Saturday, March 31, 2012

10 Myths about Writing

The word myth has a negative connotation that often translates into “wrong.” That’s probably because the only times we refer to something as a myth or legend is when it isn’t true, otherwise it would be “history” or “fact.”

I’m not about to rock the boat.

1. Quality can be objectively analyzed.
We all know that quality is subjective, based on the person, the culture, the mood the audience is in, their preconceived notions about the work, etc. But unlike a product such as a car or a hamburger, the art world doesn’t have absolute rules of literary quality.

A good car is durable, energy efficient, and comfortable. Although not every good car has those traits, people cannot disagree about the durability when the car falls apart. Even when they can/do, there are scientific means to prove its quality. It has its own subjectivity in that we want pretty cars too, and we can disagree on "pretty" that means, but there are still obvious characteristics that a designer can always aim for.

A good book is be interesting, clear, and believable. Every reader won’t be interested by, understand, or believe the same thing. To some, romance stories are far more absorbing than action. Whether it be due to personality, culture, or some other extra feeling, neither side can prove that their favorite book is of a high quality. At best, we can point out problems with other stories.

When writing, a person cannot be thinking about making a great book without redefining their personal definition of “great” because there is no outside force telling us what that is.

2. The story was rejected because it was “bad.”
In the T.V. show, Daria, the girl sends in a short story and it gets rejected to which she responds, “I knew it wasn’t good enough.” This is a common mentality among writers about their own work and others, and it isn’t true. Boring, cliché things get made all of the time. Thrilling stories can be rejected for years. For the same reasons as discussed above, it is wrong to believe that a rejection says anything about your work.

It could be because it’s boring, predictable, and typo ridden. It could be because the agent hated the characters. It could very well be that she received twenty other short stories with the exact same premise. An fiction judge once told the story about how she read 50 tales in which about half had a male main character carrying around a Russian novel, all of which she tossed into a pile and didn’t look twice at. It could be she read the first sentence and hates it when authors start with the word “just.” There is no way of knowing why they didn’t pick yours.

Rejection is a terrible way to identify the “quality” of your work, not just because you don’t know why he or she said no, but also because you don’t know his personal preferences, what others submitted, what mood she was in, or, quite frankly, how good at his job he is.

3. You can’t judge your own work.
Considering that I believe in no quality, it comes down to that you are the best person to say if your work succeeded. You’re the only one with a clear idea what you were trying to do. This opinion that we need others to tell us our mistakes comes from the idea that some people overestimate their own abilities.

A more common way of saying this is, “You’re too close to your own work.” This is true. Our brains work by making specific connections. I say “cat,” you think, “dog.” But sometimes a person associates something understandable, but different, like “cat” and “sleep.” You know where all the "seams" are, you know what's going to happen next, and you are consumed by blinding-fear. When reading something you wrote you want it to be good, think it's probably bad, know what you actually meant, and don't realize when your assumptions are different than a reader's.

However, to think that we can’t judge our own work can't be true. Before you are a published writer, you are the only one who will edit your work. You may be lucky and get a teacher or a peer, or even have the money to hire a professional editor, but in the end, you’re the only one who can get it good enough to get to a place to be edited. Getting other's help is great, but trusting your gut and even analysis is important too.

4. Authors should strive for terse sentences.
Terse, meaning short, sweet, and to the point, has been a parroted phrase for writing teachers across the world. If you haven’t yet had someone tell you that short, simple sentences are better, just wait. There is nothing wrong with Hemingway-esque stories except in that if everyone styled after the drunk, it would be dull. People tend to be wordy and put on airs in their writing, yes, so advisers often assume that to balance it out by telling everyone not to do it.

The main goal writers can count on is variation. If you have a hard time being to the point, then trying it for a while can’t hurt, but doing it for the sake of doing it will just put you at a disadvantage.

5. The whole “said” thing.
This goes off number four. We’ve heard this one before: “Don’t ever use said.” Or, just as often, “Always use said.”

The problem this piece of advice is trying to solve is that often dialogue verbs (said, shouted, laughed) are redundant or contradictory.

However, too many saids can be just as distracting as hollered and sobbed. To use said or not to use said is a lot more complicated than "Don't."

