Good Enough

Every writing problem has an equal and opposite writing problem, right? It’s like Isaac Newton or something. So any time you hear a piece of advice, the opposite is almost certainly also great advice for someone. So let’s talk about one of those: the good enough problem.

There are the perfectionists: nothing they write ever reaches “good enough.” They revise it over and over again and never let anybody see, or never anybody who might do anything with it. Or they don’t revise at all, because everything is so flawed that there’s no point, they might as well try again and look, the new thing needs revision too. Definitely flawed. Might as well scrap it and try again.

And then there’s the other category: the people who don’t want to be told how to revise their piece, they want to be told that it’s good enough already. Just as it is. You may find some of these people at student workshops, but they don’t want to workshop, they want to be the immediate and effortless star of the workshop. They want to show up and have the pros running the workshop say, “This is so amazing, let us shower you with fame and wealth.”

Perfectionism is the enemy of good fiction. So is the conviction that good enough is good enough.

The thing is, if you’re going to ask “is this good enough?”, the question is, for what? Good enough to be published? Well, sure; all sorts of awful things have gotten published. Good enough to be a strong contender for publication? Maybe. Good enough that you’ve done what you can do with the idea with the skills you have right now? Good enough that you learned from it? Good enough that figuring out what to do with it and moving on to the next thing is the best plan? Good enough that it will help you make the next thing better?

If you’re aiming for good enough permanently–if you want it to be a minimum bar you clear–then it can get in the way of aiming for good.

If the only thing that’s good enough is perfect, you’ve given yourself an excuse not to work for better.

And either way you miss the satisfaction of “as good as I can make it for now, and the next thing will be better.” Which is worth finding, whether you’re publishing or not.

Space for the heart

I am newly returned from a week and a half out of town. I went on a writing retreat and visited some friends for a few days. I came back to a bunch of stuff to catch up on and am still not quite caught up. Closer, though.

And I want to say: this is great. I have done more of it this year, I will continue next year, it is so good. I think it doesn’t require a particular shape of thing to be good. Whatever you can manage, whatever works for you. For some people this will be an hour at a coffee shop, for some a weekend at a friend’s house. For some people, having any humans around defeats the purpose, and for others having to do any maintenance work does, so those shape what will be possible for you. If you really need to not have to think about food and cleaning, housesitting for a friend while they’re out of town won’t fit the bill. If you need at least a day to really get mental distance, a few hours by yourself won’t work. If you can’t have people around you, getting an airbnb with half a dozen friends will be a pleasant vacation rather than a productive retreat. But.

But consciously, actively making a quiet, separate space–this is a thing that I think is undervalued, especially for people trying to do large creative projects. It’s not just the room of one’s own. It’s the time of one’s own, the permission to take that time. The sense that taking that time is not the same thing as powering through a word count goal. Ideas may come, word count may come. But the quiet comes first. Even if it’s half an hour’s stop at a waterfall on the way home from running errands, a quick dash into the woods when you’ve been doing eldercare. Whatever shape it takes for you.

I have seen in people of all ages–though reflected in different behavior sets–the idea that being up on current events and well-informed is an unlimited virtue, and a virtue that requires the intake of every soundbite that comes out of a politician. I am all for informed voting and civic engagement. But 1) You do not get informed from soundbites. Yes, there are times when “this candidate said this appalling thing” is news you can use. But it’s not all there is to the vast majority of campaigns. If you were going to buy a major appliance, you wouldn’t consider yourself ill-informed if you hadn’t watched all the company’s commercials–or well-informed if you had. “Hey, the Maytag man said they’re reliable! He said it again!” That’s not research. Neither are the soundbites the news/commentary cycle thrives on. And 2) Everything you do in life, you do within your own limits. Even if you’re committed to making home-cooked meals, some days that’s going to mean pasta or scrambled eggs instead of five elaborate courses. Your limits include your emotional limits as well as the limits of your time and understanding. Doing your best does not mean doing nothing but reading political commentary for months before an election. There has to be room to set it aside and think of other things. Your family, your friends, your scrambled eggs, your creative work. The way the river looks as your plane lands.

