I had a writer friend who once said that writing groups are only of value for a couple of years. After that, everyone starts saying the same thing over and over again, because the patterns have been in place and people can’t get out of them. So you need to get new people and make new patterns to help shake you out of your assumptions about what is good writing and what isn’t.
I’m not saying no one can give you useful advice about writing. But mostly that happens when you find someone whose path for the moment matches yours. And their advice will be less useful once you veer away from that path, which it should. You will always be outgrowing other writers as a reader and a writer because you’re headed in different directions. This is a good thing, I think.
Ultimately, I think that you don’t need a specific teacher to help you. If you imagine that your writing would be a lot better if you went to this workshop or that one, or if only you could afford to go to a conference, you’re probably wrong. While other people can spark new thoughts, they don’t fix your writing for you. You fix your writing because you’re learned something.
Mostly, the best thing other people can do is give you the courage to start throwing things out and do new things, to realize that your old ways of working aren’t appropriate for this story. But be careful not to get too much advice or to keep reworking a piece over and over again. The biggest problem I see in good writers is the inability to move on and try something else. The problem with books you’ve worked on too long is often that you’ve heard too many voices and incorporated all of them. A book needs a single, clear vision. It needs your vision.
2. Your idea isn’t compelling (though your writing may be superb).
3. The agent has no idea how to sell this book, even if it is well written and the storytelling works.
4. The agent is clearing the desk before or after holidays and didn't read your query at all (It happens sometimes, I suspect).
5. The agent just sold something similar.
6. You misspelled the agent’s name (it can look sloppy) and/or have other typos in your query.
7. Your query is not compelling enough, even though your book is great.
8. You have invented a new genre of novel and no one can grok it. (Which may or may not mean it’s unsellable.)
9. You have a personally offensive facebook, twitter or other social media feed. (Yes, this can be a black mark against you.)
10. You have racist or sexist stereotypes in your book.
11. The last book of the type you are trying to publish was printed forty years ago, and times have changed.
12. The YA Mafia has blacklisted you. (JK, this isn’t really a thing.)
Notice that some of these mean that the solution is to stop querying, work on your writing, and then resubmit. To some of these, the solution is to fix the query and send it out again. And to others, the solution is, keep sending it out but to a wider group of agents because the ones you’ve hit so far aren’t the right ones to represent you.
I would say it’s also always the right solution to keep writing. Whether or not this is a good book that’s being rejected, you’re a better writer than you were with this book now. So keep writing, keep submitting, and keep looking to the next book which will always ALWAYS be better because you’re learning and growing as a writer who reads other stories, right?
Now, some of the choices didn’t “work” for me, because I felt strongly that Hamlet’s character was already set by the time the play begins, and he has qualms about cold-bloodedly murdering Claudius, no matter how much evidence he has against him. And I don’t believe he would have gone off with Ophelia no matter how much you want Hamlet to be a kinder, gentler version of Romeo and Juliet. But there are other moments when things might have changed. If he hadn’t killed Polonius, if he’d challenged Claudius directly to a duel, if he’d spent some time talking to his mother, and so forth.
Why does Hamlet matter to you writing your novel? Well, it turns out this kind of analysis is excellent for creators of story because it allows them to see the novel in a condensed way. It’s one thing to talk about a novel in terms of scenes or to be working with a 7-point plot structure. But if you think about it as a series of choices and consequences, you can make a neat little list and then stare at it and ask yourself what other choices might be possible, which might lead to other consequences.
You do this when you’ve had readers report back that they don’t like the ending, or they feel like things went off track at a certain point. Sometimes this doesn’t pinpoint exactly where things went wrong, and you have to go further back. You can think about your novel as a tree of diverging choices. Your novel only goes down one line, but what about all the other lines? There are dozens of others stories, maybe hundreds that you could tell, beginning with the same characters, the same world, and the same unfolding dilemmas.
You, as the author, get to decide which ones happen because you are in charge, even if you’re trying, like most of us authors, to disguise how much of a hand you have in how the story plays out. Sometimes the choices are tiny ones, the butterfly’s wings that change the course of the hurricane two thousand miles away. But you are choosing every branch of the tree that follows from the setup. You must acknowledge this to be able to effectively revise. The ending is not inevitable, nor is every unfolding consequences. You as the author have a certain worldview and your story reflects that. But you can also change your worldview and change your story.
What if Hamlet had gone back to school in Wittenberg? What if there hadn’t been pirates that boarded the ship and brought him back to Denmark? What if he’d landed in England and had to figure out what to do then? There are always ways to do things differently and still keep true to the characters and the story. Look behind the words to the mechanics, and your revising will be transformed.
