I’m not going to have a long preamble about my qualifications, I have none. Nor am I going to tell some long story about some epiphany I had; I have those daily and they’re forgotten as quickly as they come.
Let’s start with one simple thing. The simplest, most important thing a writer can know about writing.
You’re fucking terrible at it.
I hear those cries, the ones of “but I like my work” or “but other people like my work” or “I’ve sold pieces/won contests”, and I absolutely do not fucking care about them. Something you need to understand is that you suck. There is at least one person out there that absolutely hates everything you do, and it might even be you.
This is a good thing, and a necessary thing. You are not yet done developing as a writer, or an artist, or a role-player, none of us ever are. There’s always going to be parts of your writing that you’re not satisfied with. I’d put this in my own words, but I can’t do better than Paul Valery, so I’ll paraphrase a paraphrase and say, “A piece is never finished, only abandoned”. This is true of the artist themselves.
The good news is that you are a better writer today than you were yesterday. Even if you feel a piece you put out is inferior to a prior piece, even if it is actually inferior, you, as a writer, are better. You are better because you can see the difference between the two pieces, because you have learned something from the contrast between the two, even when you’re not always sure what that difference is. Sometimes, it is just a difference in your taste.
There’s more good news. You officially, on some level, suck. Which means that you don’t need to be perfect, nobody is expecting it. Nobody is looking for perfection, few people really ever are and they’re impossible to please largely because they just want to not like something.
So write, and write badly. You can learn far more from crafting a hundred bad pieces than you can from a hundred good ones, because even the perfect one isn’t all that great, and both take about the same amount of time. It’s a weird trick of art that so often, when you think you’ve made something perfect, nobody likes it. Style builds on your failures, in some ways more than your successes. You can analyze a failure, figure out why it failed, but it’s damn near impossible to figure out why something succeeded. It succeeded because people liked it, and that’s all readers need, to like it. Yet, when you make something bad, you know it’s bad. You can look at how it’s bad, how people responded to it, and you can learn something from that.
I’m going to write my next one of these about Sportsmanship, as what I’m doing here is designed to be me taking everything I’ve learned about writing and, to a lesser degree, roleplaying, and just stuff it in a meatgrinder and give you all some advice hamburger meat to chew on, so I’m not going to get into the practical so much right now, this bit is going to be even more vague than the previous bit.
In something like the VE, bad writing can take on more forms than when you’re working on a solo piece like a short story. You can get characters wrong, derail someone else’s plot, forget important details. These things are going to make it look like you didn’t read anything before you posted and are just trying to wrangle the story into being about you. If you do that, we’ll discuss in sportsmanship, but usually that’s not what’s going on.
Let’s start with characters, some simple possible reasons why you might be mangling other people’s characters. For simplicities sake, we’ll call the creator of the character The Creator, and the person writing another person’s character The User. Now, there are several different etiquettes for using the characters of others, they’re largely informal and should be agreed upon by everyone writing in a story so that everyone is on the same page. Some Creators would prefer they be the only one that writes their characters, other’s love seeing their characters reimagined through someone else’s lens. Neither is wrong, neither is right. The first gives more creative control, the other gives opportunities to improvise. I’ll delve more into this when I talk about Sportsmanship.
So, characters. You’ve horribly mangled somebodies’ character, you’ve made their grizzled lone wandered Man-With-No-Name type into a goofy comic relief character that farts rainbows and is filled with awe and wonder. First, breathe. Somewhere along the line, somebody made a mistake. These mistakes occur for a couple major reasons, the most obvious is that you didn’t read anything and did whatever you felt like but let’s give you the benefit of the doubt and say you did read. The first possibility is that their character (and these tables could just as easily be flipped) wasn’t written in a way that conveyed the tone and character they intended. This happens, and it happens a lot. Something was tried, to write a type of character, and it didn’t work. They tried something, and that is important because they need the feedback, or you need the feedback, to write that character again, different, and closer to what they imagined. They may fail to hit the mark again, almost certainly will. This is Ok. This is good. Iteration is your greatest ally as a writer, they, or you, should be encouraged to write more posts, to practice, to write badly. Now, absolutely talk to each other, this is feedback, feedback is good. Don’t talk about what was or was not done well, talk about how to reach the goal the Creator is trying to achieve. Accusations and recriminations help nobody involved. Honestly, this advice goes for both sides of the table. Talk about it, learn, write more. I also advise against ever asking somebody to change something. We’re going to get a bit into some art theory here, just a little, so bear with me. I am not an academic.
When a piece is created, a painter paints, a writer writes, that is an initial act of creation. It’s an imperfect translation of what’s in their head. Now, we bring in an observer, a reader in our case, and they read the piece and they notice things that the writer didn’t put there, themes that they never intended, and details that change the story for the reader that were an afterthought of the writer. That, too, is an act of creation. The observer is taking an imperfect translation and translating it imperfectly. Yet, it is as valid and as important an act of creation as the initial creation was. If you’re aware of The Death of the Author school of literary criticism, you might notice I’m a fan, but that’s a whole other thing and I doubt I’ll get into the value of using multiple schools of criticism to evaluate a piece anywhere in this series because it’s top tier pretentious shit.
Back on topic.
I discourage post-posting editing because it devalues this secondary act of creation and any subsequent primary acts of creation. That’s not to say never do it, but be careful when you do it, and make sure you’re doing it for the right reason. If everyone decides to go a different direction and you need to tweak a couple things, so be it, it’s in service to the story. However, if you ask somebody to go back and change things to be more inline with your vision of the story and the characters, you’re basically telling the person that your version is more real, more valid, and that’s simply not the case. Reading is a creative act, it’s a more passive one than writing, but both are necessary. It’s a betrayal by the artist to tell a reader that has enjoyed their work that the reader is enjoying it wrong. I’m not sure I can explain why, it’s too fundamental to be easily explained. This isn’t even Sportsmanship territory; this is just not being a dick.
Yes, this part is important to writing badly. Allowing other people to. We write pieces of a story, none of us exclusively own the stories. There might be one main person sort of overseeing it, guiding it, but it doesn’t belong to them. If they wanted to have their own private story, they’d write it themselves. This is a collaborative effort, and everyone’s primary and secondary acts of creation are of equal importance. Other than the very initial post, each consecutive post relies on both. That’s not something you see when you write a short story, you don’t see a building of these alternating primary and secondary acts of creation. If we’re going to have more things to write about, we all need to read other’s stories, other’s posts, do our own secondary act of creation and let it fuel our primary one. Keeping both healthy is good for everyone.
Welcome to Writing Advice from the Abyss. If this hasn’t been properly rambling and pretentious for you, just wait. Ask questions, I may answer in varyingly easy to decipher metaphors, words, curses, cryptic handwaving, and general jackassery. Discuss, disagree, argue, just write, write badly, keep writing. And keep playing. Writing is a kind of play. You don’t have to do it well. You just have to enjoy it.