November 3, 2016 / 2 Comments

Democracy In Action!

            On this particular Thursday, it seemed like talking about voting could be an interesting idea.
            One thing I did all the time when I was starting out—well, once I’d become brave enough to show my writing to anyone past my mom—was to get as many opinions as possible.  If I had enough, I’d count them up like votes.  And I would do whatever they said.  If someone—anyone—wanted this line or that element changed, I’d change it.  Or remove it.  Or add in something new.  Anyone else’s thoughts were just as valid as mine.
            This happened to me again about thirteen years ago, just before I started doing this full time.  Slightly different direction, though.  Believe it or not, I ghost-wrote an exercise book.  This woman was very smart and savvy about exercise and the specialized niche she wanted to write toward… not so much about writing and publishing. So she hired me to help her out.  Alas, she kept talking about the book with her friends and fellow fitness professionals, showing them half-finished drafts, and taking everyone’s opinion as scientific fact.  So we rewrote the book again.  And again.  And again.  Not drafts, mind you.  Complete, start-from-scratch rewrites.  I think it went through six or seven major revisions before I had to bow out just for time reasons. And she still didn’t have much more than a first draft of her book.
            It was frustrating, but I couldn’t really fault her.  Like I said, I used to do it, too.  I think most people do when we’re starting out and looking for assurance.
            Really, it makes sense to do it that way. It’s what we’ve all been taught, right?  Democracy in action.  Let people vote on something, go with the majority.
            Writing is not a democracy.  I’m a benevolent dictator at best.  An angry god at worst.
            Now, before anyone gets too excited about being a dictator…
            I’m not saying I’ll never, ever listen to other opinions.  I have some great beta readers I really trust.  I have a seriously fantastic editor who’s much, much better at spotting flaws than I am.  It doesn’t mean their opinions or suggestions are always right, but I’d be foolish not to at least look at them and consider them.
            At the end of the day, though… what my story needs is up to me.  I’m the one crafting and telling it. Every line of dialogue, every subtle character nuance, every beautiful piece of imagery, every clever plot twist.  It all comes from me.  If a dozen people think I need to get rid of the wine bottle scene but I think it’s vital and memorable, I get the last say.
            And I needto make that decision.  Opinions are great, but as the dictator the final decision is nobody’s but mine.  If I’m going to put things on hold waiting for a consensus or a clear majority… that just makes me a figurehead.
            This also holds for what I’m writing about.  If I just want to write to entertain myself—that’s great.  If I want to fill my story with in-jokes that only ten people on Earth are going to get, that’s also my choice.  I can deliberately focus my book on neo-con, government-hating survivalists or tree-hugging, socialist liberals—and absolutely nobody can say I’m wrong!  This is mystory.  Mine.
            This doesn’t mean anyone will want to read my story.  Or buy it.  Just because I’m staying true to myself and my vision–only bending where I feel I absolutely must—doesn’t mean my story is going to appeal to anyone else.  And some of those people it may not appeal to are editors.  Under other circumstances, they might be interested and willing to work with me, but if I’m not going to bend at all on that wine bottle scene…  Well, it’s not going to be their fault I didn’t make a sale.
            Plus… Let’s face it, I’m not going to please everyone, no matter what choice I make.  I’ve mentioned before that every story has a limited audience.   Sometimes a very limited one.  That’s the problem with leading—even as a benevolent dictator—the best you can ever hope for is a “greater good” situation.  There will always be people with no interest in the topic or genre, readers who just don’t like it.  Hop over to Amazon and check out well-established American classics like East of Eden or To Kill A Mockingbird.  Look at something newer like The Martian.  Heck, pick your favorite Harry Potter book.  All of these are unquestionably critical and financial successes with, I feel safe saying, hundreds of millions of fans each… but look how many one-star reviews they have.
            Y’see, Timmy, at the end of the day, nobody knows what my story needs but me.  It’s all mine. That’s the art part of it.  There is no democracy.  That’s where I get to be a dictator.
            But once I decide I want to put my writing out there, that I want an audience, that I’d like to get paid… Well, we’re not talking about being a dictator anymore. Now we’re talking about politics. We’re talking about compromises. We’re talking about tweaking my vision to appeal to a greater audience, even when it doesn’t appeal to me quite as much anymore.  Maybe not quite as great a good, but still a “very good” that reaches a lot more people.
            That’s the balancing act.
            Real quick before I wrap up, I’m going to be up in Tacoma, Washington this weekend for the Jet City Comic Show.  If you’re in the area, please stop by, say hi, and tell me how this blog is just a huge waste of time for everyone involved.
            Next time, I want to talk about something cool.
            Until then, go write.

