The cost of (public) failure in writing

I had a math teacher who only knew how to explain math to the students who already understood math. I decided watching her teach that the only math teachers who should be allowed to teach math must be the students who had to learn how to make sense of things that just came naturally to most math teachers.

I know, as a writer, I’ve had to figure out a lot of the moving parts of story. I mean, yes, POV is important, but how do you do POV? What individual choices can you make to shift the camera from recording what the characters do and say to reliving for the reader how the character thinks and feels isn’t a matter of sentence structure. I could get the student to slow down, to think of not just what happens but to imagine how that would feel to them and get them practicing scenes where every action has a reaction for the character. We could practice emotional reactions. Physical reactions. We could practice describing scenery, not just by what it looks like or how it makes the character feel, but how it does both of those while the character moves through the setting, picking out the important details that a character who is mostly focused on the task at hand would notice.

And I could do all that, because that’s how I figured it out. It was frustrating, taking the time to filter every thought through, “Right, but how would that *feel*?” until encorporating how it would would feel became second nature. But ask me, “Right, how do you write dialogue that matters?” I don’t really know.

If there’s one tool that I’ve always had in my toolbox, it was the ability to make meaningful dialogue feel like situationally appropriate conversation between two characters who didn’t know their dialogue was being recorded for posterity. Good dialogue is hard to do and nothing sinks a piece faster than dialogue that doesn’t feel like natural for me.

There’s advice I could give — brevity is really the soul of wit, end the conversation as naturally as possible after the point’s been made as possible. Never us a page to say what can be said in a look, etc, but I couldn’t walk them through the process step by step. Eventually, all my advice comes back to “Just write natural dialogue”.

The learning is in the doing, which means being willing to make mistakes. But when almost every story writers write today is for some form of immediate publication, I wonder where the freedom to practice and make mistakes comes in. I wonder what the true cost of failure is when every failure is also a public and commercial failure, too.

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