Talking about Your Thing with folks who don’t do Your Thing

“Spasm” by Zilla. 2005

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.”
Anne Rice

“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.”
Alberto Giacometti

“Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice; journalism what will be grasped at once.”
Cyril Connolly


13 thoughts on “Talking about Your Thing with folks who don’t do Your Thing

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  2. prysma

    There are some really interesting points here.

    The bit about specialization particularly caught my attention. I like the comparison with medicine and martial arts; I think I need to remember that for the next time it comes up. 🙂 I’ve been asked before, from high school on, and sometimes more nicely than others, why I’m so fixated on writing fantasy: why don’t you use those language skills for something more practical, why don’t you write something that more people will actually want to read, etc etc. The simple truth is, writing anything else bores me. If I’m trapped inside the real world and have to play entirely within its rules, where’s the fun? Where’s the creativity? Where’s that magic what if? that will bring the story to life for me? Without that, it’s just… dead words.

    People being helpful with ideas is also familiar. I tend to listen and be as thoughtful and gentle as I can, and then equally gently point out that it wouldn’t work with what I write (I can’t think of a single unsolicited idea that would) and suggest that perhaps they try it out themself. If it’s someone who matters to me and life isn’t too crazy, I’ll offer to help them if they do. Somehow, they never seem to actually do it, which is kind of sad to me.

    (Incidentally, both Harry Potter AND Game of Thrones make me want to shut down and stop the conversation right there…)

    1. Setsu Post author

      Dead words! Exactly. What a relief it’s not just me. HP and GoT were the easiest examples of high fantasy and urban fantasy at hand. Is there a story or series out there that sums up the spirit of what you’re writing?

      1. prysma

        When I have to compare what I write to something published, I always say Tanya Huff comes the closest in general style and feel, and like her, I do both urban and other-world stuff. It’s hard to say, though… my more recent work especially just seems to wander off onto its own path farther all the time. 🙂

        It is definitely not you. True creative power, to me, comes from way down inside, and that isn’t something that you can tell, “Okay, this one is going to be of X genre with Y content because that’s what sells right now” and get any real passion and life into it. You might be able to create something that way that is technically good and maybe even hits all the current hot buttons for your audience, but it isn’t going to be alive and it isn’t going to have a piece of your own soul in it. To get that, you, or at least I, just follow where it goes and try to stay as true to that as I can, keeping the opinions and advice and values of others out of it as much as possible. For the first draft, anyway; after that, sure, clean it up with your audience in mind, to some degree. But, to me, the only way to get that true living first draft to build on is to let whatever wants to come, come – and what wants to come, for me, is always fantasy.

  3. Brian C. E. Buhl

    I get suggestions all the time, too. I always start with “thank you.” I recognize their intention, and I usually try to think that they’re offering me an idea that they could be writing themselves… they sure are putting a lot of trust in me with their idea! Then I consider it as best I can. After that, I tell them that it probably won’t fit in the kind of thing I’m writing, and I offer them other author’s whose style is most like what I’m writing at the time.

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  5. Harrison K. Hall

    Matthew Inman, better known as the author of “The Oatmeal”, has some pretty good nuggets when it comes to a career based on creativity, taking input with grace (or taking it with a lack of grace in a way that is hilarious), and how to just exist within your own brain space. His frame of reference is slightly different, considering the scope of his own work, but most of it translates to something useful.

    That hypothetical quotation up there stands up with his material, in my opinion. A paragraph that communicates an entire way of being, neatly and effectively.


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