Back a few years ago, a teacher friend of mine told me a story that she would tell to her gifted and talented fifth graders. It went something like this:
Once upon a time there was a little boy named Jack. Jack was the smartest boy in his class. When the teacher would give him an assignment, he would make sure to do it exactly the way she wanted it, and when he turned it in, she would always give him the highest grade.
As Jack grew up, his teachers continued to praise him for being so smart and such a hard worker. In high school, in college, in graduate school, it was always the same.
When he graduated, the most powerful people in the world recruited him to help them solve all of their problems. They gave him an amazing lab, full of anything he could ever need to make the most amazing discoveries. They told him, “Go! Create!”
He looked around the room uneasily. He took one of the beakers off the shelf and asked the people, “Which kind of beaker would you like me to use? The round one or the straight one? What color do you want my solution to be? Do you want me to use this chemical or that one?”
One by one, the people waiting for him to make his discovery dropped their heads. And one by one, they walked away.
The moral of the story is that trying to please everyone gets you a long way as a kid, but in the end, you’ll never make something all your own that way. You have to believe in what you want to do. And you have to know what you want to do in the first place.
Recently, I had the pleasure of attending a series of writing workshops on a variety of topics. While I enjoyed it very much, a lot of the questions from beginning writers in the audience rubbed me the wrong way. There questions about, “How many subplots should I have?”, and “How long should my chapters be?”, and “How many points of view should I use?”, and “Should I explain my villain’s motivation from his POV?”
As our very own Sydney Carroll pointed out the other day, there are rules to writing, and they’re worth following. But in the end, the answer to a lot of beginner writer questions is: whatever is right for your story.
The best advice I could give my younger self is the same advice I would give a lot of the writers in that seminar: Write your story with whatever color crayon you want.