When I met Kaylyn* I had no idea she was a writer.
She was one of those people who had a precise, perhaps overly anal retentive, vocabulary. In that I mean she was one of those folks who used so many three to four syllable words in a sentence that the meaning of what she was trying to say got lost in how pretentious she sounded.
However, I tend to be forgiving of faults and I figured she was just trying to impress me. I also tend toward tolerance for highly intellectual people, even when their smug superiority annoys the piss out of everyone else. We’re all human after all, and when I’m perfect I’ll expect perfection from others.
It was over that cup of coffee that I learned Kaylyn was a budding fantasy writer. Everyone is a writer these days so I wasn’t surprised. It was also during that cup of coffee that I realized she was one of “those” types of writers.
Those of you who write — you know the type. They’re the kind of writer who thinks they know everything about writing and being published, even though they’ve never been published, and even if you have been. They know all about being on the bestseller list even if they’ve never been published, but you’ve been on a bestseller list.
They’re also the ones who think they’re the last bastion of hope for literature in our culture because what they write is far more poignant than anything else out there. (And words like bastion and poignant along with loquacious, tenebrous, and sacciferous are used often and on purpose for the sake of sounding really smart.)
Every sentence is labored over. Every metaphor painstakingly edited. These are also the same people who often get stuck in edit-forever-syndrome because they seek perfection. They can’t even imagine anyone criticizing their beautiful, perfect, prose. They also spend a great deal of time trying to please their critique groups, which are often filled with people just like them. They erroneously think that if a publisher hasn’t picked something up, the author and his/her writing must be complete and utter crap (even if that author has sold tens of thousands of copies of their work).
I have only one thing to say about people like this — they are usually as boring as the latest novel they’re writing. There, I said it. Pedantic people write pedantic prose. Seriously. And sadly books written by pedantic people have a very specific audience — pedantic readers (which is a niche market).
Don’t get me wrong, Kaylyn is a nice person, but I don’t think she’s realistic. She’s not realistic about her own work and she’s got an interesting (if not completely erroneous) idea of what getting published entails (beyond what she’s read or been told). She’s also delusional about what life as a published novelist is like. I know Kaylyn and her type well because back in my late teens and early twenties — I was Kaylyn.
There comes a point in every writer’s career where they finally learn that there is no such thing as perfection. There just isn’t. You could write the same story 500 different ways and still have the same number of readers hate how you’ve written it. Readers can be fickle. One will tell you your writing is utter crap, one will love everything you write, and three won’t care one way or the other.
It’s also a known fact that most readers read at an eighth grade level. This means that in order to reach the highest audience (i.e. be a novelist with a large reading audience), you do have to drop the superfluous vocabulary and pomp. If that’s something you refuse to compromise, simply accept the fact that you’re writing for a highly educated audience and that audience is likely just as anal retentive as you and probably just as harsh in their criticism (if not harsher than your average reader).
And yet there is no such thing as perfection. You may think you’re a great writer, but I guarantee you that you’ll get that one reviewer who says, “This writer can’t write for shit.” I know a lot of writers who write very well who have gotten that review — including bestselling authors like Stephen King and Anne Rice.
At some point in your career you’ll get over the idea of thinking you’ll ever be perfect. You’ll realize that edit-forever-syndrome will kill your career, and you’ll get over yourself. Writers who don’t get over these things have a name – they’re called “unknown“.
The point being that maybe focusing on pretty sentences, big words, being literary, and agonizing over every sentence is over-rated. Perhaps where you should agonize are in your plot and characters.
You can’t control what readers like or dislike. They are the gatekeepers and always have been.
What you can control is writing the best story and the best characters you can write, and I guarantee it will be imperfect. But if readers like your story and your characters and your writing style, they’ll forgive the imperfections and may not even notice them.
It’s food for thought.
*Kaylyn is a composite of many writers I’ve met over the years.