Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Young Writers, Sycophants and the Big Picture.

I love nothing more than young writers being given a chance. It's also a bit of a shame to see work published that isn't quite ready, particularly when the writer is young. It's a tough situation, though, because on the one hand I think young writers should be treated like anyone else, and usually want to be. On the other hand, even if a young writers work is 'good enough' I believe they may gain more from a carefully worded rejection letter than the validation of having their work published when the work, and probably them as well, just isn't ready (keeping in mind, good enough to be published these days doesn't mean good enough to succeed as a writer).

And I'd like to clarify I'm not talking 'young' strictly in terms of age, but more like writer-age. Though, even without a bio it's often clear a piece is by a writer without much experience, and one can often guess correctly if they're young, as adults who want to be writers have usually had a bit more time to read and soak up the world and learn some writing instincts. This isn't always true, as some young people have had plenty life to soak up, and more importantly time to read, but it's often an accurate generalization.

What's particularly tricky is the world of writing is full of sycophants and nepotism and well-meaning praise. It's particularly bad with short fiction, I've found. If you write a mediocre novel, or hell even a mediocre novel query, chances are it will never see the light of day. If you write a mediocre short story, chances are some publication, somewhere (probably online) will publish it. And no matter how bad a story is, chances are some reader (probably an aspiring writer themselves) will be ready with praise and congratulations and who is anyone else to question the work... it's been published.

This only seems to magnify when someone is a sympathetic character themselves. A teenager? Readers will be more kind, and I wonder if editors more lenient. Some cute old grannie? Aw, shucks, how can a cute old grannie write anything bad? And what kind of monster would say anything negative or dislike a story from a cute ol' grannie?! Nobody wants to be the guy in a beginning poetry class with mostly girls writing poems about their boyfriends to have to break the bad news that no, the 'it was good, I liked it' feedback all the other girls just gave may not be completely honest, or helpful. It's usually easier to just board the sympathetic train, or watch the train leave the station, than be the one to point out some young writer is a stowaway on a journey they may not be ready for or deserve.

I've found many readers, online especially, are also just writers hoping for any praise and validation they can find. Like the poetry class, they see themselves in the writer, or see a sympathetic writer and don't want to be the one to crush spirits. You compliment your friends hair, hoping they notice your own new hairstyle. You cringe inside at your friends new hairstyle, but don't want to be mean, so say it looks... sporty, trying to be nice. Right or wrong, this also occurs in the writing world (writers are people too, sometimes). A young writer gets something published, and friends, family and the odd amount of complete stranger sycophants online praise it, congratulate it, say your writing is just so... interesting, and might you want to check out their self-published e-novel?

Some smart writer should write a book called: So, You've Been Published, But Now What?

Really, what now. You're a young writer. Some editor has deemed your writing good enough to be published (though perhaps not good enough to offer a few hours of editing first). Your story is now published, online for the world to see, for everyone to read, forever.

In the worst case scenario, the young writer thinks they've finally arrived. Finally gotten what they deserve. Finally gotten their career off the ground. I mean, they're now published. And who are you to say anything? What have you done lately?

Well, personally, I've been continuing to read and write and improve my craft because I'm naturally jaded enough to know that being published doesn't mean squat. I'm also lucky enough to have started writing relatively late, and spent years reading (decades! If you assume I learned to read around age 6), getting a feel for not only what does and doesn't work in fiction, but what kind of writer I want to be. And it's surely not one that thinks that even if published, the stuff I was writing as a teenager, or in the first few years of my 'trying to be a writer' was anything close to a good place to launch a career.

My plan may not be for everyone, especially as I see my own generation of writers all chomping at the bit, impatiently wondering why their time isn't NOW and their success not starting yesterday. My plan: wait, watch, work. Some day I'll hopefully be published. Not because I can (people say it's hard, but is it really that hard?!), but I'll be published because my work, and myself as a writer, are both where I want them to be, which is a specific state constructed over years. And I surely wasn't ready to start being the writer I want to be as a teenager, and probably am still not quite ready.

If lucky, the young writer gets excited, woohoo published, and rides the high for a few weeks, but is then able to see through the sympathetic chatter to notice the shrugs, the luke-warm comments, the silence. The jading process starts (and the sooner the better) and they realize they haven't done a thing. If they're really lucky, they learn a valuable lesson and realize they just weren't ready, their writing wasn't ready, and they'll wait the next time, spend more time watching, putting in the work, and then the next time hopefully the praise and adulation will feel more deserved, will mean something, will be the kind of thing to start a career.

But, who is going to tell a young writer to turn down publication? That the smart thing may be to wait, and keep working? Who thinks more work is ever the answer these days? And we can't trust most friends or family to tell a young writer the truth, sadly. I think good teachers may have the tough you're-just-not-ready talk with students, but not often enough. Maybe they'll read some blog like this, gain some perspective, find the wisdom of being jaded without the pain of first-hand experience.

I dunno, it all seems, in my experience, like it's very easy for a young writer to go a very long time without gaining much perspective into this sort of thing, and it's only getting worse. The internet doesn't help (I wrote a blog post at some point about the devaluing of the word 'published' by the hordes of online journals that have to publish something, and in some cases seem to publish anything). Nor does our society, which seems to value being nice, even if it's empty praise, far more than being honest.

