Sunday, April 29, 2012

Writing Forums: Newbs Beware

Don't knock the title until you read the whole thing.

Last night, a close friend came over and I allowed him to read the piddly 2k words I've gotten down on paper.  (I know it's not much, but it's a solid start.)  When he finished, his comment was, "I like it, but I don't know why."  For this guy, that was a very strange response.  He reads a lot.  He's very good about knowing what he likes and he can usually tell me why something is set apart from other things he's read.

We talked over it for a while and I asked him some more specific question in search of an explanation for why he liked it.  And, after a while, he made a comment that stopped me in my tracks.  He said something along the lines of:  "I didn't like the other stuff you had me read recently.  That's why I'd get about half a chapter in and tell you I wasn't in the mood to read more.  But this is good.  You had me from the beginning until the end."

Now, to help you understand my position, let me say that my guy friend gobbles down books like I gobble down cheesecake.  In the past, his support alongside my husband's support has given me the confidence to think, "Maybe I really can do this."  He saw talent in me and pushed me to take a chance on writing, which allowed me to find fans that gave me even more confidence.

Under normal circumstances his statement would have crushed me.  I would have gotten into the mindset of "Oh my god, I'm forcing people to read like I'm back in middle school."  I would have thought I had no talent and hung my head in shame.

But it didn't hit me that way, because I already knew I'd been forcing myself for almost a year now.  I think I've mentioned it before, but it's taken a year away from AQC (a writer forum, Agent Query Connect) for my writing style to recover. 

(Before I continue, promise me you'll read all the way through.  This WILL seem like I'm bashing AQC unless you have the full picture.)

AQC and, probably, every other writing forum out there has one thing in common--people want critiques.  When I first started visiting AQC, I was no different.  I wanted people's opinions and they gave me the brutal honesty I couldn't find anywhere else in my life.  I thought their tips and 'rules' would help me transition from a hobby novelist to a published novelist.

Months and months back (we'll just round it off to a year), I took a hiatus from writing forums.   This is after I took my first novel and chucked it out for the masses.... and only had seven sales. I don't blame AQC for those poor sales.  It was my first novel and, when I wrote it, I didn't know a lot of things I know now.

I do "blame" AQC for slowing my recovery.  I put quotations around "blame" on purpose.  It's not that they did anything wrong, but that I took their advice too closely to heart.  Much of the advice they throw around has been repeated over and over again until it's become 'rules'.

Now, don't get me wrong.  In most cases, people are quoting from books on writing that were written by published novelists.  The problem is the way they have closed themselves off to other writing styles.  Here's a couple of examples:

Commonly spouted 'rule':  Limit internal monologue. 
This rule made perfect sense when it was taught to me.  There is no action when someone is having an internal monologue and, therefore, it gives the reader a chance to lose interest.

I'm sorry to say this, but it's taken me a year to realize this rule is full of crap.  Internal monologue is immensely important to good writing.  It gives the reader a chance to see inside the character's head and know their thoughts--and thoughts are the key to emotion.  
For example:  it's one thing to see a love triangle.  It's another to see inside the character's head and realize the love triangle is really a mutual love with a third wheel.  Another example:  a character is walking down the street.  The transition between destinations doesn't matter, but internal monologue can fill the space so the reader 'feels' the transition without experiencing a hiccup in the time index.

Another 'rule':  Show, don't tell.
Again, it made sense.  When you show something, it becomes more real.  It's one thing to say a cake is delicious.  It's another to describe the rich chocolate frosting and the fluffy texture that makes every sweet bite melt in your mouth.  
However--I've realized every little detail doesn't need to be shown.  Sometimes a cake is just delicious and a duckling is just yellow, damnit.  If you show everything, then nothing is special.  It's one of the things I've learned about my own writing style in the past year.  Telling can be okay!  I TELL a story, I don't SHOW it.  When I paint a picture for my reader, not every brush-stroke needs a detailed explanation.  It's okay to be a little abstract. 

I know there's a lot of writers out there who want to flog me now, but this is how I honestly feel.  The advice being handed down in through forums and blogs makes no exceptions for writing style and tries to make everyone into cookie-cutter authors.  I'm sad to say I helped propagate this method, too.

Now, here's where I hope you haven't said, 'This person is an idiot and doesn't know what she's talking about" and stopped reading, because I'm about to become a hypocrite.

The so-called 'rules' --the commonly repeated pieces of advice-- are right. And I mean all of them.  They've come to be known as rules for a reason.  They have purpose.  They have logic.  If you follow them, your technical skill will definitely improve.

But the rules don't have is a soul.

And that's where I fumbled.

Once I learned the rules to good writing, I tried to become a perfectionist and overly-conscious of my writing style.  I was so hungry for success that I chained my muse to a wall and became lost.  For the past year, I've tried until I cried to write something good, but... in the end... I'd only increased the amount of trunked drivel.

