Friday, August 12, 2011

None of this is a moral issue....

Been accosted the other day by a couple questioners who made me think about morality and writing. That is, I don't think most writing issues are moral issues.  It's not a moral failing, goodness knows, to use adverbs, or not to use adverbs.  You don't need my permission or a saint's benediction to use omniscient POV, and headhopping is not a "sin". 

None of this is a moral issue.  How you choose to write your story is personal and practical, but not moral, as long as (here I get moralistic :) you do your best and never forget the reader.

That said, just about anything can be done well or done badly. I am continually perplexed by the notion so many writers have that someone else doing something well gives them permission to do it badly.  You know: Tolstoy headhops! Why can't I?  (Well, maybe, just maybe, Tolstoy does it better? Just a thought.)

All that counts is results. If you do headhopping in a way that adds to the quality of the story, zoom! There goes my bias against headhopping!  But if, as most writers find, headhopping detracts from the quality of the story, then all you've done is give me more reason to mutter darkly about how dangerous such weapons are in unskilled hands. (You seriously don't want me muttering darkly. Maria Callas, I ain't.)

We are both of us analytical, and we've seen about everything in submissions and contest entries. We've seen all sorts of writing choices done well, and done badly,  We try to warn off writers from the choices that tend to be done poorly, and/or suggest ways that some writers have done this exact thing well, or that we think might work around the icebergs and sandbars. But always, always, the trick here is to do something well, and you know what? The reader is the one that gets to judge that. Not you. Not me. Not Tolstoy.

But just remember this: That Tolstoy could do (whatever) well doesn't grant you absolution to do it badly. Serve the story, not some weird writing commandment or mutiny.  This truly isn't about you. I am not your reader, not your editor, not, heaven forfend, your boss. Do what you want. But never forget the whole purpose of this enterprise is to give the reader a good experience. Ignoring that commandment is the only sin we've got in this free-wheeling art of ours.


Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Whee! Beautifully put!

Magdalen said...

I have a corollary to that. My dad, who wrote only in the context of his job, used to say that the reader was always right. If Dad's writing confused someone, then he'd change it -- even if he could tell it was the reader who was confused!

When one person in my writers' critique group has a comment, I weigh it differently than if five people have the same comment. But I do still weigh it. What's useful about a group is that the outlier can stand out -- if everyone else gets it, the one confused reader may not be the best judge.

But even when I know all five people complaining about something are confused, I'm back with my dad: just change it. It's easier to come up with a pleasing alternative than it is to fight with your readers.

I don't answer to my readers. Their reactions, though, are a tool that helps me be a better writer -- and I'd be a fool to ignore that.

Leona said...

You're awesome as always, A. I would say a reminder to beta readers/CP's and the like: Just because someone has said it's an absolute no-no (as A has already pointed out there are few, if any, absolutes) doesn't mean it can't be done. If you're liking the story but say "but you can't do X, cuz my writing class told me so" you're missing the point. Did you as a reader enjoy it? Did X bring you out of the story or did you only notice because you were critiquing for them? Something to think about.

I like what Magdalen said about if one out of five doesn't get it versus the 5 out of 5 scenario. It's what I use. I try to look at why the one was confused, but mostly, I only do MAJOR changes if more than one person had problem with same passage. (unless I have an "expert" in the house. IE I have military novel. All civilians thought it was great but the one vet said, "hey, that's not right" about a military type thing, guess who'd win? :D Anyways, food for thought.

Edittorrent said...

And I think, in regards to critique groups, different critiquers have different strengths, and maybe Lucy should be heeded about continuity even if she's the only one who was bothered by some reference to the hero using a cane in one scene and a crutch in the next. Lucy might be best at that, and as Leona suggests, carry more weight about that than others.


shadow-hostage said...