I really mean “has to.” There has to. Our elections have gotten unreasonably long in the US, and it’s affecting everyone else in the world. If you stay intensely engaged on it, you will get exhausted, you will burn out. There has to be space to breathe occasionally.

I know I’m lucky to have the money, the flexibility, and at the moment the health to go somewhere completely separate from my ordinary life. I’m really lucky. But I also think that it’s a good thing for most of us to look for opportunities for set-aside space within our lives, however we can find it. Not just “I am on deadline and now I will go and go.” But also “what is this thing that I am doing that is worth doing, and how can I do it better?” and “what am I missing, what am I not seeing?” And other subtler questions that are how we keep our heads above the waves, other questions that speak to what we’re doing that’s worth protecting. Culturally easier when you’re at some stage of a large project–I could say to my Facebook, “I’m going away to start my new novel,” and that was true. But the novel is what it is because I had the conceptual space, the emotional space, to make it that and not do it by rote and reflex.

No matter what work you want to do, I think that’s something we all need from time to time, especially in times of whirling chaos.

Begin as you mean to go on, or why I’m willing to quit

Sometimes I run into people online wondering whether they gave a book enough of a chance.

These people are often writers, and I think there’s a component of “I want people to give me a chance, or, if possible, an infinite number of chances” in this reaction. But there’s some sense that if you don’t like a book (or even just don’t love it) and quit reading it after a few chapters, you might have been unjust, you might be missing out. It might get better.

I don’t have this. If I bounce off a book on page one, that’s where I bounce. If I read half of it and decide I don’t care about the characters, if I notice that I’m consistently coming up with other things to do rather than reading this book, I’m out. And I’m totally, completely fine with this. Because the beginning of a story has a specific function, and it’s not to tell you what came first. You can write the beginning of a story that’s not the beginning of the events quite easily–it’s done all the time. And why is it done all the time? Because the beginning of the story is there to draw you in and tell you what kind of thing you’re dealing with.

So–take, for example, the movie I bounced off recently from the library. It was filmed in the 1940s, and it started with a racist joke and continued with at least four minutes of sexual harassment. I know, times were different then, different things were accepted by polite society, blah blah blah…but the point is, they were harassing the living shit out of this woman, by the standards of this viewer. And I say “at least four minutes” because I turned it off, I was done.

Did I miss out? Maybe. Sometimes if you dig through a dumpster you find someone’s wedding ring. But it’s still okay to say, “I don’t feel like digging through that dumpster is going to be worth my time even if there is a wedding ring in it.” An article I read (in the Journal of I Read It Somewhere Studies) had the staff of their magazine watch the first ten minutes of movies, write down how much they thought they’d like them, and finish the movies. And if I recall correctly, they were only wrong in a single-digit number of cases.

Here is why: the beginning sets expectations. That’s what it’s for. It says, here is the kind of story you’re reading. Even if it’s a deeply subversive story, it sets out what kind of thing is here to be subverted. When a movie starts with a racist joke that is, as far as I can tell, completely incidental to its premise, that’s telling you something. It’s telling you that this is the sort of thing the people who made this movie find funny. It’s totally okay to say, you have given me this data, and I have learned from it; I am stopping here. This is why the early episodes of House featured some really graphic medical scenes: they were letting you know, if you are going to be grossed out by the medical stuff, this is not your show. Thank those people for their clarity of vision and move on.

What about quitting in the middle, though? Well, look. Sunk cost fallacies are hard. Humans are, generally, neurologically, terrible at getting ourselves out of sunk cost fallacies. Even if you’re aware of this, it doesn’t always help. Last week I caught myself thinking, of the book I was reading, that I heard rumors that the series was almost done, so I would probably only have two or three more books to read before it was over. Not regretfully. Just in the way that you would think, “I have to wash sheets and towels and delicates, so that’s three more loads of laundry before I’m done.” No one assigned me these books. I have read some in this series before. I can go pick it up again if I really want. But if it is not being worthwhile to read now, it doesn’t matter that I’ve already read one or two or six or however many.

