About writing

John Scalzi brought my attention to Josh Olson’s piece explaining why he won’t read amateur screenplays. Hell, John Scalzi is very much of the same opinion when it comes to amateur novels.

Go ahead. Read the entries. They’re scum. The biggest jerks on the face of the planet. Or, as they put it, they’re dicks.

Right?

WRONG. I give both Mr. Scalzi and Mr. Olson two big thumbs up. Yes, there are some ouchies in their comments. They’re saying what needs to be said, and and I’m glad they said it.

Olson’s words are in some ways harsh, and in every way true. They’re words that every aspiring writers need to hear.

There’s very little that I can add to Scalzi’s blog post or Olson’s article that they didn’t say a million times better than I could. My crit partner summarized the points that should have been bolded in the Olson article, so I won’t repeat them here.

What I will say is, that, with a few rare exceptions, authors are nice people. They want you to do well. They’d love to help, but they can’t, because they have too many obligations and responsibilities, and spending time reading amateur material isn’t their top priority (unless they’re judging a writing contest), and no one should expect it to be.

I’m sure there are some precious and special flowers out there who bemoan that their writing could be great if only someone would recognize the spark in it and help them develop their skills. You know what? I’d give my metaphorical left leg if I could be mentored by an author, but I’m not even going to ask because I know they got to where they are by doing the exact same thing that I’m doing right now, and that’s planting my ass in that damn chair and working until my fingers bleed, reading books in as many genres as humanly possible to expose myself to different styles and techniques, and putting my money where my mouth is.

If I say I want to be a writer, then I’m damn well going to write until I am.

There’s a reason why, despite not being a published writer getting requests to review amateur work, that I sympathize with Scalzi and Olson’s point of views. And that reason is reason number #4 from Scalzi’s blog: “Some people don’t really want feedback, and if they do, they don’t want feedback from me.”

I’ve done a few stints of time ghostwriting undergraduate and graduate level theses based on a bare-bones structure and turning something illegible into a coherent document. I’ve edited other people’s work — short stories, articles, comic book scripts, artwork. It was my job to do it. I got paid to do it. And no one got mad at me if I said, “This is crap. Do it again until you can give me something editable.”

Several years ago, the inevitable happened. I wasn’t prepared for it. Two different people asked me, at different times, if I wouldn’t mind reading their script/book and telling them what I thought about it. They both said, “Please be honest.”

Oh, I was bluntly honest. But the situation was no different than when Olson wrote pages and pages of what was wrong with the script he was given to read, only to erase them and struggle to find something good to say. I offered advice. I even suggested how they could improve on their writing. I went out of my way to compile a long letter with different points of things they could polish. And in the same way, I told them what was really good about their writing and that they should be using those more.

It took me a long time to figure out why these two people, these two friends who knew that I normally get paid for this kind of thing, stopped talking to me.

It comes down to the “Wait. Who the hell do you think you are, telling people that their work sucks? You wouldn’t know good writing if it bit you in the ass” mentality. And, sure, it could be true. Really. I mean, they’re right. Just who the hell am I? I’m someone that they sought feedback from, so surely they thought my advice would be useful. But if they only wanted a pat on the back for having written it, well, they should’ve said. I could’ve done that without reading anything.

If someone is serious about being a writer, they should work at it. If and when they’re ready to put it out there, and believe me, it takes a lot of courage to put anything out in the open for people to see, they should make sure they’re prepared for the feedback they’re going to receive.

Maybe having spent time editing other people’s work has prepared me for receiving feedback that doesn’t flatter my ego and rips apart everything I’m doing wrong. Maybe it’s because I’ve gotten harsh feedback that made me realize that my OMG this is the best story ever! writing was actually, well, not, but the criticism came from people I knew and respected, and who really did want me to do better. Or maybe I understand that I’ll never improve unless I get that kind of critique, so I’d better grow thicker skin and learn not to take it personally.

But I completely understand where Mr. Scalzi and Mr. Olson are coming from in their blog posts, and I salute them.

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