Friends Like These

There’s an old joke about opinions.  Most people have heard it, and I won’t repeat it here, except to say it involves a certain body part of which “everyone has one.”  I’m reminded of that as I note the amount of reaction to my previous article.

There has been a fair amount of expressions of encouragement, which is always appreciated.  A fellow writer who is also one of my closest friends has been unfailingly supportive and more patient with me than I deserve.  Yet support is a double-edged sword.  She tells me repeatedly that what I am writing is good and worthy of finishing and publishing.  Others, who have not seen as much of the manuscript, nevertheless are generally positive.  So why don’t I believe them?  Why do I also dismiss their insistence that I am oversimplifying the Young Adult market?  Partly because I am cynical by nature.  But partly because, while each says positive things, they all vary in regards to what those positives are.  There’s my mistake, perhaps.

When I began this journey, I followed the suggestion laid out in one of the numerous “how to write” books out there and joined a Writers’ Group.  Immediately I made contact with several fellow YA writers. Invigorated, but finding that the group met too infrequently for my needs, I sought a different group, one that had a much more relaxed dynamic, a more casual atmosphere and, most significant in the long run, introduced me to the person who quickly became my close friend.  Buoyed by the contact with other writers, I sought out and joined yet a third group, this one devoted to the science fiction and fantasy that informs my own writing. 

Why am I mentioning all this?  To say to anyone involved in trying to write that Writers’ Groups can be a remarkable resource, and like Tolstoy’s “unhappy families,” each in its own way. Each group has its own tone and dynamic, and I decided the differences were to my benefit: one group was like a professional organization, one was like a family, and one was like a bunch of buddies.  But that’s where the double-edged sword comes in.  One of the writers in the first group, who was in fact the first fellow writer I had gotten to know, was stunned that I had actually made so many contacts.  And it was at that point, still very early in my process, that she gave me what may well be the single most important piece of advice anyone has offered, one I have vigorously spent the ensuing months ignoring.

She said, to put it simply: Don’t show your work to so many people.  Don’t ask everyone’s opinion.  It will just drive you crazy.  Lo and behold, she was right, as my last article will attest.  As someone who thrives on the mere contact with other writers, the opportunity to just sit and casually discuss whatever general issues may be relevant or in mind is highly beneficial.  I would have quickly folded trying to do all of this on my own.

But I have taken it to an extreme.  I have sought, and listened to, far too many opinions.  Someone would point out something that was a concern, and I would dutifully revise, only to have a different person dislike the change, making it clear that what it had been before was better.

One thing they all agree on is that I should read more, particularly in the genre, but even that can lead to madness.  I have encountered more than one successful author who routinely does the exact things I’ve been told not to do.  And it is through reading the perspectives of published authors that I have been led to the negative conclusions I have about the genre.  But they don’t all say the same thing.  In the end, it comes back to the other universal suggestion I get: write what I want to write, not what I think others want.  There’s peril there as well.

My decision to stop trying to write for the YA market, or perhaps even to seek publication at all (a decision I have reconsidered) allowed me to take a new look at my completed manuscript.  I decided I would tone down some of the violence I had included only because I thought it had to be there.  I decided to end my self-censorship and use language that teens actually use.  I already have a liberal approach to depicting non-sexual, body-positive nudity, but I have been exploring an increase in sexual content, to the point now where I am experimenting with sexuality that is not merely implied.

My good friend has seen some of these changes and has been nothing but positive about them, saying that she, for one, would be more comfortable letting her teenage children read sexual content the way I have presented it than violent content as is widespread in the genre these days.  She believes the language change makes it more realistic.  She says what I am doing is greatly improving the novel.  She also says that she’s one person, with one opinion.  Others would, most assuredly, disagree, finding the language and content objectionable.  What to do? 

Everything I have been led to believe suggests that these changes are a more certain a death sentence for publication than the absence of graphic violence, that sexual material is flatly unacceptable, especially with teen protagonists.  And yet, a recent, foolish look into what authors are saying, and publishing, shows that, in fact, there is indeed such content to be found.  Does that give me carte blanche in what I write?  No, it serves only to make it clear that the more views I encounter, the less clear my perspective becomes.

I value the Writers’ Groups I attend, and the friends I have made there.  But I must be careful.  It’s my book.  Only I can write it.  Rely on the support and encouragement of others, but follow my own heart on what matters.  No successful writer can do otherwise.  There only one piece of advice that I know I must follow, the one every single one of them offers: Don’t give up.  So true.  Doing that would be crazy.



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4 responses to “Friends Like These

  1. I read your other post a few days ago, and quite frankly, it felt like it was written by someone blowing off steam as he reaches for the next level of understanding. So, I refrained from commenting. And it turned out to be true.

    I wrote about a very similar experience last December.

    Welcome to the next level.

  2. The one thing I’d say to this is, believe in your work. It sounds like you’ve spent a great deal of time turning to others for opinions, views, comments suggestions… Rely less on what others say and more on what that voice inside you says, the one that inspired you to write in the first place.

    • Thank you for your response. It’s a real head-spinning irony that one of the the most frequent things others say is, “Don’t worry about what others say.” On the surface the idea of just writing what inspires you is fine, and that works for people who are writing merely for their own enjoyment, but, frankly, I don’t understand that. There are plenty of other things I could do instead that are much less exhausting and time-consuming. I think I’m like most people in this position: I’m writing because I want other people to enjoy it. That means publication, one way or another. And to do that, you can’t just rely on your heart. You do need to understand what others think, since, in the end, it’s others who will be reading it. Or won’t be. This is most certain when it comes to editors, because a writer just getting started absolutely has to meet the expectations of editors, but, unless he’s very fortunate*, he won’t really know what those expectations are. So he turns to others to try to figure it out, to avoid falling into the trap of being rejected out-of-hand for something and having others say, “I could have told you not to do that.”

      * By “fortunate,” I mean having an editor’s ear before sending the query. As I’ve said before, it’s no coincidence that the vast majority of successful writers, especially these days, worked in publishing or media or other fields where they had already gotten to know editors on a personal basis. With so many would-be writers taking advantage of technology, if you don’t have those contacts, you probably don’t have a chance, and therefore you need to pay a great deal of attention to figuring out what’s going to give you that “edge,” and that means taking into account what others think.

      • Of course. Perhaps I expressed my point poorly. It’s extremely important to get feedback from others and I, for one, don’t write solely for my own enjoyment. What I meant was, don’t over-rely on the opinions of others, but believe in what you write and how you write it, otherwise you end up writing someone else’s book. It has to have “you” in it, otherwise what’s the point?

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