Monday, September 26, 2011

Writers Block II - Better Taste than Skill

I was mired in Writers Block for decades. From the time I was a little kid dedicated to becoming a science fiction writer someday up to the present, I’ve beaten myself up for not writing more, not editing what I write, not sending it out promptly enough or releasing more self published titles. There was no excuse.

My worst discouragement came from me. Every critical comment from someone else sank deep and broke my soul because I knew it was true. I could look at my writing and see that I had overblown descriptions, bad dialogue, rambling tangents, unfinished work. My tastes were higher than my skills.

That’s true for any beginner in any of the arts.

That’s what makes criticism sink in and take hold as so personal. The myth that “Talent” means you don’t have to learn the craft destroys millions of writers before they even start. Beginners do not produce Shakespeare quality immortal prose on their first time out. It’s a miracle if they can produce a recognizable story with a beginning, a middle and an end. All of us have to teach ourselves the craft and develop unique personal methods to achieve the same goal - good readable fiction.

The way to get past that stage where your taste is better than your skill is to date what you do. Measure your progress against your own past results and nothing else. If your new story is better than your last story, you have progress!

Celebrate it.

Give yourself a pat on the back. Shout it out on Facebook. “I love my latest story, it came out so much better than I expected.” It’s okay to do that. Tooting your own horn on minor accomplishments is socially appropriate in a positive social circle.

What will keep you from turning into a selfish arrogant egotist is going around to all your friends’ profiles and congratulating them when they post a cute cat photo, cleaned the garage, finally finished that accounting course they’ve slaved at for months. People need encouragement to complete long term tasks. Your best, most reliable source of encouragement is yourself.

Being able to post progress by quantity breaks that block to a large extent too. You wrote 10,000 words. That’s a big achievement, the first time you do it that’s almost an impossible goal. It doesn’t matter if they’re not publishable. It doesn’t matter if you go back to the idea, trim it down and edit to wind up with 1,500 words of perfect short-short story. You got something to edit.

There are no bad rough drafts.

We have computers to work on now. We type digitally. Erasing and rewriting doesn’t wear through the paper or mean using up reams of it just for practice. You can keep editing the same story through all the years of learning the craft and at the end it’s just as beautiful as if you’d learned it by writing hundreds of different stories each a little better than the last. That’s your choice.

So don’t throw out anything. Date your drafts. Save your early drafts because there’s a stage of learning to edit where your judgment can get skewed and the edited version isn’t as good as the rough draft.

I did that a lot until I finished editing Raven Dance and still did it occasionally later on. It doesn’t matter. Changes are easily reversible if you save drafts.

In order to get past the stage where your tastes are better than your skills, you have to believe in yourself. That’s what I’ve heard all my life about it - believe in yourself.

That hardly ever helps in its pure form.

Believe in your ability to learn. Trust that your idea is a good idea. Trust that if you love this story, readers will love it too once it’s been polished. Trust that you are capable of learning all the editing skills needed to turn that wretched pile of mistakes into a wonderful story as good as you imagined it would be.

Then remember that learning is life long. Getting one good book or story published doesn’t mean that there aren’t new levels of craft ahead of you. While you live, there will always be ways to improve your work.

I write better than I used to and not as well as I will.

That’s the core of my confidence. That’s the attitude that wins for the long term. It’s not about trying to write as well as Stephen King. By the time I do, my writing won’t be at all like Stephen King’s because I’m Robert Sloan instead. He had a different childhood. His first love was a different person. His childhood nightmares aren’t mine and his pleasures and struggles in life are his own.

We’ll have a lot in common because I also grew up on the same cultural common ground. The better I get, the easier it is to tell that I wrote it. The more I conquer my bad prose habits, the cleaner and clearer my ideas will reach readers even if they don’t have much in common with me at all.

We’re all human and we’re writing for people who speak our language. If you’ve got multiple languages, I envy you. I’ve never been able to retain anything but English because I didn’t have enough social contacts in other languages. I might manage to learn one now that I live in multicultural San Francisco but out in white Midwestern suburbs, I forgot languages within months after the classes ended.

So that’s where “Write Every Day” really matters.

When you journal and write your life story to yourself, you really are practicing. Writing in first person makes you a sympathetic character. You are the protagonist. You face your flaws and understand them, you celebrate your triumps, you understand the obstacles you faced.

It also helps to make public commitments to a writing schedule. Take classes - assignments that need to be turned in on time will get done to the best of your ability. They also break down the skills into more manageable multiple topics. Enter challenges like NaNoWriMo or its editing counterpart. Start a blog on a topic you enjoy and update it weekly or even daily.

It’s all still writing. You may not think the blog about your favorite hobby is improving your fiction skills, but it is. You’re practicing. When it comes time to explain the science fiction premise, you’ve already explained the fine differences between brands of pastels or grains of wood for carving. You’ve done it in a readable way and have readers who like your content.

Everything you write contributes to your skills. When they don’t meet your high expectations, trust your ability to stick to it until they do. The only thing that can stop you is dying before you do it - and even then, it’s better to die trying than to give up. Everything you’ve written to date is wonderful because it brims with potential.

Someday you will reach a point where your skills do meet your expectations. A milestone comes when you read a published book that’s lousier than your latest efforts. Another when you start to see a lot of them. Like learning to cook, there comes a point where you can do it exactly to your own tastes and it comes out fine.

Trust yourself. At that point, you’ll be finding joy in the process even if it was a struggle up till then. It doesn’t need to be though, not if you can take pleasure in the journey and reward yourself for progress without expecting perfection.

