Saturday, May 25, 2019

How to Get Good (Part 2)

When last we spoke on this topic, I mentioned a few things that have worked for me as a writer, ideas that have helped me improve the quality of my work and, thus, come closer to achieving my goals for authorly success. To recap:

·       * Care about your work—if you don’t who will?

·       *Don’t waste time comparing yourself to other writers.

·     *The healthiest form of competition is not you versus other authors, but you and your present work versus your younger self and your past work.

·      *To be great at something, concentrate on that one thing.

·       *Cultivate a work ethic and a regular work schedule. Stick to both as if your career depended on it.

·      *Don’t wait to be inspired; sit down and do the real, hard work of writing.

*Be the kind of professional you’d prefer to deal with.

Of course, as I mentioned at the end of Part 1, there are exceptions to every rule. What works for me may not work at all for you—and that’s OK. I’m not trying to sell self-help books or motivational courses here. All I want to do is share a few insights that have proven valuable to me—insights which you are free, nonetheless, to take or leave as you like.

Probably the most important, practical, helpful thing I’ve learned lately is this:

(1) Be mindful of the things that can distract you, and do your best  to avoid them. Work to control your own personal creative environment.

In approaching the critical final stage of my current novel, I’ve discovered that staying off the internet first thing in the morning helps me achieve a dramatic increase in productivity. Where my average daily output has always been somewhere in the neighborhood of 400-600 words a day, I find that, without the distractions of social media or my favorite on-line destinations, I’m now able to turn out a regular daily count of 1000-1200 words. The novel will be finished much faster than it would have been, and I will be no less enlightened for having forgone a few hours on Facebook.

(I am by no means the first writer to make this discovery; I am aware of several colleagues who recently took a challenge to stay off social media until they had produced at least 1000 words each day. Those who stuck with it reported not only marked increases in productivity, but better concentration as well.)

Cable news, too, can be a chronic source of distraction; it’s far too easy to get worked up emotionally what with all the seriously rotten news (and hyper-partisan editorial spin) we seem to be assaulted with on a daily basis. Guess what? The cable news networks want you to get worked up, because as your emotions intensify, you become increasingly suggestible, vulnerable to manipulation—ideological or otherwise—and that is a state advertisers gladly pay millions of dollars to have induced in their potential customers.

Years ago, I took John “Blow Up Your TV” Prine’s advice and got rid of all outside TV connections in my home; no broadcast, no cable, no satellite, no streaming; the only thing I use my forty-inch flat-screen for is watching movies on Blu-ray or DVD—at a time of my choosing. Television with its shrill and endlessly repetitive barrage of advertising effectively turns viewers into passive consumers. The quality of programming is seldom conducive to creative inspiration or originality—quite the opposite, indeed—and don’t get me started on what I think of talentless, lumpen couch-potato authors who spend all their time watching re-runs of Law and Order or other formulaic dramatic series; their lack of imagination or a single original idea is evident on every clichéd page they poop out. (Why? Because episodic TV shows are an absolutely awful place to learn anything about character development or effective story arcs that play out over a long-form narrative.) 

Now, understand, I’m not arguing for monastic asceticism or saying that distraction is always a bad thing. I don’t advocate sealing writers up in a cave and telling them they can’t come back into the light until they’ve tapped out at least 2000 words before lunch. Sometimes, when we are blocked, or have a problem with plots or characters our minds need to solve before we can move forward, it’s helpful to step away from the work for a while. I used to turn up my nose at the goings-on in Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast; Papa and his fellow authors seemed to be doing an awful lot of loafing, aggressively doing nothing as they hung out in one sidewalk café or another, boozing it up with their creative colleagues, arguing over the most trivial matters. Yet, as I’ve come to see, these episodes represented part of Hemingway’s daily routine, his interactions with other artists—“mental health breaks” if you will—an essential source of stimulation, and, for him, an indispensable part of his personal process. The point being, that this sort of social routine worked for Hemingway, and he got his work done. Many of the people mentioned in that memoir weren’t as dedicated or hardworking, or lucky, or well-balanced, and some of them burned out well before their time.

It’s true that some of us are more susceptible to distraction than others; some writers have much higher tolerances for ambient noise or human commotion than those of us who require near-total silence and solitude in order to work. (The prolific western-genre master Louis L’Amour once claimed that he could have written his books in the middle of a busy freeway: I on the other hand cannot imagine trying to get anything done in a crowded coffee shop, though this seems to work exceedingly well for a number of successful authors I know.) The point is this: if you aspire to be a serious writer, you need to identify the types and intensity of distraction you’re able to handle. Some distractions have more power to disrupt our process at certain times of day than others; what stops me dead in my tracks at 8 a.m. may be far less of a problem a few hours later. Family emergencies nay be unavoidable, unexpected (uninvited) guests less so. Whatever you do, refuse to be passive; assert as much control over your creative environment, your routine, and your process, as feasibly possible.

(2) Learn the basics of copy editing

Publishers appreciate authors who submit clean manuscripts. “Clean” in this sense means that there are few or no grammatical or spelling errors, that punctuation is precise, and the text typographically pristine down to the tiniest diacritical dot or squiggle in any foreign words that might appear. Speaking of words, foreign or otherwise; it greatly aids a writer’s cause if their words make some kind of coherent sense on the page—if those words precisely convey the author’s meaning and intent. Such issues lie within the purview of copy editing, and it makes good sense for writers to learn the basics of the copy editor’s craft, to do as much polishing BEFORE a manuscript is submitted in order to improve its chances for acceptance.

