Monday, June 27, 2011

A Question to Ponder

I'm in New York for the IASPR conference and a few meetings and play dates. (IASPR = International Association for the Study of Popular Romance = the romance scholars group = super cool and super smart people.) At our dinner tonight, when one of the scholars learned how long I'd been involved in the publishing side of things, she asked if I'd noticed any changes in manuscript quality over the course of those years.

Interesting question. I had to think about it before I could answer in a way that made sense, because the truth is, manuscripts have changed dramatically since my early years, but not in the way she meant. The changes have to do with things like narrative immediacy, manipulation of point of view, the cross-pollinization of the genres, and so on. But she was specifically asking about writing quality -- grammar, mechanics, coherence, and that sort of thing.

There are changes I've noticed in those areas. Silly things. When people argue grammar, for example, they might know the rule but not the reason behind it. They might not know that there are competing grammar philosophies that yield competing and differing grammar rules. But manuscripts still tend to be pretty consistent -- that is, if an author adheres to one particular grammar philosophy, the manuscript will reflect that fairly consistently. An author who applies more formal academic grammar, they'll apply it to punctuation and sentence structure alike. An author who was taught generative grammar will use less formal rules, fewer commas, simpler sentences, and that sort of thing. That hasn't changed over the past mumble-mumble years.

Beginner manuscripts look much the same now as they did before, with most of the same errors. Formless scenes. Underdeveloped conflicts. Murky characterizations. Logic errors. We've all seen these kinds of things -- characters who are described as 35 but behave like 15-year-olds, characters who die in one chapter and reappear without explanation several chapters later, characters who go places for no reason and learn nothing new while there, preachy passages, episodic plots, and so on.

But this leads me to another question. There are more writing resources available now, and they're cheaper and easier to access than they were before the internet. And yet manuscripts are much the same as always. How can this be? Do people ignore all the great resources, or do they just not know how to apply them? What do you think?



Julie Harrington said...

I think it's a couple of things. Oddly enough, I've run into nothing BUT unpublished writers begging for critiques on their stories, people to look at it and tell them what they think, and critique partners. They keep saying they don't know where to go and yet... I've been a host of a romance forum on a writing board for years. Critiques, edit, discussion, feedback, etc., are ALL we do and at most we have a handful of regular members who post there. Go figure. We'd love new blood and active members. :)

I think fear keeps a lot of newer writers at bay. Afraid to post. Afraid to hear "bad things" about their writing. Afraid to de-lurk and try to expose themselves to people they've never met.

On the flip side, you have writers who don't want to hear it. They might have, say, perspective issues or passive voice or those scenes that don't do or lead or contribute anything... and if you say so (no matter how constructively), they erupt and flame and storm off and blame you. Had that happen once to me personally and I still stand firm: head-hopping is NOT a style and no, it's NOT the same thing as multiple points of view.

So part of it isn't knowing the resources are out there, part of it is the fear of taking advantage of those resources once you find them, and the other part is not being ready to hear what those resources have to say once you do step forward.

And then you have the other people who are just amazing and dive in and are open to help and feedback and really work to learn the craft. :)


test said...

Perhaps there's only a certain percentage of 'good' writers out there, no matter how much information there is?

A bit like TV channels. Doubling the number of channels doesn't double the number of programs you want to watch.

Thomas Sharkey said...

I used to advise beginner authors how on how to better their writing skills. I was mostly ignored as others complemented them on their "amazing talent" (Authonomy). Others bad-mouthed me and were bad-mouthed by others in return.
Some people never learn, so I try to nip things in the bud by advising young beginner writers on Yahoo! Answers.
Even there there are one or two bone-heads, but most of them react favourably and, if you don't mind, I mention this blog site in order for them to better their writing skills.


Jamie said...

No matter the availability of resources, ego is always closer and easier to use. How many people do you know who say they're going to write a book vs. how many who say they're going to learn to write a book?

Edittorrent said...

Ego and fear. Hmm, yes, that makes sense. I had been thinking that maybe it had something to do with an inability to be objective about our own work. You know what I mean? That is, it's one thing to read a lesson and understand the concept. It's something else to be able to apply that concept objectively to our own work.

But you can't even reach that point if ego and fear are in the way. Hmm.


Julie Harrington said...

Objectivity is a very hard thing to get. I can't judge anything I write without putting it aside for several weeks (if not several months for a really cold, stone hard look).

But that's a really good point. Can a writer separate who they are from what they write to look at it as an objective as a product for sale rather than "personal art?"

I think a lot of writers take critique of their work as critique of them as people/writers. Some even feel that changing a word or a line or a scene is an insult to their Art.

They forget, I think, that behind the creative art of writing is a business out to make money and that, like movies or music, the business side of publishing needs to publish what has a market and what will sell.

A writer has to balance both the art/creative process AND the business. That's something you don't see talked about when you're learning how to write a book.


Kristen Stieffel said...

The first problem is likely a matter of not knowing what you don't know. You can't find resources if you don't know which resources you should be looking for. You don't know what questions to ask.

Second, there's just the sheer volume of material to go through.When you have a day job and a family, you can only read so many books and attend so many conferences (if you even know there is such a thing as a writer's conference) each year. It takes time to develop competence, let alone mastery. And some of us, because of other obligations, will spend more time on the pursuit of mastery than others. I've met kids who are outliers because they've already dedicated every spare minute to it, and I've met retirees who are just getting started.