(GH) becoming an expert

(Originally posted on November 1, 2011)

During the writing conference/symposium, I was asked, “How do you get published without giving up your voice?”

What this came down to (as I pinpointed what the young fellow really meant) was: How do you get away with what you want to get away with, but still get published?

I’ve heard this a lot during my research on the publishing industry. It’s across forums and blogs and in classrooms. It’s the idea that I am the expert, and everyone else just isn’t up to my standard (be they agents, publishing industries, or critics of any sort).

The person who asked that question would have objected to my harsh interpretation. But that was what he meant. How do I know? Because I could feel the disagreement in the air when I answered. And because he kept trying to twist my answer to give himself the most creative freedom he could.

I believe that if one wishes to be published, one needs to study the trade. Before I seriously thought about getting published, I thought I knew it all. I knew my story was awesome and I knew some agent out there (wait, I actually didn’t know agents existed at that point) mysterious force that was the Publishing Industry would snatch up my story and print it off without any trouble, a la Eragon‘s publishing story.

But the more I learned about my trade, the more humble I got. The more I knew, the more I realized my ignorance. The more I thirsted for more time, more experience, and more studying.

I told the people at the conference that I would recommend really getting to know your audience and genre expectations. If I am writing a Young Adult fiction, I need to know the standard form these novels take. I need to be familiar with successful novels in this genre. I need to be able to realize that if my book is a 120,000 word steamy novel about death and sex and a middle aged man, it probably won’t be published as a YA book.

Besides, when I work with the standards of the genre, oftentimes my story will be better because of it. Why? Because there’s a reason mainstream fiction does well. The Fountain’s Edge, my first completed manuscript about Beauty and the Beast, was originally 100,000+ words with a murky theme and a plot that dragged its feet. I rewrote it several times, and received some great feedback in my rejections from agents. When and if I rewrite it again, it will look a little more like this: 75,000 words (YA standard), quickened plot with clear conflict and hooks for the end of chapters, a plot centered around the themes of identity, guilt and redemption. Which of those stories sounds better to you?

We all think we’re experts when we’re untested.

Say I wanted to take up swordplay. A novice would go out and buy a cheap sword, perhaps put on some Pirates of the Caribbean music and then have at it. But instead of the precise, balanced grace expected, the sword would become more of a baseball bat swung around at random. I know because I am a closet sword waver. It’s very fun to fling the sword about and cry, “On guard!” at your desk, but a true master would probably tell you it was more cute and alarming than engaging.

In the same way, some would-be writers grab their computers and have at it. In a fury of words and emotion they throw together a story that–to them, at least–is entertaining, engaging, maybe even exhausting. But when they fling it at agents and publishing companies, the response will likely be, “That is cute and sort of alarming. No thanks.”

A slightly wiser person might pursue an interest in swordplay by looking up techniques, reading books, watching documentaries. They might take notes, collect pictures, or devote a journal to their studies. But when a sword is placed in their hands, they won’t be much better than the novice at first. They’ll know how to stand, how to hold it, but their muscles won’t be trained. They won’t be ready to go out in combat.

Other writers study a great deal, but then rely completely on their studies to carry the weight of their work. They read books about writing, blogs about writing, books about which books writers should read, books about which books writers should write. But what comes out is a clumsy imitation of others’ work, written in a half apologetic way–or worse, in arrogance.

The best student would combine these two approaches. She would study the art, work with a sword, and be in contact with a master. After she has gotten approval that her master believes her to be on the road to mastery, she could begin making her own rules–start pushing limits, experimenting with new forms.

It’s easy to sit in a college classroom, unpublished and intellectual, and declare, “I will never compromise on my writing because I know what’s best for this story!”

But, my dear hipster friends, there is a difference between compromising and being open to criticism and change.

There’s a difference between selling yourself short and crippling your potential with pride.

Learn to write a good story, and then learn to break the rules.

At least, that’s what I, an unpublished writer wearing converse with my business attire outfit, told the class of college students.

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