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 While I've only got one book on the shelves now, I've been at this gig for a bit now--ten years, and ten unpublished manuscripts before ACROSS THE UNIVERSE.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.


1000th.monkey said...

It's funny, in the last half hour I've been emailing back and forth with a writer friend about this exact topic...

I think with writing, it depends what your end-goal is... for me, because it's so difficult, that's the draw. When people tell me I can't do something, it just makes me want to prove them wrong (so, some days I buy a 3 foot axe and chop a huge load of firewood, just 'cause someone told me it was something girls couldn't/shouldn't do).

Writing is like that for me. I've struggled with dyslexia my entire life, so I want to prove, under the most difficult situation possible, that I can do it. That's the important thing. I want to prove to myself that I can do it, that hard work can overcome a learning disability.

so, I'll share my writing with whoever will give me honest and serious feedback. I want every error, every illogical plot point, every confusing moment, every *out of character* line of dialogue, every boring or unnecessary phrase to be pointed out so I can tear my work apart and constantly improve. The more harsh a critique I can receive, the more I'll appreciate it, 'cause ultimately, it'll make me a better writer in the end.

So thanks for posting this :) It totally made my whole night :)

Joshua McCune said...

Some days, I so want to be that goddamn red line again.

Leigh Ann said...

Wow, Beth. Thank you so much for this. It is brilliant. Seriously, I am printing that chart out and tacking it on the wall above my desk.

I just got my first complete crit back from my first bonafide crit partners. I thought it was *so* good when I sent it out a month ago, and by the time I've tweaked and changed and adjusted according to advice, it is So. Much. Better. And that was just the first crit round.

I think that listening to crit and taking it into account, like truly doing that, reminds you of who the story is for - the reader. The reader has to see what you see, feel what you feel. Otherwise, what's the point?

BTW I just started ATU this weekend (I know, I'm late to the party.) and listening to the *song* ATU while reading is just....a stunning experience. The whole book is, so far. So thank you for that too.

kah said...

So so true. A one of my characters says, "all of us are works in progress."

All the time. That never changes. And I very much like it that way. :)

Thanks for the inspirational Monday post.

Christina Farley said...

Absolutley. I also think as you grow as a writer, you can see how much more indepth you can get, how much more complex the storyline can be and how much higher your expectations on what is good is. I'm really finding that with this WIP I'm working at. I get so frustrated at it but deep down I know that's because I'm pushing myself in ways I never thought to push myself years ago.

Excellent insights. (and LOVE the graph!)

Gina Ciocca said...

I literally just did a blog post today griping about why I'm not perfect at writing yet. What a great, insightful post!

Miriam Forster said...

Waaaaahhhh! I don't WANT my sequel to be harder than the last book! *pouts*

Incidently, I'm starting my sequel this week, so I'm sure I'll need this post again. Sigh.

Emily said...

Thank you.

Ruthanne Reid said...

For the record, I love this post. Absolutely love it. And for those of us who are taking the long (long long... did we say long?) road to publication, it's an excellent reminder. Thank you!

Gabe (Ava Jae) said...

Wonderful post--and I love your graph.

"Good enough" is a scary phrase. I've had friends and family watch me edit and re-edit and rewrite the same WIP over and over again and ask me if I think it's "good enough." I tell them no and they think I'm procrastinating.

But really it's because I don't want it to be "good enough," I want it to be right.

Thanks for sharing this with us, it's really a fantastic post.

Myra McEntire said...

Love you.

L.L. Muir said...

Wonderful mindset.
I need to remember to stay green!


Lola Sharp said...

*applauds* Yes yes yes.

It ain't easy bein' green. ;) But it's much more fulfilling.

Dawn Kurtagich said...

Gorgeous graphic! And too true :)

RaShelle Workman said...

Great post, Beth! Thank you. I'm going to pass along the vid. Loved that, too.

Anne R. Allen said...

We also need to keep this in mind: what's considered "good" writing isn't an absolute.

Writing fashions change. You may have all the mechanics right, but not use the voice that's in fashion this year, so editors criticize. If you keep writing in your own voice, you might be told you're "not improving"--until your voice becomes fashionable. Kurt Vonnegut was considered a failed hack sci-fi writer for years.

When he was discovered by the college generation of the 60s, did he suddenly become a "better writer"? His writing didn't change.

I think we need to remember there's a point--after you master the mechanics of writing lean, well-structured prose--where we make a decision whether to follow or lead. The followers are certainly more likely to make money--at least in the short run. But they're not necessarily better writers.

Jemi Fraser said...

Great post! Great attitude! Thanks :)

Melissa Sarno said...

What a wonderful post. And that chart is great. Sometimes I need the visuals. :-) I think you're right. Critique is necessary and working with that feedback is essential to improving.

David Barrett DeLozier said...

Profound truth in this post - thanks for sharing such important insights. Love the Ira Glass video! I constantly battle thinking "done" when it is far from true. The best remedy for me is to focus on the process, enjoy the journey. It's a long and twisting road, isn't it?

Sherrie Petersen said...

Awesome, Beth. And I have to say, this makes me feel MUCH better about the struggle I'm having with part of my story right now. I don't want it to be good enough. I want it to be better. Thank you!

Unknown said...

I agree with the meat of your post, but there is a significant 'good enough' I think unpublished writers, like myself are working toward. There's another horizontal line somewhere on that graph. That line is what I will call publishable or salable. After that point continuous improvement is critical, as you as adeptly point out. But reaching that point is a first step. I only wish there was some better indicator for when you cross over that line.

Marguerite Hall said...

Thank you so much for this. I had a lot of harsh criticism and it stopped me dead in my tracks. It wasn't until I saw my writing issues in another author's book that I saw how much it slowed down the pace of the story. So, I guess this means my red line days are being place behind me (or at least I hope so). I do want to grow as a writer and I know that means making changes and accepting that I will have to make painful cuts (edits), but like pruning you have to cut to gain growth. Thank you again for pointing this out so eloquently ( and visually)

Mary Kate Leahy said...

Fantastic post! If you're not fighting and getting all scarred up and bloodied with each attempt to be better then you're stagnating. It's actually better to be a worse writer who is improving then a good writer who's complacent. Really really great post and something I definitely needed to read. :)

Kathi Oram Peterson said...

Great information! Love the clip by Ira Glass. Rings so true. Thank you for sharing your insight and his.


Rebecca J. Carlson said...

I used to think I knew what I was doing. Now I don't even want to talk about it anymore.

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