When Something is Wrong, Don’t Just Do the Opposite

A lot of posts about “writing for yourself,” out there today, usually when someone is dealing with a difficult decision: Don’t play to the market, don’t listen to conventional advice, just “write for the passion of it.”

And there’s sense to it. It’s easy to get hung up in what other people think, which can make a writer ingenuine, frustrated, bored, and limited. Not a lot of good writing comes from trying to write what people will buy.

Yet, writing for strictly for yourself is counterproductive too. For one thing, these statements about only writing for you usually appear in the comment section of a How-To blog or as a response to an author’s question about what direction they should take the work. When someone asks how to market their book better, “You shouldn’t worry about that,” isn’t a useful response. If someone decides to share their experiences, you can voice your concerns about the ramifications of their actions, but trying to shut it down because it’s not a specific goal of yours is self-absorbed. Worse if you are lying to yourself about what your goals actually are, shutting down instead of confronting how to better achieve them. Over-simplification of solutions is the foundation of flawed advice. “Just do this,” “don’t do that,” are easy to say, but not necessarily easy to implement in their actual intent.

“Just simplify everything,” I was told once.

Except that my distinguished voice is the one natural quality I have; I’m the sort of writer that a teacher could pinpoint in an anonymous evaluation just by the way I talk. And my main flaw of being confusing? Doesn’t just have to do with big words, long sentences, or excess words; it’s the world-building, the splurge of unexpected details, the disinterest in helping the reader compartmentalize. It’s not the complexity of the sentence (usually), but the number of simple details I unload.

Would people understand my drafts better if I wrote like a Dick and Jane book? It would certainly help, but it wouldn’t eradicate the problem, and I doubt that people would be too thrilled with it. I certainly wouldn’t.

I write the way I enjoy to write, I write the way I want to read, I write the way I want to be perceived, and I write the way I think will garner the desired reaction.

If I had to write like Hemingway, strictly limited to “a fifth-grade reading level,” I would lose a lot of interest in it. It wouldn’t be as enjoyable. That’s one of the biggest reasons I do it—I like it. If all the other writers wrote on a fifth-grade reading level, I’d enjoy reading a lot less.

But the intent of the message, the idea that my words were not being understood, that was a problem for me. She was right in some ways, and by simplifying some of my words and sentences, by focusing on clarity over effect, mostly by combining a great deal of varied advice and using each piece only in moderation, I slowly pushed my manuscript into being something I am genuinely proud of. I didn’t simplify everything, change my voice, or sacrifice my goals, but I did simplify in places, and it did help.

Which is why I think I cringe when people discuss “write for yourself,” like it’s the only way.

The same man who once wrote about how you shouldn’t write for the money—then complained about asking for books for free, then offered up his skills as a ghostwriter—recently responded in kind to a fellow author’s question.

She asked how readers felt about cliffhangers, in which most people said the same; they didn’t like them, or they were okay with them as long as the book satisfied them in some way rather than seeming like one book chopped into parts or like the author didn’t care to end it/answer the questions.

He, however, told her that he honestly believed you should write for yourself and let the book be whatever it wanted to be, ignoring what readers think.

Again, I understood where he was coming from, but I considered this thought overly-simplified, and somewhat disrespectful.

For one thing, I have never had a book that was limited like that, that it couldn’t be tweaked to work in multiple ways. Most of my works, though written as standalones, could be expanded into series if I wanted. Some, in the state they are now, I wouldn’t recommend it, but if it was truly important to me—for whatever reason—I could find a way to do it.

Creativity often comes best from problem solving. Nothing forces you out of your comfort zone like trying to make something work. This is why I don’t recommend cutting or tossing out as being the first solution to a problem; my most inspired pieces were ones with serious problems that I found a solution for. Their originality came from that, and that uniqueness read as far more organic than anything I could sit down and try to force to be different.

For instance, the manuscript I’m shopping around (the one that has undergone over a dozen drafts) lacked a “pitch” in its first incarnation. It was 180,000 words, about the size of two books really, with a generic dystopian world behind a pretty good love story (if you asked me). The pacing was slow in parts, I couldn’t tell anyone what it was about, and I knew that the setting wasn’t anything different than what people had seen before—and it was written before the huge dystopian boom.

But you know what? I was happy with it. I mean, I knew that it wasn’t up to snuff (I would have sent it out sooner if I had thought so), but it was the first manuscript that came out how I wanted it to. The characters, by the end, were exactly what I had imagined, their love and personalities believable and endearing to me, the climax exciting and satisfying. For the first time in thirteen novels, I knew if it was rejected, I wouldn’t be embarrassed. I had some changes that I wanted to make, but I genuinely liked it.

And I still like it. But I like this version better.

I balked at developing the world more. I wanted it to be just a background. I didn’t want to come up with some irrelevant plot about how the world came to an end; it wasn’t about that. I never cared to read it in any of the fantasy books I loved—the history was something I always skimmed over. I just wanted to live in the world, I never needed to learn about it.

I knew that size-wise the book was way too big even before the first sixty thousand words were done. I had a great deal more to say and not a lot of time to do it. It took me five months to complete which for me, at the time, was longer than most. Usually I had finished a first draft in about 40 days. So I decided to try and cut it even before it was done. However, I told myself that if I felt the integrity of the work was coming into question, I would stop. There were things I’d cut regardless, but had an agent had agreed to pick up my book the length it was, I wouldn’t have bothered to challenge myself in sizing it down.

