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Absolutes in writing aren’t so absolute.

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Yesterday I brought up something I’ve begun to notice when attending writing panels at conventions. Many aspiring writers attend because they want to ask the panelist specific questions concerning their own work. Generally they are looking for a couple of things — reassurance that they are on the right path and guidance on how to be a better writer. And I’m sure there is a bit of hope that the author will find their idea intriguing.

More often than not I hear a variation on, what I’m going to call, The Response from these writers. “Well, that’s not really a good idea. It’s not what’s done in the industry. Yes, Author X has gotten away with it. But that’s because they are Author X and you are not.” I used to nod my head in agreement. But as time passed by, and I started to give some critical thought to The Response, the more I realized how bad of an answer it is. I’ll break down why I think that is.

Author X broke the norms before they were Author X.

Convention stifles creativity. And many of the famous authors we love broke convention and tread their own way, blazing through norms. To me, this is how you establish your voice as an author. Let’s use George R. R. Martin as an example. To my knowledge he’s done something unique (or is the first to really become famous for it). He has a massive amount of viewpoints that change from chapter to chapter and jump continents. I’ve heard established authors tell aspiring ones that they can’t do that. Sure, Martin can get away with it because he’s Martin, but you can’t.

Why can’t that aspiring author get away with it? Before Martin did it, it wasn’t normal. And have you read their manuscript? There is no way of knowing their ability to handle multiple viewpoints until we read something of theirs. Here, that answer has crushed someone before they have even had a chance to try. Which leads me to how…

That response tears down, instead of builds up, aspiring writers.

It’s my belief that established authors have a responsibility to be honest about writing, but also to help build up aspiring writers. But The Response kills. You were once like them, looking for help and trying to find your way through the sticky woods of writing. How much more would an encouraging response have meant to you? It would have nurtured your creativity and sent you out with renewed vigor to keep plugging away.

Instead The Response cuts that person off at the heels. As writers we already suffer from enough self-doubt. Now we get to add on-top of that being told we can’t do something because it’s just not done that way. Congratulations on heaping more anxiety on top of the mountain.

The absolutes tend to not be so absolute.

So many panels speak in absolutes. You can’t do X, Y, or Z. Even though we can find plenty of examples of X, Y, and Z being done in successful books. I’d like to see a panelist be clear. There are no absolutes in writing. We can advise against some choices. They may not be the best ideas and we want to caution that the choice will make things difficult. But ultimately, it can’t be said if something will work or not. It’s all up in the air. There will always be an author that will break the mold and make something truly unique. And they may be that author.

The Caution

With all that said, there is also the responsibility to caution the aspiring writer. Send them forth to try new things, but let them know that it could fail. And fail miserably. Encourage them to try their hand at a book with thirteen viewpoints, but let them know it’s going to take a lot of work, that it’s going to be hard, they will need to do it well, and if they don’t do it well it will fall flat on its face. But failure is good. Failure is the greatest teacher. How can an aspiring author find their voice if they don’t try different things?

With permission and a caution, us aspiring authors can go out and try some really radical things, that may fall flat on their face. But we will learn and hone our voice.

And ultimately, don’t we want other authors to try different things? If we continue to put limitations and absolutes onto each other, we will continue to churn out the same types of books over and over. What a terrible world that would be.

So I say go and try out any idea you have, with the caveat that it has to be done well. And if done well, it will rock the world.


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