I started re-reading IT and I’m in despair over how poor my writing is in comparison to Stephen King’s. I know I shouldn’t do that; IT was his thirteenth novel and Tunerville is only my fourth, so I don’t have as much practice as he did when he wrote it. But it’s so hard not to, especially now that I can read books and see the mechanics that went into writing them.
Mel Gibson allegedly said about directing, “I can’t watch movies anymore. I can see the strings.” Yeah, mentally ill or not, Mel kind of sucks, but this quote illustrates very well the phenomenon that happens when you begin to see how your craft actually works.
I feel exactly like that now–I can not only see the elements that make up the whole, I can understand WHY they don’t or do work. It’s akin to watching figure skating before and after I learned to skate.
Tara Lipinski, 1998 Winter Olympics. This is a combination triple loop jump followed by a double loop. Very difficult.
At the time Lipinski performed this program, her elements made no sense to me. I could not see a jump coming and had no idea what it even was until she did it and the commentator remarked on it. Watching a figure skating program then was an experience in surprises—stroke stroke BOOM! stroke stroke BOOM!
After fifteen years of skating myself, I can see the jump setup. I notice many more technical details that I didn’t before, such as whether the edge is good, shorted rotations, etc. I can even tell if someone jumping is likely to fall (sometimes they manage to save it when I think they can’t, so I’m not totally accurate). Even if I can’t perform all the elements Lipinski did, I recognize them. I can watch the jump and know with at least some certainty whether the judges will mark it as well executed.
Of course, you don’t have to be a skater to know these things. If you have a keen eye for observation and have been watching for many years, it’s possible to understand and analyze a sport with great accuracy. Many people who enjoy American football have never played it, but they can look at the formation during a game on TV and tell you exactly what’s about to happen.
Whoop, didn’t see THAT coming! #herpaderp
Doing an activity, however, provides you with a deeper understanding of its execution. That doesn’t make you an expert unless you’ve put in the hours and practice to become one. However, it does give you just enough information to be dangerous…
…to your self-esteem.
Writing is, in its nature, a solitary activity. You must enter the cavern of your mind and search for treasures there, then haul them out and attempt to convey them–and the quest for them–in a way that resonates with the reader, so he or she will buy your work.
But one man’s treasure is another’s trash. And a clumsy attempt at presentation will sell no merchandise. In your solitude, you can lose your objectivity regarding the quality of your presentation. When you run into a master’s-level piece, you may feel your work is just a sad little flea market tchotchke.
We know it’s all too easy to measure ourselves against others, and we shouldn’t. A quote attributed to David B. Schlosser has been going around on the internet lately:
Easier said than done when you’re confronted with the exquisite reality of a more seasoned writer’s technique. It’s enough to make you swear off writing. Hell, it’s enough to make you want to quit reading.
Since we are artists and we must create or die, we have to use these moments not as cudgels with which to beat ourselves, but as tools to sharpen our ability. You simply cannot write effectively if you don’t read.
But Elizabeth, you say, reading in an analytical manner spoils the story for me. Yes, it can. However, you will not know if the jump is good unless you watch it. I “headit” when I’m reading, and yes, it can spoil a poorly executed story–all my attention is on how I would fix this sentence or that phrase or what was this idiot thinking that is not how a semi-colon works.
But I can still pick up books and lose myself completely before I remember I’m actually reading and not crawling around inside another person’s head in a land far, far away. A skilled writer can employ these techniques so well that a reader will remain unaware of them.
Book’s so good the kid doesn’t even notice he’s stuck in a damn attic all night.
Pay attention to the techniques you see–do they work? Why? Why not? If you’ve read the book before and you don’t remember how the author used them, go back and read it again. This time, watch and learn.
Sometimes we can’t see what isn’t working. We’re too close. In that case, we can put our work in front of another person’s eyes. Beta readers and writing groups can provide helpful feedback.
If you have the money, consider hiring a professional editor to give you an in-depth analysis. Work can change; it can be improved. Someone with industry experience can help you not only make your story better but in the process, help you become a better writer.
I decided to pursue professional editing for Tunerville. I have little money; this is going to hurt financially, but I’ve reached an impasse. After countless rejections and two with the same critique, it’s time to admit I might need some help.
It feels a bit like I’m sending my baby off to war. Maybe I’ll find I just need more time and more practice before I get there. Maybe this will actually help me get the book published. I will not know until I give it a chance.
Don’t dwell on YOU when you read for analysis or solicit feedback. Think about your WORK and if the techniques you see can help it or not. Your personality and self-esteem are not the focus here. This isn’t therapy; it’s called improving your craft.
If you need help, ask for it. And be nice to yourself. You probably don’t suck as much as you think.
Related: 10 Things Your Freelance Editor Might Not Tell You But Should