Reading isn’t just a process of discovering what happened, because I could just ask someone who read this book. It’s the experience of reading. If that experience isn’t going well for you, go ahead and read something else. Why not? If no one is paying you money and you’re not in love with the author–I mean, literally, actually in love with the author, not “in love with” as a colloquial way of saying you enjoy their work very much–the fact that you are not happy with this reading experience, right now, in a larger way than just one paragraph or scene making you go meh: I hereby give you permission to get out. You don’t have to finish desserts that taste bad, and you don’t have to keep reading books just because you’ve already read a hundred or two hundred pages of that book, or 1600 pages of that series. You are free. Run like the wind. Run to a different book. There are several out there.

Intermittent

Today I sold my third short story this week. I also had a revision request from an editor I work well with and have done revisions with in the past; while a sale is never guaranteed in those circumstances, it’s certainly better than a rejection. Two of the stories I’ve sold, I wrote this summer; the third I co-wrote with Alec Austin in early 2013. I mentioned this on social media, and my kind friends are congratulating me. That’s really nice of them, and I do feel proud of the work I’m doing.

Here’s the thing: before this month, the last time I sold a story was April. And before that January. One of the most important things that would-be writers should know is that this business is completely sporadic–but even people who know that can I think have difficulty with the phenomenon of comparing other people’s highlight reels to their own uncut footage. This week I am the superstar who sold three stories in a week. Last week I was in a drought lasting a third of a year. Same writer, same writing.

So you hear wry quotes about how intermittent reinforcement drives lab rats crazy. I have a solution to that. Do not let sales be your main positive reinforcement. Don’t get me wrong–selling stories is great. If I didn’t want to sell stories, I would write them and throw them in a drawer; it’s not like attaching files to emails and web forms and keeping track of who has seen what is deeply entertaining. But if I was relying on sales to be the reason I love this work, I would be miserable.

The work is the work. The work is its own reward. And if you’re finding that the creative work you’re doing is not its own reward–whether you’re a person who likes to write or likes to have written–then it may be time to assess what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. You cannot sell something every day, or even every week–even the most prolific writer just does not have that consistency of response. (Or probably that many markets, unless they’re writing a huge variety as well as a huge amount of fiction.) The editor who is going to love this particular piece might be on vacation this week. They might have a family emergency. They might, God forbid, have left the magazine. Or there might not even be an editor working yet who will like this particular piece–you might have to keep sending it around and being patient.

Look: a friend with a geology degree posted to Facebook a meme claiming that a career in geology sounds so much cooler if you talk about it like a six-year-old. It’s true. But: there is approximately no way to talk about my work and sound any older than that. “I make up stories about magic and the future and different worlds.” How cool is that.

So yes, we get happy about sales. We celebrate the sales. But it’s far easier to avoid getting anxious and wrung out if the main enjoyment is in making the thing you wanted to make. People are saying things to me like, “You’re on a roll!” And in fact I am. But not just for the reasons they’re thinking. I’m on a roll doing the things that will make another week like this next month or next year. Doing the things that will sit for weeks, months, without any thought of being published. It’s a good writing time for me. It’s really nice that it’s a good sale time, too. But if I attached too much to that, it would interfere with the good writing time. And we can’t have that.

Not writing the phone book

I often hear people say of actors they particularly like, “Oh, I could watch them read the phone book.” You never hear that about writers, “I would read it if they wrote the phone book.” And there’s a reason for that. A major part of being a good writer is the judgment about what to write. When people are saying that about an actor, they mean that their voice, their face, their body language, everything is very expressive and interesting. And there is a common writerly impulse to take any statement of “I find [thing] boring” as a challenge, to make it interesting. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good impulse; writing interesting stories is hard enough without being belligerent about things that bore your reader friends.

