Writing advice is like dieting advice—eat eggs, don’t eat eggs, don’t eat meat, eat only meat, watch the calories, don’t worry about calories, to hell with that, just go vegan, (or ‘plant-based’ if you’re like me and terribly afraid of V-words.) So writing workshop junkies, like yo-yo dieters, end up coming to this inevitable conclusion: Nobody knows what the hell’s going on.
All I can do is offer you two of the best bits of advice I’ve ever been given and you can take it with a grain of salt:
1) The first was an ah-ha moment while I was working on my undergrad thesis in philosophy. I kept trying to write well. This drive to write well made me churn out bullshit. By that I mean random pontifications that I thought were clever. Most writing is like this, even in academia, and I was inadvertently copying them. So when my professor told me to rewrite my first essay, he said, “Think of a long syllogism in which each word is essential to the sentence, each sentence essential to the paragraph, each paragraph essential to the chapter.” That was all it took. I cut out the bullshit and ended up writing clear (albeit, dry) arguments.
So for fiction writers, the advice turns to this: Don’t worry about writing well. Worry about writing true. The truth is far more interesting than cleverness.
2) An agent read the first chapter of my novel-in-progress, Philosopher King, and told me that, because I had a reference to Kant in there, this would be for a ‘niche’ audience and I should skip agents altogether and send the book to an academic press. This annoyed me. I wanted to write something with universal appeal. On top of his comment, I’d had a few people in a writing class talk about how ‘high brow’ my writing was and I felt guilty about it (and deep down I felt it wasn’t really true…even in the Kant reference you didn’t have to know anything about Kant to get the point). I let my doubts get the better of me. I took out the Kant reference and started writing with a broader audience in mind. It really hurt to do this, but I did it.
I took a different chapter to a writing workshop, one I was most worried about because it had a very long cerebral argument in it. I wanted to see how non-philosophers would react. I prepared myself for a verbal spanking, apologizing profusely in a preface to my submission.
Surprisingly, they all loved the philosophy and found the argument interesting, but hated the fact that I tried to dumb down the college kid’s character. They felt he was inconsistent: on the one hand he was saying smart things, on the other he had a surfer dude quality. Instead of inserting bits of dumbness here and there (which I thought had softened the blow of his intelligence, making him ‘accessible’) I should just make him really articulate. I’ve met some really smart college kids. They do use the language of their age and time, but they use it in interesting new contexts. That’s what I need to work on.
I was relieved to take in this advice: Don’t dumb down anything. Ever. Write to the most intelligent person you can think of. I’ve actually heard this advice before, but I never took it to heart because I never realized its full implications. I thought, well, duh. That’s dumb advice. Why would I ever dumb something down? But it really is a bit of a dilemma. It means you may never get published. It means you may be talking to yourself.
So then why not dumb down in order to get published? Well, I can’t really explain it. But if you dumb down your writing, you’re gonna hate yourself for it.
Even if the agent turns out to be right, I’ve come to terms with the fact that most people aren’t going to be interested in a philosophical novel. A lot of people will look at the title and think, “Ew, gross.” That’s okay. I welcome my niche—if I’m lucky enough to get one!—with open arms, and I promise I will not dumb down anything. That would just be insulting.
(But I could very well be dumb myself, in which case there’s nothing I can do!)