You Just Don’t Understand…

It is a curious fact how often those who are most in need of insight into how they might improve their fiction writing are also among the most reluctant to accept suggestions. In the past I’ve suggested that this is because the craft of fiction is largely invisible. My words on a page will look very much like your words on a page. To discern the differences, you need already to have a grasp of both the technical elements of prose and the felicities of prose style.

Beyond that, I think we can point the finger of blame at the dumbing down of the United States. Abroad in the land is a widespread and pernicious view that expertise is not only unnecessary but suspect — that, as the phrase goes, my ignorance is just as valid as your knowledge.

A third factor, and one that I’m sure I ought to pay more attention to, is the depth at which aspiring writers are emotionally committed to — we might almost say ennobled by — their scribblings. A bizarre and garbled story concept that has no hope whatever of being commercially viable or even of passing interest to more than a few readers may embody the working out of some deeply felt emotional need on the part of the writer. Beyond that, an inept writer who has been emotionally abused (quite possibly for reasons that have nothing to do with his writing) may need not only to put words onto paper as a raw outpouring in order to demonstrate to himself his own unimpaired competence; but may need also, and more imperatively, to see that outpouring validated, as unlikely as the prospect may be, through the unstinting admiration of others. In such a case, the writer is bound to take criticism of the writing very badly — to experience it as a personal attack.

If one participates, as I do, in an occasional public forum whose ostensible purpose is for writers to discuss their work and their struggles with it, how is one to work out whether a given writer is really seeking comments that will improve her work, or whether she is actually seeking unqualified approval and emotional support using the presentation to others of her dismal writing as a springboard or game marker?

One might also ask whether, in the latter case, one ought to tiptoe quietly away, or whether one ought to suggest ever so gently that she might better achieve her emotional goal by improving her writing rather than by defending it in its decrepitude.

For my own part, I’m quite aware (or I hope I am) when I do things in a paragraph or chapter that may be frowned on by other knowledgeable writers. I’m not always willing to change! I’m trying neither to maximize the commercial potential of my work nor to live up to some rigid and exalted standard of “good” writing. Sometimes I write a passage in a certain way just because I’m having fun. I’m satisfying my own emotional need or my own peculiar taste, and that’s all I aspire to do.

My longstanding motto is, “There are no rules for how to play with the toys.” If the novel you’re writing isn’t your favorite toy, you’re probably writing the wrong novel.

Yet at the same time, I try not to invalidate whatever criticism I receive (unless it’s plainly just wrong-headed). Sometimes other people have good ideas. Sometimes they notice things I have missed.

None of us is so smart that we don’t need a second opinion from another story doctor. If you think you’re a misunderstood genius, you’re wrong. As the Firesign Theatre once put it, we’re all bozos on this bus.

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