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

The Moral Obligation of the Mentoring Writer

As a writer, I belong to several writing groups, forums, and websites.  One of which is called The Writer’s Cafe.  One thing that I find particularly valuable is the site’s option to allow writers to create “writing courses” and “writing lessons” that are viewable by other members.  Now this site has a fairly large number of impressionable, young budding writers.  Some of these young writers are gathering quite a following of other impressionable, young budding writers, which is to be expected.  What concerns me is that some of these writers are posting “writing courses” that are little more than personal opinions and bad advice.  This in itself is nothing to really be concerned with.  What does concern me is that there are young writers following these posters, posters who have very little real world knowledge or exposure to the writing world.  These same followers are taking the bad advice and opinions as gospel truth when it comes to writing.

With such concern on my mind, I wanted to explore the moral obligation of writers who are seen as mentors.  I have been writing for some twenty-eight years now, but I have had no formal training besides the courses forced upon me in college and high school.  I am by no means an expert on writing.  What I do have, however, is twenty-eight years of wisdom at my disposal that I can share with others.  I can share my thoughts, my personal experiences, tricks and tips that I have picked up, tricks that work for me, what doesn’t work for me, what I have learned from trial and error, etc.  They are, of course, only opinions and personal experiences.  That is not to say that what I have to share has no merit.  I could certainly sit down and write an entire book on writing.  My point is that what I have are opinions formulated over twenty-eight years of tried and true wisdom.  For those who wish to partake of it, it may or may not help you.

My major concern is that all those young budding writers are being given bad advice and opinions, and they are too young to even realize that what their ‘mentor’ is giving them is just that…an opinion based on a very limited writing experience.  For instance, one ‘writing course’ I came across written by a 16 year old has over 200 followers.  In one course she told her readers to accept all criticism.  While this may sound like good advice, for those of us with more writing experience, that advice makes it painfully obvious that the poster has never been exposed to hard-out, cut-to-the-bone critics whose sole purpose is to rip a piece of work to shreds.  A more experienced, wiser writers knows that all criticism is not created equal.  The simple advice of ‘accept all criticism’ leaves out a lot of good lessons to be learned, such as the difference between constructive and deconstructive criticism.  For this poster’s 200+ followers, it is a lesson that could have spared them a lot of heartache.  Unfortunately, it is a lesson they will not likely get from a 16 year old with limited writing experiences and exposure.

As a writer, I do not believe that there is necessarily a “right” and “wrong” way to write.  Every writer is different and unique.  What works for one will not work for another.  So I do not think it would be fair to tell someone ‘if you follow these rules, you will become a better writer.’  I don’t believe anyone can make that guarantee, no matter how good they are, how many years they have been writing, or how popular they are.  What I can say is that I have experience as a writer and wisdom to share.  I can give you my views, I can give you some ‘universal truths’ that I have discovered over my years as a writer, and I can try to guide you along and help you find your own unique writing voice.  To tell anyone anything different would be morally wrong.  There is nothing that I or anyone else can tell you that will definitely make you a better writer.  So take my advice for what it is:  advice.  And my advice is that, in the end, it is up to the individual writer to find out what works best for them.

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.

A Good Story is in the Mind’s Eye of the Reader

It has always been my opinion that a good story is in the mind’s eye of the reader. Just as beauty is subject to the person who is doing the viewing, a good story, or movie, or art, or piece of music is subject to the person who is partaking of the piece of art. I have always believed in ‘live and let write.’

Needless to say that for every book written, piece of music composed, piece of art produced, or movie directed, there is going to be at least one person, and in some instances quite a few people, out there who hates the work. What’s more, these people insist upon sharing their criticism of said work with anybody and everybody who will listen to them. I use to wonder what made these people such experts on the created art form. Had they ever written a book, composed a piece of music, produced a piece of art, or directed a film? Chances are, no, they haven’t. So why criticize? For the most part, critics get paid to share their opinion. For those who go against the general public’s feelings on said work, the critic can get quite famous, or infamous, for having their apparent distaste published on some type of public medium. This, of course, translates in to more papers/magazines/air time sold. So for some, it literally pays to publicly bash a work of art.

