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image: Cassandra Leigh Gotto (CC BY-NC 2.0)
There are a handful of pieces of writing advice that I hear all the time, and I always feel the urge to quibble with them — even though I basically agree with them, more or less. Why do I have a problem with writing advice that is more or less correct? After a lot of pondering and soul-searching, I ended up feeling as if the problem is that these bits of advice are often misinterpreted, or maybe oversimplified.
So here are four pieces of advice that I agree with — and why they’re often taken in an overly broad or prescriptive way.
This is great advice, but people often seem to think it means, “You can only write about being an asteroid miner if you have actually mined asteroids yourself.” Which obviously would bar pretty much everybody from writing that kind of story.
Truth is, you might have had any number of real-life experiences that translate really well to writing about being on a cruddy ship in the asteroid belt, mining for rare earth metals. For example, maybe you had a tough warehouse job, where your boss was an asshole. Or maybe you worked for a landscaping company and had to get your hands dirty all the time. The point is, what you “know” isn’t necessarily a matter of having had a very specific experience, as much as finding ways to draw on your own experience, to bring realism and emotional weight to something else. When it comes to writing about the nitty gritty details of flying between asteroids, that’s where research comes in.
That said, there are certainly experiences that are better written about by people who’ve lived them. In particular, members ofa marginalized community should probably be the ones to write about the unique experiences of their own marginalization. That goes for someone’s cultural heritage, or the unique challenges that they may have experienced. There are definitely cases where something isn’t Your Story To Tell, especially if people who lived that story still haven’t had the opportunity to publish widely about it.
I heard this advice a lot when I was trying to break in as a short fiction writer. For a long time, I interpreted this maxim to mean, “You should read a bunch of the stories in this publication, so you can figure out how to pander to the editor’s taste.” I didn’t feel great about that idea, because I really wanted to write the stories that I was dying to write — the stuff that would make me happy or help me to feel creatively fulfilled, rather than trying to engineer the exact perfect story for Fred’s Story Quarterly.
After I talked to several editors of short story magazines, and listened to panel discussions at conventions, I started to understand that advice better. Instead of “read all of a magazine’s stuff so you can try to write something similar,” I took it to mean, “Only submit to magazines that you actually like.” In other words, if I read an issue of Fred’s Story Quarterly and strongly disliked all of the stories that Fred chose to publish, maybe I shouldn’t be sending my stuff to Fred?
If I don’t like Fred’s taste in fiction, then it’s probably just not a good fit. No harm, no foul. But also, why would I want to be published in a magazine that prints stuff that I don’t enjoy? I wouldn’t even be proud to get published there, even if I somehow found the key to Fred’s heart. So now I read publications to see if I like what they’re putting out, and I figure if I dig what they’re publishing, they might just like my stuff in turn.
People get kind of puritanical about this one. Like, if you love your own writing too much, there’s clearly something wrong with you, and you should repent. You are a dirty, shameful onanist who should be excoriated, or exfoliated, or maybe excommunicated. Took me way too long to realize that “kill your darlings” does not mean “any piece of writing that you especially like is probably bad and needs to go.”
Rather, you should be willing to sacrifice a beloved passage, if it’s cluttering up the story or getting in the way. I have definitely had many occasions where a joke that cracked me up came with the expense of the characters. Or when I realized a particularly cool scene did nothing to further the story, or provide more insight into the characters. Sometimes, a really excellent moment is pushing the story in a direction that it really doesn’t want to go. There are also those situations when I have three scenes that are doing the same thing, and I need to combine them into one, or maybe two, just to keep the reader from checking out. In one case, I couldn’t figure out how to finish writing a short story until I deleted one clever scene that was throwing me off.
That said, it’s also possible that a particularly cool scene is pushing the story in a direction that I didn’t want or intend the story to go in — and I come to realize that’s the direction the story actually should be going in. Sometimes the most interesting or entertaining moment in a story clashes with the grand plan — because there’s something wrong with the plan.
There’s also no reason whatsoever to kill a perfectly good darling if the overall result is going to be something that’s boring or soulless.
The longer I do this for, the more I trust my own instincts — and I find my own level of engagement and entertainment is a pretty good diagnostic tool for telling if something is working, and if the story is going in a direction that I feel good about. Sometimes I do love a passage as I’m writing, but then have to nuke it in revision for the good of the whole — but just as often, I find that the passage I love most is a signpost toward the direction I want to be going in.
And once again, the question of “killing your darlings” has nothing to do with morality, or propriety. You can be a shameless hedonist and nobody can judge you. Live for your own pleasure — it’s what Moloch wants!
This is self evidently true, in that we are all the heroes of our own stories — with the slight caveat that some people think of themselves more as antiheroes or perhaps tarnished heroes, if they’re racked with guilt or feel as if they’ve gone down a bad path. I certainly know people who think of themselves as protagonists, but not as “heroes.” But yes, in general, everyone is the protagonist of their own story as they live it.
But people often seem to interpret this advice to mean, “Villains must be sympathetic and have goals that the reader can identify with.” Whereas the world is full of people whose goals and ideals are garbage. People who are knowingly committing genocide, preying on the most vulnerable people in the world, and inflicting suffering on those who cannot protect themselves. There’s a reason why Adam Serwer’s phrase “The Cruelty is the Point” became such a huge meme. These people no doubt have an internal monologue which justifies their actions, and they probably believe their actions are justified — because some people aren’t really people, or they need to be put in their place.
Here’s the thing — someone who commits unspeakable acts might be the hero of their story, but they don’t get to be the hero of my story. I’m under no obligation to soften or excuse monsters, or to engender empathy for them. Confronting the reality of evil — or perhaps, the banality of evil — is one of the most vital tasks for fiction right now. Vicious, inhuman behavior must be named and confronted.
That said, I think the key are writing a good antagonist is to understand their motivations and their perspective. It’s perfectly possible to do this without trying to make anyone identify with them. A plot in which the villain behaves randomly and erratically is not going to be a satisfying one. I will often outline a story from the point of view of the antagonist, just to make sure that I understand why they are doing the things they are doing at every moment in the story.
And there’s certainly an argument to be made that depicting people who do unspeakable things as cartoon baddies might do more harm than good, and might make it harder for us to recognize when the ordinary humans around us are behaving abominably. In “The Word for World Is Forest,” Ursula K. Le Guin spends a lot of time getting into the POV of the loathsome Captain Davidson — one of the few times that I’m aware of where she invests that much effort into writing the viewpoint of an irredeemable character. I don’t get the sense that Le Guin is in any way sympathetic to Davidson, or that she’s trying to set up any type of redemption arc. But she is interested in exploring why this dude is so terrible.
I feel like pop culture has, of late, been trying to coax us to form attachments to a slew of unrepentant serial killers and mass-murderers, to the point where we’re drowning in redemption arcs and lovable sadists. And that’s why I sometimes want to push back against the “every hero every villain is also a hero” advice, even though I think it does have a lot of value.
The movement that made Biden deserves more from him (Washington Post)
Disney vs. Scarlett Johansson: Why “a Ton of Lawsuits” May Be Next (Hollywood Reporter)
Did Twitter break YA? (Misshelved #6) (Nicole Brinkley on TinyLetter)
Making Sense of Autogynephilia Debates (Julia Serano on Medium)
I mentioned above that my writing advice book, Never Say You Can’t Survive, is finally out next week. And I’ve got a couple of events coming up! On Aug 17, I’ll be in conversation with Maggie Tokuda Hall at Green Apple Books on the Park — you can attend in person, or via Zoom. The following day, August 18, I’ll be in conversation with Charles Yu for Porter Square Books (via Crowdcast).