Sunday, March 14, 2010

Reading, 'Riting, and Responsibility

Author Bob Mayer had a post recently that got me thinking. I've heard Mr. Mayer speak, and I think he's got some smart, pragmatic and innovative things to say about how to approach writing and publishing; I'm very willing to listen to this guy. That said, I don't agree with everything in his post.

However, he does zero in on something I've felt frustration at also. When agents give advice on what they want to see, it's usually a list of what they don't want to see. And when someone pins them down for what they do, in fact, want to see, the answer tends to be nebulous:

"I'll know it when I see it."

"Just write well."

"I'm looking for voice."

I do rein in my frustration about this matter, however. Who hasn't worked a job where every mistake you make is pointed out to you, but no one notices all the things you do right? Figuring out what's wrong is always easier than figuring out what's right, and agents are human. They have the same trouble all of us do with seeing what works in the face of what clunks. Our brains just naturally fixate on the clunks.

Also, agents are not obligated to help any of us figure out what works. That's our job as writers, and we should take full responsibility for it.

Agents are also not--and this is where I begin to make my point for today's blog--educators by trade.

Sure, they want writers to give them what they're after, and we writers would love to know exactly how to do this, so it seems logical they should want to teach us.

And some do try, but they're not educators. Is it any wonder they aren't necessarily doing an amazing job of it? And given they do it for free, have we any right to complain about that? It's never a good idea to criticize a volunteer.

The real reason Mr. Mayer's post got my attention is because it made me think about why I write this blog--the Meaty Monday posts, at least. I'm trying (and often failing, I admit) to do what we all wish the agents could and would do--explain the nuts and bolts of what works rather than what doesn't.

I think all writers should try to do this. We aren't necessarily educators either, so there's no guarantee we can help one another any more than the agents can help us, but unlike agents, writers have a good incentive to teach.

There is nothing like trying to explain a concept to someone else to force you to get it straight in your own head too. I swear, I got a degree in physics without really understanding a lot of first-year physics; I learned that stuff properly after I graduated, when I had to teach it.

Offering critiques--i.e. trying to teach someone else what you've kinda-sorta figured out yourself--is the thing that will help you completely figure it out. Teaching helps take you from creativity-by-instinct to creativity-by-expertise. It's one of the things that turns you into a professional writer.

Agents try to educate writers out of generosity and, ooh, maybe a wee smidgen of weeping frustration over the contents of their slush piles.

Writers have a much better reason to teach, which is why we should stop complaining and take over the job of educating one another. The advice of agents should just be icing on our own big, rich cake.


What do you think? Should writers try to share their skills with others, or is teaching yet another distraction from our main job--writing? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

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