It’s December 22, and I am sick. In bed, with aching muscles and tissues and cough drops and enough On Demand TV to turn my brain to mush. I’m pathetically up to date on Househunters, so I’ve started to think about what one thinks about as the new year approaches — resolutions.
I hate resolutions. I actually stopped making them years ago. The ones I made were always the same, and I never achieved them. I got tired of facing certain failure every January. I preferred not to resolve.
But this year I have a few writerly resolutions. They are really non-resolutions, resolutions NOT to change certain things I do. All this means is that I’ve learned to recognize my limitations and have found ways to make the best of them. I am accentuating the positive here. Isn’t that a better way to ring in the new year than pledging to lose five pounds while swilling champagne and stuffing your face with caviar-topped deviled eggs?
1. I Resolve Not to Stop Reading My Reviews. Even the Stupid Bad Ones.
I used to admire writers who said they never read reviews. Not the ones who didn’t read them because they were hurtful — you need a thick skin to survive in the writing world, and if you can’t take a bad review, you certainly can’t take the years of rejection that you’ll have to endure. But for a while I was impressed by the writers who claimed they just didn’t care and, even more, by the ones who implied they didn’t read reviews because they didn’t want to dirty their Process with outside influences.
The more I thought about it, though, the more that seemed wrong to me. Most of us don’t write in a vacuum. We actually write for an audience — maybe not a particular audience, or one that we have in mind as we compose, but the readers who will, eventually and if we are lucky, read our work. And to me, those readers matter.
Yes, there are readers who will completely miss the point. There are readers who will be cruel or snarky just because they can be. (I will never forget the Kirkus review — not of my book, thank God — that called one title a “lugubrious piece of bilge.” Ouch ouch ouch.) But if you ignore those reviewers, you also ignore the ones that say your work opened up new worlds for them, or got them to love books when they never did before. And you might miss the group of reviews that claimed your main character was undeveloped or your plot grew murky in the middle or your historical details were inaccurate. If enough people are saying it, it just might be true. It’s too late to change things in that book, but you can pay more attention in the next.
2. I Resolve Not to Stop Envying Others Who Are Better or More Successful Than I.
I am aware that envy is one of the Seven Deadlies. But I’ve found it can serve a positive purpose. I do envy writers who are better at their craft than I am. I lust after their gorgeous turns of phrase, their beautifully structured plots, their fully-drawn characters. I notice how they do what they do as I read. I pay attention to the effect. I try my best to absorb their skill. I want to become a better writer, and how else to do that than by learning from the best?
As for the more successful — well, to those writers who are better and more successful, I find I can say mazel tov, you deserve it. It feels good to say this. And I mean it. For those who are more successful but maybe…not so much better, I can grind my teeth and say it’s a quirk of fate, the luck of timing, whatever. It also feels good to say that. And it reminds me that what I really want is to be better, not just more successful. (Don’t get me wrong, more successful would be great. But it’s not the ultimate goal.)
3. I Resolve Not to Stop Using Adverbs.
If you see an adverb, kill it. — Mark Twain
I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs. — Stephen King
How many writing websites and blogs say dump the adverb? There must be dozens. Hundreds. Maybe thousands. No one wants to kill the adjective or the verb or even the pronoun, which is misused far more often than the adverb. But though Twain and King advocate violence against this humble part of speech, I found three adverbs on the first page of Stephen King’s 2013 Doctor Sleep, and one each on the first page of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Most great novels swarm with adverbs. They’re going to find their way into your writing no matter what. Just let it happen. I say harness the adverb, don’t murder it. Let it know who’s boss, and then allow it to work its wonders for you.
So, there are my resolutions. Three bad habits I will not change in 2014. I’m sure you can come up with a few of your own, if you think about it. Feel free to tell me what they are and why you intend not to change them…unless, you know, they’re not legal. In that case, please keep them to yourself.
(I also intend to keep swilling champagne and eating caviar-topped deviled eggs. But those don’t really count as bad habits, do they?)