Thursday, November 4, 2010

I Don't Want to Cut You Off

Yesterday I got stuck in traffic. I started yelling at everyone in sight even though they couldn't hear me. Sometimes I think I have a sign on top of my car that says "CUT ME OFF AND MAKE ME SLAM ON MY BRAKES SO I CAN HONK MY HORN AT YOU AND CONSIDER FLIPPING YOU OFF BECAUSE YOU ALMOST GOT ME AND MY FOUR YEAR OLD IN A SERIOUS CRASH!!!!"

Okay, that's a bit dramatic, but still, every time I get in the car people cut me off or pass me on the shoulder or something ridiculous of the sort. Is it my driving? Is it that my car is silver and irritates people?

I honestly think it's because as soon as we get behind the wheel of a car we think we've got some sort of power that actually doesn't exist. Most of us don't feel as fragile as we do without a ton of steel surrounding us.

You know, a lot of times in writing I think we do the same thing. Some of us have written books and lots of other stuff. Some of us are published. Some of us are zooming around the road cutting people off because we think we aren't as fragile or we think we have more of a right to get somewhere faster. Not that there are RULES in writing, but there are rules of courtesy, I think. This applies more to myself than I ever thought it did. I've found myself getting quite the ego lately because I have a book deal with a publisher and because I've self-published a book and because I can edit things and write good stuff. This does not, however, give me any right to go around thinking I have the privilege to tell others how to write well or what to change in their writing or judge whether or not their writing is good according to my standards, etc.

Lately Mr. Bailey has helped me realize (probably without his knowledge) that writing is a 100% personal journey and no writing book or conference or class is ever going independently make us a better writer  No beta reader or editor is going to improve us. Nobody but ourselves and our own pounding away every day is going to make us better, and even more importantly, knowing what's better is also completely personal. There is no measuring stick or touchstone to put our work against that will automatically determine its greatness.

It's an interesting task to get behind the wheel of my well-driven writing mind and zoom around determining what passes my little tests of greatness, but I hope I'm not cutting anyone off. I'd hate to get in the way of where others are trying to go. I do think it's important to share our writing knowledge, but it's also just as important for those of us reading the knowledge to remember it's another person's way of writing. We should glean from it anything we think is of value, but never take it as rules laid in stone unless it has to do with grammar (and even then some things are negotiable)...

I suppose this is all just another way to say there are no rules in writing. So as you write - especially those of you doing NaNo at the moment - remember you're on your own path. If you want to use the passive tense, use it. There is nothing wrong with the word "was" no matter what anyone has told you. Maybe it was wrong for their writing, but you can pull it off with gusto. There is nothing wrong with a flashback unless it's wrong for you and your work. Go forward. Experiment. Write. And if someone cuts you off don't let it end in a crash.


  1. Well said and great example. I cut people off sometimes and I hate myself after. Because I can't stand it when I see other people doing it.

    There really are no rules.

    You can write well in a gajillion and three different ways.

    That includes style, content, and technique.

    Just recently I've seen people making bold claims about how you cannot get published without a three-act structure.

    I see friends getting slapped around by their NaNo buddies for wanting to edit.

    I read posts from beginning authors who are trying to fake optimism because they've just been told they can't do this or that in their story, because no one will like, respect, or publish it.

    My BP goes through the roof.

    Please, let's all relax and stop taking ourselves so seriously. That includes me.

  2. I was going through the same mental rant myself the last couple days.

    The triggering situation almost put me off my online writing group. It seemed worse because there was a new writer involved and it felt like the other writers were sharks seeing the poor thing as chum...trying to implant their styles and rules on her.

    To each writer their own style, I say.

  3. Well said!

    I think, at least lately, the reason I've started putting the words 'my writing process' into my blog posts is that, well, it is my writing process. I write the way that works best for me. The way I write would probably drive other writers insane. Well, we're all a tad bit insane, but . . .

    I'm not a writing expert. All I can do is talk about the process from my perspective, put things out there that have helped me, and hope that other writers can glean some small bit of knowledge and use it or discard it as they see fit . . . which is what I learned, over time, to do.

    I think that's also why, for a bit now, I've pulled back from blogging - reading, writing, and commenting - as I've tried to get my bearings in this crazy writing journey.


  4. Oh, I love this line the best, it encapsulates the topic so succulently: "Nobody but ourselves and our own pounding away every day is going to make us better, and even more importantly, knowing what's better is also completely personal."

    As far as traffic, I am one of those people who annoy everyone else because I go no faster than the posted speed limit. It comes from being convinced I'm invisible, so I better be sure I know where everyone is and make no sudden threatening moves. ;->

  5. I think being in our car also insulates us from the other driver.

    Granted, there are drivers who roll down their windows to shout at one another, but I think for most of us, the outer shell of the car replaces and obscures the human drivers within. So it's like shouting at a bunch of machines, which you know won't answer back. There's anonymity to it.

