Monday, July 25, 2011

The Learning Curve

I was talking recently with an author friend of mine, and we were discussing how we figured, by this point in our careers, we'd be, you know...better. She'd thought a draft of hers, while not done, was closer to being done. I'd thought that A MILLION SUNS would be easier to write than ACROSS THE UNIVERSE. Not--as it turned out to be--harder.

All this got me to thinking. While I've only got one book on the shelves now, I've been at this gig for a bit now--ten years, and ten unpublished manuscripts before ACROSS THE UNIVERSE. I'm not going to go into all that now because, frankly, you guys are probably getting sick of hearing about it.

But I'm going to tell you what I told my author friend the other night.

It's actually a good thing that it never gets easier.

See, here's the thing. If it got easier, that means we're not challenging ourselves any more. We've dug ourselves a nice little groove, and we're not trying to improve.

In my time while struggling to be a writer, I've noticed that people respond differently to critiques.

See, we wish we were the blue line--always, steadily getting better. That's the way it would be in a perfect world: we'd just continue to improve as we work.

But of course, it's not like that. It's just...not.

The red and green lines represent real authors, not this crazy ideal author that doesn't exist. At Point 1, you can see that most authors DO improve over time. I think that's certainly true--with practice, we get better. You can see that both Red and Green are advancing at the same rate over time.

But at Point 2, I introduce criticism. Now, authors get criticism in different ways, but what I mean by "criticism" is constructive advice. This could be--and will be for most authors--critique partners or beta readers. But it could also be an agent or editor. Either way, my point is--at Point 2, authors get advice.

You'll notice that the green line takes a sharp turn up. I personally think at the point when an author starts steadily working with other to improve his craft, he also takes a sudden bump up. These are big things that it's easy and quick for an author to learn once he starts working with others--basic things like formatting, pacing, structure. I sincerely do believe that when an author starts getting some sort of outside help--from critiques, agents, editors, whatever--he will see a sudden and marked improvement.

But then you'll notice that the road gets bumpy. There are a ton of little ups and downs--sharp peaks, sudden plunges--that the improving writer will feel. That's because the writer is improving. The writer, by this point, has developed a sense of what works and what doesn't, and is trying to make something grand and wonderful--and is still struggling.

Ira Glass on Storytelling from David Shiyang Liu on Vimeo.

This is the point my writer friend is at. She's constantly improving, but it's not one smooth ride up like the blue line.

And the thing I wanted to tell her was that that is a really good thing.

Because, essentially, that means you're starting to recognize that what you're doing now isn't good enough

And that, my friends, is a very good thing.

I think it's for the best that an artist never really gets to the point that she thinks something is good enough. If the artist--no matter what the art is--sits back and accepts her work as "good enough," that means she's satisfied. And, well...I don't want to be satisfied. I want to constantly struggle to be even better than I was before.

Because the author writer? The one with the red line? She gets to point 4 on my chart. She's placated. She's fine with the way things are. She gets a piece of advice--say, to make a character's motivations clearer. And she adds a scene and calls it done. Calls it good enough.

And there's no improvement there.

Maybe the Red Writer has a happier life than the Green Writer. Maybe Red is blissful in her ignorance, coasting through her art, creating a story and letting it ride.

I think many writers are like that writer--especially at the beginning, but sometimes I still feel that way. I'll admit that while I was working on A MILLION SUNS, I got to a point where I looked at the story and thought "done," well before it was, actually, done.

And I know I was like that at the beginning of my writing life--one reason why I went so long before achieving publication. I still remember the first time I "edited" my first book. You guys, I crossed out, like, a page, and then I fixed some grammar, and I think I added a paragraph. That was it. That wasn't editing. That wasn't ripping through the words to find the beating heart of the story.

That was good enough.

I never want to be good enough.

I want to be the best I can be.

And that--that--requires ups and downs. That requires recognizing when something isn't good enough. Now, if you haven't already, go watch that video I posted above. And also, read this. I think you'll see some parallels between writing and fighting there.
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