Monday, April 21, 2014

You're a brilliant writer but so are millions of people you've never heard of

I'm not sure why writers even have random writer's groups. People get together and solicit from one another an opinion regarding one's work. It sounds helpful in theory, right? But here's the thing (and I'm speaking from experience): most writer's groups are comprised of people who primarily read one kind of genre (and that's the one they write in as well). And this is terribly dysfunctional in a large group. Allow me to elaborate by posing a few questions.

Why would someone who likes fantasy even value the opinion of someone who writes romance? Why would someone who writes young adult value the opinion of someone who writes memoirs? If you write romance, then why value what a science fiction schmuck like myself is going to say about it?

Here's my point: given their free time, these people (on their own) do NOT go to the bookstore and read the type of writing that you're doing. Yet, you're willing to listen to them either praise or rip apart (the more likely scenario) your writing as they tell you "this bores me" or "this doesn't work for me." You know what you should say? The whole genre probably bores you because you don't buy it and this invalidates your opinion. AUDIENCE IS EVERYTHING! Every manuscript has an audience and soliciting it to the wrong one is always going to get you negative feedback.

So yeah, I think writer's groups/critique sessions make absolutely no sense. Honestly the only reason I go (I no longer have work that I put before anyone) is because I enjoy the social atmosphere and the food. I suppose that's reason enough, right? Maybe my group of peeps should just come together and face an uncomfortable candor: that we should rename writer's group "game night" and play Bananagrams instead of critiquing one another's manuscript.

As a caveat, if you haven't ever played Bananagrams you really should try it. I once managed to spell "xylophone", but I digress...
This game is serious fun. If you disagree, then you're boring.
A couple months ago, I had a kind of "blow up" at my writer's group when I popped some inflated egos (some writers I network with think they are so adroit). Why do they think this? Because they are not online. They believe their insanity is unique. Just like a dominant religion in one area (where everyone believes the same thing), these writers exist in a bubble fooling themselves into thinking that they are part of a "gifted" minority group that has a story inside them, and that it is their mission to tell it to the world by means of a six-figure contract from a major New York publisher!

I tell them they really should go online. The noise to get noticed is deafening: a million voices raised in unison all chanting "I wrote a book, please read it." Just look at Twitter, Facebook, and the Blogosphere at large. If each writer were a grain of sand, then all of them together would make a beach that extends to the horizon like you see on HGTV's The Hawaii Life.

Some of the writers in my group are into super intricate world-building. You know what? It's really good stuff, and therein lies the rub. One guy has come up with monsters, has maps, a magic system, colorful characters, and tons of plots going on (kinda like George R.R. Martin). It's so intricate that I can't even begin to tell you the details. I even call it "brilliant." But here's the thing: a kaiju's belly full of writers are brilliant and crazy world-building is done all the time by millions of Dungeon Masters worldwide. That statement should tell you two things. The first is that Dungeon Masters at every con from coast to coast are creative people. This makes "creativity" as a commodity in writing about as common as dirt. The second is that I think George R.R. Martin could probably run an interesting Dungeons & Dragons game if you could keep it from descending into sex talk.

I told this group that there are so many people out there making worlds, typing away at keyboards, who have come up with planets that do this, and magic systems that do that, and political intrigue that do this other thing that you could fill Salt Lake's largest convention center with their numbers. I think I used the phrase, "I could throw a spongy rock in a crowd and it would bounce off the noggin' of someone brilliant! Therefore, you are not special. And I'm sorry to burst your bubble about this."
That was when I faced outrage. One of the older writers in the group said, "Mike, you are wrong! Most people who write shouldn't be writing. They don't have the talent. The ones that do have the talent get recognized and get publishing contracts." Keep in mind that the writer who said this has had some success in her professional career so it's in her best interest to keep the myth alive that "talent gets its just reward." However the earth, the stars above, and the society at large very rarely recognize "talent" because it's too common. Think of it this way: if you get an "A" on an exam you are in the top 10%. This means that 1 in 10 people can duplicate exactly what you did. In a world populated by 7 billion, the "A" is actually meaningless. Of real value would be the person that could score a 99.9999999998% because that would make you unique.

