Thursday, January 3, 2013

What to say to your fellow travelers.

Someone somewhere posted a picture of four things never to say to a writer and, being the mindless follower that I am, I "shared" the link on my Facebook page. (Yes, I have a Facebook page. However I cleverly hide my identity by using my real name – no one will ever look there.) What I like about this list is I've had all four said to me from time to time.
Number 1, have you written anything they've read: Based on careful study random memories, I'd say about one in thirty-seven people, upon learning I'm a writer, ask a variation of "Have you written anything I've heard of?" I usually frown thoughtfully before responding: "I don't know. What have you heard?" (If you are not into role-playing games, btw, the answer is almost certainly 'no'.)
Number 3, want you to employ talented relative: About six months ago someone did suggest I have his daughter 'draw' the cover of my next book, though as a proud papa myself, I don't fault him for it.
Number 4, asking if you write like [popular series]: On hearing I write science fiction and fantasy, people often do ask if I write things like Star Wars or Harry Potter, though in recent months many have asked if what I write is like Twilight.

The one I haven't heard as much now that I do most of my writing in my nifty home office, but used to hear at the library or Port City Java, or at social gatherings wherein I was actually writing at the time, is Number 2, wanting me to listen to/comment on their novel idea. Though few people intend to talk for an hour when they begin to describe their bookish vision, it is very difficult for them not to. Until I learned to condense my ideas into one (or two) sentence pitches and one-page summaries, people could have read one of my stories in the time I took to describe it. If, when talking to a relative stranger or someone who just struck up a conversation in the coffee shop, I see these particular sluice-gates about to open, I try to head off the flood with a variation of: "Wait. I'm in the middle of a story of my own and there's a problem I need to work out. I'm thinking about it all the time and have to really focus. Hearing another story idea, with all its potential, would distract me - I could lose my story forever." One reason this works is it's almost certainly true; if I'm breathing I'm working on a story. Another is it's something the other person can understand and respect without feeling slighted.

If the person asking is an aspiring writer who's expressed interest in writing and is serious about wanting to develop her craft, it's a bit more complex. I owe my start to a lot of supportive writers and editors who encouraged me along the way; I can't not support a new writer. On the other hand, I can't be a personal coach and mentor to everyone with a story to tell. (Actually, I tried that early on, thought I owed it to everyone who asked. Wore myself out and made enemies of a dozen neophytes who equated critiques of their work with attacks on their person.) These days I try to gauge what level of advice or guidance to give. Many benefit most from guidance to a few websites and some recommended reading - becoming a writer is at its core a solitary experience, after all. A few anecdotes - not many and not long - to illustrate possible roadblocks, dead ends, or easily missed opportunities might also be useful.

The one time I sorta mentored a writer, we exchanged fewer than a hundred words. I wrote all of Wolf Hunters at the Port City Java at Independence & Shipyard; ninety-seven four to nine hour days in a row. For about a month of that time a young man spent an hour or two each weekday at the table next to mine working on his original story. He had asked if he could work next to me because he had trouble focusing; he was easily distracted and didn't finish projects. He told me sticking close to me while I was writing, even though I couldn't see nor cared to look at what he was doing, kept him honest; it motivated him to stay off the internet and write. I don't know his name or what the story was about or why he stopped coming - though I like to think it was because he didn't need me any more.

What about you? If you're an established writer, how do you respond to new writers who ask your advice? If you're a new writer, what sort of guidance do you hope for from a professional writer?

7 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

I'm the most published writer in a group of writers who are relative neophytes, as far as fiction is concerned at least. I get those who want to take every word I say as gospel, to those who want to reject in a hostile fashion everything I say. I'm not shy about expressing my opinions, but I generally wait to be asked about it.

William Doonan said...

As a writer, I want honest brutality. If my work isn't good, I want to hear. If it can be made better, I want to know how. If you think it's great, I want to hear that too over drinks.

Liane Spicer said...

Only my immediate family and a few trusted friends know that I'm a writer so I'm almost never approached in social situations. I use different pen names for different genres and I don't cross-promote independently published work in places where I'm known as Liane Spicer.

A few aspiring writers e-mailed me after two local newspapers ran features when I was first published. None asked about guidance or mentoring; they wanted to know the secret handshake that would get them a New York publishing contract. I outlined the process and pointed them to a list of helpful links on my website.

A friend did ask me to mentor him and I gave detailed feedback on his first chapters. He did not appreciate my insistence that he needed to complete the story before sending anything to me again, and also mentioned that he expected me to do the easy part--researching markets and sending out queries--since I already knew that stuff. Finally aborted after realizing writing was not a reliable path to quick money.

I was approached by classmates at a recent CW course for help with specific issues and I was happy to assist. They didn't know that I write for cash, and I like it that way. Anonymity rocks.

KeVin K. said...

Sooner or later people are going to realize Liane is another of your pen names, Nora. Oops.

William, one of the painful aspects of my MFA program is workshopping. Nobody but an editor able to make a buy decision ever sees my work. No beta readers, no group. So the only feedback I ever want is a contract. This sharing business is scary.

Charles my world is divided into those who take my word as gospel and those I neither see nor hear. Makes things simpler.

Lynn Emery said...

I keep advice simple when I figure out the person isn't serious (isn't writing, hasn't finished a book, etc.). Wish I had royalties for every person who wanted to shove his/her idea at me and wait for me to write the book ("It's a bestseller!!!"). But they're too busy, important to do the grunt work of actually writing the a book. LOL

William Doonan said...

I love it - the only desired feedback is a contract! I think I just found my new mantra.

Jewel Amethyst said...

I had one or two approached me about how they could get a book published. I directed them to preditors and editors website that I found very useful in my quest of publication.