Despite every loudmouthed producer or “saying it like it is” celebrity you’ve ever seen on TMZ, one of the hardest things to find in Hollywood is an honest opinion. People are terrified of saying “No.” They’ve almost brainwashed themselves against it. Everyone worries about offending someone and the possible ramifications it could have. You can lose your job in Hollywood for upsetting someone. That same someone could be your boss three years from now. The person asking “Do you like this?” could end up deciding whether or not you get health insurance and a new office next year. So “no” is all but forbidden.

Instead, people dance around answers. They waffle. They make excuses or use doublespeak. In some cases they flat-out lie. Anything to avoid speaking the truth or giving their opinion on something.

And the result is movies like Sahara and X-Men 3.

But that’s material for another rant. Three or four of them, really…

Where am I going with this? Well, you’ll see in a moment or two, if you haven’t already…

Except for a few rare exceptions (those lucky folks who’ve found a long-time partner to work with), writing is something you have to do alone. The odd conundrum here is that one of the very few ways you can improve as a writer is to get feedback. People need to read your work and express their thoughts and opinions about it. You need an audience. And it needs to be a real audience.

What’s a real audience? Well, it’s people who will give you a real opinion. An honest opinion. They’re the ones who won’t mince words or spare your feelings, because they understand you need to know what’s wrong with your work so you can improve it. Being nice, just saying it’s good no matter what, doesn’t help you. It only undermines your attempts to get better.

Another little story…

My mother read a lot of crap writing when I was a little kid. The vast majority of it was mine (reading Stephen King’s Christine was her own decision). She slogged through at least three versions of Lizard Men from the Center of the Earth between third and seventh grade, several pieces of Star Wars fanfic (long before there was such a term), countless short stories, and a truly awful sci-fi “novel” that would put the old 1950’s serials to shame with its clichés. I know for a fact I wouldn’t be where I am today if she hadn’t kept reading and encouraging me to write more.

However, there came a point when I made a realization. My mom was always going to say she liked what I was writing because she was my mom and that’s what good mothers do. It didn’t matter if the material was good, bad, or borderline nonsensical, mom would congratulate me on it.

Which is when I realized I needed to start getting other opinions.

Now, granted, this is an extreme example. I’m not saying my mother should’ve told the twelve-year-old me that my writing was childish and predictable and I didn’t have a chance of ever getting published. That would’ve just been cruel, and also a bit unfair. So in one way, this blind kindness was a good thing.

However, this kindness can also be a trap, and many people, willingly or not, fall into it.

Let’s take Bobo for example (not his real name). Bobo surrounds himself with people who won’t give him honest opinions. He’ll only show his writing to family members or to friends so close they’ve got all the same interests and background. Parents, siblings, friends, lovers—people with a strong desire not to hurt his feelings, and, on some level, a vested interest in keeping him happy.

Surprise, surprise, wha’d’you know—these people all say Bobo’s writing is great. His mom and dad think it’s wonderful. His friends got all the jokes. His brother likes it. His girlfriend (or boyfriend—Bobo is open-minded) even thinks he should send it out to some magazines or agents.

Are they all lying to him? Possibly not. There’s always that chance Bobo is the next John Steinbeck, Ray Bradbury, or Harper Lee, unable to produce anything except pure gold when put in a room with pen and paper. A regular Rumplestiltskin of words, that Bobo.

But, as the men in Vegas say, I wouldn’t put money on it.

Finding a real, honest audience for your work can take years. I came out of college with one friend whose opinion I completely trust and am always desperate to hear. She is tough and merciless, make no mistake, and I absolutely love her for it. In the many years since then (almost–gasp— two decades now), out of the hundreds of people I’ve met, there are maybe five or six more I know I can show work to and get real, useful criticism.

That’s what you’re looking for, after all. Criticism. The real stuff, not the whiny, jealous, ranty stuff of people online or people who never finish their own writing. As the word implies, you want people who can make practical, critical observations about your work. Better yet, people who can make those observations and suggest improvements.
And then, of course– you have to be willing to listen to them. As I mentioned before, honest opinions can be hard to come by. Opinions that come with useful suggestions are almost unheard of.

But the real shame would be if you finally get some and you ignore them.

Now, get back to writing.