Can We Steal Success?

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately on a critique site where writers can post work, critique work, discuss writing. And it has been very helpful. It’s made me a more critical reader, more conscious of what I’m reading. But I think that for any writer using a tool like this site, there are two things to watch out for… (Actually, I’m sure there are more and I’ll come up with those as I learn more. For now, I’ve realized these two and have thought a lot about them lately.)

1) Not all rules apply to all kinds of writing. Writers don’t like run-on sentences. But I’m reading We the Animals by Justin Torres, which begins with one of the longest run-on sentences I’ve ever seen. And it’s brilliant. And if he’d posted this work for critique on this very useful site I use, he would have been reamed and called sophomoric and inexperienced. After all, everyone knows that run-ons are bad, right? Not right. Not always. Like the adverb rule I railed about before… no rules of writing are hard and fast. But there are probably best practices. I think the danger of a critique site like this is that we get very comfortable building our ideas of what good writing looks like and then have difficulty accepting someone who is breaking those rules, especially if he or she isn’t an already established and esteemed author. It’s fine for Victor Hugo to spend 100 pages in description at the beginning of Les Miserables, but that would be totally ridiculed if attempted by a fledgling writer working on something new. Start in the action, right? The reader’s not going to sit around for 100 pages for you to paint a scene! You’ll never get it published, Hugo, you silly lout. I think that this kind of blanket criticism leads to more and more people writing in a formulaic way that dumbs down language and limits expression. And that leads us to number 2.

2) There are a lot of popular books out there at the moment that are not exactly, um, high art. They are written…but not necessarily well-written. And they’re fun, and a good read, and an enjoyable story. But they are not what “real writers” want to write. I know that because these “real writers” are drinking their coffee, smoking their cigarettes and bemoaning the lack of good writing out there all over the forums at this critique site. They sit back and wallow in their own brilliant and as yet unpublished words and spit venomous threads about the terrible writing getting attention today, about the stupidity of the audience that they themselves have not yet managed to woo. They cry about the failings of the publishing industry, the consumerism of readers, the lack of writers creating “good work” (the same work that they themselves critique on this site and warn about the use of modifiers and run-ons…) I think there is a real danger in this. Should we not be supportive of those who have played the publishing game and won? How does it hurt me to be happy for EL James? Why should I be upset that Charlaine Harris is doing so well? Shouldn’t I take heart that maybe there is a place for my work if theirs has found such receptive readers? I greatly dislike the jealous poison being spewed by would-be great writers about the successes of those who have managed what they have not. Say all you like about JK Rowlings adverb abuse… didn’t we used to celebrate her for bringing literature to a whole generation of kids who we previously believed to be hopelessly illiterate thanks to the advent of computer games and consoles? Isn’t anything that keeps people reading good for all of us?

Just my two cents.


6 thoughts on “Can We Steal Success?

  1. You are so right. Critique sites (and critiques in general) can be very helpful, and really hone your ability to read your own work critically. But unless this in an editor suggesting changes so that they can publish your book (and even then very carefully) you should not change something you really feel strongly about just because one person doesn’t like it. If 10 out of 10 people make the suggestion, maybe they’re on to something. But if 10 people love your work, and make different suggestions at different places, then you have to really think about which ones will make your writing stronger, because a lot of it is just personal preference, and it is your story, after all.

  2. I just joined a critique site as well; I think it’s important to take things with a grain of salt. I don’t apply every suggestion given to me, but if five or six people highlight the same thing then I sit up and take notice, you know?

    It’s important to know the rules when it comes to writing, i.e. punctuation, grammar etc. But it’s also important to know when and how to break the rule when it serves your story.

    As for your second point; a part of me can’t help but bemoan the fact that bad writing can get popular. And it’s not in a way of me thinking, ‘How come they sell so many books when my writing is so great but still unpublished?’ I don’t compare myself to other writers in such a way. But I just can’t help but feel a little sad when a poorly written book ends up on the bestseller list. Although I also tend to think about it the way I do music; there’s a lot of crap at the top of the charts, and always will be.

    Also, I think overuse of adverbs and such can be forgiven when it’s an incredibly engaging and fresh story. I find it much harder to forgive poor plotting and story structure.

    Great post! 😀

  3. Hey, I’m doing a Guest Post Week next week and I’d love for you to be a part of it! All it is, I’ll ask you 3 question s about your writing – all you have to do is contribute 3 elaborate answers and maybe a pic of yourself? It’s just my way to get to know the bloggers I enjoy reading. Anyway, let me know as my first guest post is going up on Saturday

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