At the MWA SoCal chapter’s Holiday Party last weekend, a fellow author I much respect asked me an interesting question:
“How do writers get better?”
Well, that’s the mystery we’re all trying to solve, isn’t it? What exactly do good writers do to become great ones? Try harder? Read more? Make a blood pact with the devil?
No. Here’s what I think writers do to get better:
1. They listen to their conscience.
You know the conscience I mean. Not the one that tells you not to cheat on your wife, or screams bloody murder when you’re contemplating voting Republican. The conscience I’m talking about is the inner-voice that nags you like a Jewish mother when:
a) The line of dialogue you’ve just written sounds like something a walk-on in a bad soap opera would say;
b) There’s a hole in your plot that needs filling worse than a painful tooth cavity;
Or (nightmare of all nightmares) . . .
c) The whole third act of your latest novel-in-progress is garbage that has to be tossed, and any further attempts on your part to “fix” it instead will be as pointless as racing stripes on a Segway.
Sure, every author heeds such warnings most of the time; the nagging’s just too insistent to do otherwise. But I think many writers turn a deaf ear to their inner-editor more often than they listen to it, because fixing things that are broken is work, and it takes time, and it’s a hell of a lot easier to convince yourself that what your writer’s conscience is telling you is not sound editorial advice, but the baseless grumblings of insecurity.
“Of course that line of dialogue is fine,” these people think to themselves. “I’ve rewritten it four times already, how could it not be?”
Well, here’s the answer to that question: For some authors, the fifth time is the charm, not the third. I know because I’m one of them. It ain’t fair, but that’s just how it is.
2. They don’t settle for “good enough.”
Overhauling one’s writing to fix something that flat-out doesn’t work is a no-brainer; what isn’t is tweaking something that’s not broken, but could be improved upon. Changing a word here or there to make a good paragraph great, or a great paragraph incredible.
Sound exhausting? You’d better believe it is. But that, in my opinion, is what separates writers stuck in neutral with those who get noticeably better, book after book after book. The latter sweat the small stuff. They bite the bullet and do a third, or a fourth, or a fifth rewrite on something that may be perfectly fine as it is, but could be better. They refuse to settle for anything less than the best work they’re capable of producing, every time out of the box, no matter how much that impacts their rate of output.
Which brings me to:
3. They turn a blind eye to the clock.
The biggest problem with refusing to publish anything but your best possible work is that all that rewriting eats up time. Some authors can produce their best stuff in the blink of an eye, but most of us can’t. Most of us have to beat a story or novel to death, word by word, before we can find that magic draft that represents everything we’ve got to give, and that means we have very little hope of ever being described as “prolific.”
Some writers fail to get perceptibly better over time not because they lack the skills to do so, but because they move too fast to fully utilize them. Either too sick of their present work-in-progress to rewrite another word of it, or too focused on the quantity of their writing to pay the proper respect to its quality, some writers leap from one project to the next without taking the time necessary to make any of them a real gem. I see it time and time again. Talented men and women who exhibit the potential to write fantastic stuff, but whose work cries out for just one more pass beneath an editor’s critical blue pencil.
And now that I’ve mentioned the word “editor,” here are two more things writers do to get better:
4. They learn to know the difference between “good” and “great.”
5. They view criticism objectively, and treat it as an opportunity to identify the weaknesses in their work.
Sad to say, but some writers simply lack the perspective to see what others can: that their writing is less than perfect. They don’t get better because they’re unaware that such a possibility exists, so the flaws in their work follow doggedly after them, book after book after book. These people aren’t conceited, they’re just oblivious.
On the other hand, there are also those who fail to see the imperfections in their work because they refuse to see them. They’ve convinced themselves that they’ve already achieved greatness, and anyone who suggests otherwise simply doesn’t “get” what they do. If they would only read the negative reviews they receive with an open mind, they might gain some insight into how their stuff could be improved upon and do something about it. But they don’t. Instead, they chuck every negative review into the Just One Person’s Opinion file and miss out on learning something valuable from the experience. They equate criticism with cluelessness or, worse, a personal attack that has no basis in fact.
6. They don’t let their good reviews go to their head.
When somebody at The New York Times, or Washington Post, or People magazine, raves about your latest book as if Raymond Chandler himself must have risen from the grave to write it, or dares to compare you to Michael Connelly at the height of his powers, it can be easy to think you’ve arrived. But people who write book reviews are biased and human like all the rest of us, so their likes and dislikes should never be confused with the Voice of God. Writers committed to getting better find encouragement in the praise some reviewers heap upon them, but they don’t interpret such praise to mean their work has suddenly become the gold standard by which that of all others must be measured. The motivation to improve doesn’t come from overconfidence, it comes from humility. A willingness to consider the possibility that, despite what that nice book reviewer at Publisher’s Weekly wrote about you back in 2006, you haven’t quite reached the mountain top yet, and you’ve got a lot more work to do before you get there.
Oh, wait. I almost forgot this last one:
7. They don’t look to their friends or peers for validation.
Back when I was just a wee lad, writing awful short stories on a manual typewriter in my mother’s kitchen, I used to show all my stuff to my beloved Aunt Hazel, who was and remains a big mystery buff. And you’re not going to believe this, I know, but she always loved it. Every story, every word. For a long while, I thought this meant that all those professional editors who kept rejecting my work had to be out of their minds. And then one day, a light went on over my head and I realized something:
She’s my Aunt Hazel. Of course she’s gonna tell me how great my writing is!
Now, most writers don’t have an Aunt Hazel, but we all have friends and homeboys, some of them authors just like ourselves, and the reason these people are our friends is, they like us and care about us. They’ve got our back. They don’t want to see us fail, and would never do anything to hurt us. So when we ask for their opinion of something we’ve shed blood, sweat and tears to create, something we’ve already sent off to our publisher thinking it’s another flawless masterpiece — but it isn’t. . . What do they do?
They lie to us, of course. Just like my Aunt Hazel.
Oh, sure, your literary brothers-in-arms might offer you a word of criticism here or there. But they’re not going to do anything to disabuse you of the notion that this book was even better than your last, because they’re counting on you to fluff their feathers similarly when the shoe’s on the other foot. Honest, straightforward criticism of your work is something best left to people who have nothing to lose by offering it; readers and reviewers who don’t know you, and so have no fear of hurting your feelings by assessing your work in a less than glowing manner.
In other words, writing buddies are good for buying the next round at the convention bar, not for judging your stuff with anything approaching real objectivity.
In closing . . .
My friend at the Holiday party? When I mentioned Bullet-Point #1 above — specifically the part about tossing whole chunks of a book in the can when our conscience says we must — she was aghast.
“But two-hundred pages? I can’t just throw out two-hundred pages and start over again!”
And I thought, of course you can’t.
Unless you want to get better.