Recently a friend of mine started reading a fantasy piece with rogues in it, and it started with two annoying characters boasting to each other. “If [bestselling author friend] or [other bestselling auth–oh, fine, she said Scott Lynch and Steve Brust] had written this, they could have pulled it off, they could have made it funny, they could have undermined the annoying characters and shown what jerks they were,” she said, and I said, “Okay, but part of what makes Steve and Scott as successful as they are is that they generally choose not to do that.” They choose not to lead from a disadvantage that’s a boring disadvantage–not “can I make my reader sympathize with this intriguing villain” but “can I make my reader sympathize with a guy who’s like the annoying co-worker they’re glad they left in their last job.” Sure, someone with writing chops is in a better position than a beginner to pull that off. But it’s writing the phone book. It’s challenging for no particularly good reason.

I can’t remember where I read the review that suggested that Lois McMaster Bujold could write another novella between the two recent Penric novellas, in her Chalion universe, that would basically be a training sequence for the protagonist. And…okay, so there is an adage in physics that I think has a parallel here. If a respected, award-winning senior physicist tells you that something is impossible, she may or may not be right; if she tells you that something is possible, listen. In writing, it’s this: if one of the most decorated writers of her genre of all time chooses to do one of the top ten most cliched narratives of her genre, she may or may not have a good reason for it. Genre conventions sink into us all, just as the sense of constraint does in physics. But if she chooses not to do one of the top ten most cliched narratives, to skip over that bit and on to the next, pay attention, there was probably a really good reason why she didn’t find that part interesting enough to focus her time on it. And that’s worth learning from.

Take my advice. Or don’t, there are other options.

I am a sucker for advice columns.

Usually I describe this as: I want to see what people who think of themselves as normal think of as their problems. I want to see what people feel are insoluble problems, or at least problems for which they really need outside perspective. I know what I think is hard, and what I think is a lot of work but straightforward, and what I think is just plain all-around easy. But no one’s skills and strengths are universal, and seeing where people run into a wall and ask for help–and how they ask for that help–is fascinating to me.

This does not explain why I like this new project my friend Rose is doing, Story Hospital. Because Story Hospital is for writers with a particular kind of broken relationship: the relationship with one particular story or with their work in general. So: people who think of themselves as normal are pretty much right out the window, then, we are talking about the sort of people with entire imaginary casts in their heads. This project stemmed from a story-fixing panel at Readercon, and you can write in with whatever feels like it needs a fix, in whatever detail you want to give.

I guess this still fits the “other people’s problems” field, though. Gives you perspective on your own–of various kinds. And I think that Story Hospital will not get very many of my least favorite kind of advice column questions: “Other person is doing a thing in their own life that doesn’t affect me much, but it looks like a problem from here. How do I make them fix it?” (“My sister-in-law raises her children in the following non-abusive way. How can I make her stop?” “My adult child’s non-abusive romantic relationships or lack of same are disappointing to me. How can I make my adult child live my life instead of their own?” etc. This happens all the time in regular advice columns. I think it will not in Story Hospital.

I don’t know, maybe I’ll see my own problems solved in other people’s questions, but I think much more likely it will be a companionable feeling, like working side by side with people who are doing different things but in a congenial way. And one of the things I like about general advice columns that I think will be even more true here is that, unlike people who have modes of pressure to bring to bear on the person asking, an advice columnist really can’t. You can ask, they can answer, and if you don’t like their answer, reacting against it provides its own useful answer in some way. “That totally won’t work because what I really need is–” can be its own flavor of useful in creative projects. I’ll be interested to find out.