So I said, "No they don't. I'm sorry but I disagree. I think there's plenty of evidence that some very profitable writers get published by major names and don't have 'talent' as you say. I think that people who sell a lot of books (as in the millions) got lucky. This isn't something you can strategize. Circumstances unique to their lives that have nothing to do with planning and everything to do with serendipity made their stories HUGE best sellers. Names like Stephanie Meyer, George R.R. Martin, and Amanda Hocking. And to insist that you are better than someone else who isn't published or doesn't have a contract is just a lie. It comes from the fact that you're probably starved for validation because you've been mediocre most of your life and secretly have contempt for others because you feel you've never been recognized for how smart you are. But there's lots of smart people in this world, and being smart doesn't make you a genius. Genius is extremely rare, and when you actually see it, it knocks your socks off. Just look at Mozart and Salieri because Salieri can tell you what that feels like. As for writing, be thankful if you EVER make it big because it means you won the lottery. That's it. People who win the lottery don't go around and say, 'He he, I won because I was smarter than everyone else.' They say something like, 'Gosh I sure was lucky.'"

It may sound like I'm a real sour puss when it comes to the business of writing and publishing, but I'm not. In truth I'm probably the best advocate for writers because I don't bullshit them. I encourage people to write all the time (that ask me) and I point the many ways in which someone can navigate the business. But here's what I say to their elaborate plots and wonderful characters that inevitably bombard my ears: "It sounds brilliant and you have a very creative mind. But never forget that there are millions of people out here who are just as brilliant and just as creative. If your manuscript doesn't attract the attention of an agent who goes through fifty thousand submissions in a month, it may be that you lack that 'extra something' that has nothing to do with writing and everything to do with something that's not within your ability to control. And if you fail and never realize your dream? Well that happens too, and it sucks for you. Sometimes it's better to pick up a book and be the audience for someone else that HAS made it, because in the death of your dream is born one that belonged to someone else. And that isn't so bad. Not everyone can be a star. Not everyone can be super. Not everyone can be special. In our society there's the cream of the crop and then there's everyone else. That's just how it is; welcome to capitalism. Think about it. In a society where everyone is super, no one is. There's great comfort in belonging to the 'everyone else,' because you're rubbing shoulders with great people who just haven't had the distinction of being recognized. Trust me on this, because I speak from experience." No one wants to be mediocre. It just happens and asking "why me?" will never bring you peace of mind.

I'll leave you with this thought from Syndrome in Pixar's The Incredibles because (despite the uncomfortable message) it is oh so true:

20 comments:

Suz Korb said...

But maybe we as mediocre writers can feel like stars next to peers of the same ilk. We know we like to write. There's a connection between creative minds. If you take away bestseller lists that leaves every author/writer at the same level, doing what we enjoy.

It's just too bad we can't all approach writer's groups with this similarity in mind. I did join a writer's group online for about a week until I gave up. Everyone there was just out to destroy other author's works. It's money and prestige that makes writers act as though we don't enjoy the same type of craft. Writing isn't a competition with other writers. It's about what we like doing in creative ways.

Ted Cross said...

I can never tell whether I can write well or if I'm just deluding myself. Certainly no agents are even willing to look at my writing to see if it's any good.

I mostly agreed with you until you lumped Martin in with Meyer and Hocking. Martin is a fabulous writer.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

There is a lot of talent out there. Some will make it, some will not. But to think one is rare, super-talented, and unique is unrealistic. Besides, people with that kind of talent do not boast. They are humble.
I have no problem saying I got lucky.
And never attended a writer's group. But one of my critique partners doesn't write my genre and she does an outstanding job with her critiques.

River Fairchild said...

The comments you've made here are sad but true. I feel fortunate to belong to UR here online, as the authors DO read outside of their genre...and write in different genres as well. It makes a big difference.
It's too bad those writers you mention won't go online and get a feel for this new writing world and its bazillion talented people. It's an eye-opener.
George RR Martin published the first of his series around 1995, I think? In the first year he only garnered around 50 reviews - and they are clumped into 2 months so it seems like a publishers blitz of freebies to me. The point I'm making is it took a lot of years for the series to become popular and most of that was courtesy of HBO. I wonder if he would have had the same success with books only and no TV.

L.G. Smith said...

I love the quote at the top. The quietly brooding megalomaniac. That's me. LOL.

And, yeah, writers are a weird breed. I've always thought talent was pretty common with writers, artists, and musicians. Lots of people have creative ideas and can even execute them well. But there are often other factors that determine success -- like perseverance, objectivity, and even luck.

Lots to ponder in this post.

Michael Di Gesu said...

Well, Michael...

You hit it this time...SO TRUE! IT is INSANE how talented so many people are. I appreciate it. And I absolutely feel that LUCK, TIMING, and PERSEVERANCE are key to a successful CREATIVE career.

Just go back in history... HOW MANY ARTISTS of great talent starved? Now their paintings are fetching millions of dollars. It's so common and sad.

