Friday, June 12, 2009

Practice Makes Perfect

ETA: PubRants has just posted about this same topic here.

After reading a blog post by a "writer" (note the quotes: this is none of you guys, trust me), it occurred to me the reason why Janet Reid and Editorial Anonymous make a point to say that one of the most important things for a new writer to do is prove s/he isn't a yahoo.

This "writer" had a long rant on why her first book should be published. How she'd done everything right--write it, "edit" it, paid for editors to "edit" it, kept the idea behind it super secret so no one could steal it, did all the best social networking sites to promote it before it was (inevitably) "picked up by a publisher." The expectation was that this "writer," who had only begun writing less than six months ago, would be published...soon. Very soon. As in, watch out world, her name is about to be lit up on the marquee, she's the next JK get the idea.

Now, in the past, this "writer" has made a big deal about how she wasn't classically trained, had never taken a writing class, and certainly wasn't a MFA, but how those kinds of degrees don't make a writer.

And I actually agree with her on that point.

I don't think a writer needs a degree to be a writer.

But what I do think a writer needs is...practice. (And a MFA can sometimes provide that practice.)

There's a reason why so many people box up their first manuscript. If you are a writer, you need PRACTICE. There is nothing wrong with writing a book and realizing that it isn't perfect, and that you can't fix it. Really. This isn't something writers talk about often--I think there's a certain amount of shame associated with boxing a book. There's an attitude that you're giving up on it.

But that's not the case. Writing is a skill--and it takes practice. The hours you spent working on a book that will never be published are not wasted. They were the hours you spent developing your skill. If you wanted to be an artist, you can't expect your first painting to be perfect, no matter how many times you touch it up. There comes a point where the canvas is ruined, and you just need to pack it away and start on a fresh canvas.

If you think about it, it's almost ridiculously preposterous to think that your first novel will be published, especially if you think it will be published successfully, especially if you spend more time working on social networking sites than seeking valuable criticism that could salvage the manuscript. Sure, there are exceptions to this rule. Natural talent and luck both play a big part in publication. But you can't assume you'll get luck, and you can never assume your natural talent is enough. Instead, compare your art to other art. Yes, writing a novel is an investment in time. Yes, it was an investment in work, skill, effort; blood, sweat, and tears. But it is art. And art requires skill. And just because you did it, doesn't mean you deserve a reward for it. Just because you spent time on it as a writer, doesn't mean it's worth me spending time on it as a reader.

Painters have to ruin canvasses with ill-proportioned pictures before they make a canvas worth their skill.

Photographers have to ruin rolls of film before they can find the right light.

Musicians have to practice years before they can even make an agreeable sound beyond "Chopsticks."

Why is writing any different? Writers have to practice writing novels before they can write a novel worthwhile. (1)

It seems that people think because of the time you spent working on a manuscript, it's too valuable to "give up on" and that you are a failure if you quit working on it. But the reality is, sometimes it's just time to move on. It doesn't matter that you wrote over 100k words, that you paid thousands of dollars for an editor to "edit" it, that you're on every social networking site there is.

It doesn't matter that this is your baby, that you want it published more than anything else.

It was practice. You may not have known it at the time, but that's what it was.

Part of being a writer is being able to separate the chaff from the wheat within your own writing. It's part of the process, part of the practice. Having a boxed manuscript isn't a thing of shame, but one of pride. It's part of your path, a more important part than a Facebook page or a paid editor.

1. Footnote: Does this mean I think you can't write a novel and be published? No, of course not. Like I said, there are exceptions to the rule. Does this mean that I think your first novel can't be published. Again, no. But I don't think your first novel is perfect, and I do think you need to revise and possibly re-write it, and I also think that, probably, your second one will be better than your first, and your third will be better than your second, and that with practice, you will continue to be better and better. And if you think that your first novel is done and perfect and you can't get an agent or a publisher, then just put it aside, call it practice, and move on. Your next book will be better. Trust me.


lotusgirl said...

This is some of the best advice I've read in a while. So true. It's important to remember that we have to practice our craft just like any artist. Your analogy is spot on.

Stacy Nyikos said...

It's sort of a weary mark of distinction to have that boxed ms. Something we'd all rather avoid, but seems an inevitability.

Casey Something said...


christine M said...

The manuscripts, sitting there, mocking you. Yes, I have those. :)

Unknown said...