On-ramps to various weird freeways

So there was a Fourth Street panel where Max Gladstone wanted to talk about on-ramps to the weird: what accessibility we provide readers to works with a sense of alienation and dislocation, how we allow them to navigate works of science fiction and fantasy either without feeling uncomfortable or despite that discomfort, and what tools we can get from other genres in their on ramps–genres like magic realism and surrealism. (I’m paraphrasing Max, and he should feel free to correct me if that’s not what he was talking about.) But that wasn’t the direction of the panel he was on–it was another panel but not this year’s That’s Another Panel–and then Max had to get to his next thing Sunday afternoon, and by the time Readercon rolls around, the thoughts I had early Sunday morning will be stale. Nor am I sure they’ll fit on Twitter without a blog post link to point to first. So here we go: this is your blog post link.

First of all, I think that different works of science fiction and fantasy are doing different kinds and levels of sense of dislocation and the weird. The name that gets canonically brought up in terms of “entry level” science fiction these days, someone who “provides on ramps” to science fiction, is John Scalzi. I think that in a conversation about sense of dislocation and the weird, this is more or less a complete red herring, but worth tackling first for demonstration. Most of what Scalzi has done in most of his books–I haven’t read all of them–is not all that weird. Nor is it trying to be, nor should it be trying to be–I want to emphasize that sense of dislocation, sense of the weird, is not an unmitigated virtue, is not being defined as the science fictional or fantastic thing to do, and therefore I am saying that John or his work should be deprecated for not doing it. Everybody should write the level of weirdness, alienation, dislocation, that their work demands, that they are interested in writing. John is given credit for not being highly referential, but this is blatantly false; John’s works are constantly referential. But they’re contemporary references. So the people who are frustrated by the feeling that they have to have participated in a hundred years of science fiction genre in order to understand a science fiction novel will not have that obstacle. That is one on-ramp he provides. Another he provides is almost more a staircase, because it provides access for some and not for others: it is exactly those contemporary references and style. When you have a scene of dialog with complaints about the monotony of a cafeteria menu, in exactly not only the type of complaints but the type of specific menu items that would come up for an American slightly older than me–an American John Scalzi’s age–there is a large audience for whom that is a very comforting access point. Look! It says. Things here in the future are not so weird. There may be galactic spaceships or green rejuvenated people or whatever space thing we are doing in this book. But people are still just the same. We go to our jobs and do them, we gripe about the food, we get on with it. So that sense of interpersonal familiarity is heightened with the utterly contemporary grounding. Our pop culture figures are name-checked, our relationships are reinforced. So while John gets people to buy and read science fiction–and in that sense may get people comfortable with the idea that science fiction in general is not too unbearably weird for them–what he’s not doing is getting them comfortable with a massive dislocation that is written to feel utterly unlike everything they’ve ever known. Nor does he need to want to do that. It just means that his toolbox is not all that useful for the people who do want to do that.

So. Other genres of the weird. In the course of the brief discussion during the panel, we mentioned surrealism and magic realism. I think one of the biggest on-ramps surrealism has is metatextual. People who pick up a work of surrealism have buy-in that the experience is going to be weird and dislocating before they ever get started. This is what they’ve signed on for. For all that SFF likes weird sometimes, SFF also likes adventure and speculation and many other things; alienation, dislocation, and sense of utter weirdness is not the only thing or even the main thing that a person picking up a work of science fiction and fantasy can be signing on for. So in some sense this is like asking, “How does porn get people to want to be aroused?” There is some of everybody in the world; surely there are people who watch porn for reasons other than to be aroused and then find themselves aroused anyway. But arousal is the thing it says on the tin. That is what you are buying if you buy porn. (“Buy” in the most general sense.) And the sense of dislocation, alienation, and the weird is what you are buying if you buy surrealism; the disappointing surrealism is the stuff that doesn’t deliver it. Much of the other weird avant garde that is not specifically surrealism–much of modern and post-modern art–is the same way: you go in knowing you want some of that, and if you take someone to a museum who doesn’t already want some of that, it’s not necessarily great at prompting them to start unless they just have a lightbulb moment. Much like many of us got to the weird in speculative fiction.

Which is great. (I mean, it’s terrible. Very little worse than mundane surrealism, ask me how I know. But it’s good to know.) But not very helpful in getting science fiction and fantasy writers more tools for the persuasive/converting toolbox.