Bravery has come to me because it was more difficult for me to keep silent than it was to face the consequences of being honest. My guess is that almost everyone is like this. We try to hide the truth about our flaws, our doubts, our anger, and we think that it won’t matter, that we’ll get along fine because everyone hides a little bit of who they are in social situations, right? That’s the way the world works. You don’t just spill out your most noxious thoughts onto other people and expect to make friends. So give a little, take a little.
Until you reach a point where you have given up all of yourself and what you have been given in return doesn’t matter to you because it wasn’t given to you, who you are, because no one around you knows who you are—because you’ve been so successful at hiding it too long.
That’s when people become brave. When being honest is the only way to survive, when you realize that having a stable life with no confrontations and no risks turns out to be the most dangerous life of all. Because it is killing you, metaphorically and perhaps literally as well. It turns out that for most humans, lying in the long-term is soul-sucking. It separates us from those around us who are trying to love us. It isolates us profoundly and humans do not do well when they have no social interactions, not even introverts like me. We need some kind of mirror of ourselves looking back at us or our souls are starved to death.
But this is a post about writing, and isn’t writing always lying?
No. Writing is not about facts. It’s a way to get at deeper truths without using facts. Every writer tells different truths. Every writer sees and experiences the world differently. But to tell a story is to offer yourself up to the world. And even when you are spat at or hated, at least you are seen. It turns out that is perhaps bravery, but it is also simply the way that all of us must live.
Whatever you are writing, give up the impulse to disguise reality, to protect certain people from certain truths you have learned from them, however ugly or beautiful or painful they are. Resist the need to write safely. There is no safety. Writing is a striptease of the soul. It is the worst and best of yourself, and if you only poke fun at others or you only criticize them, you are not doing your job. Your work will always ring a little hollow.
To write true, you must show your deepest weaknesses. You must admit that you know you have strengths, however socially awkward you feel that to be. You must see others truly and fairly, not merely as puppets in your play of the universe in which you are the hero. Writing is practice for living, I think. Be brave because to be anything else is to be less than yourself. Be brave and be true.
When I was an undergrad I had this English professor whose expertise was on Shakespeare and he used to say that if he could go back in time and tell Shakespeare one thing, it would have been that Shakespeare should have written less. Because his opinion was that Shakespeare was super prolific, but there were just a number of plays that were kind of meh, and some that were just plain bad. And so, well, Shakespeare would have been a better author if he’d never done those.
At the time, it seemed a reasonable thing to say. Well, maybe it wasn’t, but I was a college student and I basically figured my professors knew a lot more than I do. Looking back on this as a creative person now, I think this guy was an idiot. And he’s the kind of idiot people often are who have never written anything themselves and have no idea how the creative process really works.
Creativity isn’t about editing carefully. It’s not about getting your punctuation and grammar right. It’s not about figuring out who your audience is or what’s selling right now. It’s not about doing your best work so that someone gives you a good grade. It’s not about reviews and it’s not about sales numbers and it’s not about awards. It’s most definitely not about thinking about the future of “Literachur” and professors teaching your lesser works in the future.
Creativity is about unleashing the possibilities. It’s about everything is allowed in this space. It’s give me whatever you’ve got, good or bad, let’s throw it in here and see if it works. Creativity is writing even when you think it’s probably bad, and letting go of the judgment while you’re in the moment because how you are feeling when you are writing is not necessarily indicative of how good the writing is.
Creativity is taking risks. It’s trying out different ways to solve a problem, even if your experience is that none of those solutions is going to work. Because sometimes you have to go through all of the failures to get to the success. Your brain needs the time or the process or something. And creativity is letting yourself have time to think things over, to be lazy, to try out other kinds of art that aren’t yours for inspiration, to go on a walk, take a shower, or sit on the toilet for a while because normal life and lack of pressure to write, write, write right now, something good because it HAS TO BE GOOD.
I think if this professor actually went back in time and whispered into Shakespeare’s ear that there were a few of his plays he should just give up on, what he’d really end up doing would be to make a Shakespeare who also didn’t write some of his masterpieces because he lacked the confidence to try them. Or maybe we’d live in a world where Shakespeare never wrote anything at all because he was never sure if they would be good enough for the future.
Don’t let your own fear of not being good enough keep you from being the author you are meant to be. You don’t know what you are capable of. You may never know it. Shakespeare didn’t know he was going to be considered the best author in the English language, possibly the best writer in the history of the world. If he’d known that, it might well have crushed him. Just focus on unleashing the creativity, following where it leads, and letting it not be perfect to begin with. Let yourself write Troilus and Cressida. Write something you don’t know how to write that is destined to be bad. Being bad is, in my opinion, a way station on the way to being good.
But also remember that writing isn’t just about the product. It’s also a process. It’s not just about selling books. It’s also about learning who you are and becoming a better person. Writing is a kind of meditation. It is a gaze inside yourself. It has value in itself, and not just as a result that brings you money. The more you think of it that way, the more you will be happy with your writing, and the more you will connect with your creativity.