And I feel sad for the writers who are SO STUCK in their genres and can't appreciate the written word of other amazingly talented writers.

I, for one, LOVE to read works outside my genre because I see a fresh and different pov. A voice distinct and usual ... and a piece of the writer's heart and soul.

Im my years, I've seen it all. And you are right, luck has a major part of success. And being in the right place at the right time...

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I belong to two writers' groups and they're very supportive. Very few have superiority issues. I write romance, fantasy and science fiction but I read lots of suspense and mystery. Even though I'm published, I seldom feel qualified to give loads of advice and critique. If a writers' group isn't helpful or meeting your needs, it's best to leave them behind.

Pat Dilloway said...

Online writer's groups are annoying.

Andrew Leon said...

I agree with almost everything you have here.
And, yeah, I don't much believe in writing groups. I was involved in one here for a while, but I quickly discovered that my goals were unique in the group, which was mostly women. Mostly, the other members of the group were doing memoir or wanted to write essays for women's magazines. It's impossible to get adequate feedback from a group like that when you're writing sci-fi/fantasy novels.

The only thing I'd modify in your post is that the end of it implies that it's the recognition that makes someone not mediocre. Someone is only cream if they make the money. I'm not sure if that's what you meant to say or not, but brilliance, as you said in the earlier part of the post, is not dependent upon recognition. Some people are supremely mediocre but happened to make it big anyway.

Adam said...

never played but seen that banana word game

Sarah Ahiers said...

Yeah i think you were pretty spot on. I mean, i do think if you have the talent (and like legit talent. Not the kind where you think you have talent but you really don't. You know what i'm talking about) --so if you have talent and you work really hard, i think there's a decent chance you'll make it.

But it's not a guarantee. The universe doesn't owe anyone anything.

So, yeah. there's definitely some luck involved. And other things. Like, i could be marvelously talented, but if i'm writing books that are weird and hard to market, i'm going to have an uphill battle, regardless.

There are definitely a lot of variables in people's success.

And this bit:

Most people who write shouldn't be writing. They don't have the talent. The ones that do have the talent get recognized and get publishing contracts

is some straight bullshit. Neither parts of that statment make sense. Anyone should be writing if they want, and there are some published authors who are not talented and there are definitely some mega talented writers who are not published.

J.L. Campbell said...

Well said, Micheal.

mooderino said...

Plenty of successful writers are terrible and loads of nobodies have huge talent but never make it. I don't know if self-publishing is the future or not but it certainly shows there's more than one way to sell books and make money.

mood
Moody Writing

Cindy said...

You're right about this group needing to get out there and get slapped with the reality of the publishing world. You just don't fully under stand what your facing until you publish..either traditional or Indie.

One has to really enjoy writing to keep going knowing the odds. Most people that are having success in the Indie world are cranking out a novel every two months. There's no way I could ever do that. And those novels are usually romance, which I don't even write.

Susan Kane said...

My eyes glazed over on this one, but then again, my eyes tend to glaze over a lot of things.

True--how do people manage to write 50,000 words of pure garbage, and then expect praise and adulation.

See you tomorrow.

Liz A. said...

Luck is just as important as skill. But you have to have the skill before you can have the luck.

How do you get lucky? Ah, that's the magic...

Stephen Hayes said...

I've been in a few writing groups and i didn't find them very helpful, for many of the reasons you mentioned.

Helena said...

The closest I ever came to a writer's group was for playwriting. It was small and enjoyable when we read funny ten-minute plays as a group, and one night we performed productions in a member's back yard. But the most dominant members had the least amount of talent and definitely exhibited jealousy of other members' success, so eventually the group fell apart.

Luck is indeed a big factor in getting traditionally published, and so is salesmanship. There's really no logical pattern here. And storytelling is such a natural human impulse that of course there are millions of us who can write books or shows or plays or movies. But finding a cure for cancer? Building a better rocket ship? Now that's tough.

Rusty Carl said...

There was a story on NPR recently about luck and the role it plays in having success as a creative person. The results of the experiment - you have to be lucky.

I'd say you have to lucky AND good (not great, mind you, just good). But I'll say that a good story is a good story regardless of genre. I've critiqued chic lit, women's fiction, literary fiction, and all sorts of other stories. I might not read that by choice, but that doesn't mean that storytelling elements just disappear when you jump genres. Any thoughtful writer should be capable of giving an honest critique that benefits an author when the story being critiqued is outside their chosen genre. I'm not sure I'd trust an author who is incapable of broadening their horizons that much.

Ken Reid said...

I love your candor!! :-)