Sunday, January 04, 2009

Plateau and Growth

One thing about learning a craft, there are always plateaus. In writing, specifically, there is no one right way to do the job, but there are plenty of wrong ways. The difference between a right way and a wrong way often has to do with the writer. What might work for one could be a disaster for another.

For any fiction writer who takes the craft seriously, there comes a point where you know how to write. That isn't the problem anymore. The learning moves from how to write into what to write. Learning how to tell a story is far more demanding than learning how to write. That's where the plateaus happen, at least for me.

Learning the mechanics of the craft can be tedious if done by rote, but they can also mostly be learned by osmosis--reading and paying attention to how sentences are put together. A serious writer will blow through this phase pretty fast. Even if you earned Cs in English, you'll reach a level of competence that is good enough most of the time.

Story-telling. Now, that's a different matter. I began the first version of Neanderthal Swan Song in October of 2004. That's when I think I started taking writing seriously, and I learned a lot in the process of writing it. Looking back, I can see a much better writer in the last chapter than in the first.

In 2005, I attended Orson Scott Card's Literary Boot Camp. (If you are interested in this, keep your eyes on this page for announcements.) What I learned there carried me into publication on a paying basis. I learned even more from some exercises David Gerrold gave me. That, and writing consistently got me into publication regularly.

I went for a long time selling, but not to my target markets. I kept on keeping on, but my work plateaued for a long time, probably about two years. It gets frustrating, for sure. The problem is, once you get to a certain level, you know something is missing from your work, but you may not necessarily know what it is.

When I redrafted Neanderthal Swan Song, I doubled the word count despite axing a full sub-plot. (I knew better what I was doing.) I finished that in June of 2007. The manuscript sat in the Baen slush pile for over a year. I won't go into detail as I discussed that here. Recently I have been shopping the novel to agents. In the process of that, a more established writer friend look at my first chapter.

Now, I had been of the opinion that the novel was fairly polished, and in fact, this is how my friend's feedback began:

You're opening is good. There's really nothing at all wrong with it as is.

Which is pretty good, but the next sentence went like this:

But I don't feel like you're swinging for the fences here.

Okay, what does that mean? Obviously, at this level the answer to that will be as unique as each writer. I won't go into torrid detail of the wonderfully constructive criticism that followed those comments except to say that they illuminated what I think has been missing from my prose and keeping me in AAA-ball. Elaborating probably won't be helpful to many people because the details are so specific to my own circumstances.

I've had some of this illuminated in the past, but not quite in this way. This time, I was slapped in the face with the problems hard enough to see them. For that, I am grateful. I feel like it was one of those epiphanies that a writer feels when finally getting off the plateau and climbing to the next level. I hope so.

So, I am yet again redrafting, at least the first chapter. Whether the rest of the novel needs a redraft or just some massaging, I don't know yet. This new insight has been so illuminating that I have considered the option of pulling back and doing some more shorts, or scrapping the novel and starting over, or even setting it aside to work on something new and coming back to the novel in a couple years.

I'm not sure where it will lead because I'm still digesting the insight. It took about 6 months before the skills I learned at Orson Scott Card's Boot Camp to start showing up in my material, so I'm not sure if this new stuff will show up immediately.

The point I have a point? Of course. I always have a point, even if the point is that it's pointless. But here, I do have a point. Writing can be frustrating. I'm coming to learn that at no matter what point in a writing career you happen to be, there are always holes and there is always something to learn. There are always plateaus and always new techniques to apply. It also gets harder to see the holes by yourself. Since there is always somebody better than you at some aspect of the craft, it pays to have a network that you can leverage. As long as you keep at it, the climb to the next plateau will eventually start.

1 comment:

Kosmo said...

Hey Rick, I haven't read your manuscript, and I'm not sure what exactly the term "swinging for the fences" meant to your friend... but to me, a great example of swinging for the fences is anything written by Mathew Stover. There's a right way to write paragraphs, and there's a wrong way... and then there's Mathew Stover who will cave your brain in with just words. That guy just fucking swings, man.

I'm not sure if it is still in stock, but the next time you're in a book store, read just the opening page of Shatterpoint. It's a Star Wars book, (Samuel L. Jackson's Mace Windu on the cover).