September 25, 2015 / 3 Comments

In Just Four Easy Steps

             Wow. This is post #325.  Go figure.
            If the title of this week’s rant sounds familiar, you’ve probably read or watched a lot of how-to pieces.  Y’know, the ones that say something like “Here’s how to turn this stuff we scavenged from a dumpster into a full wedding reception –with food—in just six simple steps.”  Or maybe it’s “Learn how to play concert piano in four easy lessons.”
            We’ve probably all tried one of these at least once.  Okay, maybe tried the belly fat ones twice.  And a few things become clear pretty quick.  If I’ve tried a few of these, I’ve probably also noticed a few recurring issues with these steps…
            1) They still require lots of practice.  Yeah, this is easy to do—on the nineteenth try.  The first eighteen are going to be messy and somebody might die, but by my nineteenth attempt I should be getting completely adequate results.
           2) They often require lots of other skills or equipment.   Learning the ceremony is easy once you’ve got a working knowledge of the Basque language. Yes, making these carrot roses is no problem at all as long as I have a 1 3/4” mellonballer (not a 2”—that’ll ruin the whole thing).
            3) They’re rarely simple.  A lot of times each of these “easy steps” ends up sounding like that guy at Comic-Con who walks up the microphone and says “I have a five part question, but first I just want to say how wonderful it is that all of you have come out to meet all of us, and the positivity in this room reminds me of a poem by Emily Dickinson, which I’d like to read a few lines from…”
            4) They’re rarely effective. In the long run, most of these “four-or-five easy steps to accomplish something” methods just aren’t worth it. Oh, I might learn a small trick or polish a skill, but in the end, all the money and time and frustration wasted on trying to do it the easy way could’ve been spent on learning… well, how to do it.  If I really want to learn how to make carrot roses that look fantastic, maybe I should actually… well, learn how and not try to figure out some trick that’ll let me skip the learning curve.
            Oddly enough, this kind of ties back to something I mentioned a while back. It’s a hypothesis I came up with during my time in the film industry and, well, it’s stood up to all my testing and research so far.  Maybe next time I write about it I’ll be able to refer to it as a theory.
            I call it the four step rule.  Pretty much everyone’s professional career goes through four stages.
            *Not knowing what I’m doing. 

