Part 2: The Moral Obligation of the Mentoring Writer

Part II of the Moral Obligation of the Mentoring Writer:  Everybody Knows it All, but Nobody is Actually Doing it

I had to expand on the moral obligation of the mentoring writer.  I have discovered another alarming trend in my writing groups.  That trend is “writers” who post rules and tips that they have taken from other blogs/sites/books/self help novels/etc. While doing this is fine (when proper credit is given, mind you), what really annoys me is the amount of people who are leaving comments telling these posters how great “their” advice is when it isn’t really their advice at all.  While lending a helping hand is well and fine, I feel a bit let down by the sheer volume of people who are looking up to these posters as “mentors” when they are not giving advice based on their own experiences as a writer.  If you have not actually written anything of your own, then how can you possibly understand the advice and rules that you are copying and pasting into a writing lesson?  It is disturbing to me as a writer that people would rather take the ‘advice’ of someone who actually has never really written anything over the wisdom of one who has been there, done that, gotten the book deal.

On the topic of these rules, it goes back to telling budding writers that “doing this instead of that” will cause the audience to get confused/not want to read it/etc.  The number one rule that I see posters of these courses make is to either tell people or suggest to them that doing things a certain way is better than doing them another way.  I have said many times that there are very few written-in-stone rules when it comes to writing.  And the only ones that I can think of that could possibly be universal are misspelled words and missing paragraph indentions (translate:  giant wall of text with no paragraph breaks in them).  And even misspelled words are okay if they are used in the dialogue of a character.  It is my opinion that telling people that following a specific set of rules will make them a better writer is ill advice. 

Let me give an example.  On an adult writing forum, a poster recently began posting a story based on her life.  I will not go into detail in regards to the storyline.  This member asked me to read her story and give her honest feedback on how it sounded because she greatly valued my opinion as a writer.  We will call her ‘Jane.’ Now as a writer, I do not base my opinion on a story the way most people do.  A lot of people think that if the idea is good, then the writing is good as well.  I hate to break it to you if you are one of those who think this way, but a good idea and good writing do not go hand in hand.  I have read many books that had a great idea but the telling of that idea was not nearly as good as it could have been, making what could have possibly been a fantastic story into a mediocre retelling.  Learning to write well has very little to do with following certain rules.  The bottom line for writers is to grab their readers’ attention and keep it.  Following rules does not always do that.

I read Jane’s story.  Misspelled words aside, there were fragmented sentences, run on sentences, improper use of punctuation, among other things.  The spelling and punctuation could have been cleaned up.  However, I would not have touched the fragmented sentences or run on sentences if you paid me to.  Why you ask?  Isn’t writing about following writing rules and making it look perfect?  In my opinion, no.  Writing is about getting and keeping your audience’s attention.  Janet not only captured her audience’s attention, but their heart and admiration as well.  Her informal approach to writing drew her readers in, tugged on their heart strings, and left them begging for more.  She broke so many writing ‘rules’ that an editor would have thrown it out with the trash.  But it worked for her. 

Notice I said it worked for her.  It will not work for everyone.  Some people will do better by following rules.  However, the ‘rules’ of writing will not make you a good writer, or a better writer, or make you more creative.  Good writing is something that evolves over time.  It is about finding your inner writing voice, discovering what works best for you as a writer, and going with it.  If that means breaking all the rules, then go for it.  If that means following all the rules to the letter, then go for it.  At the end of the day, what constitutes a good story is the person who is reading it.  Every publishing company in the world can think it is great, but if there isn’t an audience for it then it is not worth the paper it is printed on.  It is why there are thousands of really great stories out there that have never been published by traditional means.  And it is also why there are thousands of books out there in publication that are gathering dust on a shelf.  A good story, after all, will always be in the mind’s eye of the reader.

N. C. Matthews

You are not a Special Snowflake – When it Comes to Writing, that is

I’ve heard writers say this all the time.  You are not special, you are not going to make it ‘big,’ you are not so great and so wonderful at what you do that publishers will want to snatch you up lickety split.  Well you sure as hell better be.  Because if you are not setting yourself apart as a writer then you sure better have one hell of an ego then. 

