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July 2022
 
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Thoughts on Writing

#40: Starting the Discussion

by Seanan McGuire


As always, context is our friend, and the thought needs to be expanded on. So here's today's expansion:

Talk to other writers about what works for them. Half the things on this list may be pure crap from your perspective; that's okay, because in order to decide that they were crap, you had to think about them. You have put thought into what kind of writer you want to be, and how you want to work. That's fantastic. Listen to everyone, and decide for yourself what you want to take to heart.

The thing about writing is that it's a weird combination of "learn by doing" and "learn by discussing." You have to understand certain things before they can be done; you have to do certain things before you'll understand why the way you're trying to do them is completely wrong. I learned to write a novel by writing a novel. I learned a lot of the things I needed to be watching for by discussing writing with other writers. But how do you filter the good from the bad? How do you justify rejecting advice from someone more successful than you are, or learn to take it from someone who seems to be less successful?

The lines are different for everyone, but let's talk about where to find them, and what they really mean. Ready? Good. Let's begin.

Salutations.

Writers, on the whole, love to talk about writing. We require very little prompting; actually, it can be hard to make us stop talking about writing. Our work is all-consuming, it's engaging, and it is, if you're us, the most interesting thing in the world. (Most of us are intellectually aware that our work actually isn't the most interesting thing in the world to people who aren't, well, us. This doesn't stop us from emotionally believing that you'll all discover how fascinating our struggles with the comma are if we just keep talking long enough. Forgive us. Imagine that every day, the people who live in our heads give us a brand new kitten, and we just want to tell you all about it. It's still annoying, but it may be a little more understandable that way.)

Mysteriously, despite our passion for talking about writing, half the time putting two writers into the same room will get you one of two results: they make two or three brief, cursory references to their mutual passion and then settle to talking about the most recent episode of The Big Bang Theory, or they start trying to out-lecture each other. This is not useful, strictly speaking, unless you're a serious fan of The Big Bang Theory (or enjoy watching your friends fight to the death).

There are a lot of reasons we do this sort of thing. We don't want to bore our friends who aren't writers, since two of us are doubtless worse than one. We don't want to discover that when you say we're both writers, you mean "Bob has published eighteen novels and Sally once wrote a poem about her cat." This winds up making Bob and Sally feel bad. We don't want to get into a fight over our respective genres, we don't want to start playing "compare the sale," we don't want to do a lot of things, especially in public, especially in front of the person who's just put the two of us into the same room. For all we know, you have a stick. Also, we'd like you to feed us.

Writers meeting "in the wild" are a lot more likely to start talking shop, although even then, it's a delicate dance. No one wants to have their dreams crushed when the person they're saying "I'm a writer" to responds with "I topped the best seller lists for six weeks, what have you done?" No one wants to do the crushing when they respond to "I finished a short story" with "I published a novel." (These are exaggerations, but not by all that much. I've seen these particular pit traps open wide, swallowing the just and the unjust alike.) Alcohol helps. Sugar also helps, and may help more, as hyperactive authors are less likely to fall asleep in the middle of a sentence.

In the end, random encounters are unlikely to yield immediately useful discussions, although they can lead to useful discussions later. (Jennifer and I, for example, met on a panel at a convention; the panel was about writing; after that, we became friends, and now we talk about writing endlessly, to the deep frustration of all our non-writer friends.) Writing is very personal, and it's also very professional, and figuring out how to combine the two into a delicious peanut butter cup instead of an explosive Coke and Mentos bomb is hard. Still, we appreciate the introductions.

Now, to the writers. When meeting another writer, ask them openly and sincerely about their work. Don't start with "what have you sold?" Asking about genre and age range is generally safer, if not completely guaranteed. Really, when it comes to opening the floodgates, you're on your own, except for this: remember that the person to whom you are speaking is a peer, and treat them with respect and sincerity. They are not a threat. They are not a chew toy. They are not succeeding to make you fail, or failing to help you succeed. Treat them like people. All the rest of this will go better if you do.

Conversation.

I don't need to tell you how to talk to people, because the odds are good that you already know. Instead, I tell you this:

No matter what genre you write, we have something in common. No matter what your subject matter or age range is, we have something in common. No matter whether you're just starting out or a million miles up ahead, we have something in common. We are both writers. That means we each have something to learn from the other. So let's learn.

Talk to each other. More importantly, listen to each other. Writers—myself absolutely included—tend to like the sound of our own voices, and it's a lot easier to talk than it is to listen (witness my lengthy essay series on ways to write). If you want to learn from the people around you, you need to listen, even and maybe especially when you think they're wrong. It does me no good to reject your wisdom if I don't know why I'm rejecting it. Only by hearing you out to the end can I construct a firm opinion, either positive or negative, about what you're saying to me. The same goes in reverse. Even if you think I'm insane, hear me out. (Unless you think I'm crazy about the "listening" thing. I can't help you if that's the case.)

Goodbyes.

Here's a secret it took me a long time to learn: I get to forget everything you teach me. In return, you get to forget everything I teach you. I recommend hanging onto things long enough to really think about them, maybe give them a little test drive, but after that? It's your call. The only filtration system between good and bad advice is your own experience, and it's going to be different for everyone.

We learn things every time we interact with other people. What we can learn from other writers is what it's like to be a writer, and that teaches us to be better versions of ourselves. It's the circle of life and literacy, and I suggest we all hop on board. Next stop: awesome!
© 2012 Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with three cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. She has recorded three albums, and published several novels. In 2010, she was awarded the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer in the field of science fiction and fantasy. She is nominated for four Hugo awards in 2012, including Best Related Work for her music album, "Wicked Girls".

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