Okay, I admit it. I’m a snob. I like excellence, and I have very little patience with shoddy workmanship.
Over on the Hatrack River writers’ forum, I stirred up a wee controversy this week by suggesting that how-to-write suggestions from unpublished authors ought not to be blindly trusted. I was responding to a statement by the moderator, who said this:
“After all, one of the reasons a workshop like this can be of any use to writers is the idea that a writer may be able to help others’ writing even if that writer has not succeeded in producing publishable work yet.”
One of the regular contributors to the forum echoed this sentiment, saying, “…the one strength we have to share is that there are no wrong answers. There is only what in any one individual’s opinion works or doesn’t work for that individual.”
My first response was this:
“I can certainly see that an unpublished writer can catch grammatical or spelling errors, or function as a cheering section. An unpublished writer could also provide useful links to online tutorials written by published authors. An unpublished author who is an expert in a specific area, such as medicine or law, could provide good advice within that area. But with respect to the higher-level mechanics of fiction — plot, characterization, theme, point of view, and so on — I personally would feel reluctant to give too much weight to the suggestions of an unpublished author.”
The writing of fiction is a rather odd art form. Nobody starts out assuming that they know how to paint lifelike realistic paintings, but everybody starts out knowing how to talk. So it’s tempting to assume that if you just write naturally, setting down your thoughts as if you were talking, your writing will be excellent. But this idea is an illusion. Good writers put quite a lot of craft into their work.
To the untutored eye, the craft is invisible. The narrative seems to flow along effortlessly, so the untutored author is likely to think, “Gee, I can do that.”
In critique workshops, I’ve read quite a lot of fiction by unpublished authors. The mistakes are sometimes glaring and sometimes subtle, but a typical manuscript is riddled with mistakes. Would I trust an author whose manuscripts are riddled with mistakes to suggest how I might improve my work?
I love suggestions! From time to time a complete novice may make a wonderful suggestion. But as I said above, I would feel reluctant to give too much weight to suggestions by unpublished authors. I would evaluate the suggestions based on my own knowledge and experience. I would not trust their suggestions. That’s all I’m saying.
I went on, in the forum, to explain my views by comparing writing to my experience with music:
For the past ten or twelve years I’ve been playing cello in various community orchestras. I’ve been privileged to play with some wonderful musicians, many of whom were unpaid amateurs. I can assure you, however, that each and every one of those wonderful musicians had studied with a well-trained private teacher and practiced for years, in order to develop the necessary techniques.
I’ve also found myself onstage playing concerts with a few musicians who were, frankly, very bad. They had no business whatever performing for anyone who was paying money for a ticket, but there they were anyway, onstage, performing. In a community orchestra, you take the best musicians you can find. Sometimes you can’t find good ones.
I can tell the difference between a great musician, an adequate musician, and a fluster-fingered wannabe. The idea that there are no differences amongst them is laughable. The same logic that would claim, “There are no wrong answers,” would lead one to say of musicians, “There are no wrong notes.”
(I know Miles Davis said exactly that, but he was talking about jazz, not about classical music — and he was talking about jazz played by wonderfully talented artists who were operating at a very high level. Last weekend I was listening to a local jazz combo playing at a local coffee house, and I can assure you, I heard a few wrong notes.)
The democratic impulse, to welcome everybody and respect their right to express their thoughts, is a wonderful thing. It’s admirable. Through presenting our ideas and getting feedback on them, we learn.
But in my opinion, it’s a serious mistake to assert that anybody’s opinions are as valuable as anybody else’s. It’s muddled thinking. Attempting to maintain that principle in a forum that provides technical support for aspiring writers runs the serious risk of misleading and confusing the very people that you’re trying to help.
One response to this post suggested that a writer was more like a composer than like a performing musician, and that for a composer, there are no wrong notes. That’s an interesting and not irrelevant observation — but in the case of a short story or novel, there is no performer. As a writer, you’re both the composer and the performer.
Also, for the record, most composers of classical music study composition with experienced teachers. There are many ways to write classical music badly!
Another response pointed out that there are a lot more self-taught writers than self-taught symphony musicians. This is also true, I’m sure. But for every writer who “gets it” without any tutoring or mentoring and goes on to write published fiction, I’m sure there are hundreds who think they can do it that way but who never get anywhere. They may give up in despair. They may reject useful suggestions out of a wrong-headed belief that their native intuition is the only light by which they need to be guided. They may become convinced that the publishing industry is hopelessly corrupt and conspiring to smother their undiscovered genius.
My own experience is all I can go by. Nobody (other than probably my teachers in grade school) taught me how to write. I landed a job as an editor and staff writer at a music magazine without ever having studied writing. But at that job I was writing and editing nonfiction.
A few years later, I started writing fiction. When I was unable to sell my first few stories, it occurred to me that I didn’t need to reinvent the wheel. There were lots of books on the market, written by published authors of fiction, explaining the rudiments of the craft. Why should I not avail myself of their generously shared expertise?
So I did. I bought lots of books on how to write fiction, and I read them, and I underlined passages. And pretty soon I started to sell a few short stories to pro markets like Asimov’s and Fantasy & Science Fiction. Then I sold a novel. Then I sold another novel.
Could I have made those sales without studying the craft? No fucking way. And I was already a professional writer of nonfiction.
You don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
Footnote: One of the individuals quoted above objected, in strenuous and insulting terms, to being quoted in this little essay without his or her explicit permission. (The person posts under a pseudonym rather than using his or her real name, so his or her gender is unknown.) It’s clear to me that my usage of these short quotes is fully legal under the doctrine of Fair Use, so I will not delete the quote in question unless I’m persuaded to do so by imminent threat of legal action. I would, however, strongly recommend that my readers avoid the Hatrack River writers’ forum. At least one of the regular participants on that forum is a narrow-minded bully.