Why Tough Love is Crucial For Writers

Hope is a powerful word. It’s also a dangerous one. When it comes to the aspiring writer community a premium is put on positivity, the old pat on the back with kind words of encouragement, keep your chin up, stay the course, that sort of thing. This support system has merits, and undoubtedly aids you in many ways, but what most could truly benefit from is a hard kick in the ass. Tough love, it hurts like hell and can help you more than anything. I’ll be straight with you. I’m the kind of guy who learns best by getting punched in the gut. Hit me hard, or enough times, and I’ll stop fighting and get the point. Tiptoe around a subject and it will take me longer to understand what you’re trying to say. As writers, getting to the point is imperative. If we don’t, we end up getting lost.
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Hope is a powerful word. It’s also a dangerous one. When it comes to the aspiring writer community a premium is put on positivity, the old pat on the back with kind words of encouragement, keep your chin up, stay the course, that sort of thing. This support system has merits, and undoubtedly aids you in many ways, but what most could truly benefit from is a hard kick in the ass. Tough love, it hurts like hell and can help you more than anything.

I’ll be straight with you. I’m the kind of guy who learns best by getting punched in the gut. Hit me hard, or enough times, and I’ll stop fighting and get the point. Tiptoe around a subject and it will take me longer to understand what you’re trying to say. As writers, getting to the point is imperative. If we don’t, we end up getting lost.

(What a movie can teach writers about how to start a story strong.)

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J-Kent-Messum-author-writer

J. Kent Messum is an author, musician, and always bets on the underdog.
He lives in Toronto with his wife, dog and trio of cats. He is the author of BAIT
(Plume, Aug. 2013). You can check out the heart-stopping book trailer for BAIT here.
Find J. Kent on Facebook and buy his book on Amazon. Also, find him on Twitter.

You might be asking yourself some typical questions right now: Why can’t I get a break? Why isn’t my writing attracting the attention of agents? Why aren’t publishers clamoring to pick up my book? For starters, I’ll wager it’s because your work isn’t very good. In fact, your writing is probably awful. Much like mine was many years ago, long before I understood the importance of honing my craft.

We writers have a bad habit of reading the works of others and thinking we’re superior. It’s called the ego. Everyone has one, everyone judges. I’ve heard so many people complain about some bad book they read and go on to say “Man, I could write a way better book than that!” Really? Go ahead and try then, see how far you get. That’s like picking one of the lowest ranked players in your favorite pro sports league and saying “Man, I could do that guy’s job”. In reality, I bet you wouldn’t even make it through your first day of training.

When I was in university studying jazz, there were all kinds of aspiring students around me. But out of all the talent I came across, I’ll forever remember this one poor dude. He was a quiet sort, totally in love with his saxophone and hard bop. I’d see this guy wood-shedding every day in practice booths, isolated for hours at a time, working hard on licks and scales and solos, going over the same things over and over again. He attended all theory classes and performance workshops, but everyone knew he had a bad habit of only listening to lectures he liked and dismissing valuable teachings he didn’t care for. His skills reflected this attitude. In the four years we attended the music program he never improved. I pitied the fool. All that time he spent learning with blinders on and in the end he just didn’t get it... unlike me. I was way better than that guy.

Except, y’know, I wasn’t.

(How much money can you expect from selling your first book?)

It took me years to realize that when it came to the written word, I was that guy. I spent so much of my time writing, but never improved. I was rehashing the same shit, making the same mistakes over and over again, convinced of my talent, positive that my amazing skills would soon be noticed by the powers that be. I didn’t want to have my work criticized. I didn’t welcome the opinions of others. A word to the wise wasn’t allowed in my house. I just wanted agents and publishers to read my stuff and recognize my brilliance.

In truth, I was terrible. My style was long-winded and pretentious. I forced the use of complex words, too large and improper in the context of my writing. My prose was bloated, my storytelling weak. I was so wrapped up in my own perceived awesomeness that I was blind to all my faults. Just like that sax player in school, I could have greatly benefitted from having someone berate me for my mistakes. I was overdue for a shake, a slap, a rude awakening. What I needed most was to get beat the fuck up by a real writer. Luckily, I eventually did.

My writing didn’t improve until I met my mentor, Peter Sellers (former president of the Crime Writers of Canada). When I started showing him my work, he asked me if I wanted his honest opinion. When I answered yes, he came down on me like a ton of bricks. There were no niceties, no sugar-coating, and no handling me with kid gloves. Peter made no bones about how poor my writing was. He tore my stories to shreds and threw them back at me, unimpressed and a little insulted by what I’d done. It was the first time someone had stripped my work bare and exposed me for what I really was: a bad writer. After he’d broken me down and shattered my ego, I started to rebuild myself under his tutelage. Some might think this harsh, but I needed tough love, someone to be straight with me. I wouldn’t be where I am today had I not been given both barrels like that. And that’s the thing: It’s not enough to just keep hoping and trying. You have to constantly improve as well. Writing is a lifelong craft. There is no limit to how much you can learn.

The way I see it, the road to success is more like a freeway these days. There are innumerable others travelling toward the same destination as you. Along the way there are going to be accidents. People will break down, run out of fuel or turn back. There are plenty of off-ramps that many will take for legitimate reasons (money, security, stress, relationships, etc). If you want to become an author, do your damnedest not to be one of them. Constantly overhaul, rework, and polish your writing. Work your ass off. Otherwise, you may want to just pull over now and get off the road.

Sometimes a little tough love can help keep you on track.

(Did you enjoy this column? Messum wrote a "How I Got My Agent" column for the blog previously.)

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