On a social media site this week, a fellow writer started a new discussion thread:
What is the most valuable piece of advice you’ve received? Mine is a quote from from Peter deVries: “I only write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired every morning at 9 o’clock.”
The answer that sprang to mind wasn’t a famous quote or advice from a famous author, but something said about fifteen years ago by a writer who encouraged many others toward publication while she herself remained obscure: “So what?” and “Who cares?”
The best advice I’ve received wasn’t intended as advice, but as an offhand, snarky question: “So what?”
So what if Character X did thus and so? Why should the reader care?
That question revolutionized my storytelling.
I’m still learning all the time, and my drafts can be sloppy, meandering affairs, but when it comes time to edit the mess and turn it into something worth reading, “So what?” is a constant guide. It helps me determine what stays and what goes. It helps me revise dialogue from bland to tense, or turn an otherwise dull “just going from point A to point B” passage into a suspenseful journey.
In the end, because I’ve already asked the question of every scene, conversation, event, and plot thread, my hope is that no reader picks up my work, shrugs, and says, “So what?”
I don’t know where she is, the writer who tossed the casual question, or even if she still walks the earth, but she came along at the right moment in my life, when I struggled to return to writing after many years of literary muteness. For a few years after our chance meeting, she welcomed me into her inner circle, and many of us learned so much and were so encouraged that we took her word as gospel.
Then something happened — I don’t really know what — that changed everything. Maybe someone misunderstood something said or written. Maybe there was a power struggle, like children vying for a parent’s attention or approval. Maybe the teacher saw the students leaping past her, succeeding where she had not. Maybe we started questioning some of the advice and thinking more independently.
Whatever the reason, the kinship broke, and some of us were cast outside the circle.
We were angry, hurt, confused, but fledgelings might feel the same. The warm nest is no longer home. They must fly alone.
So we did. Alone together. And we succeeded. We won contests. We published our work.
That tight little group of survivors has broken once again. One married and moved away. One divorced and is selling her house. I moved to another state to help family. Another remains right where she always was, but is surpassing us all with her publishing achievements.
Still, some of the best advice we ever received was from the one who embraced us then betrayed us, and that, too, became a blessing.
The question ever remains: Had we stayed in the embrace, would we ever have left to become the writers we are now?