Instant Mastery

Writers are an odd bunch.  It takes a lot of ego to create a story, write it out, and expect total strangers to plunk down their hard-earned cash for the privilege of reading it.

At the same time we are often crippled by self-doubt, requiring massive affirmation from our agents, our editors, our families and our fans, constantly assuring us that we don’t completely suck.  The highs and lows of this continuous cycle of doubt and ego are part of the reason why we have a reputation for being unsettled.

Beginning writers have an even stranger affliction, and it’s one I’ve seen a hundred times in my writing group (and also in my mirror).  I call it, “Expecting Instant Mastery.”

So here’s what happens.

We write something.  A story, a novel, a screenplay, whatever.  We tinker with it a bit, “editing” as best we can.

And it’s perfect.

We ask for feedback, and if we’re very lucky, we get some honest critique.

And we learn it isn’t perfect.

This is hard to hear.  Like someone telling you that your adorable pink infant, whom you spent nine months incubating inside your skin on top of your squished bladder, actually looks like Winston Churchill.  Because they do…all babies look like him.  It’s just a fact.  Go ahead.  Find a picture of him.  I’ll wait.

Yep.  Churchill.

Anyway, we’re shocked by the news that this story, this novel, this first attempt at putting words on a page isn’t ready for the New York Times list.

We expected our first effort to be perfect.

Why do we do this?  If we were taking up any other avocation…golf or bowling, or learning to speak Spanish, we would expect to spend months or years being terrible at it before we got good.  If you go to Paint Nite, where you drink wine and follow a teacher in the front of the room, trying to replicate his painting on your canvas, you don’t honestly think your “Silhouette of Tree in the Sunset” is going to hang on a museum wall.  You know it’s going to look like it was painted by a monkey on a trampoline, and that’s okay.  You’re not a trained painter.

But with writing?  Nope.  That first novel, that first story…they’re flawless.  Every single word a glittering gem.

Look, here’s a really nice painting.  Maybe you’ve seen it before.

sistine

Yeah, that one.

Do you think this was his first one?  Do you really think that this masterpiece, the Sistine Chapel, was the first time Michelangelo picked up a brush?

Of course not.  We’ve never seen his first attempt with a paintbrush.  He must have painted countless versions of “Silhouette of Tree in the Sunset” over and over, painting over each one until they got less and less suck, and eventually started to be decent.

He practiced. He learned his craft.

But not us.  No, not us writers.

It’s because we’re readers, and good writers make it look so easy.  All we see on the bookstore shelves are the final, rewritten, edited versions of their work.  We read these stories, these novels and we say, “Well of course I can do that.”

And we can.  Just not very well at first.

But we read, so we think we can write.  Which is akin to saying, “Well, I’ve been eating food my whole life. So I’m sure I’m a master chef.  Just hand me that knife.  Now which is the sharp side?”

Or, “I’ve always lived in a house.  I work in a building.  I know what walls and floors and stuff are all about.  So hand me those blueprints and a hammer, because I will certainly be a master builder this first time I grab a nail.”

Ridiculous, of course, but it’s what we do as writers.

There probably are a few out there, writers whose first attempts really were excellent.  And if you’re an newer writer, you’re probably thinking, “Yeah, and I’m one of them.”

Maybe you are.

I wasn’t.

But I learned.

I’m still learning.

I’ve surrounded myself with the best support team I can find to help me get better, and I think I’m improving, one word at a time.

So all you new writers out there banging away at your first novel, your first story, take heart.  It might not turn out to be the flawless, sparkling jewel you imagine.  But it will be a start.  A first attempt, which can lead to a second, and a third.  And maybe, eventually, to something that belongs on the ceiling of a chapel, adored by millions.

Meanwhile, hand me that pair of scissors.  I’ve had hair almost my whole life.  How hard can it be?

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Even Michelangelo practiced painting before he did that ceiling.

I am fortunate in my friends.

My writing group and my personal circle contain a number of writers both aspiring and accomplished, and each one has taught me something valuable.  And now I’ve been lucky enough to acquire an agent and have a small-pub novel coming out in less than a month.

So with those vast weeks of experience, I feel qualified to go all Obi-Wan and start delivering sage advice to anyone who asks, and also to anyone who doesn’t ask.

I’m beta reading for a couple of friends right now. For non-writers, beta readers are the first people besides you, the writer (the alpha reader, because you can’t help but read as you’re writing, and please, ye gods, do some editing before you inflict your first draft upon your kind and honest buddies) to read your work.  Some writers have betas read as they write, hoping to save themselves rewrites when a beta suggests that something in chapter 2 doesn’t work that affects the rest of the work, and so months of writing has to be scrapped.  That doesn’t usually happen, and I personally prefer to write the whole thing, do an editing pass for major ugliness, then see what a close friend or two thinks.  Either way is fine.

I digress.

One friend I’m reading for is really talented.  He’s been working for a couple of years on a book that promises to be amazing when it’s done, and he’s almost there.  It’s his first novel, and it’s very dear to his heart (as everyone’s first novel is).  When you’re writing the first one, it’s hard to think about anything else.  The idea that it might not get published, might not be successful, might not actually be the masterpiece you think it is just can’t cross your mind.  You’d go crazy. But the truth is that a lot of excellent published authors have early novels creeping around their hard drives that will never see the light of day. Although the authors didn’t realize it while they were writing, those novels were practice.  They taught the writer how to write.  How to craft a story.  How to develop characters.  They are flawed in some way and are probably best left unread, but they served a purpose and their echoes will reverberate through the rest of said writer’s career.

But my friend is stuck.  He’s been working so long and hard on this first novel that it’s begun to take on a life of its own. In his mind, this book is his Sistine Chapel; the work that will define his career.  This may be true.  It’s going to be a really good book.

But the Sistine Chapel was not the first time Michelangelo ever picked up a paintbrush.  Probably not the second time, either.

Painters practice painting.  They buy a canvas and some oils, and they paint something. And it’s usually pretty crappy.  So they paint over it (because canvas is expensive), and they paint something else.  Which is probably also fairly crappy.  So they paint over it.  And so on, and so on, until finally their paintings stop looking like they were painted by an epileptic chimpanzee on a trampoline and start looking like a bowl of fruit or a sunset or God and Adam bumping fingers.

THAT’S when it’s time to get out the scaffolding and start looking up at the ceiling.

But writers aren’t like that.  We think that because we’ve been reading books since the halcyon days of under-cover-flashlight-reading that we’re instantly going to be fully-formed bestselling authors with the first word we type.

A few writers are.  I hate them.

Most of us aren’t.  Most of us need some practice.  Most of us have to bang out a lot of words before any of them don’t suck.  And that’s okay.  We owe that practice to our readers.  Before we ask any friend or family member to devote precious hours of their time to reading our words, we owe them enough practice to make sure that what we’re giving them is not one of those initial hideous paintings that should never get further than stuck to the refrigerator with a magnet.

I suggested to my friend that he take a break from his Sistine Chapel and write something else for a while.  A short story.  A novella.  Another novel.  Something to clear his mind so that he can take a new look at his masterwork with fresh eyes, and something to take the pressure off this first novel to be “the one.”  He’s not going to do that, and that’s fine, because my advice might be complete and total crap.  I have no idea what works for anyone but me, and I’m not even sure about that.

But he’s a dear friend and someday I look forward to announcing his publication date here.  Meanwhile, back to the canvas.