Wednesday, May 18, 2005

When your 'muse' is hung over.

Today I’m going to talk about something I hold very dear to my heart.

Being a writer.

That’s what I am, that’s my job, my calling…or at least I’d like it to be.

You see, unfortunately, thus far, I’ve been spectacularly unsuccessful. This blog, one or two poems and a short story published in the University Magazine is about as successful as I’ve been. As much as I adore writing, and as much as I actually write, until I get published, I can’t call myself a writer and keep a straight face. It’s like calling yourself an actor before you’ve actually acted.

Anyway, what I want to talk about today, however, is not so much writing, as writers.

You see, I’ve met a few successful writers. Some in person (Usually guest speaker day at University), some through email for research etc. But do you want to know the one thing that linked them all, be they poets, sci-fi authors, romance authors or reporters?

How normal they all where.

Just your every day average Joe’s.

What I’ve noticed, though, is that many amateur writers appear to think that all you need to call yourself a writer is an abnormal personality and a collection of funny hats. I’m talking, of course, of the amateur, tortured artist, know-it-all.

Before I begin today, many of you may wonder what qualifies me to cast aspersions on these people. Well I’ll tell you. Not a bloody thing. You see, although I see myself as a competent writer, I know I’m not a great writer, and by no means a genius.

In my defense I will tell you that I actually have a Bachelors Degree in English Language, Literature and Writing Studies, but I’ll be the first to admit that completing a degree highlights one thing more than anything else…How little you know, and how much more there is to learn.

Let me tell you a story.

Anyone who has ever studied writing will know what a writers group is…or at least what a writers group is meant to be. You meet up, read or pass around something you’re working on, and then the rest of the group criticizes it to the point of tearing it to shreds.

You have to have a thick skin, but any real writer will tell you, the critique is the most enlightening and helpful part of the process. You get first hand feedback from the most important thing in writing…your readers.

Most amateur writers miss the most basic, fundamental fact of writing. When you write, you’re writing for other people. It’s other people that are going to be reading your work, and hopefully parting with some of their hard earned cash for a copy of it. The sad truth is, it doesn’t really matter how much you like it. If you love it, and everyone you show it to hates it…it’s probably bad writing. Without criticism, your work can not, and will not improve.

Now back to my story.

My English tutor once said he’d never had a writing group like the one I was part of, and he’d probably never have one like it again. He wasn’t saying we were all particularly talented, he was pointing out the complete lack of ego we exhibited. We let fly with criticism, and also listened when we got criticized. There where no hurt feelings, and the upside was if someone said they liked what you had written, when you know they would tear it to shreds if they didn’t, you know they’re telling the truth. The result of all this was, quite simply, our work improved. When it comes to writing, honesty works. Sycophancy doesn’t

I went to one writers group meeting after University. Just one.

I was at the local library, and just through chance happened to arrive when a local writers group was meeting. I asked if I could sit in, and was invited to do so.

What these people were wearing should have tipped me off. Fedora’s, Ebony canes, flamboyant scarves. It turned out that I was in the middle of a group of retirees, who decided that in their spare time, they were going to become best selling authors. However, it turned out that these people where more interested in appearing ‘literary’ and intellectual, than actually learning to write.

The first gentleman stood up, resplendent in his huge, wide brimmed hat, numerous large silver rings and white silk scarf. He cleared his throat dramatically, and struck a pose.

(Time out here – yes, he did just that. This wasn’t a performance, he was reading some sort of novel he was working on, and he actually struck a pose!)

Remember English 101? When you where told to avoid repetition? Meaning not to write something like, ‘ the bright, shiny belt buckle laid on the bright, shiny table under the bright, shiny window.’ Apparently this guy had heard this rule. What he didn’t understand was that this rule doesn’t apply to words like ‘said’.

He read for 15 minutes, and never said ‘said’ twice. Resulting in his characters doing all kind of weird things during his dialogue.

“Jim?” David sniffed.
“Yes?” Jim coughed.
“Where are you?” David smirked
“Over by the bookcase.” Jim breathed.

I couldn’t get the image out of my head of these people twitching, sniffing, burping and having epileptic fits all over the room.

