The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
I intend to speak intelligently about something I adore and spend a lot of time doing.
I intend to entrance folk into becoming writers themselves.
I intend not to turn into a fussy, snarling monster that alienates her friends and family by trying to explain why their suggestions have no relevance and FFS did you even READ the thing I gave you?!
When the conversation twists that way, we all lose.
When you’re passionate about something, it becomes a lot more difficult to talk about. As an example, imagine for a moment that you write fantasy. How would you respond to these two sentences?
“Fantasy, huh? Like Harry Potter?”
“Fantasy, huh? Like Game of Thrones?”
One of these sentences will draw you out, and the other will shut you down.
It’s amazing when you find people who get it — who understand or even agree; but when they don’t the conversation can crash. If you find yourself agitated or defensive about your writing, take a moment to breathe. You’re probably frustrated because you’ve become a specialist.
As a specialist, your specialty lies at the intersection of your interest and your talent. Exploring different methods, working with different teachers and keeping your knowledge-base broad is the best way to figure out exactly where that intersection is. If you spend time on something you love, it makes you happy. If you’re happy, you put more energy toward it. Passion energizes dedication, and dedication hammers talent into skill. A specialist is born.
This is just as true for martial artists and writers as it is for doctors.
If a martial artist loves forms, they put a lot of time into practicing them. Maybe they discover weapons, love it to death, and dedicate hours each day to becoming a swordsman.
If a writer loves complex characters, they’ll want to spend a lot of time with those characters. Maybe they’ll discover a world around those characters, love it to death, and dedicate hours each day to becoming a novelist.
Try telling a swordswoman that she would fit right in at a grappling school, or telling a novelist that they would have a blast giving concert reviews. Now try telling a heart surgeon that they’ll be moved to orthopedics. It’s the same thing. Most people hear the words “karate,” “writer,” or “doctor,” and think of one catch-all profession. The sub-sets of each are pretty specific.
Some might take an interest and excel; but those who have been removed from their passion will be miserable. Without happiness, excellence is impossible.
As another example, if you tell someone you write horror, they will brightly and enthusiastically suggest you follow Stephen King’s career path without bothering to ask if you’re more like Poe (because horror is horror, right?) Setting the right expectation is critical, and you’ve got to remember not to take it personally. All the marketing advice, writing advice and career suggestions won’t help if your perception and theirs don’t match.
90% of the suggestions I receive are probably more useful to journalists than novelists. Journalists go see a thing or research a topic, and boom: article. Done and done.
Novelists bask in complexity, and exploring complexity requires a degree of obsession. When someone offers an idea to a novelist, they really do mean to help. However, what we hear is: “You should be obsessed with ___ for the next 2-6 years. I mean, really obsessed. ___ Should dig into your heart and soul until it permeates your daydreams and you have to carry around a notebook for fear that you’ll lose the slightest insight about ___. I want you to get so obsessed with ___ that when you bang your head against the wall during the sixth round of edits on your 85,000 word manuscript YOU STILL LOVE IT AND STILL KEEP GOING.”
I know it, you know it, but we can’t talk about that perception. It comes off as defensive and bratty. If you want to be gracious, you have three options. Ignore, consider, or refer.
- Ignoring their idea, or letting the words go in one ear and out the other might encourage an uncomfortable situation. I’m extremely bad at this.
- Considering their idea without an outright refusal (even if you don’t use it) acknowledges that the other person is trying to help. It accepts the gift in the spirit with which it was given.
- Referring their idea — like doctors sharing business — might be the perfect gift to another writer you know. If that idea doesn’t call to you maybe you know a short-story writer, journalist or another novelist who would love it.
Rather than shut it down immediately, imagine what kind of writer would use these ideas. If it’s not your specialty, you can thank them for the idea, and then refer it elsewhere. No need to snap, no need to explain unless they ask. It’s a good idea to try different forms of writing, but you don’t have to. Journalism, short-stories and novels are all writing, but not all writers write all three. Figure out where you specialize, and hear everyone out. You never know who you might help — or who can help you.
“Obsession led me to write. It’s been that way with every book I’ve ever written. I become completely consumed by a theme, by characters, by a desire to meet a challenge.”
“In every work of art the subject is primordial, whether the artist knows it or not. The measure of the formal qualities is only a sign of the measure of the artist’s obsession with his subject; the form is always in proportion to the obsession.”
“Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice; journalism what will be grasped at once.”