Discouraging the Bad Writers

There’s a lively conversation going on over at Making Light set off by this amusing piece, “Everyone does not have a novel inside them“, by Tim Clare in the Guardian. Clare rails against the myth that publishing is an evil cartel bent on keeping new voices out and longs for a way to discourage all the crap writers who dream of instant fame and fortune from even thinking about getting published.

In amongst (ha, Margo, I say, ha!) the conversation at Making Light some yet-to-be-published writers worry that they are the ones aimed at and make noises in the direction of quitting, or not bothering to try to get into print, which leads Patrick Nielsen Hayden to write this:

Indeed, the moral of this conversation, like all such conversations, is that no matter what you do to discourage bad writers, a significant number of the good ones will take what you say to heart and slink away in shame.

Amen to that. It will never cease to amaze me how many truly wonderful unpublished writers end up being discouraged by this kind of conversation, and don’t realise it’s not aimed at them. And then, as Cat reminded me, there are those writers who were once truly awful and then got a lot, lot, lot better (nope, I won’t be pointing out any examples).

Which is to say, yup, it’s a shame so much crap is published, but tonnes of fab stuff is too, and in this age of the interwebby thingie it’s become easier and easier to find the stuff what you will like. And like that.


  1. marrije on #

    oh alright i’ll keep typing then. this sort of conversation does depress me, and then i’ll go and read some of teresa n-h’s bits about laughably bad slush, and i’m cheered again, because i’m actually not that bad. and then i’ll read something by neil gaiman and become depressed all over again, because crappity-crap never will i attain a level remotely like that. methinks it’s time for nanowrimo, when i’ll be much too busy typing to keep up with the worrying.

  2. Lauren McLaughlin on #

    I’ll take Tim Clare’s statement that not everyone has a novel inside and raise him one. No one has a novel inside. I think it’s a massive misconception that a work of art (whether it be a painting, a song, a novel, what have you) is some pure thing that gets excavated through the process of craft. A novel exists when and only when a person creates it through the hard work of writing it. It does not exist until that moment.

  3. Justine on #

    Marrije: It’s not a race. It doesn’t matter how good anyone is but you. And you are the one person most likely to be unable to figure out how good you are. Not to mention that the whole notion of “good” is very, very, very slippery. You are depressed because you think you’ll never write as well as Gaiman and yet there are people who think Gaiman can’t write. There isn’t a writer out there that everyone agrees is good. So go at it, try the nanowrimo, and have fun!

    Lauren: Absolutely! What you said. Imagine how much easier writing would be if there was a novel inside ready to be vomitted or shat out.

  4. marrije on #

    indeed, justine, not a race, you’re quite right. i’ve participated in nanowrimo (and finished) four times now, and it works like a charm for me. regrettably, after each mad race of november i hardly write a word – the old self-doubt creeping back in. must really stop doing that one of these days and get back to typing. sigh.

    there are people who think gaiman can’t write?? who are they? lead me to them and i will fix that 🙂

  5. Justine on #

    Marrije: there are people who think Jane Austen can’t write. There are people who don’t recognise that Bring it on is the best movie ever made. There is nothing to be done about such insane people.

    Self-doubt just goes with the territory. I worry about writers who are wholly confident that everything they write is perfect. They’re either lying or delusional.

  6. Patrick Nielsen Hayden on #

    But Bring It On is obviously the best movie ever made. It’s not the only best movie ever made, mind you, but still.

  7. claire on #

    i am wholly confident that everything i write is perfect. for 24 hours, that is. then i am wholly confident that everything i write is day-old donkey dung. for an unspecified period of time. then i get over myself and revise. knowing what is worth revising and what is not is really tough.

    but the tougher part is enjoying the euphoria of new ideas and surviving the equally stupid self-lambasting without succumbing to either. and then coming back to the work with a persistence and a genuine confidence in your own ability to make it good.

    everyone takes it as an article of faith that “talent” is just this mysterious and mystical gift that you have or don’t have and if you don’t have it, there’s nothing you can do to ever become good. likewise, “talent” is also something that people who never finish anything or never show anything to anyone might have, i.e. “wasted talent” or “tragically unrecognized talent”.

    i agree with lauren and justine and go one farther: both notions are bullshit. there’s inborn facility with words and ideas, and there’s intelligence and creativity, and there’s a personality conducive to the writing life, but just these aren’t talent. talent to me includes blazing love for what you’re doing (whether you’re good at it or not), confidence or delusion enough to continue even when you’re sure you’re crap at it, stamina enough to improve yourself even if you start out good, and then the ability to put it out there when it’s done and pester people until they take notice.

    writing is language, it’s communication. if you’re not finishing or putting it out there, then you’re not communicating, it’s not complete, and you’re not a good writer. and talent isn’t inborn. you don’t discover that you have talent. you DECIDE that you have talent.

  8. Justine on #

    Patrick: You are correct “best movie ever made” is rather a large category. I just now watched Palm Beach Story another best movie of all time and not just for the Preston Sturges factor—I will never tire of watching Claudette Colbert practically putting her neck out in the effort to have only her best side on camera. Tres adorable.

    Claire: Welcome, stranger! Long time no read. Yup, pretty much what you said. There’s much mystical crap written about “talent” and the “muse” and blah blah blah. But there are always writers who start out crap and get a lot better.

