Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Whose Responsible?

I've noticed a disturbing trend among writers. It's a basic failure to take responsibility for their own writing. Just consider the layers of editing indie authors outsource. First, there's a developmental editor who fixes plot holes and makes the characters more believable. There's the content and style editors, who fix scenes and rewrite sentences so they are more powerful. Then there are the proofreaders who check your spelling and punctuation.

I could imagine what one of my journalism or creative writing professors in college would have said if I told them I needed more time on my assignment because I hadn't gotten it back from the developmental editor. Actually, I prefer not to think about that because I don't use that kind of language.

Photo credit J. E. Theriot
We tell our students in school (I was a teacher for 30 years) to do their own work. Why? Aside from the ethical issue of taking credit for something you didn't do, it's also the only way you are going to learn. If you can't fix plot holes on your own, why are you writing a novel? Go back to school, read some books, take a course in novel writing, get a mentor or tutor and learn how to create a plot without plot holes and how to spot them yourself.

There are wonderful books out there on editing fiction and nonfiction. One of the values of doing this yourself, is that by editing your own stuff and spotting your own problems, you will make fewer mistakes in future first drafts. You don't only learn by doing. You learn by making AND correcting your mistakes.

You will learn more about creating compelling characters and engaging plots by wrestling with fixing those plot holes and revising the characterization yourself than by letting someone else do it for you. And if you don't learn how to spot them now, you never will if you depend on someone else to point them out to you.

I'm not saying that editorial services are without value. I frequently employ a proofreader to save time correcting spelling and punctuation and streamline my productivity. However, I can proofread my own copy. And, if I don't do a very good job of it, I'll get dinged in the reviews for it, which helps me improve.

But it is not only in the area of manuscript preparation where writers evade responsibility. We also do so when we fail to write. No one wants to take responsibility for managing their own writing time. I hear it all the time. I couldn't write because the kids keep pestering me when I'm working. I remember when my Dad or Mom were busy, the other took care of me when I was tiny. And once I got school age, they could say, "I need to work, pleased don't interrupt me." I knew not to bother mother when she was on the phone or Dad when he was working with power tools in the garage. Now, if a kid can learn to do that, they can learn not to bother Mom or Dad when they are at the computer.

Sometimes the finger is pointed at the spouse. "They don't understand my need to write." And why should they? They aren't writers. I'm sure there are things they do that you don't understand. I can't understand people sitting in front of a TV watching a bunch of people fight over a misshapen ball yelling "Go Defense!!!"  I mean, if you like football so much why aren't you playing the game instead of watching someone else?

If someone, then, doesn't understand my passion for writing, I just think football or scrapbooking or fishing or rollerblading or other things I don't understand. But reasonable people can and do negotiate time for others in their households to spend time doing things they enjoy. Sometimes when I ask people if they have tried to negotiate time for writing, they admit they haven't even tried. Even the Bible says, "Ye have not because ye ask not." If you haven't made the effort, then it is your fault you don't have the time to write and not theirs.

The same goes for other simple expedients like telling teenagers that you are going to write for 30 minutes and don't disturb you until you finish and then shut the door. They are intelligent and mature enough to leave you alone. If not, this is a good way for them to learn that maturity and intelligence. But many times, people don't even try.

This extends to the job as well. I know I've been guilty here a lot. I am terrible at taking on extra duties at work, even though I was on salary and those extra duties were essentially unpaid hours. Of course, the core problem was pride. I liked thinking I was indispensable. However, I notice the college is still standing nearly two years after I retired. But I can't blame my boss when I took on jobs I didn't need to do which took away time I could have spent writing.

Likewise, many of us won't change our habits. I was one of those who thought I needed to sit down for at least an hour to get any work done writing. Now, as a journalist, I often wrote on the fly in 10 or 15

minute segments but somehow I thought novel writing or "literary" writing was different. Then one November, I decided I was going to do National Novel Writing Month and accept the challenge to writer a 50,000 word novel in a month. But about a week into the month I got sick. I could only sit up for 15 or 20 minutes at a time. So, I said, I'm going to do as much as I can during those 15 minute segments, and I completed my second published novel's first draft never writing for more than 15 minutes at a time. I was responsible for how I handled my illness. I chose to work around it.

Now, it would have been equally valid had I chosen to ditch the novel. But I couldn't blame the illness. I had to take the responsibility myself. And don't think I'm pointin' fingers at anyone here without seeing those three pointing back at me. I know I had to take back my own responsibility for both writing and setting boundaries that allowed for that, but also setting boundaries on my writing which allow for other things.

So, I know how unpleasant this is to hear, because I've been hearing it myself for a few weeks. Now, I'm sharing it with you. Circumstances do not control your writing. How you respond to those circumstances do.

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