    That's kinda like the internet. And I think we've all witnessed conversations--especially when people post anonymously on controversial topics--where the discourse loses its polite veneer.

    As for your raging ego, Michelle, that's another matter.... I think it was Breanne who has the quote noting this is actually a problem for all writers!

  6. The feedback we receive is not as important as our reactions to it.

    "We are not measured by the challenges we face in life, but rather by the steps we take to overcome them."

    - Me

  7. Advice I’ve received from various pros over the years:
    “Your writing is slick but empty. You should not over-think things, and write more from your heart.” (Which at the time I was furious about, but which I later realized was absolutely spot-on. I got better.)

    “No one should try writing a novel until they’re at least 40 years old and have some life experience.” (I was 20. I didn’t listen.)

    “You shouldn’t make your historical mystery sound too old-fashioned. Readers won’t like it.”
    “You shouldn’t make your historical mystery sound too contemporary. Readers won’t like it.”

    And my all-time favorite, from my all-time favorite pro-author friend, which she uses in response to nearly every “what should I do here/now?” inquiry:

    “You must do exactly as you please.”

    As for driving: never drive with emotions. Ever. Period. When the idiots out there don’t signal, cut you off, tailgate, run red lights, go too slow or too fast, just think calmly, “Ok, they’ll get a ticket someday and I won’t.” I also like to pretend that at least some of the bad drivers are rushing their beloved dog to the emergency vet’s, and I instantly forgive them.

    -Alex MacKenzie

  8. I said something helpful? I don't remember saying something helpful.

    But yeah. I know I have a huge ego and it's only because my own idea of The Right And Proper Way To Write keeps changing that I realize I might not have the market cornered on knowledge. Just this morning, not half an hour before reading this post, I was thinking about what advice I'd give a beginning writer, and it came down to "just write a lot and read a lot." We should all sit down, pound away at the work and get our total lifetime fiction wordcounts to half a million or so and by then we'll have figured out some basic ideas we can live with. They'll be different ideas for each of us, mostly, but that's fine.

    Every other driver is an idiot, including me.

  9. Ah, driving can be so relaxing sometimes... and the absolute, most stressful, jaw clenching, white knuckle part of your day. Arg. I forget sometimes, as long as I get to my destination safely, it doesn't really matter how many idiotic drivers I encounter. Resist the urge to follow them just to yell at them, and just watch the road ahead. Nice post.

  10. So many good thoughts here! First of all, Michelle, I think you're saying more than just "there are no rules". I think what you're saying is that we should all remind ourselves that our rules are not everybody else's rules. And that's such an excellent thing to remember! I'm getting a lot better at that in my opinion. I still hate certain writing, but I can see that it's subjective.

    And, I also wanted to say something with respect to what Tara Maya said. She mentioned the anonymity when we're driving, and that's totally true. BUT, one day, I honked at a car (long story, but it was 50% my fault). As a result, the other driver stopped his car and got out and started screaming at me. What was amazing though, was that I was totally refreshed by the experience. We actually had a human interaction full of in-person anger, and it was wonderful! I argue a lot more after that.

    And to Scott M., I also wanted to say that I think it's one of the coolest things in the blog-o-sphere that you changed the philosophy of your blog! I remember when you first announced it that I thought, "Yes, that's exactly what we should all be doing."

  11. Addendum to my previous comment: I got asked for writing advice recently which was kind of a new experience (they think I know something they don't?) and I talked a bit about the value of rewrites and keys to finding a good sounding-board reader, and about persistence. I quoted a friend's karate-training maxim: "Seven times down, eight times up", after which I said, "In my case, it was more like 799 times down, 800 times up, but I did get up. Never surrender, never give up!"

    This seemed to make the person happy. So, you know, sometimes it can help just to emphasize the standard stuff in fun ways.

    Specific advice, though -- I leave that to pro editors, and only after a sale.

    -Alex MacKenzie

  12. Nevets: Wow, you put this well, yes. I think it's most important for us to go our own path and try and tune out much of the noise. Otherwise we're nothing but dodos. :)

    A.R.: Oh, dear, I hope that writer gets some advice (from you!) about going her own way.

    Scott: Yes, I do think it's important to talk about our own processes and such! I think many writers CAN and DO learn from each other, but there is a point where we have to do our own thing.

    Alicia: I drive 5 over the speed limit. I suppose that's technically speeding, but I figure people aren't cutting me off because I'm going UNDER the speed limit! Sigh.

    Tara: Oh, wow, great point about being isolated both in our cars and the internet. That's so absolutely true and sad, as well. I'm constantly yelling at pixels and machines if I get upset by something. Hah.

    Breanne's post was brilliant, yes!

    Rick: Great quote of yourself! I agree wholeheartedly. How we go about things is who we are.

    Mizmak: Some of the best advice I've ever received made me angry when I first read it. I'm quickly learning that when I get upset by something it's usually for a good reason, not a bad one.

