Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Writers: Are We Always Honest With Each Other? Just Curious ...

In an ironic twist of fate, I get most of my harshest critiques from non-writers – they seem to be the only ones without a filter when it comes to telling you what they think of your work. They’ll tell you everything, in a very unflinching manner. The problem is, do I take it seriously, or do the opinions of actual ‘writers’ matter more?

Upon finding out I was writing a book, a work-friend of mine recently declared that he too was a writer, had four or five books written, actually. He offered to bring in a few chapters for me to read – and I reluctantly agreed.

Big mistake.

Every time someone brings me something they wrote, especially someone who announces that they are suddenly a ‘writer’ I start to get this yucky feeling in my stomach. The work they hand me is usually so bad that I suppress the urge to light the thing with a match. And here’s the worst part; they always want an opinion! I used to smile and nod, and give my most upbeat speech, truth being so unruly and all … until I realize that its disingenuous. This poor schmuck wanted some real advice – so I decided that I would start being honest for a change. So I told him:

Your sentences run on too long. You realize there’s half a page without a comma or a period here??

When you write, don’t describe a guy going into the fridge, getting a beer, opening the beer, walking out to his backyard, sitting in his lawn chair, and taking another sip of beer. Shorthand!

Don’t reveal the entire story so soon or you’ll have no place to go with it.  Your book will be over in three chapters.

Plausibility!  Would this character really do this? Or That?

Does  your computer have Spell Check?

Oh, the guy is an alien named Stan? Real name Xartona? 

The basis of gravitas in a novel: Believable characters! 

Do you realize that all your character’s names start with a ‘J’ ?  Sounds like a Dr. Seuss convention.

Something must happen in every scene, otherwise its useless!  Why is your protagonist just sitting there?  Make him do something.

You sent this to a publisher??

Is this a children’s book, or …?

By the time I was finished, he looked like someone had kicked him in the groin. He had that thousand mile stare that writers get when they’ve just been lambasted by the truth. Another thing; unless he really put time and effort into the craft, he’d never be a writer. Writing is not a part time gig: you have to be committed because it’ll show in the work. I can tell when someone just ‘throws’ something together. I’ve been around.

I felt bad afterward of course; the truth was harsh. Is this why writers refrain from telling their peers the truth about their writing?

In all my time writing, only a few people have been honest with me – two are writers, and the rest are friends and family. Family will be honest with you if it suits them; most of them don’t think you’ll amount to much anyway, so they’ll gleefully tell you your story is lame and they’d never buy the book. Friends will generally look out for you and tell you if your story is good – or if it’s embarrassing.  And don't ask your mom, she'll love it no matter what. 

Fellow writers, on the other hand, will just blow smoke up your ass (which has its merits too)

Call it professional courtesy, or politeness, or distance, but getting a writer to give you an honest opinion is like getting a straight answer out of a politician. And the ones who do tell you a thing or two end up sounding a tad arrogant, at least to us sensitive types (I include myself in that).  Maybe we're just too nice ...

But here's a breakthrough - use this line whenever you want an honest opinion of your work from a peer:

Come on, don't bullshit me!

It worked for Schwarzenegger! So folks, let’s have a little honesty among us writers. How can we get better unless we’re straight-up with each other? Not telling me that my story is the biggest hunk of garbage ever written is kinda like letting me walk down the street with a smudge of mustard on my face …

Random Samplings For Your Consideration

Five common traits of good writers: 

(1) They have something to say.
(2) They read widely and have done so since childhood.
(3) They possess what Isaac Asimov calls a "capacity for clear thought," able to go from point to point in an orderly sequence, an A to Z approach.
(4) They're geniuses at putting their emotions into words.
(5) They possess an insatiable curiosity, constantly asking Why and How.

— James J. Kilpatrick

(1) the Muse visits during, not before, the act of composition, and

(2) the writer takes dictation from that place in his mind that knows what he should write next.

- from a review by Roger Ebert

Writer's Resolution

Enough's Enough! No more shall I

Pursue the Muse and scorch the pie

Or dream of Authoring a book

When I (unhappy soul) must cook;

Or burn the steak while I wool-gather,

And stir my spouse into a lather

Invoking words like "Darn!" and such

And others that are worse (Oh, much!)

Concerning culinary knack

Which I (HE says) completely lack.

I'll keep my mind upon my work;

I'll learn each boresome cooking quirk;

This day shall mark a new leaf's turning...

That smell! Oh Hell! The beans are burning!"

— Terry Ryan (The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less)

"The imagination doesn’t crop annually like a reliable fruit tree. The writer has to gather whatever’s there: sometimes too much, sometimes too little, sometimes nothing at all. And in the years of glut there is always a slatted wooden tray in some cool, dark attic, which the writer nervously visits from time to time; and yes, oh dear, while he’s been hard at work downstairs, up in the attic there are puckering skins, warning spots, a sudden brown collapse and the sprouting of snowflakes. What can he do about it?" — Julian Barnes (Flaubert's Parrot)

An old racetrack joke reminds you that your program contains all the winners' names. I stare at my typewriter keys with the same thought."
— Mignon McLaughlin

"Man, wow, there's so many things to do, so many things to write! How to even begin to get it all down and without modified restraints and all hung-up on like literary inhibitions and grammatical fears..." — Jack Kerouac

"..the writer’s obsession – the desire to know and communicate, or, rather, to know everything so as to communicate with the greatest degree of precision." — Ivan KlĂ­ma

"I enjoy writing, I enjoy my house, my family and, more than anything I enjoy the feeling of seeing each day used to the full to actually produce something. The end." — Michael Palin

"That isn't writing at all, it's typing." — Truman Capote

Thanks for stopping by the Den ... honest opinions of this post will be ignored!

David Hunter >>

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