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Be the Encouragement

[1]
Photo from flickr user ckubber

I spend far too much time on the internet. Not (just) reading political stories which occasionally make me feel frustrated and/or helpless, either. No, I also spend far too much time in forums and writing groups and the like, which also occasionally make me feel frustrated and/or helpless. So I’d like to take a moment to address a question/problem that I see posed far too often. It goes something like this:

My son/daughter/partner/friend/mother/cat wants to be a writer, but they’re no good at it. How do I tell them that their writing is terrible and they should find a different career?

Now, I’ve heard this question in meat-space as well, at writing groups (or about members of writing groups), and in general conversation — often roughly 3.5 seconds after telling someone I’m a writer. I’ve also heard/read some absolutely atrocious answers. But I very rarely see the simple, two word answer that is most fitting:

You don’t.

Here’s the thing about writing: No one is good at it when they start out.

Let me tell you about the first novel I wrote. It was an epic fantasy saga, set in a world bereft of geographical, political, or social logic. The protagonist was a young man who was chosen by an ancient prophecy to save the world from poorly-defined evil through the tried-and-true method of finding a magical sword, gathering companions (one wizard, one thief with a heart of gold, one grizzled soldier, one paladin, and one token female who started out — obviously — disguised as a boy), and journeying across the incongruous landscape to take part in an epic battle. An epic battle that was fought and won in a single afternoon. Then, of course, the Chosen One got the girl, refused to take the treasure for himself, and was lauded by everyone in the world as a Hero of Epic Proportions.

I’m pretty sure I managed to shoehorn a few more tropes in there, but I’m too embarrassed to elaborate further.

That novel was named “Dark Forest”, and I was absolutely, positively convinced that it was going to be a bestseller to rival Tolkien.

Spoiler alert: It wasn’t. It now lives in an abandoned folder on my computer, a poignant reminder of how far I’ve come.

As if the hackneyed plot and character-free characters wasn’t bad enough, my actual prose was…. Well, let’s just say that if a sentence could possibly include an adverb, it had at least seven shoved in there. And no dialogue was complete unless it was shouted, whimpered, pleaded, murmured, or spat. Adverbily.

In short, my first attempt at writing the Next Great Fantasy Novel was something less than stellar. I was spectacularly bad at writing.

Just like everyone else.

Ira Glass has a fantastic quote about this very thing:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit.

— Ira Glass

I highly encourage you to listen to his whole spiel [2], if you haven’t already.

The point is that everyone approaches writing from a point of not being very good at at least some aspect of it. It takes time and work to improve. It takes a focus on the art and craft of storytelling. It takes honest feedback. And it takes encouragement.

If someone I respected had taken me aside back when I was 17 and had just finished writing Dark Forest, and they told me I was a terrible writer and should do something else with my life, who knows where I’d be now. When someone at the beginning of their writing journey comes to you with something they’ve written, what they really need is encouragement. Honest encouragement, to be sure. But encouragement.

So if your son/daughter/friend/mother/cat wants to be a writer but their work is terrible, tell them you’re really proud of them for working so hard. Tell them you like the story, or that one character, or the way they’ve described the tree in chapter seven. Tell them what they’ve done well. Buy them a book on writing craft. Point them here. Invite them to join the WU Facebook group [3]. Encourage them to keep writing.

Be the encouragement you want to see in the world.

Did someone in your life give you the right encouragement to continue writing at exactly the right time? Did someone accidentally (or purposely) discourage you? What would you say to someone at the beginning of their writing journey who doesn’t know if they have what it takes?

About Jo Eberhardt [4]

Jo Eberhardt is a writer of speculative fiction, mother to two adorable boys, and lover of words and stories. She lives in rural Queensland, Australia, and spends her non-writing time worrying that the neighbor's cows will one day succeed in sneaking into her yard and eating everything in her veggie garden.