    Scott: It wasn't necessarily anything you said more than the progress you've been making lately. You have a right to have a huge ego. Most of us do, but what you do with it is important and I think you handle things well. I love your advice to just write and read a lot. :)

    Meghan: I was very tempted to follow the idiot who cut me off yesterday and yell at him, then I thought of how I would feel afterward. :)

    Domey: Yes, that's exactly more of what I'm saying, yes. That is really funny about your experience, but more than funny. It's actually fascinating. I think it's important for us to do more interacting these days because we are constantly tied to our devices.

    Mizmak: Oh, I think we should all emphsize things that work for us. I've learned so much from other writers it's unbelievable, but it's what we do with that knowledge and how we apply it that makes it our own.

  13. I hesitate to be a sexist pig, but I think there is a gender issue at play as well. (Or maybe I only think so because in grad school in the liberal arts one is always asserting that gender issues are at play. If so, excuse my pretentiousness.)

    I think that ladies are socialized even more than the gentlemen to always put others' needs first, to say Yes, to be pleasant and friendly and selfless at all times. I read some study that said that both male and female co-workers were judged as less powerful if they smiled more -- but men who smiled less were not disliked more, whereas women who smiled less were hated. So it's a no-win for women.

    I think this applies to female characters too, btw. They are judged by different standards than male characters.

  14. Have you ever gone out of your way to pass someone, or had someone pass you, and then found the other car right beside you at the next red light?

    When I'm the passee I try to catch their eye but when I'm the passer I ignore them. ;)

    (I don't know if there's an analogy to writing in that or not!)

  15. Tara: That's too often true. Women are categorized as either selfless givers or selfish takers, but almost never as leaders.

  16. Without minimizing the gender issue, I've also found that guys are either workaholics for always saying yes or lazy a-holes for always saying no.

    I think people just aren't happy letting other people be themselves. We don't like other writers to find success writing differently than we do, and we don't like other human beings to be happy living a different way than we do.

    The rest is just window dressing.

  17. Nevets: I don't think that hating on others' success is the problem; I think it's a symptom. I think the real problem is that we're taught by the market economy that everything is a commodity, and so happiness and success become a zero-sum game where there is only so much to go around. Your happiness and success means that I will have less of it, so it's my duty to hate on you and wish you bad luck.

  18. As the saying goes, 'There is more than one way to skin a cat'.

    I'd say look on the bright side of it. You realised and stopped. There are plenty who don't realise, don't stop and become a pain in the rear.

    Not that I'd noticed it.

  19. @Scott - What can I say? When you're nearly brilliant, you're nearly brilliant.

    Have some eggs benedict on the house.

  20. Yeah. The drivers out there are particularly bad about stuff like that which always surprised me. Nicely said about not stopping other writers' from doing their own thing just because it's not like ours. This is sometimes tricky when critting but there is a difference is something that needs work and something that is said differently than we would.

  21. In life there are bullies and they do drive cars, they write, they talk, and they have egos beyond measure.
    It is tough to deal with an egotistical maniac yet they lurk in the darkest recesses of life and love to push people around. They are the impatient ones at the checkout stand, use foul language and put people down. Have very serious control issues and no respect.
    Might make a good essay.

    Where will the next bully pulpit be set up?

    In spite of the bullies have a great day any way.

  22. Tara: It's a sad thing, yes, but true in our society, I think. It's the world we live in, though, and all we can do is try and go about discounting all that crap in the best we can without pissing everyone that possible? Hah.

    Miss Sharp: I'm not sure that has happened to me. I usually avoid contact with anyone in their cars because I'm shy like that, but I did make contact with a guy the other day in order to show him how upset I was that he kept honking behind me because I was waiting for traffic to clear so I could turn. He must have thought I was in a car that slip through a .2 second gap in traffic. What a jerk. This is why I avoid driving. I'm an ugly person behind the wheel of a car. :(

    Nevets: It's interesting how we are such absolutely selfish beings most of the time. I like that we can at least be aware of it and try to change. This was what CINDERS was about in a way. :)

    Martin: Haha, good point!

    Nevets: I want some eggs benedict. I don't think I've ever had that.

    Lois: It's extremely trick, YES. I'm still trying to figure out how to go about it the best way. I think Davin's little phrase of "celebrating other writers" is always in the back of my mind these days. It helps a lot. :)

    John: Aww, thanks! It's a good thing I don't drive too often, I suppose, but I do write a lot. I'm not bullied around in my writing much, and I sure hope I'm not a bully to anyone. I would hope they'd let me know if I was.

  23. I love this post! I am midway through reading my fifth debut novel this year by an author who broke "The Rules."

    The more I learn about writing, the less I feel the necessity to "correct" other writers. I've begun to suspect, grammar excepted, The Rules were created to sell writing manuals.

    Write from your heart.

  24. Hello! Found you via Linda's tweet, and really enjoyed this post.

    So many aspects of it hit home -- Try, create, break rules, excite! And, stop caring so much about what the other drivers, er, writers are doing.

    You are your own fool.


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