This is not as difficult or tedious a task as it sounds. If you can learn and ultimately internalize a few basic principles (of grammar, of spelling, of punctuation, of style) so that you are able to apply them as you write, you will end up saving yourself and your publisher countless hours of needless nitpicking and migraine-inducing re-writes. (Of course, always follow the publisher’s guidelines for formatting—that is, unless you want to be rejected out of hand.)

There are lots of excellent resources for writers interesting in self-editing, everything from The Chicago Manual of Style (on-line or in traditional book form) to Renni Brown and Dave King’s classic Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, along with a wealth of superb articles on the subject to be found on-line (see EftBB’s Writer’s Resources page). I can enthusiastically recommend copy-editor extraordinaire Benjamin Dreyer’s recent book on the subject, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style,  a tome brimming with practical, good-humored guidance. With a wealth of helpful information (along with a veritable trove of entertaining trivia) this is like a breezy refresher course taught by a cool professor who nonetheless knows his stuff.

(3) Then hire an editor…

…and don’t winge and kvetch about how you can’t afford it: because, believe me, it’s worth it! Even if you have done your due diligence in the form of a thorough self-edit, it is invaluable to have another professional pair of eyes on the text. No one—not even the most careful and fastidious among us—catches everything. This is all-the-more true when your own manuscript is the one under scrutiny. Writers always have tunnel vision where their own work is concerned—and I do not know a single exception to this rule. Not. One.

Myself, I’ve been known to go over novel manuscripts with what I consider my best fine-tooth-comb attitude forty or fifty times at least, invariably to discover (or have pointed out) dozens of blatant rookie errors still littering the text after the fiftieth pass! It’s enough to drive a perfectionist insane—assuming perfectionism isn’t a form of insanity already. Far better, I think, to treat editing as a collaborative process: The best results, I’ve found, come from doing as much self-editing as possible, then turning the manuscript over to a professional. Even then, I’ll go over the text again once it comes back, because the editor’s point-of-view can lend a surprising sense of focus, and help me catch even more—things even the pro may have missed. (It’s helpful to go over a manuscript with an eye to locating and rooting out one specific issue at a time—say, repetitive syntax in subordinate clauses, the overuse of semi-colons, or the chronic abuse of adverbs, or almost any use of the phrase “had begun…”—a kind of search and destroy operation with strictly defined mission perimeters.) Truth is, nobody in this business is infallible; the sooner an aspiring author figures that out, the better-equipped they will be to succeed.

Also, understand that the editor is not there to hold your hand or stroke your fragile ego, or be your bestest buddy, nor is it the editor’s job to finish writing your story for you; the editor is there to help you make your book the best it can be, and sometimes that means telling you things you definitely don’t want to hear. Get over it!

(4) Sweat the details!

Want to know what really annoys me? No? Well, tough, I’m going to tell you anyway: the laissez faire attitude—the casual indifference—of some authors to the quality of their work, people who say things like “I just write it and let the editor deal with cleaning it up...” (Yes, I’ve actually heard people say this!) What’s even more astounding—if hardly less disgusting—is that some of the most indifferent writers out there also happen to be among the most successful!

Maybe it’s my native-upper-Midwestern sense of practical self-reliance, but this attitude irritates me... a lot.  

Still, before we go crying about how life is unfair—which it most certainly is—perhaps we ought to consider the snickering that goes on behind those successful authors’ backs, all the snarkily dismissive whispers of “Look! The emperor really does have no clothes! Told you so!” or “I knew they were always overrated, but I never knew they could be this bad,” or “I figured they were bound to crash and burn sooner or later.” You can practically cut the schadenfreude with a butter knife and serve it up with a side of sour-grape jelly, especially if you’re with a group of writers. Fact is, when an author gets to a point in their career where their name is set in larger type on the front of the book than the title, said author could probably submit a dehydrated turd and have it published with nobody batting an eye. From what I've seen, some of the most egregious editorial oversights (outside of amateur self-publishing) appear in books by mega-best-selling authors, particularly those who have effectively franchised themselves. It may be that these authors are too busy enjoying their money to care, or have become so jaded that they simply can’t be bothered with “trivial stuff” like checking galley proofs or consulting with the copy editor when there’s a question.

While it's fun to imagine that we might someday reach a point in our careers where we wouldn’t have to take crap from anybody, or, better still, hire somebody to wipe our ass for us, thus literally making them take our crap, it’s sad to think that so many aspiring authors in this hyper-competitive marketplace are all too willing to sell their dignity for cheap.

I have worked in this business for a long time now, and I have kept at it precisely because I have not lost sight of myself or of my vision. It may be that I am, at last, on the cusp of success—though still a ways from getting bigger billing than the title—but I didn’t get to this point by being indifferent or shrugging off the tiresome extra-sweat-inducing chores that come with the job.  Never “farm out” the tasks for which you, yourself, ought to be responsible. If you recognize that writing is hard—often extremely tedious—work to begin with, be willing to go the extra mile to assure that any product with your name on it is ultimately something you can be proud of—something worthy of all your hard work.

(5) In the end, the key to writing well is to never be satisfied.