The Art of Being Uncomfortable

Much about writing is uncomfortable, the biggest being, “Am I good enough?” But in that quest to figuring out whether your writing sings from the heavens or scrapes along the sidewalk depends on asking questions. Lots of them.

In the many writing boards I frequent and conferences I attend, I’ve begun to notice an interesting pattern regarding the questions. Well, not the questions, but the reactions to the answers. A writing, editing, or publishing question will be asked and the opinions start flying in like space monkeys. Now, to my way of thinking – and not just because I’m an editor – is that the smart money is on the answers coming from those who have the most experience in the industry.

But it’s really quite amusing to see how many authors – usually the noobs – collect all the advice and thank only the person whose opinions most closely match their own, whether it’s good advice or not. “Oh thank you, Betty Lou, for telling me that I don’t need to learn how to use commas.” or “Thanks so much, Frankie, for verifying that I don’t need to worry about what genre my book is.”

Ouch. Very ouch. Sure, I can sit on my delicate throne, where the beagle fans me with fresh palm fronds, and chortle at their blunder. But I don’t. Instead I feel a sense of frustration because we’re all about helping. Educating. And just like a visionary, I can see this author writing off into the sunset with his saddle unhitched and a hole in his water bags.

I know, I know, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink. I got that. But when one sees as many struggling writers as I do, I begin to wonder about the ratio of those who follow advice of those who closely resemble their own, and thus shoot their own foot.

My feeling is don’t ask the question unless you’re prepared for an honest answer that may make you uncomfortable.

How do you feel about adverbs?

  • Editor: Just like Twinkies, they’re better in small quantities.
  • Friend: Rules? We don’t need no steenkin’ rules that stifle our writing! Adverbs are colorful and enhance. The more, the merrier.

Can I have a ton of ellipses/em, en dashes / semi-colons?

  • Editor: Not if you have an aversion to a ton of rejection letters. Just because J.K. Rowling uses them to ad nauseum doesn’t mean you can. Or should. It can interrupt flow and pacing.
  • Friend: It’s a part of writing and perfectly correct.

Do I have to worry about spelling and comma usage?

  • Editor: Abso-freaking-lutely.
  • Friend: Don’t let this concern you. That’s for the copy editors to work out. Your job is to just write.

These easy answers allow you to make all sorts of blunders that will more than likely yield a lot of heartache downstream. Your friends may be well-meaning and even published authors. But their reality may only work for them due to their particular editor, writing style, or genre. Since  you prefer their answer, you end up fooling no one but yourself.

I know that it’s hard to hear that your five POV switches in one scene isn’t acceptable because this will force you to do some major rewrites. Same goes for those with an unnatural affection for ellipses, en/em dashes, exclamation points. What you thought was great, isn’t. What you hoped would work, didn’t. And this forces you to either make a change to your writing, or collect lots of rejection letters.

The purpose of asking a question isn’t to find someone who will agree with you, but to obtain knowledgeable answers from insiders who are in the best position to guide you along a successful path. And yah, that can be downright uncomfortable. But that’s what makes us better, right?

10 Responses to The Art of Being Uncomfortable

  1. Marian says:

    My editor said the same thing about my ellipses and semi-colons. I spent the Christmas break taking out about 95% of them.

  2. Julie Rowe says:

    Many writers want permission to ignore the “rules”. The problem is they don’t have enough knowledge or experience to understand WHY you shouldn’t POV switch 5 times in one scene. That kind of understanding takes time and a lot of work.

  3. Marian, I’m glad you listened to your editor. ‘Course, you don’t really have much of a choice, do you? Heh.

    Julie: All too true. Ignoring/not understanding certain writing rules while a writer is still green is one of the biggest career killers.

  4. Jason Black says:

    This is the down-side to social proof and the law of credibility: when a bunch of other equally clueless people are saying what you selfishly hope is true, it bolsters your own belief however wrongheaded it may be. And humans inherently trust clueless people they know more than experts they don’t, so the friend’s off the cuff bad advice always carries more weight than it should.