An interesting counterexample to this is Banksy. Their work is not in museums; their audience is not very self-selected compared to most contemporary artists. I think that there are three key accessibility points there: literal physical accesssibility. Banksy stuff will be on the street where you will see it, and you will either like it or not, but you are not asked to go out of your way to get to this art that you may or may not like; the energy cost is low. Banksy’s stuff is “short” for time investment. You look, you take it in. And in fact I have seen more publication of dislocational, deeply weird fiction in short speculative fiction than in novels. And Banksy’s stuff is at least sometimes funny. Humor is a great access point if you can pull it off. If your humor is three levels of abstruse and obscure…that’s great, honestly, I love that kind of humor. But it’s important to realize that “I’ll make this really bizarre thing funny” does not automatically get you a larger audience. (Worth doing, though, because it entertains the crap out of me, and that’s what’s really important here, right? Of course. Okay.)

So the other genre we were going to talk about was magic realism. And I think one of the major tools magic realism has is sensuality. Sensuality of image and sensuality of prose. I think that most science fiction and fantasy writers know that sensory input is important at some level for almost all readers. Young writers will get advice like, “No one will care if you calculated the warp core mass exactly correctly if they can feel the spaceship controls under their hands.” But do we do it? When is the last time you could really feel the spaceship controls under your hands? Of course there are books like Dandelion Wine and the works of Cat Valente that focus on the sensual, but in general I think the speculative genres tend to shy away from it. Magic realism, on the other hand, wallows in sensuality. Why on earth is there a rain of roses in this scene? That is totally bizarre, what is going on here? Wait–do you care quite as much what’s going on here? You can practically taste the heavy, choking scent of roses in your nostrils. You can feel what the petals would be like on your skin, on your lips. Whether or not you know what they’re there for, those are some real roses, and for many readers, that pulls them along into the next piece of the book–or at the very least keeps them anchored in this one.

(For some readers, yes, you really do care. Some people bounce off magic realism because of the balance of sensuality and explanation. But if speculative writers are borrowing tools from other people’s toolbox, they can try to have both.)

And that made me think about paranormal romance. For my money, the entry point of most romance genres is sensory writing, not love or relationships or even sex. There may be stereotypes that romance novels have someone gasping, “Oh, Perceval!” on page one, but in the vast majority of romance novels, you have to wait some time to get to the sex. If sex was the on-ramp, you would have exited, parked your readerly car, and wandered off into a field of daisies. Something else has to be the on-ramp, and because I am a highly non-visual person, it looks really obvious to me that highly visual writing is one of the things it is. So: sensory writing, but focused on one sense in particular in most cases. Highly effective for a large number of readers.

Now. Does this mean I’m saying everyone should do more of this? No. I’m saying it’s one set of on-ramps, one set of access points, I have noticed, and particularly if you’re trying to do something deeply weird, deeply dislocational, and are trying to expand your audience for it, it’s a thing to think about. Adventure is a really traditional access point for both science fiction and fantasy. You can sort hard SF writers into which ones really really want to write about explosions and feel obligated to have some kind of science to dress it up and which ones really really want to write about science and feel obliged to have some kind of explosions to dress it up. Especially late in their careers, when one or the other goes out the window. But similar categorizations are more broadly true for other kinds of ideas and other kinds of action/adventure.

And I bet there are more access points I’m missing. And I’d love to talk more about them. Here or there or on Twitter. Even if you think I’m wrong. Especially if you think I’m wrong. There’s more to say here, too, about exoticism and escapism and phantasmagoria of ideas vs. senses–I know, because I’ve been having some of that conversation on email already–but honestly this is long enough and I need to hit post at some point and actually, y’know, start talking. And simultaneously get back to the story I’m writing.

The Vogon poetry problem

I think we all know the Dragonsinger problem of poetry in fiction (I will describe it in case someone doesn’t), and this week I found its opposite.