Things didn’t get much better. An hour later, we came to the “What do you think?” section. In a real writers group, this is spent about 2% of the time on what you like, 98% of the time on what you don’t. It’s just the way it works. Gushing doesn’t help, people saying things like. “The opening is weak, cut out this, and it’ll be much more hard hitting.” Lets you improve.

However, these people hadn’t got that memo.

“Sheer Genius!”
“A best seller, for sure!”

I was dumbfounded, and wondering what these people had been listening to. It really was some of the most boring, self-indulgent twaddle I’d ever heard. One author actually spent 3 pages, yes 3 pages, describing how someone’s front room was decorated, when it had nothing to do with the story…even down to what the skirting boards where made of. This happened with absolutely everything these people had written. One woman had even included a shopping trip in hers:

“She walked to aisle 3 and picked up 3 cans of beans, some toilet roll, and a bottle of ketchup. She then went to aisle 4 and picked up 2 dozen eggs, a gallon of milk and a low-fat yogurt.”

After 2 pages of this, she even went on to describe how much everything cost, how much she paid for it (including what denomination the money was), how much change she got…you get the picture.

This was met with such great applause that you’d have thought she had just written War and Peace.

That’s when it struck me. This wasn’t a writers group. This was a mutual appreciation society. Right back to pre-school, when you tell someone you think their work is excellent, just so they’ll tell you they think yours is great.

It got to my turn to give my thoughts on Mr Large Hat’s work. Here’s how it went:

Me: “I’m sorry, I didn’t like it.”

The room suddenly got deathly silent, this was uncharted territory.

Mr Big Hat “Oh?” smirk “And why is that, pray? That’s right, he actually said ‘pray’.

“Well, you where about 5 pages in before you got the hook in, you spent the first 4 pages describing your main character tending his garden, when you could have written ‘he tended his garden’, before the actual story started. You also seem to over use exotic metaphors,which doesn't fit in with the rest of your writing style and instead of writing ‘said’, you made it sound like your characters all had allergies.”

Mr Big Hat’s face went purple.

“Oh!” he shouted with a self important grin. “What do you know about it? What makes you an expert?”

“Well, I have a bachelors degree for a start.”

He was speechless for a few moments, then face went from purple to a vivid shade of puce.

“How dare you!” he said, arms waving. “This is your first time here, what gives you the right to say I can’t write?”

I sighed.

“I never said you couldn’t write, I just gave you some advice on how to make your writing more readable and effective. That’s what writer’s groups are for, to give and receive advice. If everyone just says how great everyone’s work is, how can you learn anything? Plus, I don't see how just because I'm new here makes my viewpoint any less valid.”

Mr. Big Hat exploded. For offering advice, I was an idiot, a plebian and obviously did not have a creative bone in my body, and didn’t understand his ‘art’.

I left halfway through his tirade.

You see that’s the problem with amateur writers, they set themselves up as tragically misunderstood tortured artists... It’s a great way to ignore reality and pump up that ego. If someone doesn’t like what you write, it’s not because it’s bad, it’s because they’re not clever enough to appreciate such ahead-of-its-time ‘art’ and you obviously just don’t ‘get it’.

I once read someone’s work on the internet, who seemed to think basic punctuation was optional. I wrote and told him I liked what he wrote, but he needed to work on the technical side.

I got a very rude email back telling me I didn’t know what I was talking about, that the way he wrote was his ‘style’, and “That ‘they’ have editors, you know!” I didn’t bother to write back and inform him that yes, there is a such thing as a literary editor, but putting in your capital letters, comma and periods/full stops is not their job. In fact, many agents will simply ignore a manuscript if it has obvious grammatical errors.

Sorry, people, the truth of the matter is, if more than 3 people tell you your work is crap…that’s just what it is…crap. Listen to what they say and adjust your work accordingly. If you want to fall into tried and true tortured artist’s territory and believe that everyone is wrong but you, that’s fine…just don’t actually expect anyone to publish you.

I think most people want to be writers in the same way people want to be rock stars. They want to be famous, go to book signings, see their name on the shelves, make appearances on TV.

They forget the actual writing, the long hours in front of a word processor…you know, the actual work part.

Sadly, a silly hat, cloak and jewelry does not a good writer make.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

dear writer,

You make my tummy have stitches whenever i read your postings from way over this part of the globe! keep it up!