            *Thinking I know what I’m doing. 
            *Realizing I don’t know what I’m doing. 
            *Knowing what I’m doing.
            I don’t remember exactly how I stumbled onto this, but it was one of those instantly-makes-sense things.  I know my film career followed it.  And just looking around set, I could see it in all the people I worked with and where they fit into this pattern.  In fact, the more I looked, the more I came to realize this pattern applied to almost everything.  I could see it with people on movie sets, yeah, but also with the staff members for an online game I worked on for a while.  I have a friend who was a police officer, and he agreed a lot of cops followed the same pattern. 
            Now, there’s an unfortunate side-effect of this.  I also noticed a few people who were pretty mediocre workers, but were convinced they were amazing. These folks were stuck at step two because they never had (or never acknowledged) that slap down moment.  They never bothered to improve because they never acknowledged a need to improve.  They just stayed at those early, flawed levels.
            I’m sure most of you can see that all of this applies to writing, too.  When I first sat down to write a story in third grade, every aspect of it was a mystery to me.  I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.  Character elements, linear and narrative structure, dialogue —these terms meant nothing to me.  Of course, once the words were typed out in front of me, it was clear I was a genius. I mean, look at them—they’re typed!
            Alas, many editors did not agree with my assessment of those pages, and I had a good sized stack of rejections before I had body hair.  And that file folder got thicker and thicker for many years.
            I think I was in college when I started to consider that every single editor I submitted to might not be the problem.  Maybe my stories weren’t genius just because they were typed.  Yeah, the ones I was writing at that point had a much more elaborate vocabulary than my old ones (and I used it as often as I could), but were they really any better than the ones I’d been writing at age eleven…?
            I had dozens and dozens of rejections under my belt, but it turned out I really didn’t know much about writing or storytelling. All my “experience” was essentially eight or nine years of doing all the wrong things.  I’d missed opportunities and ignored good advice because I was convinced I knew it all. 
            And being able to admit that was what let me finally improve. And improving was what let me get where I am today.  Working with other professionals who treat me like a professional.  Able to offer actual advice with experience backing it up (even if a chunk of that experience is, “wow, I screwed up a lot back then…”).
            Now, last time I talked about these four steps, a few folks asked me if it was possible to skip some of them—specifically, step two.  If I realize I’m at step one, can I jump right to step three?  I’ve thought about this on and off, and also heard a few things in other interviews and articles that fit into this little outline.  So I’m going to say this…
            No.  You cannot skip any of the steps.  If I tell you that I did skip step two, it really means I’m stuck there and in denial.
            It comes down to, as my lovely lady has called it, paying your dues.  We all have to do it.  We can pay our dues sooner and get it over with or pay them later with interest.  I can get down in the gritty, sweaty, unrewarding trenches and take the long route—doing all the work and learning how to do it.  Or I can rely on nothing but luck, tricks, and gimmicks to get me there in a tenth the time—and then fall from a much greater height when it comes out I don’t know how things are done.  I’m sure we can all think of tons of Hollywood stories of someone who shot to the top in record time, only to come crashing all the way back down to where they started out (or even lower…).
            Y’see, Timmy, we need that screw-up stage.  It’s important.  Not to sound all new-agey or melodramatic, but it’s the crucible that burns away the screw-ups and forges us into better writers.  We go in like iron, but we come out like steel.  If we don’t go through it, we’ll never be as good as we could be.
            All that being said…  It is possible to manage how much time you spend on step two. How do we do it?
            I need to be open to criticism.  And to listen to it.  Try not to be defensive.  Learn how to tell valid feedback from personal preferences.  Be able to admit something isn’t good or doesn’t work like it’s supposed to.  Yeah, it’ll be frustrating and disheartening and there’s a good chance I’ll find out I spent a lot of time on something that’s just going to go in the circular file.  But if I’m open to learning from all that—to admitting I need to improve—that’ll speed up the learning process.
            One last thought.  Joe Quesada—an artist/writer/editor-in-chief at Marvel Comics—made a wonderful observation in his foreword to Brian Michael Bendis’ storytelling book Words For Pictures.  “If you’re not falling, you’re not trying hard enough.”  If I don’t screw up now and then, it’s probably a good sign I’m not trying too hard.  If I never challenge myself, I’m never going to get better. 
            We all need to fail.  And it’s okay to fail.  The only problem is if I’m determined not to learn from it.
            Next time, I’d like to talk to you about something you may have seen before. And before.  And before.
            Until then, go write.
August 30, 2014 / 2 Comments

