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Write the GOOD Book You Want to Read

Write the book you want to read. It’s age old writing advice. So inspiring. So simple. So intuitive. Because we’ve all been there. We know what we want in a book, the characters we like, the twists we’d like to see, the way we wished that one story would have gone. We know what makes us roll our eyes, those cliches we hate seeing in books, that cheap escape the writer took that ruined the ending. So we set out to write our own book. How hard can it be? I mean, you know what you like and what you don’t like, so surely you could write the best book out there. Because you’re fueled by passion, and by God, do you have a lot of it.

If you’re like me, a self-important fledgling writer who has high standards and good taste, this piece of advice was a drug. It was like a coat of paint slathered over the bulging and textured patched drywall. It was the blinders I put on and the reason why at some point, I didn’t bother editing my manuscript. For some reason, when I heard this piece of advice, I heard, “Because you’re enjoying what you’re writing, the writing must be good.” That doesn’t sound so insidious. I mean, I’m fairly sure I have good taste. People have told me before and they come to me for recommendations. I’ve even heard that I have high standards. So it stands to reason that those same high standards would apply to my own work. I wouldn’t create something sub par.

Except here’s the issue: we are blind to our own flaws in our writing. There are many reasons for this. It might be that we assume something the reader knows, but they don’t. It might be that the scene is playing in our head like a movie, and we forget to put in some of those visual details. It might be due to the basic fact that we’re too familiar with the writing that we just don’t see the errors, even basic typos. And it might be that we just don’t have the skills or the know-how to be a perfect writer and therefore create a perfect book. Indeed, the more I write, the more I realize how much skill I am lacking. You don’t know what you don’t know until you know more.

To be able to use this piece of advice to its fullest efficacy, we need to have the skills to back it up. This is why I tell people all the time the best thing you can do for your writing is to have other writers read and critique it. Because you won’t know what’s successful or not until you get out of your own head.

This same way of thinking applied to the phrase, "You have to know the rules in order to break them." I would either think, "Ah that means I don't have to follow those pedantic rules." (Automatically assuming I knew the rules. Ha! Learn how to use a comma first, sweetheart.)

Or, I would think, "Pfff, that's just an excuse for someone to get away with bad art." (Don't ask how I could logically hold these two thoughts simultaneously. The human mind loves paradoxes)

But now I will go farther to say, you not only have to know the rules in order to break them, but you must follow them for several years (and follow them successfully) until you can break them.

Breaking the rules doesn’t mean passing bad writing off as misunderstood art. It means that you have ingrained those rules so well that you no longer need them as guidelines. The writer who successfully breaks the rules is one who understands the rules’ purpose, why they are there. If they know their purpose, they can achieve a number of different effects by breaking the rule. It could be emotional impact, pacing, character voice, tone, etc. And they must not do this simply to be contrarian. The breaking must serve the story.

But the bottom line is don’t be a fool and think that because you’re breaking the rules, that you know them. It doesn’t work the other way around.

And if you think, "Ok this is good advice, but it doesn't apply to me. My writing is already good," then I'm sorry to say, it especially applies to you. I know this because that was me. For some reason, I thought I was the exception to the rule, the unappreciated genius who was going to amaze the world with my writing prowess. If I would have read advice like this, I would have bristled and immediately either assumed the person giving the advice wasn't a good writer, so what would they know? Or I would say, "Well, sure, but not me." I was simply incapable of seeing my writing as needing improvement because up to that point, I had only heard praise from friends and family that it was good.

Were they just being nice? Were their standards simply low because they knew I was an amateur writer and they weren't expecting professional quality? Did they simply not know how to give critical feedback? Who knows. There's many possibilities.

And this wasn't their fault. Indeed, they were doing their job as a friend or family member of an aspiring writer. i.e. they were encouraging. That's what they're supposed to do.

The fault was with me. I internalized all of that encouragement and praise and turned it into arrogance. I believed that what I had written was gold, and I just needed to be discovered by the agent who had the rare sight to see it.

And then I joined a writers group. And all that bravado came crumbling down. I needed more descriptions. More sensory details. Show, don't tell (what did this mean?????).

I had never given a thought to the plot arc of a book, to the length of a book. I realized I had a lot to learn.

Now, because I regularly submit my writing for critique, my approach to writing is much more humble. I assume something is going to be wrong with it. That's not to be a downer on myself (although that attitude can certainly be taken too far) but I've been critiqued too often to be able to honestly hold that automatic sense of perfection any more. I've submitted chapters I thought were SO GOOD, and then have the Wordsmiths tear it apart (All the love to them for doing this. Once again, it's their job and it helps me learn)

Catherine will ask me about worldbuilding stuff. If the pacing is askew, Grace will bring it up. If my prose needs work, Lauren will come for me. Paige always seems to ask a practical question that makes me wonder how I never saw it as a problem in the first place. I can go on and on and on, each person giving insights that helps me grow.

But let's say, for the sake of argument, you are actually a good writer. Maybe you are that misunderstood genius. Alright, let’s roll with that. Even if everything you write is technically good, you still need to worry about things like how it is being received. Is it too complicated? Nuanced? Are you assuming the reader understands or knows assumed background information, certain perspectives? These questions are ones that can only be answered by an outside set of eyes.

So I will continue to beat this drum as long as I write. If you want to “write the book you want to read,” please make sure it’s a good book. Hone those skills. And to do that, you must let someone critique your writing.

Because everyone needs their writing critiqued, but no one needs it more than the writer that thinks they're the sh*t.




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