In the end, those who publish writers are responsible for what they publish, right? I know editors don't usually have the time to actually provide one-on-one editing these days, much less take on every young writer in a mentorship role. But at some point, I believe editors in some ways are like the foster parents of writers. Good parents learn to say no to children. Good parents learn to understand that it may hurt denying your baby, but have an eye on the bigger picture. Good parents want the best for their children, and will take the time and care to walk that fine line between letting a child have what they want, and insisting on what is actually good for them.

Now, I know I do just about everything differently than many/most writers think should be done, and I'd be no different as a parent, teacher or editor (I'm no stranger to the 'why on Earth are you doing that, oh, wow, that worked perfectly' experience). If a young writer submitted a story to my hypothetical publication, unless the work really was perfect and spectacular, I'd suggest maybe more time and work would be of a greater benefit than a young writer seeing their name in lights, only to see those lights fade so soon. Even if it meant losing a 'good enough' story I could publish. Just because you can, doesn't mean you should (wow, I sound like a parent!).

Deny with grace and care. Let the writer learn the valuable lessons of rejection in a behind the scenes way that is encouraging, not in the potentially misguiding or hurtful way that one is open to as work is published, made public, for the whole world to see and judge. Give them the 'keep it up' encouragement and high of gaining ground on their writing career, but in a message to keep working, to not settle. Foster the relationship with the writer, so the next year, or decade, whenever they're finally ready, they'll come back to you. Hopefully then everyone can avoid the temporary thrill a baby bird feels while falling, before it realizes perhaps it wasn't quite ready to fly.


  1. Do you remember the girl in 205 who wrote a poem about being an iPod?

    I do.

  2. hah, no, I wish. I lost a lot of memory with The Sicknesses the last few years, so don't remember a lot of stuff. A poem about being an iPod seems about right, though.

    Were you in my class where I finally got fed up after multiple poems about perfect boyfriends, so I wrote a 'My Perfect Woman' poem that was so warped and weird nobody knew what to think (as usual) and one girl pointed out, very seriously, that it sure didn't SEEM like a perfect woman. With the cow fistulation metaphor, I suppose she had a point, even if she'd completely missed mine.

    Ahh, good times. I hope some day to get to teach such classes! =D

  3. This is what I wonder about that girl mentioning she's in high school: If you didn't want people judging you based on your age, why mention you're in high school? Because you KNOW people are going to judge, regardless. Unless it was to score some sympathy points - and it probably was.

    And no surprise, a lot of crap gets published on teh internetz. The editor filter is missing.

    Hmm, I'd be intrigued if you taught a class, though, I have a feeling half the class will walk out because you offended their writerly sensibility. :P

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Deleted my previous comment cause I wanted to be more clear, heh. What I should have said was I really liked 'My Perfect Woman', but the second stanza was the best one... that was the one that had drugstore gin in it, right? Though I liked the whole thing, so maybe I'm warped and weird too :p

  6. Possibly S.E. Gaime (aka defcon), but it's also possible she's simply in high school and it's just a fact she mentioned. Either way, though, it opens the flood gates for sympathetic responses (was gonna write a post about sympathy in writing, but didn't feel up to it).

    Students love me, and I've found in the fiction classes, thankfully, most are there and eager to learn and only a few times over years of fiction classes was there the kind of attitude one encounters in other, mixed groups of writers. I love students writers, all bright eyed and bushy tailed, ready to actually listen instead of thinking they've been published online so know it all. Too bad my path toward teaching was cut short and/or sideways.

  7. Highly disingenuous theme on criticism, when at the first sign off it on the EDF forums you picked up your ball and ran away.

    Your blog consists in large part of a series of rants directed towards people who've disagreed with you. What does that say about your handling of criticism?

    You propose that young writers should not consider achieving publication an excuse to ignore criticism, but who are you to offer criticism when you've achieved nothing?

    As usual I found you made some good points above, but yet again you hide them in plain sight.

  8. Ah, I was ignoring you, but since you graced my blog with your presence, Mr. Gully, how can I not play your childish little games?

  9. I hear on agents' blogs that they prefer NOT to know your age, which is probably for the sole purpose of not biasing their judgement.

    Ah, didn't realize you're a teacher (or once was), but I can see it. Hopefully you can get back on that path, there is a great lack of GOOD teachers these days. Though, it goes hand-in-hand with the poor excuse we have for public education.

  10. Yeah, I personally would advise against giving your age as anything other than the entry into an 'age' information slot if they ask it. The problem is people try to play it up, and it's not usually something agents care about. If anything, the fact a writer is vying for attention or respect via anything other than their actual writing, is often a red-flag. Particularly bad when it's the sort of thing where a writer is saying 'I'm only 19, imagine how amazing everyone will think it is when my novel becomes a best seller' or something like that.

    Got my teaching endorsement (not degree in education, though, so not much I can do with it) and got to TA in some amazing fiction classrooms. Also taught technical courses (CPR). But, while it's something I seem to be a natural at and professors/teachers have encouraged since as long as I can remember, I didn't really fit in with the education majors, and even as the professors praised my work, I realized I wouldn't be able to work with teachers as a career. Maybe at the college level, but need an MFA (at least) for that, and haven't gotten into a program. So, while teaching is second to writing as a passion, it's not really gonna happen at this point, heh.

  11. I have those same thoughts when people wear their youth or mental disability as a banner. It's rather annoying, actually. Let the writing represent you, not your age or whatever the hell is wrong with you.

    Well that's unfortunate about the teaching. :(
    I'm stuck in that no-man's land, too. Got a BS in psychology but can't do much with it, but I'm not one for jumping through hoops to get it into a program. I've worked with grad students and a good chunk of them are miserable, miserable people. So much for higher education, eh?

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