Monday, March 6, 2017
The Long Road
The path to being an exceptional writer is long. The road is marked with goatheads and brambles, and other times there are small stretches of gold bricks. The long road is not necessarily measured in time, but it can be. It can be time. It can be effort. It can be in written words.
But in the end, it's a long road.
Lately I've been thinking of that long road. It's difficult to move from a beginning writer to a good writer, but the work is even greater and harder to move from a good writer to an exceptional one. It can take blood, sweat, tears, and more than that.
I do a lot of editing, and in the process, I find myself reflecting on the magnitude of such a feat. . . . so many writers who have worked hard to get where they are, and they still have a long way to go. I've edited manuscripts from military professionals, people who work for NASA, university professors, and employees in Hollywood, and do you want to know a secret?
We all start at the beginning.
Even those who may have a natural talent have to work their butts off to refine, control, and shape that talent. But after five years of working in this industry, I'm not really sure how much I believe in "natural talent" anymore. There is ambition and there is effort.
When you start taking writing seriously and start getting feedback from others, it's often done in a critique group or a workshop. In college, everyone took what they wrote and brought it to class and the rest of the time was spent critiquing the work. In such a setting, the leader, or usually in my case the teacher, emphasized the need to divorce the story from the person who wrote it. We are critiquing the story, not the writer. This has several benefits. It encourages us to look at the story objectively. It makes the negative criticism easier to bear--it's nothing personal, it's just the story we're talking about. It forces the writer to consider how their writing may be received from people who don't know them.
But there is at least one potential negative side effect: we focus on the story getting better, instead of the writer getting better.
Focusing on you, the writer, getting better does amazing things. A good story doesn't "just happen"--it's intentional. You consistently become a powerful writer when you know what you are doing, and you can see what to edit.
In some critique circles I've seen, people write the story and expect everyone else to tell them what's wrong with it and how to fix it. But the better you become as a writer, the better your stories will be.
Some stories can only get so great, without having to do such a big re-haul that it's really a new story. But writers don't have a cap. They can always get better. Maybe the question isn't just "How do I make this book better?" but also, "How do I become a better writer?"
Changing your focus also takes some of the pressure off the story. It's a stepping stone for you to become better. It's working for you. You aren't working for it.
A good story is a good story. But a good writer can write hundreds of good stories and can do it consistently. Once one story is completed, she can move onto the next.
There are perks along the long road. There are kind words, successes, moments where the planets seem to align, and there is good news, but unless you focus and learn to enjoy your own personal journey and growth--not just the story's--you'll cap out, voluntarily but unknowingly.
So be patient. It's a long road. Learn to love the journey. Have ambition. Exercise effort. As I've said before, the trick is not to quit.