    I know it’s frustrating to see this sort of thing happening. As a freelance editor, I’m the one who gets (poorly) paid to clean up the messes.

    If there is any consolation, it is this: people who are committed to their craft, who are serious about writing as an art and a profession, will clue in pretty quickly to the fact that 99% of the people on sites like that do not actually know what they’re talking about, and they’ll start making connections with people who do. Those are the writers who will do ok for themselves, and who are in the end the ones we WANT to do well for themselves.

    As for the rest? Well, every field has its wannabes…

  5. angela says:

    So true. But learning to take constructive criticism is all part of the process. I find with critiques, the ones that are the hardest to take are the ones that I pay the most attention to. They often lead to epiphanies.

    Even if I don’t ultimately agree or use the advice, critiques like this are still gold. Right or wrong, it’s an opportunity to see my manuscript in a different light, and I can then question my motives, challenging myself on why I’ve done something a certain way.

    Great post!

  6. Steve says:

    If a writer you personally admire and love to read breaks the rules and is successful – perhaps wildly so – why not try to figure out how they got away with it instead of blindly following the conventional wisdom. If they did it, it obviously can work. Figuring out how and why it works will make you a better wirter. Following conventional advice will cause you to write like everybody else who follows conventional rules. That only makes sense if that is really the kind of writing you aspire to do.

    Why not choose the harder road, accept the greater number of rejections, and struggle through to write in the style that you genuinely connect with – and hopefully make it work, as others have.

    -Steve

  7. Steve, the reason your favorite author gets away with anything and everything is because he sells a ton of books. In an editor’s mind, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That’s not to say they don’t get edited, but they’ve already proven to have a very wide readership.

    I’m not saying it’s a bad idea to analyze your favorite authors, but the new writer doesn’t have the luxury of a built-in readership standing in long lines to buy their book. Considering how many authors are rejected, conventional advice would be to do what will get an agent or editor to take your work seriously. Multi-POVs in one scene rarely get a second glance – unless you’re a very gifted writer.

    And if you are a gifted writer, you won’t be wondering whether it’s ok to break the rules. You’ll just go ahead and do it with great confidence.

  8. Steve says:

    Hi Lynn, and thanks for the response. I might not have been completely clear. I meant “get away with” in the artistic sense more than the commercial sense, although obviously the two are connected. I think of “good writing” as what communicates well to one’s readers. Conventional advice is based on the perception, often accurate, that certain devices often get in the way of that communication. But a successful writer who nonetheless uses (say) adverbs has obviously found a way to “de-toxify” them, and use them to enhance their writing rather than detract from it. In fact, I suspect that writers who successfully break rules are probably among the most talented, and thus the best ones to learn from.

    For example, I was re-reading Robert Heinlein’s “Between Planets” the other day. In one chapter in particular, his main character, Don Harvey, speaks adverbially in almost every third sentence of dualogue. It really helped me as a reader to visualize the emotional tone of the dialogue when Heinlein tells me how Don delivers a sentence that might mean something quite different if made as a flat statement And at one point Heinlein even specified THAT – it was in the context of a heated argument, and Don’s flat matter-of-fact delivery in the context of intense emotion gave the perfect impression of a coiled spring ready to explode. So sure, adverbs (or any other commonly abused device) can suck. But they can also rule. And Heinlein proved it.

    -Steve

  9. Oh I totally agree with you in this respect, Steve. I’m not saying NEVER use an adverb. That’s just plain silly. But like my singing, they’re more effective in small doses. New writers don’t usually understand that concept, hence writing guidelines.

  10. MagicMan says:

    It all boils down to effort, does it not? If you are willing to think, figure out why a comment was made, determine if that comment applies to your work with an open mind, and then proceed to action or ignore, then you have made the choice. Is it the right choice? Experience will answer that.

    Now if your sure your perfect, then forget the question. Display your treasure and request the laudits and tell those who disagree not to bother with a response.

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