6. The myth that practice helps technique, but can't change talent.
Technique is the act of making conscientious decision to improves a person’s ability. Talent is the subconscious, unaware ability. Practicing cements a habit. It affects the subconsciousness so the artist no longer has to think about the technique but now does it "naturally."

People (my professors) often think talent is an innate trait that cannot be improved; if I have to think about the correct "you're" to put in this sentence, I will always have to think about the correct "you're." But, actually, the reason to practice is all about making us not have to be conscious of the technique or change.

When we write a lot for a long time, we get better, but we are not aware of it. An author who sits down and types out a page without a lot of forethought and outlining will write much better than a person of the same age who outlines and plans, but doesn't write at all.

Talent is changed by practice. The more we do something the less we have to try to do it next time.

7. Harsh criticism is the best kind of criticism.
Insincere criticism is harmful in any situation. Someone who tells you they like it when they don't might as well not have said anything at all. Someone who tells you it’s "just bad" when it isn’t does nothing too. This does happen, though I wouldn't say it's too common. We are in a highly competitive field in which people often want others to fail. Odds are that we’ve all experienced the desire to be more harsh than necessary at one point or another. Having someone who wants your story to be bad and is looking for reasons it is will criticize things that just don’t matter.

If we define harsh criticism as blunt (i.e. true and without watering it down to make it more palatable), it might be useful. But, having the author shut down does no one any good. Blunt criticism may be useful, but the important part is to be honest, specific, and clear. You can do that while being nicer as well.

8. People who don’t take well to criticism think they’re too good for it.
This is one of the biggest myths in the writing world. Although sometimes the case, it is more often overlooking the psychology of a person.

Most "egotistical people" do not know if we like our work or not.

Beginners often shield themselves from analyzing what they’ve made. Writers don’t read what they wrote, actors won’t watch themselves be filmed. We are afraid of making something bad, and therefore don’t try and understand if we like our own work or not.

We leave it up to the critic to break the news to us, and so that moment isn't about being told we're wrong, but having our hopes dashed. When people don’t take well to criticism, it is often because they are waiting for someone else to identify their talent or lack thereof, so the writer is more likely to be taken off-guard, more likely to have his hopes dashed, and more likely to take it seriously.

The number one way to build yourself up against criticism is by knowing whether or not you like what you did.

9. Don’t include things that aren’t needed.
Most of us who’s ever been in a creative writing class have probably had the experience of receiving a story back with something crossed out and the note, “This isn’t needed.” This is usually a teacher’s way of saying very nicely, “This part is boring”

To only include things that will become relevant later makes it hard on the writer because now the reader knows everything is important. When he looks at his pocket watch, we know the pocket watch will come up later. When they talk about the boy’s father, we know we’ll meet him. It is important to sometimes deliver information that isn’t important to the plot so as to have foreshadowing and not tell the ending, and sometimes to add characterization or describe a scene. Many times, when doing that, it's not readily apparent, and if everything you say always has a point, then when that point isn't immediately obvious, a reader will stop to question why the line is there.

There is no reason to get rid of something “not needed” unless it has a consequence. We cut things to fix problems, such as length, boredom, or clarity. If a portion of the story didn’t do anything—wasn’t boring and wasn’t interesting, the story wasn’t too long or too short—then there is no reason to cut it. Which means that the teacher has reasons for cutting it other than “it’s not needed.”

10. Being original is a first priority.
If you ask any writer about their biggest priorities, they’ll most likely say, “To be unique.”

Originality, however, is not a quality; it’s a solution. Something cliché tends to be boring. Something unusual tends to be interesting, but that is not necessarily the case.

A thrilling, humorous, meaningful cliché is far better than a monotonous novelty. You might say that those are contradictory, but how many of your favorite books and movies are all that unique? And how many have you seen modern art?

It’s not because the cliché has more qualities that makes it better. A thrilling, humorless, meaningless play is still better than a dull poignant cliché. Some qualities have more weight to them. The benefit to originality is that affect more qualities, make something more interesting and meaningful. But if it doesn’t, then it’s like not having any qualities at all.