Today I’d like to talk about staying true to yourself, even in the face of good advice.
After several years in various writer’s groups I’ve noticed a trend. One, writers are very opinionated about other peoples’ work, and two, there always seems to be at least one person in the group that ends up as the recipient of those strong opinions. At the published stage, this is a good thing – controversy breeds sales. But at the draft stage, where you’re putting together a book for the very first time, it’s problematic.
I’ve seen too many books ruined by a surfeit of good advice. The author listens closely to the group’s advice on a particular chapter and incorporates all of it into the next chapter. Rinse, Repeat. And by the time they finish writing the book, it has veered off in several directions never intended by the author. Since writer’s groups are full of different people, often mutually exclusive directions. So that the final book ends up as a hodgepodge of ideas that don’t fit together, with a plot that lurches around from idea to idea without a synthesis. Revision in that case is a bear, if it can be accomplished at all.
Contrast this with the happily solo author pounding at the keyboard. He has no ideas fighting with his vision. She can pursue the book exactly as she pleased. Any glaring flaws in the book can proceed merrily out to their final stage – but so can genius moments. Great ideas. And characters ready to leap off the page.
I’m not knocking writer’s groups. There’s something amazing about another set of eyes on your manuscript, another set of ideas on how to make it better. But, as writers are so full of opinions, until you know what you’re trying to say, it’s all too dangerous to show your work to someone else. You may find what they’re trying to say drowns out your own quieter ideas.
I personally don’t bring in my work to a group until I’m over halfway done with a manuscript. That is, the group sees the first chapter at that point. By then I have a clear idea in my head of my vision, what I want for the manuscript, and am ready to talk about how I introduce the audience to that idea in the first chapter. Otherwise things get muddled in my head.
Other writers I’ve talked to bring in their works chapter by chapter as they complete them. This works for these guys for two reasons: one, they’re stubborn SOBs. They know what they want and nobody, not nobody is going to stop them. And two, they write from outlines. They’ve already done a great deal of the big-picture work before they sit down to write the first line.
Either way, as your work hits the group, brace yourself. A lot of the ideas you’ll hear will make your book better. But a lot of them will make the book worse – a lot worse. But it all will sound like good advice at the time. As the author, how do you separate out the helpful from the superfluous?
Have a clear, stubborn vision of what you want from the book and stick to it even in the face of apparently good advice. Because, at the end of the day, if you don’t please yourself, you haven’t succeeded as an artist.