About seven months ago I got a new laptop. It was very bell-and-whistle-less, that was the point. I needed something compact that would travel easily so I could write wherever, including those cramped 'business class' seats on planes.
It does have one feature on it I've never had before: a fingerprint reader. It's very James Bond. And for about six months I didn't use it. I canceled out of the configuration screen every time it prompted me and I grumbled about it sitting right where my right palm rests, because every time I touched it, it wanted to be configured.
I finally got sick of it and set it up just so it would stop reminding me. And I have to say it's one of the most brilliant inventions ever in the history of computers with password protection. When it's 5 am and I'm still (literally) bleary-eyed because I've just woken up, and my computer wants me to type in my password, it frequently takes me a couple of tries. But now, I swipe my index finger over the reader and viola - instant computer access.
The question is, why didn't I set it up sooner? That's simple. Because several years ago, when the technology was still new, someone told me it wasn't reliable and I should stay away from it.
My brain knows that technology changes in a heartbeat in computing. But that single warning stuck with me because the advice about something I wasn't familiar with came from someone whose opinion I trusted about these things.
If I had bothered to research the subject myself, I would have known why he felt that way, how much things had changed, and why there's no such thing as an absolute, even in computer hardware.
About four years ago, I joined Writing.Com. I quickly found my first group of critique partners. Among all the advice they gave me I heard thing like:
- "You have an adverb in this chapter, Stephen King says adverbs are bad, try and cut back on the number you're using." (In case you think I'm exaggerating, I have been called out before for having one (1) adverb in a body of work).
- "You have a prologue. No one ever reads prologues. I didn't even read yours because it said it was a prologue. If you keep it, no one will ever want to publish your story." (once again, not an exaggeration :-P)
- "You've used the word 'was' several times. Delete it because 'was' is passive voice and passive voice is always bad."
And for many years I held these and other pieces of advice very close to my heart. Not because I understood them, but because someone I trusted about these things had given me this advice.
If I had been able to dig deeper, I would have seen there was more under the surface of each piece of advice than what I was being told. I would have known why people told me this, and why there's no such thing as an absolute, especially in writing.
This goes beyond the technical aspects of the craft as well. It delves into plot and character changes and suggestions. For instance, maybe someone critiques your query/first chapter/synopsis, and it comes back with a series of red marks that say things like:
- But why does Mary Sue have wings?
- But what is a snarkle-farckle-bottom?
- But how did the reindeer get in the pudding?
I've gotten these types of comments, and I always looked at them and said "but it's a query/first chapter/synopsis. How am I going to explain all of that in only 250 words?"
Sometimes feedback is about what's on the surface. If you've confused 'they're' with 'their', unless you're writing experimental literary fiction that uses the play on words to make a point, this isn't something you need to dig deeper to understand. Use the right word and move on.
But frequently feedback is about what's underneath. It's not that all adverbs are bad, it's just that there's a time and a place. But you have to understand the intricacies to use them without looking like a lazy writer.
It's not that you have to answer all questions in your first chapter/query/synopsis, it's that you have to make sure the questions you raise make someone keep reading instead of leaving them shaking their head in confusion (this is a hard one for me. I still struggle with this more than almost any other aspect of writing).
So, next time someone gives you feedback, or you give feedback to someone else, stop and ask if it's because that's how everyone says it's done, or if it's because that's what's best for the story.
And then to add another layer of confusion, don't confuse 'what's best for the story' with 'because I'm the author and I said so.'
When something doesn't read right to you, how do you go about uncovering a solution?