Kudos to you for coming out and saying this. For people who don't do the research and just expect to be published because they've written something is the equivalent of the person who graduates high school (or college even) and expects to be making 100K right after graduation. I mean reality check! Of course there are exceptions, there are people who are able to do this, but those are the rare examples, not the norm. And of course we all hope we'll be the exception, sometimes it is what keeps us going through the rejection letters...maybe the next one will be the one that comes in and makes the offer. But more often than not, the people who look like overnight successes on the outside actually have lot's of practice behind it (and maybe a few manuscripts boxed up collecting dust).

B.J. Anderson said...

Here, here! Great post and so true. And that writer just sounds kind of funny. :D One of those blogs you go to for a big laugh.

Davin Malasarn said...

I've got two boxed novels, and they definitely helped me a great deal. Even if my skills didn't improve (which they did), it was important for me just to prove to myself that writing something over a hundred pages wasn't impossible. I'm hoping my current book, my third, will get published. But, maybe it won't. Either way, I have learned so much more during the act of pushing myself to finish it.

Elana Johnson said...

These are my favorite lines, and ones I have to remind myself of whenever I think I'm going to fail: "The hours you spent working on a book that will never be published are not wasted. They were the hours you spent developing your skill."

Sometimes it DOES feel like a waste. So thanks, Beth!

Clementine said...

Super post, Miss Beth! Writing is an art and it must be perfected. And if we all had instant publication, we'd miss learning the craft...and all the fun that goes with it!

Danyelle L. said...

*is relieved it wasn't her*

Great post. I think that sometimes the excitement of finishing a novel and the love for the characters and story can sometimes work against us if we don't look at things in a proper perspective. My first two novels were practice novels, and I'm glad I wrote them. I learned that I could finish a novel, but they have so much wrong with them I'd have to start from scratch if I wanted to see them published. :)

Robyn Campbell said...

Uh, it wasn't me, right?

I have so many manuscripts sitting around, I'm thinking of having a big bonfire.:) Nice post my dear Beth. But I do want to be published, before I'm too old to enjoy it.

Michelle D. Argyle said...

Beth, this is an excellent post, thank you! I was just talking to somebody about this today. She said she didn't understand how a first novel is usually considered by most as a practice novel. I told her to go and write two more novels, and then she'd understand. We learn so much! My first novel is now technically not a first novel. I have completely rewritten it twice over the course of 13 years. I think it's grown a lot, and I plan on reworking it even more before I even thinking about querying it.

Practice is often the only way to achieve success. Some people stumble upon it, but I think the greater reward comes with that hard earned ability. :)

dellgirl said...

Amen! Well said, great post! I am so glad you posted this and that I made it here to read it. I needed that as it gives me something to think about. I had never thought of it that way, thanks for sharing these words of wisdom. I will surely keep them in mind.

~Jamie said...

haha this is why my first novel sits untouched in my documents folder :)

Keri Mikulski said...

So true! I always compare writing to sports.. Practice, practice, practice. :)

Eden said...

this is sosososo true!!

but it shouldn't be depressing, if a writer looks at it in the right way. in the way you so aptly put it.

heck, i'm happy to write. even if it's not going anywhere. it's a release for me and i love it! of course, it's be grand if everyone would read everything i write, but even the most famous writers aren't that lucky.

i'm paraphrasing Stephen King here, when i say
--there are no great writers, only great re-writers.
so hey, maybe your first ms will be boxed up for a while, but that doesn't mean it won't ever be published. once you get more experience, you can always revisit it and polish it up for submission.

there is always hope!!!
great post =)

PJ Hoover said...

There is nothing like practice, and for practice, we need time. So stick with it, keep writing, and try to improve, right?

Great post, Beth!

Christina Farley said...

I love how you compare writing to art. So true! And sometimes something that is beautiful to one person is ugly to another and that's good to keep in mind too. I think we are also in this fast food world where we want to get what we want now and quick. I know I sure feel that way sometimes! But art takes time and pressure and persistance.

Lenore Appelhans said...

We worked on our first picture book for 2 years. It was a wonderful way to learn, but it seems unfixable to me at the moment.

Rebecca J. Carlson said...

People ask writers all the time, "How did you become a writer?" No one asks a tuba player "How did you become a tuba player?" We all know how to become a tuba player. Buy a tuba, sign up for lessons, and pass out cotton balls to the neighbors.