    For example, a friend was in despair about the accepted submissions for a writers workshop s/he had to teach. They were the worst s/he’d ever seen and yet at the end of the workshop three of the students had blossomed and learned and gone from shithouse to impressive. If asked after reading their initial submissions my friend would have said they were talentless nohopers. S/he was wrong.

    The only part where I differ from you is your last paragraph. I’m not convinced that you’re not a good writer if you’re not trying to get published. There are still those for whom writing is a hobby. And sometimes I think people try to get published too early. I know I did.

    But then to contradict myself I’ve become a much better writer since getting published. It’s amazing what being professionally edited does for your writing learning curve . . .

  9. claire on #

    actually, i was having a bad writing day when i wrote that and that was by way of a pep talk to myself. rah rah.

    i still stand by trying to get your work out there as a facet of talent. it doesn’t necessarily have to be publication (or attempted publication.) it can be doing readings, publishing a zine or webzine, starting a writers group, joining a workshop, etc. something, anything, where your work might actually be READ, so you can get feedback, so people can respond to it with their own writing, or through discussion.

    i’m sure that (very occasionally) work written in a vacuum can be brilliant, but i’m a lot less sure that a writer who has always written in a vacuum could ever become brilliant. even dickenson and barrett (pre browning) published and corresponded with people. even salinger, whose hide nor hair have been seen on public paper in forty years, had a very active publishing career before he went all hidey.

    i don’t think it’s just a mechanical issue. i think the ability to relate to other people intellectually and emotionally is necessary for good writing. and this ability is exercised not just in writing so that other people can understand you, but in presenting your work as a form of discussion with other people so that they can respond — and so that their response can teach you how to write more effectively.

    boy, i’ve really gotten off track here, haven’t i? by the way, just because i don’t comment, doesn’t mean i don’t lurk. i haven’t been commenting because i’m still trying to figure out what ashes have to do with batting a ball around, and why what seems to be a serious championship is called a “test”.

  10. Justine on #

    Claire: Okay, now we’re in total agreement. When I was talking about writing as a hobby I was mostly thinking of blogging and fan writing and some zine writing and the like. Stuff written without the goal of earning money from it, some of which is very fine indeed and almost none of which is written in a vacuum.

    Some time (next WisCon?) when we’re in a bar together, Claire, I shall explain cricket, using glasses and coasters. In the meantime you could go here to learn all about it.

  11. claire on #

    justine, thanks for that … uh … enlightening treatise. i now have an enormously increased appreciation for baseball, croquet and quidditch, all three of which together seem less complex than cricket, not to mention shorter. but i already have my membership for the next wiscon, so you bring the know-how, i’ll buy the first of many rounds.

  12. Justine on #

    What on earth do you mean? Perfectly straightforward. Sometimes I wonder about you yankees. Not the brightest!

    Yup in the bar at WisCon—me and Scott’ll act it out for you.

  13. claire on #

    oh, by the way, … ashes?

  14. claire on #

    it ain’t broken yet, but if i keep it up, it will be. besides, i think since i have the decency to read your blog every day, it’s your responsibility to research and answer all the questions i might have about things you bring up in it.

    by the way, i finally figured it out: cricket isn’t actually that complicated, it’s just that cricket aficionadoes are constitutionally incapable of explaining things simply. for example, y’all could’ve explained the ashes thing thus:

    “some poncy brit a hundred years ago lamented the loss of a cricket game to australians by printing an obituary to english cricket in which he stated that the body (of english cricket) would be cremated and the ashes delivered to australia. in later years they actually got some ashes by burning wooden cricket equipment, and now pass them back and forth whenever australia plays england.”

    i think only cricket aficionadoes need the 1700-word essay that includes the the lyrics to the songs immortalizing this … uh … immortal episode, dates and circumstances of the marriage proposals of all the major players, and the racial background and future occupations of their wives.

  15. Justine Larbalestier on #

    Americans are in such a hurry! Some of us just adore knowing all the details of any given event. Particularly one as life-changing as the beginning of the Ashes.

    Though I have no argument with describing that pom (or really any upper class pom) as poncy. Spot on, Claire!

    Point of fact: the Ashes does not pass back and forth between Australia and England. Firstly, those bastards claim the urn is too fragile to travel and will barely let us get a squiz at it. It certainly never leaves England. And secondly, for the most part the Ashes have (in spirit) been in Australian hands since we have won it way, way, way more than they have.

    Now that you have pointed out my duty to me, I promise to research and answer any questions you ask. Iffin they arise from this blog, that is.

  16. kate on #

    Clare: “i now have an enormously increased appreciation for baseball, croquet and quidditch, all three of which together seem less complex than cricket, not to mention shorter.

    hear, hear. but then, while I’ve seen bits of cricket games many many times through british shows/films, I can’t say I’ve tried too hard to wrangle a succinct & helpful-to-me explanation…

    Justine: ” “best movie ever made” is rather a large category. … Claudette Colbert

    isn’t it just? ooh, on Claudette Colbert, do you like “It Happened One Night”? that’s currently my favorite for her. ^_^

    *fades back into lurkerdom*

  17. Mike on #

    I suspect there is a “trick” or set of “tricks” to being a good writer.
    I also have long suspected that concepts like “raw talent” and “intuition” are nonsense.
    Its all about experience.
    Finding the “trick” to being a good writer is like looking for a needle in a haystack.
    The more you look the better chance you have of finding the needle.
    There is a catch though, I suspect you need to exceed what I call a “threshold IQ”.
    people with IQ’s of 89 don’t become succesful writers.

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