The trouble with writing is that it’s a very competitive business. Writers and authors going the traditional publication route are fighting for a few thousand spots at best, and those that self-published are in direct competition with an overwhelming number of books trying to get noticed. No matter which route you take, the publication process is not for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of courage and a lot of faith to send out something you’ve been working on for quite possibly years knowing that, more likely than not, it’s going to get rejected in six months’ time. Having only really just started, I’m in awe of those authors that only sold their fifth manuscript after a decade or more of trying, because that takes heart.
That said, it’s natural when you’re discouraged to look at other people and compare yourself to them. I don’t pretend to fully understand the psychology behind this, especially because it so often makes us feel worse, but it does happen. I’ve been there more than I care to admit, and I hate that I do it. But comparing yourself to another artist is different than comparing yourself to the Facebook friend with a stable job that’s happily married and has a house, a white picket fence, a golden retriever, and 2.5 healthy and beautiful children because of the matters of taste and opinion. Everyone has their own opinions on art, and because people get so emotionally invested in it, especially if it’s telling a story, these opinions can often be very, very strong. When this is combined with your emotional investment in your own creations and talent, it can get ugly quickly.
A lot of my Facebook friends are fans of one or more of those pages that take screencaps of Tumblr threads and post them as images on Facebook for their fans’ viewing pleasure. Some of these I enjoy, but then there are others that are just plain mean-spirited. This is the case with the following image:
For those of you that can’t read it, it’s a brief conversation about lines from Stephenie Meyer’s New Moon and E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey that, regardless of your opinion on either woman or her body of work, aren’t exactly the best-crafted sentences in the English language, ending in the assertion that these lines make one of the posters feel better about their own abilities as a writer.
My question is this: Why? Why should that make you feel better about your writing abilities? When you say that you could write a better sentence than they can, are you actually saying that your sentences are great or that theirs are awful? If you hope to make a career out of writing, what good is that kind of thinking going to do?
Again, no matter what your opinion on them is, you can’t fairly judge the merits of a particular book or writer on a single sentence or line of dialogue, for better or for worse. You can find a sentence to be cringe-worthy or beautiful, but unless it’s one of a number of like sentences in the same piece, one line doesn’t make an entire book unless it’s a marketing thing. Sure, the lines in the image are far from perfect, but try as you might, not every line can be a sterling execution of craft: sometimes a line just needs to get you from point A to point B, and the priority is on clarity rather than beauty. Sometimes an imperfect line suggests an imperfect character: having never actually read Fifty Shades of Grey itself (but having read enough commentary on it that I sometimes feel as though I have) and being totally unaware of the context of that particular line, I actually kind of like it as a device to establish character, and I prefer it to the line from New Moon, if we’re just judging those two against each other. It does its job of conveying that our narrator is trying to be romantic but is awkward and insecure to her core, even backtracking on her private thoughts when they don’t sound right. Depending on the sentences that surround it, it could even be made into a funny character moment, although given what I know about James’ novels I doubt that this is the case. Also given what I know about James’ novels, while my analysis of that one line might fit the mindset of the character, it might not fit in with the rest of the book very well in terms of tone; similarly, the line from New Moon could just be an awkward mistake that got overlooked by an editor and the rest of the novel could be markedly better. But I don’t know that much about either, so I really can’t make that call.
What’s more is that it doesn’t matter if you or your toddler can craft a better sentence than any given published writer in the world because those authors are the ones that are published. Believe me, I know that idea can be frustrating, and I’ve expressed it more than my fair share of times, but there’s more to writing than just making sentences. You have to have those sentences as well as characters, a plot, the right story for the market in any given year, a flawless query letter that honestly conveys you and your work, an editor or agent that likes you and what you have to offer and is having a good day, and a downright stupid amount of luck. Sometimes the traditional formula doesn’t work, which was the case with E.L. James, who was self-published and then got picked up by a traditional house later. Whatever their combination of circumstances was that got them where they are, no author became published on the basis of their sentence structure alone. Say what you will about their craft choices, but they are authors: even if they’re not your favorites, and even if you hate them and everything they stand for, they had the courage to take the steps necessary to get their work out there and become the successes that they did. To judge them on the basis of a single sentence is to trivialize everything else that goes into publishing a book and doesn’t actually improve your chances of getting your own work noticed or published.
In this way, I think that we should all be more like young adult writers. One of the things that I love best about Twitter is the community of writers of young adult literature and how gosh-darn supportive they are of each other. It puts a smile on my face to see V.E. Schwab and Rainbow Rowell, among others, squealing about their latest five-star read from their category, cheering when their favorites get sequels or film adaptations, and congratulating each other when they win awards or end up at the top of bestseller lists. To put it another way, some of the most successful, mainstream young adult writers get excited over the successes of other young adult writers. Their direct competitors, or at least as direct as you can get in this industry. They each bring something a little different to the table in terms of strengths and weaknesses, and they’re aware of it on the same level if not to a greater extent than more critical readers are. The difference is that they absolutely revel in those differences and spend their time gushing and creating rather than criticizing. Rather than seeing their category or genre as something they need to win and other people need to lose, they know that everyone wins because they get awesome stories and, if they do any comparing to other authors, it’s to strive to make themselves better rather than to simply state that they are.
I’m not immune to this. I still have a bit of the hypercritical college workshop attendee in me, and sometimes that gets in the way and even makes me doubtful of my own abilities—after all, if I really could do it better, why haven’t I had the same level of success? Fellow writers, we’re not in this to win it: we’re here because we love the craft. So let’s all try to be less nitpicky of others and instead focus more on what makes us and our manuscripts shine. We’ll all be better for it.