Your Writing Group Is Not A Godhead: Building Upon Some Fine Writing Advice From Ann Leckie

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 3.618% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Yesterday, Ancillary Justice author Ann Leckie wrote a really great essay on chasing trends in fiction and why writing novels on the “next hot thing” for the sake of fame and fortune alone is a generally unwise idea.  She packs a lot of wisdom into a handful of paragraphs.  You should go read it.
But I wanted to expand on something she said, specifically this:

And if folks in your writers group or message board or whatever are telling you things like “you have to have a POV character that’s like the reader so they can sympathize with them” or “don’t write in first person” or “editors won’t buy stories with queer main characters” well, frankly, no.

One of the best pieces of advice I can give to fledgling writers is to remember you can ignore your fellow writers. And often should.
Look, if you’re serious about writing, you’re eventually going to get feedback from top-class writers.  Those writers are very good at writing their stories.  They may not necessarily be good at writing your stories, and incorporating their advice can leave you with this hamstrung half-hybrid pastiche that lacks both your strengths and theirs.
In workshops, I often write down someone’s feedback along with the notation: NMK.  That stands for “Not My Kink.” Which is to say that yes, this story could be good if I followed this person’s advice and turned the savage were-pterodactyls into genetically engineered cyber-pterodactyls, but then that story wouldn’t be a story I’d be excited to read.
(Who am I kidding? I’d read both of those stories.  But anyway.)
NMK advice is not bad advice.  It’s just advice geared towards writing a story that doesn’t hit my personal hotbuttons.  And for a lot of writers, “refining the hotbuttons” are what sell your craft.  Because a truly unique voice comes from taking all that goofy shiz that you adore and finding ways to make it work.
For example, Quentin Tarantino loves 1970s B-movies.  His work would suck without a heavy dosage of exploitation flicks and hyperaware movie references.  And a lot of writers’ workshops would have looked at early drafts of Pulp Fiction and said, “Okay, Quentin, you need to pull this back, you’re too excessive,” when the actual truth was that Quentin needed to figure out ways to take his love of crappy films, extract the goodness, and refine it until he amplified everything he adored about those films in ways that resonated with people.
And what you’ll often get at the early stages when your talent does not match execution is to pull back.  No.  Try pushing forward.
…but don’t forget that writing is about communication.  You’re trying to build a bridge out to your reader, saying, “I love this, and here’s why you should love it too.”  That takes skill, compromise, an understanding of what people expect so you can subvert and distill it.  You can’t just shout the same old thing through a foghorn and demand that your audience Get It – you have to question people closely to ask, “Okay, they didn’t love the were-pterodactyls, but why?”
Plus, you wanna lay aside that foghorn because you’re not here to regurgitate your source material, but to transform it.   Quentin Tarantino didn’t slavishly imitate the B-movies of his youth – he added his own strengths in terms of razor-sharp dialogue, shaking up the timelines to make thoroughly nonlinear stories.  Shout that love of queer characters, or second-person point of view, or despicable main characters – but do it in ways that are exciting and new!
Figure out what really thumbs that hotbutton, and amplify it.
Also: One of you is sitting there sniffing, “I hate Quentin Tarantino, why is Ferrett talking like Quentin Tarantino is such a great director?”  And that’s the final point: with great love comes great hate.  I adored Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice because it does fascinating things with viewpoint and gender, but it has inspired a tidal wave of hatred from people who are like, “THIS IS TURGID CRAP.”  Yet both Ann Leckie and Quentin Tarantino are fantastically successful at what they do, despite critics who loathe them!
When you receive a critique from a Very Important Author who is telling you that your story Does Not Work, question whether that person would enjoy your story if you’d perfected it.  That guy may be the person who hates Quentin Tarantino movies.  And he’s not wrong to hate them!  Repeat after me: Tastes are subjective.  But if you’re Quentin Tarantino, taking his feedback to heart is going to leave you working in the video rental store, not putting you on the path to World-Famous Director.
The rule of thumb is this: If three people tell you your story has a problem, it’s a problem.  You need to listen when beta readers get bored, or confused, or revolted.  But the way to fix that problem has to come uniquely from you.  Sometimes, the solution is not to cut, but to double down.
And sometimes, the problem is that these writers providing feedback are not an all-knowing Godhead, dispensing objective wisdom from above, but a bunch of nerds stumbling around in a bookstore – loving books you hate, hating books you love.  Sometimes, the bad feedback comes from someone saying, “Hey, George Martin, I love your characters but I’m not down with all this violence and nihilism, you need to get rid of that.”  Except getting rid of that will defang your books from the thing that makes you unique.
You can still get good feedback from those folks.  They can clue you into pacing issues, or enlighten you as to why your love of 1980s horror movies isn’t stirring people who don’t give a dry turd about 80s horror movies, or point out character decisions that make no sense.
But as a professional writer, you have to mark the difference between critiques that point out problems and critiques that are trying to rewrite your book into something you don’t want it to be.
One critique is worth incorporating.
The other needs to be chucked away, fast, and hard and fearlessly.  Because that’s what professional writers do.  And don’t forget the need to protect your own special brand of weirdness.

1 Comment

  1. Alexis
    Aug 24, 2016

    I want a were-pterodactyl story so much right now.

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