The best part of it is that as I write and edit more, I spot problems in earlier manuscripts that are easy to fix. Difficulties that used to be insurmountable come into reach, take a bit less effort until they're routine. Once they're as easy as hunting for typos, even the editing process becomes a pleasure.

I had good ideas, memorable characters and great plots in those earlier novels. When I polish them up to my present skill it's as much fun as writing a new one.

One big internal milestone for me was the point I’d pay money for something I wrote. It's indescribably sweet. I can always get more of it. If I get to the end and want more, I can do something about that. Right now. Write the sequel and find out what happens.

That’s a joy worth working towards. Go for it!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Writers Block I - Stop Beating Yourself

Today I read another blog entry that moved me deep: The author, Karl Bimshas, wrote about the best cure for writer's block. Don't just sit there telling yourself "I need to write and I can't." Write something.

I used to be that obnoxious, needy, depressed wannabe writer. I spent decades in that terrible state trying to get friends and family members to read fragments of future novels and story starts. I had good reasons for it, which is why I'm sympathetic to anyone who is in that state. Quit beating yourself up. Karl is right. Write something, even if it's just personal journal or venting in an email to a trusted friend.

Choose friends who support you and want you to succeed at writing. Don't vent to people who discourage you.

One of the reasons I was blocked for that long is basic. We live in a critical, judgmental society where fault-finding and personal criticism is socially acceptable. Do not show your unfinished writing to anyone but another writer who's genuinely supportive, probably wants reciprocation and willing to help. Be clear about whether you're asking for support or critique.

Writers with confidence ask for critique in order to get help with the lengthy editing process. Writers without it who just ask someone to look at it are likely to get a useful critique of everything that needs work. That's just as important as support - the difference is that both are real needs.

The way to get support from non-writers is something I learned from Chris Baty at my first NaNoWriMo. Don't tell your non-writer friends about the story unless you can put it in a two-sentence blurb. If you can tell it for TV Guide, give that version. Measure your progress by quantity, not quality.

It's an achievement to write 5,000 words or 20,000 words or 50,000 words. It's an enormous achievement to write The End on a novel. You deserve to be cheered. The best way to get those cheers is to give them for all of your acquaintances' personal achievements. When they clear out the garage, congratulate them on a hard task well done. They are likely to reciprocate.

The more positive you are about friends' achievements, the more likely that social exchange gets reciprocated and you'll get a big cheering section. If they like the topic of your writing, give the two-sentence blurb as "what it's about." They may even ask instead of your having to twist their arms to get them to look at it.

But even if they don't read for enjoyment, they're going to recognize your achievement as one comparable to clearing the garage, losing 25 pounds, winning a gardening award, getting a promotion at work. Everyone's life is full of achievements. The way to get positive people who support them into your life is to join in that reciprocal support pattern.

If you need validation for your plot, seek out a writing group in your genre that separates "Supportive" comments from "Critique" or has critique levels. Believe it or not, pure support critique is real feedback. A better writer looking at a beginner's first story is going to look for something good about it that's real.

The beginner may be more self conscious about the best things in the story than about the worst. It's very easy to mistake your worst passage for your best, because it flowed easily or made you feel good. Or think your best passage is your worst, because you dared to try something new and it's not like the rest of your writing. Getting support feedback from experienced writers can give a much clearer idea of the successes and flaws of any given story than your knitting friend who goes "Congratulations" without understanding.

I still sometimes do that, even though by now my rough drafts are pretty clean. I'll do something new that's a stretch for me and get self conscious about it until I hear back from writer friends that it's the best part - when I didn't cue them. Or vice versa, feeling so proud of a polished, poetic passage I slaved over that turns out to be completely redundant. It goes on the cutting room floor.

Most writing groups mix the two types in their critique guidelines - open with something positive, go into the problems, suggest possible fixes for the problems and end on a positive note. The "Crit sandwich" is a good comfort level except when the writer is confident enough not to want to bother reading through all the compliments and just wants a line edit - or the writer's feeling discouraged and needs support only. That's why so many groups have critique levels.

People have many reasons to be negative and discouraging. Often it's jealousy. Anne Lamott writes about this in Bird by Bird. She talked about losing a lot of her friends once she sold her first book. Writing groups that were uniformly supportive right to that point gave her some nasty surprises as some of her unpublished fellows got jealous and turned on her socially.

The risk of rejection is not the risk that an editor will write back saying "This story doesn't meet our current needs. Please submit again." Those editors mean it. They'd like you to look at their upcoming issues, pick a theme from next year's list and send in another story that has the good points of what they just looked at. If they give any critique, it's gold. They're telling you how to write for that publication and also in general how to write. That means they liked it enough that they almost bought it. They think you're worth cultivating.

The risk that sent me into black terrors of anguish staring at the blank page was the risk of social rejection. My parents, my teachers, my ex, many of my friends and when I was underage, everyone in my life including therapists all were dead set against my becoming a writer. They each had their own reasons.

I'll go into some of those social risks in later entries, along with other factors that can interfere with successful writing. I've got the dubious privilege of having believed at one time or another in every idiot myth, pretentious attitude and stupid idea about writing that I ever heard.

I don't beat myself up that often now. Every time I succeed at writing, whether it's finishing a story, finishing a Nanowrimo, editing one, sending something out, I'm building another level that my confidence won't sink below. I know I can finish a book. I know I can sell a short story at pro rates. I know my indie novel paid out well enough to be an economic success. I know my friends are happy for me when I succeed and that I won't be friendless when I sell a pro novel.

So watch for Writer's Block II: Better Taste than Skill.