Write Anyway: A Dialogue
They tell me I can’t write.
Well, not that I can’t. That I shouldn’t.
Same answer. Why do you even trust this “them” anyway?
My stories weren’t selling on Amazon, so I found a local writing critique group and started submitting segments to them. They meet in person once every two weeks, sit around a table, and each person takes a turn talking about everyone else’s writing. They seem like they know what they’re talking about.
What kind of changes do they tell you to make?
Well, the biggest problem is that my stories don’t have enough action. It means that I don’t start the story in the right away. That I don’t capture the reader’s attention in my opening paragraphs.
Ah. Yes. “Action.” This is a word that, when it comes out of a critiquer’s mouth—especially a writer-critiquer’s—you should nearly always cease paying attention to them.
But then… won’t my writing be boring?
Isn’t that a problem?
It’s not a problem if my writing bores people?
Sort of. It depends who you’re boring. Let me ask you this. Have you heard of a guy named Chuck Tingle?
Uh, yeah. That’s the Dinosaur Billionaire Forced Me Gay guy, right?
Yup. Do you think it’s possible to read his work and be bored?
Right. Lots of action. Of the sexual variety. How many neurons do you think it takes to comprehend his work on an intellectual level? Are there nuances of emotion and character to appreciate? I can see you’re choking on your own laughter, and I think you’re beginning to understand.
So… “action” isn’t necessarily good?
But there are these other writers in my writing group who tell me it’s the most important—
Stop listening to them!
What about “tension?” Is that nonsense, too?
Yes. That’s code for using plot to create the kind of “surprising” situations that will only surprise readers who aren’t paying very much, or any, attention to the narrative. It’s sad how easily dumb people’s emotions are manipulated.
Whoa. Dumb people? Isn’t that elitist?
Wait. You’re advocating my writing be elitist? That I be elitist? I don’t know if I’m comfortable with that.
To some degree, yes. Here’s the alternative: You have to accept that Space Raptor Butt Invasion is equally legitimate literature as, say, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus and The War of the Worlds. If you believe that they’re not, that we should build ourselves a literary framework that allows us to dismiss Space Raptor Butt Invasion as garbage while privileging Shelley, Wells, and other writers who have withstood the test of time and hundreds of thousands, if not millions of readers’ scrutiny across multiple centuries, then yes, you have to be at least a little bit elitist. Allow me to be even more stark about this, using an example from very recent history. This insane, postmodern mindset of aesthetic relativism, which allows the complete dismissal of the authority of both standards and experts, has just four months ago allowed sixty-three million odd people to vote against the continuation of the democratic republic as a form of government in my country. Terrifyingly, these individuals are not even aware of what they have actually done, because aesthetic relativism has allowed them to insist that all evidence that correctly depicts reality is a lie. The end result of any mindset which allows such complete and total relativism will be a fantasy world in which the absurd and grotesque demand more significance and attention than that which is legitimately good and uplifting. The believer will end up debased by his own insistence that he is right, and that the world must agreeably conform to how he believes it should be. So yes, I’m going to insist that you be at least a little elitist, as well as suggest that you will be better off as a writer if you start ignoring this ridiculous claptrap about “action” and “tension.”
Anything else you want to add to list of banned writer advice?
Well, one more, but it doesn’t have a sexy nomenclature like the other two. It’s rather context specific: if a reader tells you that they didn’t like a thing, but their explanation makes it clear that they are using only their emotional reaction as the foundation for their opinion, just ignore, ignore, ignore. This phenomenon is all over our culture in spheres beyond literature and art. It’s really hard to find any other kind of opinion, actually. Within literature, this phenomenon is frustrating, because most writers these days have read hardly anything at all. And this isn’t even genre-specific. It’s as much a problem in sf as anywhere else.
Okay, Mr. Smarty Pants. If you’re so awesome, what kind of feedback should I be soliciting?
That’s rather subjective.
Wait! Now come on. This is just too much. You go on this long, self-important spiel about the inanity of aesthetic relativism, and you follow that with the assertion that I should search for feedback that demonstrates some “intelligence” quality which you openly admit is subjective?!
Well, I guess I’ll just sit here patiently and wait for you to resolve the obvious paradox.
The paradox doesn’t have a resolution.
