Flight of the Vajra: Human Wave 9: To Let Your Work Speak For Itself

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012-04-18 14:00:00 No comments

What is Human Wave Science Fiction | According To Hoyt

You shall not spend your life explaining why your not-boring is better than your fellow writers not-boring. Instead you will shut up and write.

In my words: "Your work should speak for itself."

This connects with something I have touched on throughout this series: the justifications writers cough up for why their work is the way it is.

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One of the exercises that people do in a writing workshop is to have your work read by someone else to the class, and then to have everyone else in the class give spot reactions to it. The author sits with his mouth shut. He can take notes, but he can't respond out loud. This is a writ-small version of what happens in the real world: the author typically isn't there to respond on the spot to any bewilderment or dismay felt by the reader, and so the work has to stand as much as possible on its own two feet.

It's tempting to say the Way We Live Now (pervasive Internet, sites like GoodReads, etc.) makes it possible for the writer to be that much more proactive in defending his work. Sometimes this takes the form of a writer making a spirited defense for something other people freely condemned, and sometimes it just consists of the poor guy putting his foot into his mouth and knocking out several teeth.

When a book of mine (The Four-Day Weekend) appeared on GoodReads and garnered widely mixed reviews, I didn't run over there and start arguments with everyone who'd pooped on my parade. One, I'd seen too many other people commit exactly that mistake and get roundly booed off the stage for it; two, I'd received far worse (and more pointed, and more trenchant) criticism elsewhere.

Instead, I read what they had to say and thought about it. It's not the worst thing in the world to be told someone doesn't like your book; you can always write another one. I wrote that one mostly to get its particular time and place down on paper. I took some risks doing that, and I walked in knowing full well such risks existed. If I failed to make the goings-on more accessible to the non-clued-in, that's something I had to learn from by doing.

I learned something else on top of that after finishing Weekend: when you start a project, you tell yourself you're not going to make the same mistakes everyone else did. Then you find all these ways to justify making those mistakes, which is how you trick yourself into thinking you never made them in the first place. It's not the mistakes, but the justifications, that become the real culprit.

Not every piece of criticism is well-intentioned, and not all of it is accurate, either. There are some things other people will say about your work which springs entirely from their opinion, and which can be discounted easily. It's not easy to learn what criticisms are unfounded, because what seemed like a perfectly good idea to me at the time later turned out to be a bullet hole in my foot.

I am not of the opinion that a writer works best when he plugs his ears to the outside world and follows his own little inward path to the exclusion of everything else. At the same time I know, without being told, how important it is to have a vision of your own and remain ruthlessly true to it. Some of my favorite works have been inspired by that kind of holy madness. Yes, it helps to be guided by a voice only you can hear, but not when it's marching you straight into brick walls. I have seen this happen way too often, and I don't want to end up a casualty of that kind of hubris if I can help it.

It's hard to balance these two impulses — the impulse to fly by the seat of your pants, and the impulse to let yourself be told what to do by people, often very smart and capable people, who make very good arguments. Most people heed the former over the latter. I have been yanked in both directions, sometimes at the same time, and it was never pretty.

I have no formula for how to balance the two, and I don't know that I ever will, except in the form of individual decisions made about individual criticisms rendered on individual books. This one, I took risks that were the ones I needed to take at the time; that one, I played it too safe; over here, god knows what was going through my head. Each of these steps alone is not what's crucial.

What matters most is, once the dust settles with any one of those works, being able to sit back down and begin anew, and roll everything forward once more into, one hopes, work that stands up that much more on its own. You just have to keep sticking your neck out.

Tags: Flight of the Vajra Human Wave science fiction writers writing