Here we are—the end of this series on the Traits of the Working Writer. And I’m glad; I’ve been getting way too metaphysical with these articles and I’m eager to get back to casual stuff; articles about Star Wars and video games.
But there’s no reason I can’t be casual, direct, and practical about this last set of Traits, so, in that spirit, let’s get right to it.
These last two Traits are at odds, just like the first two pairs. I saved this pair for last, however, because one of these traits… is something most writers are lacking—even professionals.
I’ll get to the Understanding that not everyone will love your work.
But first, I want to talk about…
The Awareness that You Might Be Infatuated with Your Work…
A young writer comes up with an idea. And they know it’s a good idea. They totally love it and that’s cool; why would anyone not love their work? Why would any writer not love their characters? After all, if they didn’t, how could their readers possibly love them? No, a writer’s love of their characters, their setting, their world isn’t the problem.
The problem comes when a writer isn’t Aware… how much they love their work. Because there are, of course, degrees to how big of a crush a writer can have on their projects. A writer may really like an idea but relegate it to a short story because they know they won’t be able to carry it as a full novel. A writer may create something they love enough to dedicate one novel to it. One may love an idea so much that they decide to make a series out of it. And, of course, all of that is totally fine.
But someone may also love a single idea, detail, concept or—even—a sentence so much that it’s destructive. To say it directly, a writer can be totally infatuated with their writing to the point where they have absolutely no gauge for what makes it good anymore. Or, more painfully, they have no way to tell if it’s actually good at all. And that is totally, totally horrible. And sad. Bulletball horrible and sad. And if you don’t know what Bulletball is, don’t look it up. Just understand that it’s really, seriously, very sad!
Suffice it to say, you need to be Aware of how into your stories you are. All writers need to be Aware that they can take that love too far, particularly because it’s easy to become infatuated with any part of your work at any time. On the plot level, you may be so in love with an event that you refuse to get rid of it no matter how little it serves your story. On the character level (and I’ve already talked about this as a Fiction Sin), it’s incredibly easy to shove your favorite character into scenes they shouldn’t be in because you want to see them there—to the extent that it becomes incredibly cloying when you, inevitably, start wedging them into every moment of the story. And, as I mentioned before, on just the level of execution, a writer can be so in love with a sentence—no, we’re taking this a step further—so in love with a slight nuance in gesture (“He shook his head with rare disapproval.”) that they would sacrifice the strength of their voice and the flow of their prose for it (instead of just, “He shook his head no,” and letting the character’s penchant for agreeing speak through his previous actions).
Any of these degrees of infatuation can strike at any moment. But not if you’re Aware that they might. Not if you give your work to fellow writers and actually read their comments. It is, of course, a slippery slope because some people just really, really suck at reading your work (other writers in particular, so go with someone you trust), but unless someone’s a total douchebag, their comments will always be based on an honest reflex. That is to say, if you suspect you’re infatuated with your work, the best way to find out is to give your work to someone else who you know will actually read it and actually criticize it. If when it comes back, you find yourself refuting absolutely everything they said, you’re probably infatuated. Because, I promise, there’s always something wrong with a work in progress. Even published works have mistakes.
And even outside of mistakes—even if your reader is just expressing a difference in preferences—there’s also something to learn from that. Namely…
… the Understanding that Not Everyone Will Love Your Work.
So, one of my friends is a man of many talents; he just naturally picks up hobbies and, somehow, does all of them well. I have no idea why or how, but the point is, one of his main hobbies when I met him was Fantasy writing. We eventually got to shopping work to each other, and he quickly warned, “I’m going to write every thought that comes to mind when I read your stuff. It’s just the way I do it.”
And man was he totally not lying. At first, it was really defeating; I’d already started to accept that my writing wasn’t perfect at that point, but this friend of mine was the one of the few to not resort to the “What manuscript?” Shuffle (Step 1: Give Friend Manuscript – Step 2: Meet Up with Friend and Watch Them Talk About Everything Under the Sun Except for Your Manuscript). So, getting pages back that were, symbolically, all red, was totally defeating. That was, of course, an extremely helpful experience though (I’m here writing this article, once again being insanely open about how bad of a writer I was, because his critiques made me honest [and actually, seriously, led me to stop being infatuated with the first version of my book]). But, there was something else that I realized in his critiques.
He really did write down every criticism that came to mind. So, naturally, a lot of it… wound up being matters of taste. And, somehow, that was extremely reassuring. Yes, the one short story had an extremely mixed up intro that absolutely confused readers; that was a clear, undeniable mistake that I learned from. But, “I really don’t dig this one character’s name,” was almost… liberating to read. Because, of course he didn’t like that name—dude was totally George R. R. Martin-centric, so of course he didn’t (my character’s name definitely wasn’t sharp, concise, and straight-forward like Martin’s are), but that didn’t mean my character’s name was actually wrong.
And that reinforced an Understanding I’d already come to from the others’ opinions of my early work (particularly in college workshops); you really cannot ever… please everyone. You will try and you will maybe assume that writing the perfect book means that you have to make everyone happy. You will, no matter what you do, reflexively want everyone to love your work and you will possible turn a colder shoulder to people who aren’t interested (maybe [we’re Fantasy writers after all, so you have to be ready for some people to not care about your writing period]).
But regardless of all of those reflexes, it is completely impossible for everyone in the world to love your writing. As I’ve said before, there’s enough dissention between two people to make universal ideas—about anything—absolutely impossible. That’s a little much, but the point is, even fans of your work won’t like a particular event in your story. Some might not like a scene or a character. Some might think one line of dialogue is painful.
The point is, nothing will ever be perfect for anyone.
And that’s not bad!
It sounds like the worst thing in the world, but it is, literally, natural; you will never escape criticism because it is part of how humanity works. That means that you cannot—ever—let the fear of criticism stop you.
This should be another paradox. The Fear Paradox?… I just want to write about Dark Souls. Seriously.
Finding the Balance
So, fuck it. Right? Why not write the story you want to write? There’s seriously nothing holding you back from choosing names and scenes and creating until your ______(s) fall(s) off.
But no! Of course there are. There are the rules of the craft itself. The wit to make tasteful decisions for your story. The devotion to practice. There’s the grace to have reverence for other writers’ work but respect for your own. There’s the need to appease your drive for perfection while also nurturing your ability to be decisive. There’s the ability to be aware when you’re crushing on your own work and the understanding that it will never be loved by everyone.
And, of course, there’s the need to realize that writing is always a give and take; it’s always a battle of balances. There are decisions everywhere—at every step of the process—and they will all impact your work, and the only person who’s qualified to make those decisions is you. A self-consciously confident, manically focused you.
Good luck! : D
Well, that’ll about do it. Thanks for reading this article (double thanks if you read all three [triple thanks if you… I thought I’d have a joke by the time I got here [I didn’t])]). I hope this series has helped and that you enjoyed reading. If you did, drop me a Like. And maybe Subscribe for more content like this… and maybe Share this article. : )
Regardless though, thanks again and, as always, write well!