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In Praise of the Tortoise, With All Due Respect to the Hare

December 11th, 2010 · 15 Comments · Uncategorized

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.”

and

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.

Finally:

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.

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15 Comments so far ↓

  • Terrill Lankford

    Amen, brother.

    This is where the new generation of writer who can get a quick blast of exposure by e-pubbing immediately upon completion of their first draft is going to be hurting bad. It will be tough for some of them to resist that temptation. And without unbiased editors to give them quality feedback it will be harder for them to know when their work is ready to be read by others.

    To quote the great Mr. T: “I pity the fools.”

    But I pity their readers even more.

  • Keith

    Best blog post ever. You have arrived, man!

    (Actually, I do think it’s terrific. And won’t be heard.)

  • SJ Rozan

    Bingo, Gar. Just totally bingo.

    Now I’d love to stay and chat, but I have to go rewrite something. Again.

  • nigel bird

    i’ve still got a lot to learn, i know, but it’s really helpful to see what i could aim to get better at.
    thanks.

  • Lisa Harkrader

    Terrific post. And Terrill Lankford’s comment echoes exactly what I was thinking. In the frenzy of writing more, faster, getting it out there, and sell-sell-selling, the actual writing seems to get lost.

    Thank you!

  • Doris Ann Norris

    On behalf of readers, I hope many writers and wannabes read this and take it to heart. But I;m afraid many of them are too busy promoting themselves because their families and friends you mentioned said they are “writers” when they should be stopped because they have little, if any talent.

  • Carolyn J. Rose

    Great post. Friends and family usually have a not-so-hidden agenda with their critiques and compliments. I set those all aside–permanently. I set all other critiques aside for at least a week to get some distance on advice I might want to discount because it stings. Then I examine why it stings and often I realize it’s because I need to do surgery on an “infected” portion of my work with that delete key.

  • L.J. Sellers

    Thanks for reminding me what I know in my heart, but sometimes chose to forget. I have a new goal for this novel: to be my best work yet.

  • Jenny Milchman

    Great tips, all–I especially agree with the clock/refusing to rush one. But your Aunt Hazel notwithstanding I have found family members to be some of my best (and toughest) critics. They sometimes even trump my agent in sending me back to the drawing board!

  • Gar Anthony Haywood

    Jenny, maybe relatives only go easy on you when you’re young. I haven’t used my aunt’s editorial services in a long time. Could be she’d be much tougher on me now that I’m all grown up and am unlikely to be discouraged from ever trying to write again by something she says.

  • Doselle Young

    I’m pretty much on board with your words on the subject. So much so, in fact, that I’ll repost, tweet, etc.

    My only caveat is with your assessment of ‘peer review’. I’m thinking the honest advice and critical eye of your peers can be an invaluable asset and I think there are almost always supportive ways to get critical points
    across to your writer friends assuming what they really want is to get better (an assessment that needs to be made upfront).

    If they ain’t the sort then don’t waste the time!

    I’ve spent quite a bit of time this last year giving my detailed and honest opinion on a couple of books that have been or are about to be published. In every case, I’ve written no less than five to ten pages of detailed notes, suggestions, etc. and people have thanked me for the criticism. I think the secret–particularly on the critic’s end–is to keep his/her ego out of the equation just like the writer on the receiving end ought. The secret of helpful criticism, I think, then rests in trying to develop a strong sense of what the writer wants to go for and a knack for seeing various avenues to help them get where they want to go.

    Then again, as I said above, in every case what the authors really wanted was to get better; to tell a better, more precise and cogent story that accomplishes everything they wanted to accomplish.

    I know it’s what I want.

    Like one friend has said in the past, we’re all very smart but we’re generally smarter together!

    Now, on the occasions in which I’ve encountered something that really didn’t work, I’ve done the same thing; read the piece a couple of times and given five to ten pages of notes and made my arguments without ego.I think, as a fraternity, it’s what we owe each other.

    But then, I’m an angry idealist.

    Cheers.

  • Gar Anthony Haywood

    Doselle:

    I probably should have been more specific about the kind of “friends” I had in mind when I wrote my post. Clearly, you and your crew are all professionals who deal with the issue of exchanging critiques accordingly, which is to say, with the understanding that not every review passed between you is going to be all peaches and cream. Some are going to be damn difficult to read because they’re going to speak to truth about a piece of work that is seriously flawed and shouldn’t be thought of as a finished product.

    Authors of the “my sh*t don’t stink” variety can’t handle that kind of honesty, so they don’t hang with peers who are likely to provide it. Instead, they form cliques of like-minded egomaniacs who think being supportive of each other excludes the right to ever utter an unkind word. It isn’t professional community they’re after as much as mutual sycophancy.