Other ‘critics’ are those who do not get paid to share their personal thoughts regarding a piece of art. Some people do it because a piece of work hits them so strongly that they just have to share their feelings, whether they be positive or negative. Others will publicly bash a piece of art because they like the attention that it brings them, even if that attention is negative, much like their paid counterparts who bash a movie that the general public loves. And still others will attempt to openly humiliate the creator of the work of art simply because he/she is jealous of the creativity that the creator possesses.

I’ve made it clear that I have always thought that I was a pretty good writer.  Not great, mind you, but fairly decent.  I spend an absurd amount of time researching, making notes, creating characters, outlining events and deciding on what plot twists I want to integrate into a story. And then there were the endless months, and sometimes years, spent writing the story, proofreading it, editing it, re-reading and re-doing and sometimes throwing out whole chapters and story endings only to replace them with something I thought would be even more bizarre or fun or just plain silly. All in all, I pour my heart, soul, blood, sweat, and tears into the work that I produce. I was praised by English instructors, won writing contests, received awards, been told by family and friends that I was a very talented author.

Loving the written word, I joined many role playing forums and games over the years as an outlet for my very active imagination. I enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of being around so many talented writers. What was more, those talented writers thought that I was a very talented writer as well.

With encouragement from a growing fan base, I decided to go more ‘mainstream’ and began posting a few of my stories out on the web. Now I know you can’t please all the people all the time, but I was completely unprepared for the outright rudeness of some people. It was quite the eye-opener. I was amazed at the number of people who had never written anything in their life who seemed to think that they were experts on what made a story good or bad. But, as I’ve said, a good story is in the mind’s eye of the reader. So to each his own.

Another thing that I was unprepared for, and something that still boggles my mind, is the whole popularity thing that goes on with some sites. Readers apparently don’t know that a good idea and good writing do not go hand in hand. I have seen readers fall all over themselves to praise a writer who sounds like they barely made it out of the first grade.  

I’ve always said that I do not think on an elementary level, therefore I do not write on an elementary level. Since I have a tendency to write above a lot of people’s heads, I assumed that I would get a lot of backlash on my use of compound and complex sentences. I also like to write without any regards to formal English composition rules, so my work often sounds more like someone is giving an oral recount of the story rather than it reading like a story that was written down for public consumption. It’s just my style, and I have gotten many, many compliments on how this style makes the reader feel like they are right in the thick of the story. Of course, with the good comes the bad, as in plenty of bad reviews on my lack of attention to the proper English writing rules. Well, rules be damned. I’m not turning this in for an assignment.

On the flipside of the elementary coin were the writers who would write with the same complexity that I so enjoy using in my own work. I have gotten complaint after complaint regarding my work being too hard to comprehend because of my complex writing style. It made me wonder if these other writers, who so many readers were fawning all over, had the same problem. The more complaints and insults that I received, the more I began to doubt my ability as a writer. Could I possibly be as bad as some people wanted me to believe? Writing was not, and is not, a hobby of mine. I have been cranking out literary works for over twenty-eight years, a fine feat for someone who has not yet hit her thirty-sixth birthday. Surely someone with that kind of experience could not be all that bad. So what did all those other writers possibly possess that brought in tens of thousands of readers to their work? What was I lacking?

In a word, confidence. I was doing what everyone else was not doing. I was letting assholes bring me down and second-guess myself and my talent. I found that I was always having to defend my work. But so were the other writers. The only difference was that I was apologizing for my work.

Well, I refuse to apologize any more for producing the fruits of my imagination. They may not be the best in the world, and I certainly never claimed to be the best writer. But I am a good writer. A damn good writer. I have the tens of thousands of readers to back up this statement. What’s more important, perhaps the most important thing, is that I like the way I write. I like my ideas and my writing style and my overall pieces of literary work. At the end of the day, I feel that I have produced something worth reading. I don’t care if other people think I use too many adjectives or adverbs or complex sentences. I wrote it a certain way for a reason.

So the bottom line is, if you can’t appreciate the fruits of my labor, then I wholeheartedly say ‘Fuck you, and the horse you rode in on!’

As a writer, you have to be prepared to get all kinds of criticism:  the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Some of it you might can use, but most of it you will probably be able to toss out with the trash.  Whatever you do, don’t let the occasional asshole persuade you to think that you can’t write.  That’s not to say that there will never be room for improvement.  But knowing the difference between criticism that can help make your work better and words slung by someone who was obviously out to ruffle your feathers can go a long way in soothing your hurt feelings…and possibly even give you a good laugh.