A year away gave me time to process everything.  Just as you should take time away from a manuscript between editing phases, taking time away from AQC has really helped me to define myself as an author.  I still have those 'rules' stuck in the back of my head, but I no longer feel the pressure to follow them to the letter. 

I probably need to wrap up this post, but I still have a couple of things to say.  First off, I feel incredibly indebted to AQC.  I learned a lot from going to that forum.  It made me conscious of things like those paragraphs you skim when you're reading and I learned how to tighten up my dialogue so five pages of back-and-forth could turn into a single page of relevant conversation.  It also taught me the keynotes of a good book by teaching me how to write a good query--character intro, inciting incident, conflict, and stakes.

More importantly, AQC let me know I wasn't alone.  I learned there are other people just like me who are misunderstood by friends and family because writing isn't a visual activity.  You know what I'm talking about--those people who think writers are depressed or simply crazy because they sit in front of a page all day to write something as boring as WORDS.  *rolls eyes*  It makes me want to tell people, "No, I don't want to go to your party.  The one in my head is more fun."

 I also want to say I don't regret visiting AQC.  It led me down a hard road where I lost myself for a while, but I honestly believe I'm stronger for the detour.  Everything I've written in the past year (and apparently forced my friend to read), was a stepping stone.  It allowed me to intermix the wild, unrestrained writing style from my fanfiction days with the technical style of published authors.  To be perfectly fair, I must say I don't know if the combination will make me successful, but I do think it was necessary.

Let me reiterate the title:
Writing Forums:  Newbs Beware

When most people first go to a writing forum, you probably think you're just going to find someone to give a few pointers and make a few minor changes to sentence phrasing.  Maybe you only go thinking, "I just need to know how to write a query, because my book is ready."

For a rare few, magic happens and they get snapped up by a publisher immediately.  Those are the lucky ones.  Yet, I must point out how those same writers are received by fellow writers.  You know what I'm talking about--no matter how successful a book gets, there's someone out there saying, "My goodness, did you see that first sentence?  It's a fragment (or a run-on)!  Publishers have no taste!  I won't read it!"

Or, even worse, they ask, "Where's the plot?" even though the entire novel is a wondrous journey like Alice in Wonderland.

This is exactly the type of self-destructive mindset I'm trying to warn about.  Improving technical skill is never a bad thing, but it'll eat your soul if you let it.

I'm certain someone out there will take those last two sentences and quote them out of context, so I'll add one final thing.   Writing forums are a tool.  If you're serious about writing and you're not one of the lucky few, be aware that a tool can't replace the creativity of a craftsman.  Writers often say, "It's okay to break the rules if it works."  I think this needs to be amended.

"Don't let the rules get in the way of telling your story."

It's good to open your mind, but writer's forums don't have a filter to tell you what will work with YOUR style and what won't.  Writing forums can broaden the array of literary tools in your arsenal, but you should be aware that it may take time and practice to gain the experience to recognize the time and place for each tool.


In closing, I'm going to repeat something that writers everywhere chant like a mantra:

Develop patience.

Time heals all things.  Everyone that goes to a writing forum probably has a few scars they're hiding, but I'm willing to bet those scars are being cherished...  Just as I cherish my own.


R.C. Lewis said...

Excellent points all around, Ash. I try to always remember the difference between just blurting, "Show don't tell!" and saying, "I'm not really feeling this bit here, maybe because it could use a little more 'show' in it." Not sure I'm always successful, but I try.

When it comes to critique and advice (giving and taking), I've decided I only care about three things (beyond obvious typos and errors): Is it boring? Is it confusing? Does it feel authentic?

JayMG said...

Sage advice. And I'm glad you got your mojo back. You missed out one more danger though: procrastination. I've discovered it's a thousand times more interesting to help someone hone their query than work on my own... Shame on me.

E.B. Black said...

Luckily, AQ Connect has only helped me because I see it as a type of intellectual debate. We're all struggling to figure out what makes the perfect novel and some of them are going to say ground breaking things and others are . . . . not.

My last query that I posted on there, someone tried to re-write it and completely eliminated my voice in their re-write. So instead, I looked at their advice, tried to incorporate it with my voice, and fixed my query so that it was better. Being on there has actually been working well for me.

It's also getting me ready for reviews when I actually get published and the various opinions people are going to have and how several of them will probably contradict one another.

I'm sorry it didn't work out as well for you. =(

Eli Ashpence said...

It did work out.... just not in the way I expected. By allowing myself to fall prey to outside opinion, I was forced to confront my own writing style and learn to better understand it. This post isn't a complaint against AQC. It's forewarning to new authors still hoping someone will hand them quick-and-fast rules to success. It doesn't work that way (which I already knew) and trying to attain extra skill through sheer enthusiasm can lead down a slippery slope with humble pie waiting at the bottom (which I didn't know).

As I said in my post, writing forums are a tool. :) I never meant to suggest they're harmful or something I wish I hadn't visited. In essence, I only meant to say new writers should pack band-aids, because growth can come with pain.

E.B. Black said...

Yes, definitely a lot of pain. =(