    Granted, harsh criticism is always hardest to take from your friends, which is why you’re always better off seeking it elsewhere. Emotion and the competitive spirit have a tendency to get in the way otherwise.

  • Doselle Young

    1. Cynical optimism

    “Granted, harsh criticism is always hardest to take from your friends, which is why you’re always better off seeking it elsewhere. Emotion and the competitive spirit have a tendency to get in the way otherwise.”

    Well, that’s the thing though. I’m not altogether convinced that even the most coherent and detailed criticism _has_ to be ‘harsh’ or ‘unkind’. Not if the writer and/or the critic can keep his or her own ego out of the critique (which, admittedly, is harder for some people than it is for others).

    I recognize that a lot of people will think that’s a very big ‘IF’ and maybe that’s true–but it doesn’t have to be. Sure, emotion and a competitive spirit _can_ get in the way. People can be egocentric and derive some sense of pleasure (and emotional security) by undermining their ‘competition.’

    People can be petty.

    Hell, sometimes they _will_be petty–especially if they, themselves, are insecure but (and this goes out to all the writers) the next time you’re giving some withering critique, take a step back before sending it and edit your ego out of the critique.

    Perhaps it’s asking a lot but I figure there’s a lot in this life you won’t get if you don’t ask and/or you don’t put up.

    It’s not like there’s much of anything to lose.

    2. Oh, writers. You funny, funny people.

    Writers (especially before that first sale) tend to imagine that their lives will markedly change if they get published and then, again, if they have a big hit. There’s certainly some truth to that, clearly, but I think it’s important to focus on the things that don’t change.

    Our time remains finite.

    Our human relationships (or lack thereof) will remain the benchmark by which we are likely to judge ourselves, etc.

    No amount of fame will keep a writer off his or her death bed.

    No amount of critical acclaim will save a writer if step in front of a moving bus.

    In short, while writing is, like, totally awesome, even in the best of circumstances, we’re still just the same as everyone else and it’s worth us all remembering that.

    I feel supremely lucky that my experiences with my peers has been very positive. I know they don’t expect me to lie to them and I don’t require that they lie to me, either. What we’re interested in is story; not using our peers as a punching bag to make ourselves feel better.

    3. Is peer behavior in some genres just worse than others?

    Prolly not.

    In my experience, writers who are always striving to be better tend to avoid the types of huge bulk mistakes I think your speaking of, Gar. The kind likely to engender the kind of withering criticism you seem to considering here. But then, maybe most of the writers I’ve known have just been grown ups.

    Writers pulls from different parts of themselves, right? With that in mind, I get that there’s got to be certain enflamed passions (all puns intended) in romance writing and a murderous streak of cynicism inherent in writing crime/horror/thrillers, etc.

    When it comes to ‘peer review’ and human nature, however, I think it’s best to go ahead make a discussion of ego, insecurity and vulnerability an active part of the conversation; to just lay it out in the street. In my experience, it seems to put a crimp in the childish bits now and again and force the narcissists and egomaniacs out of the conversation.

  • Gar Anthony Haywood

    Doselle:

    You (inadvertantly) keep pointing out things I could have made clearer in my post. The “harsh” reviews I was referring to were not harsh in the sense of being unnecessarily cruel or combative, but critical beyond the point of what most writers would want to hear about something they’ve been hoping is the best thing they’ve ever written. It’s not asking much of a friend to expect them to tell you when a chapter here or there could stand another close look, but asking them to be upfront with you when, in their estimation, vast chunks of the work in question genuinely STINKS, well, that’s something else altogether. It ain’t easy to give a friend that kind of bad news, and it’s no easier to be the friend who receives it. So maybe what I should have written in my post was something to the effect that, depending on how emotionally devastating a review must be in order to qualify as totally honest, it’s more likely to come from somebody who cares little about hurting your feelings than someone who cares a lot. Hence, I stand by my original argument that writers who really want to get better rely on their closest friends and associates for accurate assessments of their work at their own risk.

  • Daniel Schaeffer

    Just a random thought about egomania, narcissism, etc., of the sort mentioned above: Self-absorbed people, of course, are always determined that those around them are selfish. After all, no-one can ever think about them enough to satisfy their desires. This is true of self- absorbed writers, waitresses, physicists, and anything else you can name. Which just means that if you think you’re not egotistical, it may just be because you’re either surrounded by people willing to indulge your egotism (for whatever reason), or you are nothing more than someone else’s sycophant, currently providing them (intentionally or otherwise)with the degree of undeserved praise they feel worthy of. I think it’s a rarer state of affairs than we’d like to think for there to be many people of moderately-sized egos who are surrounded by others of similarly rational nature. However, it is always good to strive for “objectivity”, however elusive it may be.

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