As a writer, you are going to have to have something that will set you apart from all the other writers out there.  Whether that be a fan-fucking-tastic storyline that no one has ever come across before,  a really unique style of writing, or even an ability to be the best weaver of a literary plotline in publication, you better make yourself into an individual snowflake somehow or else your work is going to get lost in a sea of all the other mediocre material floating around in publication land.

People are going to tell you that you are not the next Anne Rice, or Stephen King, or Stephanie Meyer, etc.  Believe it or not, that is actually a good thing.  Seriously, because who in their right mind wants to be like them?  If I want to read someone who writes like Anne Rice, I’ll go read Anne Rice, because anybody else is just going to be a very poor imitation.  Same thing with Stephen King, Charlene Harris, Laurell K. Hamilton, Stephanie Meyer, etc.  The most important thing you can do as a writer is write like you and stop trying to be like other famous writers.  Stop trying to be “the next -insert famous writer’s name here-” and just be you. 

That’s not to say that you will not have to abide by some basic English rules.  Incomplete sentences are fine, in moderation.  But don’t expect an entire 400 page novel with nothing but fragmented sentences to suddenly make you famous.  It might make you infamous…and very embarrassed if critics are talking about how poorly you write as opposed to what a fantastic story you have weaved.  Misspelled words?  Only if you are trying to imitate a Cajun accent during dialogue.  Actually, about the only time misspelled words could possibly be excusable is within a character’s dialogue with himself or another character.  Feel free, however, to make up a word…if it gets used a lot in the story (remember Laurell K. Hamilton using the term “wereanimals” when she referred to any type of lycanthrope in her stories) .  And all those too/to/two and there/their and but/butts being used incorrectly are not going to get you anything but a big, fat, red “rejection” stamp on the front cover of your manuscript.

Now about your ego.  Yes, it pays to have an ego.  Otherwise you are going to get stomped on by every writer, publisher, agent, critic, reader, editor, etc. that comes across your work.  That is not to say that you do not have any room for improvement.  Even Anne Rice is always pushing herself to the limits.  After all, you are only as good as your latest novel.  So yes, take criticism for what it is:  constructive, deconstructive, or at-a-glance (see articles on Criticism:  the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) and adjust your work accordingly.  But never take, “you are not good enough to make it in the publishing world” as a final answer.  Seriously.  There are tons of really bad writers who get book deals all the time.  Just ask anyone who has ever read a lousy book.  We’ve all been there.  Ever remember picking up a book, start reading it only to think to yourself, ‘How the hell did this jackass ever get a book deal?’  This is where that whole “a good story is in the mind’s eye of the reader” thing comes into play.  Trust me, when you are a writer then there are two things that will happen, regardless of how good or bad of a writer you are.  One, you will have someone out there who will absolutely love your work.  And two, you will have someone out there who will absolutely hate your work.  Your goal, as a writer, is to get as many people who like your work together, interested, and purchasing your work as possible.

Everyone thinks that they are a really great writer.  And if, at the end of the day, your grammatical mistakes and misspelled words have went the way of the dodo and you honestly do not think that anything could possibly make the story better, then sure, think that.  Just don’t expect others to think it.  Because if you are going to boast about how great of a writer you are, then you had better be able to back it up.  Now stop and think about this.  If you are going to start selling books/ebooks, then you are basically saying to the world, “Here, I wrote this.  I think it’s pretty good.  Read it and tell me what you think.”  Yes, when you put your work out there for others to read, you are inviting them to give you feedback whether you want it or not.  And if you think that is not how the publishing world works, then you are sadly mistaken and maybe even a bit naive.  It’s time to put on your big boy pants and smell the coffee.  Even books that are sitting in the top spot on the New York Times Bestseller list have critics bashing them all the time.  It’s their job.  Your job is to decide if what they say has any actual merit to it and adjust your work accordingly.  Better yet, set out to prove the nay-sayers wrong by writing something even better than your last work.  Nothing says, “F – U!” like a few thousand fans telling critics that they are idiots.

Now, all you snowflakes go out there and make something of yourselves.  After all, being special means nothing if no one else knows it.