The Plimoth Experience

            Very sorry this is so late.  I mentioned last time that I was working on a major rewrite of the new book which was due last week.  Then I looked at it again over the weekend and asked my editor if I could take another pass at the last fifty pages before he read it.  And he said I could, because he’s very forgiving of my screw-ups since I own up to all of them.  Which is why I’m late this week.
            But enough with the excuses.
            Speaking of last time, it struck me a while back that I’ve never talked about why I end every one of these little rants with “Go write.”  Is it supposed to be a clever catchphrase or something?  Encouragement?
            Let me answer that by telling you a funny story about Plimoth Plantation.           
            No, it’s relevant.  Really.
            While I mostly grew up in Maine, I spent my high school years in Plymouth, Massachusetts.  Yes, the same Plymouth as the rock and the Pilgrims and the Mayflower and all that.  One of the big tourist attractions is Plimoth Plantation, a recreation of the original colony (with original spelling) complete with actors playing specific historical roles.  You can walk in and the colonists will talk to you, answer questions, and usually ask about your odd (modern) clothes.
            Every year in Plimoth Plantation is 1627.  It replays again and again, following the historical record.  Births, deaths, marriages, and so on.  A friend of mine worked there for a few years with her parents, and because of her age she was assigned a specific role.  Part of her role was getting married at the end of the summer to another historical  character, Experience Mitchell (ahhh, have to love those Puritan names).  The catch was that my friend was kind of interested in another Pilgrim.  So on “the big day,” one of her co-workers gave her a wedding gift in the changing room, a t-shirt that said…
            Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.
            I laughed when she told me about it, but the phrase stuck with me.  Mostly because it’s true.  If you talk to anyone who’s considered experienced, it’s because they failed or screwed up.  A lot.
            Now let’s jump forward a bit.
            Comic writer and artist Brian Michael Bendis has a new book out called Words For Pictures.  We happen to have the same publisher (well, where this book’s concerned) and the director of marketing slipped me a copy while I was at San Diego Comic-Con last month.  I read it as soon as I got home.  It’s great, you should buy a copy.
            Words For Pictures is mostly (as the title implies) about writing for comics.  But there’s a lot of solid advice in there for writing in general.  In fact, it was interesting to see that Bendis addresses a lot of the same points in his book that I have here on the ranty blog.  In pretty much the same ways.
            One of them is this.  To be a writer, I need to write.  I need to write a lot.  You’ve probably heard this before.  Many people have said the same thing.
            Here’s the part you probably haven’t heard.
            The reason everyone says to write a lot is that we’re all going to put out a lot of crap. 
            Tons of it. 
            I believe it was Neil Gaiman (in one of his books) who said that everyone has at least three great stories in them.  While I believe this is true, I think there’s an unspoken corollary there which is just as important.  All of us have lots and lots of bad stories in us.  Dozens of them.  Maybe even hundreds.  We have contrived plots, weak characters, awful dialogue, and  terrible structure
            I wrote a ton of bad stuff that none of you ever have—or ever will—see.  I spent about twenty years getting out all my bad stories and habits.  My first attempt at a novel (in third grade), Lizard Men From the Center of the Earth.  My Doctor Who and Boba Fett fan-fiction.  My middle-school sci-fi novel.  My junior high fantasy novel.  My high school werewolf-detective novel.  My college novel, The Trinity.  My after-college-moved-to-California novel, The Suffering Map (which went through eight or nine full drafts).  Plus a ton of comic scripts, short stories, screenplays, and I think even one or two attempts at stage plays.  Thousands of pages.  Thousands of hours of work. 
            Some of you may have noticed I’m in no rush to self-publish these, despite the constant assurances from some quarters of easy money. 
            Because, pretty much across the board, they suck.
            My early work sucks.  It’s bad.  I spent days and days writing stuff that should never see the light of day.  I have no problem admitting it.  In fact, it was being able to admit it that let me move from being a random dabbler to a serious writer.  I dug through all the bad stories and found the good ones underneath.  Maybe even one or two great ones.
            Writing all those stories was my experience.  Whenever you hear about an overnight success or an amazing “first” novel, odds are that writer really has a long string of work—and a lot of failures—behind them.
            We accept that in every field of work someone needs a certain level of mastery and experience before they’ll be considered a professional.  Taking an auto shop class in high school doesn’t make me a mechanic, and taking a CPR class doesn’t make me a doctor.  Home Ec didn’t make me a chef, and oddly enough the White House hasn’t called me about any foreign policy decisions, despite my B+ in history. 
            And these people have screwed up, too, on their path to being a professional.  Ask your mechanic and she or he probably broke a couple cars while learning how to fix them.  Lots of doctors misdiagnose patients, and some patients die from these mistakes.  Your favorite chef cooked a lot of really bad food over the years.  Some of the better politicians are the ones who admit they were wrong about an earlier position they held.
            And we understand that in all of these fields, these mistakes are part of the learning curve.  I don’t get the success, but I get the experience.  It’s why it takes so long to become a doctor or a chef or even a mechanic.
            Or a writer.
            This is one of the reasons I harp on spelling so much.  It’s an easy-to-spot symptom that usually implies bigger problems.  If my manuscript is loaded with spelling mistakes and misused words, it means I don’t know how to use my tools.  And it also means I didn’t really spend a lot of time (if any) on my drafts and polishes.
            Y’see, Timmy, at the end of the day this is all up to me.   It’s not someone else’s responsibility to make my book good.  It’s mine.  If I can’t spell, have a weak vocabulary, poor plots, thin characters, flat dialogue… that’s all on me.  Which is why I asked my editor to hold off reading this new draft so I could fix some things.  Part of being a professional is knowing how to do all this stuff and, well… doing it.
            There’s an all-too-common belief that just finishing something means it’s good.  That the act of struggling to finish that first novel is the experience I need to call myself a good writer.  I mean, I made it all the way through to the end of a novel on my first try.  That’s a lot of writing.  That novel must be worth publishing and being read, right?
            But the truth is, the vast majority of first novels are awful.  The second ones are pretty bad, too.  The third ones are at least tolerable.  Ex-Heroes might’ve been my first novel that was published, but it was my seventh-and-a-half attempt at writing one.  And, as I mentioned above, I’m really glad it was the first one people saw.
            Because that junior high fantasy novel… man, that was embarrassing.  On so many levels.
            Next time, I’d like to hit another problem right on the nose.
            Until then… go write.