Right now my son’s favorite word is “duck.” Okay, he’s eighteen months old, and he loves birds. But every bird is a duck to him. (As a side note, “truck” also sounds like “duck,” and I’m beginning to think that every animal is also a “duck” to him.)
But lately, it’s had me thinking of how we, as humans, learn the language and writing skills.
So when my son points to a fish and says “duck!” then argues with me for the next five minutes while I say, “no, fish,” and he happily repeats “duck” to me, I begin to think, Gee, this reminds me of what it was to be a beginning writer.
When you first start writing, everything you write is amazing. (Okay, maybe I should say, “When I first started writing, everything I wrote was amazing.” But for the point of this blog, I’m going to generalize and assume that everyone feels the same as I once did.)
You see the world through rose-colored spectacles, unencumbered by those “professional” authors whose writing is so stilted and whose plot is so bogged down with useless rabbit trails. No, your novel (or poem or novella) is so perfect that every agent, editor, and publisher who has the privilege of reading it will be clamoring to buy it from you.
You know those authors whose first works go up for bid? Yeah, that’s gonna be you–and you’re gonna be a millionaire.
Yes, things are great–ducky, if you will–and everything that pours from your pen is pure gold. You alone have discovered the secret to writing a masterpiece, and all those other authors out there have nothing compared to you. Every book you read, you think I could have written that, and written it better. Or, How on earth did this swill get published?
You, my friend, have all your ducks in a row.
At that stage in your writing life, when you sit down the words flow, all those years of pent up words burst forth. “Blank page syndrome? What is that?” you ask.
No, your words spew upon the page like some glorious vomit that you will not acknowledge to be vomit in all its glory until many years later, or perhaps after querying some agents and editors and finding nothing but rejection. So much rejection. All the agents, editors, and publishers out there are fools, you think. “Fools! I’ll show them! I’ll go straight to the reader! I don’t need them!”
So maybe you self-publish. Your work, you claim, is perfect as it is. It doesn’t need an editor, doesn’t need an agent, certainly doesn’t need one of “The Big Six.”
But then the reviews start to come in. And they aren’t the five-star reviews you were certain you were going to receive.
They’re talking about your typos, for heaven’s sake! What are they saying, they couldn’t get past your first chapter? That you referred to your main character by two very different names? Well, he had been a Steve at first, until you realized that didn’t fit him, and then he became a Bart. Did you forget to remove a Steve? No, you couldn’t have made such an amateurish mistake. You, my friend, are a professional.
But the reviews keep coming. And not one of them is five-stars. Really? Can the world be that deluded? Do they just not understand your genius? That must be it.
Oh boy. Your sales have ground to a halt, and you begin to doubt yourself. Is it true that there are a lot of typos? Finally, one day, you pick up your book and begin to read.
Everyone else was right. Your book needed an editor. It needed another set of eyes–maybe another two or three or half dozen sets of eyes. You should have gotten that editor–you should have listened.
Okay, I think you get the point.
What do you do when it’s not “ducky” anymore?
Maybe you didn’t get that far. Or maybe you listened after the first dozen people told you it needed work and began rewriting but were too afraid to share it. Or maybe you simply abandoned that first project and moved on to the second, only to go back to it years later and realize everyone else was right.
We all start out there.
When I started writing in elementary school, I wrote to have fun. That “fun” stage continued on through college. Unfortunately, I had the realist’s/pessimist’s viewpoint of writing: It would never become a viable career. I went on to graduate college with a master’s degree in something completely unrelated to writing. The most writing I did those days was for my thesis project–the most dry and boring writing I’ve done to date. My heart wasn’t in it.
But when I started writing for real after college, I wanted to make my writing good. I wanted others to read and enjoy it. I wanted to be an author in every sense of the word. Just writing for fun wasn’t enough anymore.
That was the point when I started looking into writing groups.
Sharing your work-in-progress with others is intimidating and daunting at first. It can go against every bone in your body. It can terrify you into waking up at night in a cold sweat. It could terrify you so that even when someone offers you a review, you can’t bear to read it for days or weeks. You thank that person and pretend like you read what they said, when really you averted your gaze.
If you learn nothing from this post except one thing, here it is: listen to those who read your work.
Last week I posted 10 Writing Tips from William Shakespeare. Check it out. I’ll wait. Especially check out numbers 5 & 8.
Didn’t get there? Okay, well here’s what I wanted you to glean from that today: Love your readers. That’s it.
Here, I’ll expand on it a bit. Love your readers, respect their opinions, but write for yourself. You need to write what you love, and love what you write. But listen to them when they say you have too many grammar errors to ignore.
Listen when they point out that your plot could have been even more exciting if you cut out that rabbit trail about the rubber duckies. (What was that even about, anyway?) Listen when they offer you constructive criticism. And you will thank them in later years, when you have all your ducks in a row.
What do you consider one of the unsung virtues of a good writer?