Warning: Rather Long Rant Ahead
I wonder if artists attract artists, no matter their field, or if writing is just so ubiquitous (as I have theorized) that it’s very common to run into aspiring writers. Admittedly, one of my parents was an English literature professor, so I was introduced to a lot of academics, many of which were writers. My parent published poetry and had started on a Great American novel. This parent also encouraged me to write even as I studied for a more technically oriented career. I love to write but the STEM fields will pay the bills. Even enduring public education did not damper my enthusiasm for writing, although I was often irritated when my essays in English class did not receive the top grade. College is where I met other aspiring writers who like myself were studying for a career that would pay their bills. They are what really got me thinking about the writing process, inspiration, self-evaluation, criticism, and writing as an art.
I have mentioned Writer G before. Writer G and I were friends for some time before irreconcilable differences drove us apart. But during that time, Writer G was the person I would commiserate with regarding the difficulty of breaking into the business. We were both chasing the dream and in some ways I think Writer G took that more seriously than I did. Writer G went so far as to try to find an agent. Writer G attended conferences and workshops. I mentioned Writer G even joined (or tried to join) some writer groups both to improve his writing and to make connections. I also mentioned Writer G dropped the first group when they criticized his work. Writer G and I both preferred fantasy as our genre of choice, although he also dabbled in science fiction, which is a genre that despite my technical background intimidates me. To me, good science fiction requires a thorough understanding in science and also in history in the sense of predicting how human society will evolve in the future. Bad science fiction just takes another genre, say a Western, and replaces the Colt .45s with laser pistols but otherwise changes nothing else.
Since Writer G was the only person I knew at the time also trying to be a professional writer, I had many conversations with him about the publishing business and writing in general. I thought Writer G would be a good person to enlist to help me with the laborious editorial process that is so important. This is where we started to have differences and when I look back on the situation and I think perhaps I didn’t handle it well from a personal perspective, but the situation helped cement some of my ideas about what I think is good writing and what is bad. Now, don’t get me wrong; I already had some ideas because I read a lot. But my relationship with Writer G helped me to understand how writers may not actually know the difference between good and bad, and by extension helped me understand some of the frustrating problems with publishing.
The title of this entry comes from a show MTV produced in the late ’90s called “Daria.” If you were a teenager in the late ’90s, you should watch this show. The lead character was a brainy, outcast teenager saddled with a shallow, popular younger sister. In one episode, the younger sister writes a mediocre essay that is about ten times better than anything else she’s ever written and so she receives heaps of praise for it. Daria is at first amused, and then dismayed, as it obvious that despite her consistently superior academic performance, she will never get the same kind of praise as her sister’s mediocre work. Her sister, of course, doesn’t begin to understand the difference in the quality of essay she wrote versus her sister’s superior efforts. Daria says to her friend, “Don’t people know good writing from bad?”
In the course of my relationship with Writer G, I realized the answer was unfortunately quite often – “No.” By the by, this was before the runaway success of the “Twilight” series which made me understand that not only do many many people not know the difference between good writing and bad, that difference doesn’t really matter if the material is profitable. Before that point, and my dealings with Writer G, I guess I naively assumed that good writing had a better chance of being published than bad writing (unless one was already a Big Name in which case the Big Name might be allowed to publish any old thing just to meet a deadline). It honestly did not occur to me a new writer could offer up objectively terrible material to a publisher and actually get published. Again, this shouldn’t have surprised me since pretty much ever other media is happy to sacrifice quality for profitability.
My criticism is pretty harsh for writers I don’t know (see any rant on comic books). Giving and receiving criticism from writers I did/do know is a lot more difficult. At first, I would provide editorial reviews and what I thought was constructive criticism for Writer G’s concerning non-editorial issues. Writer G was not actually a good editor (many writers aren’t, and many good editors are not good writers), but he did give me criticism for non-editorial issues. I tried to be kind to my friend but it soon became obvious to me that Writer G wasn’t a very good writer.
Lest you judge me too terrible a person, I really tried to be generous as I critiqued Writer G’s work. I attempted to rationalize my gut feelings and years of unintentional critical training I absorbed from my English literature parent. I chalked up my misgivings about Writer G’s works to 1) having a different style 2) having a different reading background 3) having different life experiences and 4) the very human desire to be better than everyone else (i.e., egoism).
1) Writer G certainly did have a different style and reading background. It was Writer G who suggested some books by Mercedes Lackey to me as my foray into modern pop fantasy. 2) Writer G read modern fiction voraciously (and probably read more books than I did), which is good, but it became clear Writer G couldn’t discern good writing from bad in what he read based on his suggestions to me. 3) Writer G and I also came from very different personal backgrounds. Many an author tells aspiring authors to write what they know, so we knew about different things. 4) Finally, there is egoism. I want to be a good writer. I think I am, obviously, or I wouldn’t put my work out there. But I have already theorized most writers don’t set out to produce mediocre or terrible works (like most artists don’t aspire to end up in the Museum of Bad Art). And if Writer G was a good writer, and my work was so very different, then logically I was a bad writer.
So what happened? When I tried to address some of what I perceived as flaws in Writer G’s work, I was rebuffed soundly and counter-criticized harshly (and somewhat unfairly, but not entirely unfairly; I did try to remain open to his criticism). For the sake of our friendship, I reduced my criticism to merely editorial suggestions only to have that ignored as well, so I stopped saying anything and I stopped reading (seriously, Writer G once used a comma in place of a verb). Writer G also stopped asking my opinion. Writer G, as far as I know, is still trying to publish and I still feel guilty to this day about not wishing him luck or success. The world is full of too many bad writers (and artists in general) and I’d like to see success bestowed on someone who actually writes well (not even necessarily me; just someone who writes good work).
I’m sure you’re wondering just how bad Writer G’s work is and whether or not I’m exaggerating. He once gave me a novel that opened with such a melodramatic sentence I seriously considered submitting it to the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest without his knowledge. I obviously did not do that because that would be wrong and Writer G was my friend, but it should give you some idea of Writer G’s abilities. Well, I hemmed and hawed for a long time coming to grips with how an earnest ambition produces mediocre material (and worried I was guilty of the same) and whether I was a bad writer or a bad friend. My friend Dave (yes, he who inspired the character of Dave in “Necromancy”), who is also an aspiring writer, put forth his opinion of reading one of Writer G’s stories much more concisely – “I wanted to slap myself in the face with a spiked glove.”
To Daria’s lament – yes, some people do know good writing from bad. Brevity is indeed the soul of wit. And thank you, Dave.