So, a few days ago there was this conversation on Twitter. I’m not going to link or anything. “A few days” in twitter-time might as well be a few weeks or even months. And there’s no real reason to go back to it specifically.
Just, it was asserted that a truly thoughtful writer ought to burn everything down and start new if they wanted to write great, original SFF.
Now, as a statement of a particular writer’s methods (which this person clarified in another tweet that it was) I have no argument with this. But as general advice, I have problems with it.
I’ll say up front that I have little patience for advice (or demands!) that involves telling writers what sort of thing they ought to be writing. I could go on and on about why I feel this way, but let’s just settle with the first, simplest thing that comes to mind–as Joanna Russ points out in a book I strongly recommend reading, it’s one of the easiest, most thoughtless ways to dismiss writing by writers you don’t want to acknowledge as, you know, real writers. “She wrote it, but look what she wrote about.” Sure, she’s a good writer, it’s just a shame she’s writing Romance. I mean, everyone knows Romance is trivial and not capable of being anything profound. Or, “Well, she would be a great writer, too bad she spends all her time on issues unimportant to most straight white cis men! Issues important to straight white cis men are profound and universal. Other issues are trivial, or identity politics, or political correctness, or just plain boring.”
I could go on. Hopefully, though, you take my point here.
A writer who attempts to sell stories to SFF prozines or semipros (or, for that matter, novels to the equivalent publishing houses) has, I think we can safely assume, a certain amount of ambition. I assume, myself, that part of that is an ambition to produce great work. (The other part is to be recognized for it, but that is its own whole can of worms.)
But everyone’s “great” is their own. I don’t mean that everything boils down to personal taste. Personal taste is a part (sometimes a big part) of the equation, but it’s not all there is and it’s not what I’m talking about here. No, I mean, when you sit down to write something, you have a thing you’re aiming at. That thing you’re aiming at is particular to you, and/or particular to the project you’re working on. You succeed to the extent that you hit that.
So what I mean when I say that I think all of us are trying to write great stories is that we are all trying to hit our targets, whatever those are, in the best way we can. Not that we are all attempting to be the next Shakespeare, or to write the Most Serious Fiction. Okay, maybe you are. That’s fine. Or maybe your ambition is to write the most perfect and delectable cotton candy fiction, some adventure, some romance, some explosions, a happy ending. No mean feat, actually. And good candy is not something to sneer at. Imagine if there were no candy in the world! It would be a much, much sadder place. And we all know there’s a difference between a Hershey’s kiss and, say, a sea-salt caramel from KaKao. There is such a thing as great candy. Or maybe the idea of turning out a dozen shiny, foil-wrapped kisses enchants you. The world needs those, too! I have no doubt you’re trying to make them the shiniest, kissiest kisses ever.
So, I don’t think writers fall short because they’re not trying to do great work. They fall short, in my opinion, because of ability (none of us is as good as we wish we were) and because of failure of nerve. Or a failure to realize that a failure of nerve is possible. To realize that even “silly adventure story” requires a great deal of care. That all the “rules” and advice about what does and doesn’t sell and how stories ought to be is safety railings and nets that you think are helping you, except they’re actually keeping you from doing the thing you really need to do, which is to jump off the fucking cliff.*
But what constitutes jumping off the cliff is something only you can decide. Partly because it’s your writing and you get to choose your target. But also partly because in the end, none of us can ever know if we’ve achieved any kind of “greatness.” Nearly every variety of “great” is beyond our deliberate reach, beyond our control to achieve, and not just for reasons of ability. Several of them can only become apparent after we’re long dead, and those are vulnerable to accidents of history. And no writer’s work is ever universally acclaimed. There are always dissenting voices, sometimes quite a few, depending on what sort of thing one has written and what’s fashionable or acceptable. You might as well do the work that you find deeply satisfying, write the stories you really, really want to write, about things that interest and concern you, in your voice. It’s the only satisfaction you can really depend on. It’s the only thing you have any kind of control over.**
If SFF is a huge Lego castle that we’ve all been building on for decades, some of us might want to tear their part down and set it on fire and then build on the ruins. Fair enough. But some of us might want to renovate a particular wing that’s taken their fancy. Others of us might just want to add some filigree to a particular battlement.
All of these approaches, and a zillion others, can produce great results. But if you insist that only the set it on fire approach is going to produce great work, you’ve erased the work of everyone else. Go a step farther (too much of what’s published didn’t radically transform the genre! Set it on fire!) and you’ve denied those other artists the right to even exist.
And the whole “escape the suffocating weight of Tradition!” thing doesn’t look the same from every angle. Consider that for women, POC, and LGBTQ writers the question of forebears and tradition can be a fraught one. “She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly.” Such writers have either been denied their own tradition by this kind of erasure, or have been repeatedly erased from the dominant one. To some of us, belonging to a tradition is a valuable and hard-won thing. Sure, we all probably could profit from looking at our assumptions and cultural baggage, and being aware of that as we write.*** But burning the whole castle down? When we’ve uncovered and rebuilt these parts here, so painstakingly? When we love the castle so much and want so badly to be there, even when others are trying to push us out? “Burn it all down and start over!” doesn’t sound terribly appealing. Quite the opposite.
So, rather than burning it all down and starting new (unless, you know, that’s your thing, because if it is, you go! Have some matches!), decide what it is you’re trying to do. Decide what it is you want to do. And then do that in whatever way works best, in the best way you can. Do whatever it takes. Whatever that is. No matter what anyone tells you, nothing is off limits, nothing is forbidden. You can try any and everything that you think might work. Don’t worry if it’s allowable, or if someone might not like it (someone won’t like it. I can absolutely guarantee that), or if it breaks any rules, or if it has a large enough audience, or if it’s something rumor says “editors” don’t like, or if people tell you it’s not serious enough. Just do the thing you want to do as well as you possibly can. Because in the end, that’s the only thing you have any kind of control over. In the end, that’s all you really can do. And that’s okay, because whatever it is, you’ll know you did your absolute best, and it will be yours.
*Practicing not falling off the cliff does not help you learn to jump off it well. Learn to do what you want to do by practicing what you want to do, not by telling yourself it’s too dangerous for you to even try just yet. What’s the worst that could happen? Some rejections and some trunked stories? You guys, that’s going to happen anyway. And I can’t help the sneaking suspicion that for some of us, keeping us on one particular path–keeping us from even thinking going off the path is possible–is part of the point. Just something to consider.
**Do be willing to take criticism, sure. You have to be able to do that, to improve. But any version of “this thing you’re attempting is not important enough/ought to actually be what I want you to attempt” is not something you need to listen to.
***I’m pretty certain that’s how the person who said it meant it, actually. But. It sounds different, when you’re standing in a different place. It’s easy to forget sometimes, that there are people standing in different places.