 I only cut that much it because I knew it wouldn’t sell at that size.

The beginning of the manuscript was initially fairly successful in dictating the type of world it was. People were still confused about things, but the more drafts I went through, the worst (yet at least narrowed down) their complaints on not understanding the world got. Even though I liked what I had done, I wasn’t completely excited about it either, and I could see when people told me it was slow that it, in fact, was slow.

“But don’t a lot of books start out slow?”

Yep. And sometimes you can get away with it. But that’s kind of my point. A lot of times you will do something that is “good enough,” that you can “get away with.” But then you miss out on how much better it could be.

It was a struggle. Over the course of the manuscript, I changed the beginning, trying to make it more exciting and more clear while retaining my authenticity rather than cater to the whole, “readers are morons, write like Hemingway” philosophy that was being pushed on me constantly. I begrudgingly wrote out an entire history of the world, trying to come up with something that was not just another apocalypse story, telling myself I didn’t actually have to use it if I decided it hurt the work. I cut out at least 70,000 words (probably more considering how many scenes I added.)

The manuscript is now an easy read for me. While at first it was sometimes hard to get through, long and slow in places, I can today sit down and devour it in a day. And I’ve read it a thousand times. From these few changes of trying to add a hook, trim it down, and world-build—the most basic of conventional writing advice—a clear plot and pitch evolved.

I liked it on its first draft. I love it on its tenth.

Now part of the reason why I love it is because I didn’t worry too much about trends and taking every single piece of advice in its entirety. If I had been focused on the market, I would have dropped this book the second Divergent the movie came out. I did, in fact, have some sort of existential crisis, but I chose to do what felt right for me and give this manuscript a real chance. Even if it doesn’t go anywhere, I learned a hell of a lot, more than any other piece I’ve written.

So writing for the love of fiction, doing what you want to do, and not catering to a market can be a thousand times more fulfilling than changing your actions for a fickle business. But that doesn’t mean “you shouldn’t care what other people think,” refuse to ask the tough questions, and to consider possibilities.

If you haven’t started a story yet, it has the potential to grow into anything. Sure, some ideas demand to be told in a certain way, but I, at least, either can predict it and tailor it or can’t predict it and won’t find out until I start writing.

Many times I read a short film, a novella, or a short story and say, “You need to spend more time telling this.” My main critique is ‘more.’ Better pacing, more details, more answers, show me who these characters are to make me care, have an actual ending rather than just stopping when you got bored, don’t summarize the events so much, let me watch them unfold. I think, this would be better if you just took your time and relished in these moments over speeding through it. And then I hear the author say, “But I have the right to write a novella!”

It’s not about that. Sure, novellas get an unfair amount of negativity; I myself tend to pass them up for sheer reasons of commitment. (I don’t like getting into something just to have it end.) But no matter the size of your book, even if it fits right into the zone of average book length, you should always question if it could be better. If people are telling you how they feel, even if you think it’s superficial, don’t brush it off.

I don’t understand why a book could only be a serial filled with cliffhangers in order to be the book the author wanted. Not before it is written anyway. In this case specifically, I don’t see how the benefit to the author is so great. If the consequences to the readers outweigh the benefits to the writer, it seems to me that ignoring it just because you have the right to do something that way is self-sabotaging.

I joke that I don’t write for myself because a lot of it would be me writing, “This is boring. Let’s jump to the good part.” Instead, I feel out the pacing, write the scenes that I know need to be written to make the best experience possible—even if it’s painful for me to do so—and then work it until I know that I have crafted the intended effect. Sometimes the most fun way to write is not the most fun to read (not often I’d speculate, but it does happen.) Sometimes the hardest thing to write is what put your book over the edge. And sometimes its shit. Unfortunately, you won’t know until you at least try.

Never put your book out there to be read if you don’t care what others think. Why would you? And if you do just want to share the world with them, you should still care about their experience at least a little. It’s kind of like asking someone out to dinner and then demanding they go to a restaurant you know they hate just because you love it. It’s very likely that you can find a place you both enjoy.

Mainly, reconsider your priorities. In the case of the question, “How do you feel about cliffhangers?” you should care about others’ opinions while you’re writing. If you find you love them while other people just tolerate them, maybe that’s a sign you should do it. But if you find that you’re just okay with them, that your writing is “good enough” with them, then is it really worth the battle, fighting for your right to cliffhang? You might find that you’re just avoiding finding an actual solid ending (which is the number one reason I don’t like cliffhangers; you read the entire series, each unsolved, to get to the final and realize the author just couldn’t write endings period.)

You also might find the opposite. People don’t like change and a lot of personal tastes in writing are acquired. You decide to do something that isn’t in vogue right now and your readers will come around, they’ll start to love it, you’ll cause a new trend. Many of our greatest writers wouldn’t have gotten anywhere if they had listened too heavily to the critics.

You just have to find the right balance.

Think critically. Say what you want to say in a way that makes people want to listen. Pick your battles, reassess your priorities. Do what you want to do, but remember you might not know all of the options. Most importantly, tell people the answer isn’t black and white; just because one thing is wrong doesn’t make the opposite right.

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