Our entire world is an irresolvable paradox. Endlessly pushing freedom and liberty causes their effects to fold back in on themselves into authoritarianism and oppression. In order to be good at leading, you must be good at serving others. In order to gain true power, you must be truly humble. In order to be wise, you must admit that you know nothing. The person giving you feedback is giving intelligent feedback when she is certain that she is right, but simultaneously open to learning about what you meant when you wrote what you did. She brings her own viewpoint to your work, but tries, for some brief period, to meld it with what you put into your words, and then she steps back, looks at that brief merger, and evaluates it against everything else she has ever experienced. The more other books she brings to her side (from her experience) and the better those books are, the better will be the resulting feedback, and that goes for your side, too. That’s why writers have to read. Every book you read with your attention fully engaged makes you a better writer (and probably a better human being, too). And it’s not enough to simply scan your eyes across hundreds of thousands of words, as I’m convinced most people these days are doing when they “read.” In order to have a more intelligent viewpoint, you have to actively engage. And you will never be done. There is always more human experience to explore. You will perpetually know nothing, but your opinion will rise in legitimacy relative to others over time.
This all sounds very dubious. Can you point to any piece of research, any evidence, anything else that can back up your case?
No. And I’m not interested in doing so. Mostly because this is all stuff that I feel is best (and probably only) learned from experience. This is why undergraduate literature programs are often of the format, “read a bunch of this stuff that your professors know is good and then talk/write/think about it.” The only way to really understand a good approach to literature is to experience it for yourself.
Do you have a PhD in Literature at least?
I have a BA in English Literature I got about a decade ago, which I got mostly B’s in.
Forgive me for being so blunt, but it doesn’t sound like you were very intelligent yourself back then.
I wasn’t. In fact, I was a giant idiot until about age thirty.
Why should I trust you now?
You shouldn’t. Not blindly anyway. You’ll have to arrive at your own truths. I can’t help you there. This will either resonate with you, or it won’t. The same way you can either choose to believe that climate change is real, a discernible condition, the inevitable conclusion of all evidence around you. Or you can make up your own evidence and believe whatever you want. Like that it’s a hoax invented by the Chinese government. Or the work of space raptor butt invaders with ice-sheet-melting flame throwers. And that Chuck Tingle’s writing is the emergence of a new literary form, which we can tell is legitimate because so many people are paying attention to it. Is my sarcasm coming through?
Loud and clear. While I might agree with this last point at least, I don’t think you’ve helped anything by elaborating all of this. In fact, I think you've made everything worse. I don’t know who to trust anymore!
Good. Don’t trust anyone. Most especially me. But if you now suspect people who want you to load your writing up with “action” and “tension” and omit any detail that their limited minds aren’t capable of comprehending (these people are toxic), well, I’ve made the world a little bit safer for literary complexity, and I think that is worthwhile. Perhaps, just maybe, you yourself might consider following the advice of the guy who wants you to discover your own difficult, paradoxical truths, rather than follow a bunch of dubious, rote claims about the proper structure and form of literature. Here’s a great exercise for you: get this writing group of yours to make a list of about half a dozen books whose writers they think follow the advice they espouse, then survey the results and ask yourself how individual those authors’ voices sound, how differentiated they are structurally. Ask yourself if you really want to force yourself to sound this way on the page. I went through one such exercise, and I found my list’s books appallingly similar and limited in cognitive scope. A complaint from a critiquer that your writing is “boring” is usually a compliment. It means you’ve crafted something too complex for a dumb person to comprehend.
But… If my writing’s boring, no one will read it.
No one? Or just people who fail at paying attention to the most basic of narrative details?
How about just people who find their attention wandering after two pages without a sex scene or the graphic depiction of a dismemberment to keep them interested?
How about just people who will refuse to engage with any stories that fail to reconfirm, in fantasy form, their own simplistic views of the world and their place in it, a reflected world, which shamelessly indulges and aggrandizes the reader’s ego? How about just people who want their literature to be an opiate and aphrodisiac, rather than a gateway to expand their cognition?
That last argument sounds a lot like the one made by proponents of literary realism as the only valid genre.
It’s similar, sure. But their assertion is the scary, extremist opposite of aesthetic relativism: aesthetic authoritarianism. There is some truth to the realist’s claims that sf is self-indulgent and vulgar, at least with regards to some individual works. They are wrong when they try to make claims about the entire genre aesthetic on this basis.
I see. This is that whole “some elitism is okay” thing, right?
So, I should ignore the people who tell me to add more “action?”
And ignore the people who tell me to add more “tension?”
And I should read a lot, and find other people who read a lot, and we share our writing, and we learn from reading each other’s writing by reading it and talking about it?
And we don’t talk exclusively about how we emotionally respond to writing, but a composite of how we intellectually and emotionally react, using everything we’ve read before as a framework?
Most people will ignore me.
They’ll tell me I’m boring.
They’ll tell me I can’t and shouldn’t write.
I know. Write anyway.