The Dragonsinger problem: all the other characters go on and on about how brilliant Our Protagonist’s poetry is. “You are the best poet of your generation!” they cry. “Possibly the best ever! Our country/language/planet has never seen such a wondrous poet as you!” Problem: very few authors are the best poet of their generation. Very few best poets of their generation decide to write speculative novels. So if you do show even a few lines of such a poem, rather than only the reactions to the poems, it jolts the reader right on out of there. Or immerses them in pity for the country/language/planet that is stuck with no better poetry than that. One of the worst examples is Menolly of Dragonsong and Dragonsinger. Everyone falls all over themselves to praise her. Her peers are sooooo jealous. And Anne McCaffrey shows quite a lot of Menolly’s lyrics in the books, and they are…not, shall we say, in stiff competition for the best of her generation. I first read them right before I turned twelve, and I am not convinced that they were better than I could have done at that age. I believe they rhymed die and cry, among other things. And I was reading T.H. White at around the same time, so I had the ants to help me make fun of them with the moon/June/soon, love/dove/above, and thanks to T.H. White whenever pop music is particularly annoying me I think of Al Jolson.

Anyway.

Yesterday I encountered the opposite. The author was quite aware that they were portraying bad poetry. It was supposed to be youthful and exuberant but not at all good. And it went on. And on. AND ON.

This is just what Douglas Adams did not do with the Vogon poetry. Vogon poetry, as Adams described it in the Hitchhiker’s Guide series, was notoriously bad throughout the galaxy, weapons-grade bad poetry. But he described it. He had a line or two. Enough for people to chuckle at how bad.

And then he was done.

Because people believe you that your bad poetry is bad. Oh, they believe you. They just don’t need to sit through it. You only need to hear the clarinets honk once to believe that a grade school band concert is bad. Too much longer and people look away. There is a very narrow land between two swamps, and those two swamps are Embarrassment Squick and Boredom. Being bad at things is rarely interesting. Dart in. Move on. Even if you’re setting a baseline for later improvement, the reader will believe you: yep, they’re bad, they can get better. Golly, we hope they get better. Soon. Now, even. Time for the training montage. Or the cut-scene to exhausted-but-better. Or something else.

It’s not a bear hunt, but…maybe go through it anyway.

That is: you can go over it. You can around it. You don’t have to go through it.

But sometimes you should.

Here’s what I’m talking about: the other week when I was having tea with some writer friends, one of them started talking about a problem she was having in her work. Let’s say that it was that people were finding her settings too generic. (It wasn’t. But let’s say that it was, because I like my friends to be able to discuss their problems without feeling like the whole internet will then become their confidante without their permission.) And the way she phrased this problem meant that the rest of us were helping her brainstorm ways to make a generic setting okay–the sorts of plots where a generic setting would not call attention to itself or bother anybody, the sorts of characters that could do their own personal, individual pyrotechnics and not make anybody go, “…does this person actually come from anywhere in particular? it feels like not.”

And as she was listening to us, she backed up and said no, what she actually wanted now that she was listening to us all was to make her settings less generic. How to work on that. And we immediately switched gears. Oh! You want to work on that, right! Let’s talk about ways to work on that!

There actually could have been three things there, though: 1) Her settings were not actually generic, but the unique stuff was not coming through. Work on how to bring out the unique stuff. 2) Her settings were generic. Does not actually care much about setting compared to other elements. Make other elements so amazing that people are too busy going, “wow, I love this protagonist,” or, “I could not wait to find out what happens next!” or, “What snappy dialog!” or whatever. 3) Her settings were generic. Try to make them less so.

#2 is risky in some ways–the good-enough story element–because on the one hand you have to admit that the odds that you will knock everybody’s socks off in every single aspect of a book are essentially nil. But on the other hand…deciding right up front that you don’t actually care if a major element is very good leaves you pretty vulnerable, especially if readers don’t like the basket you put all your eggs in. “I have really awesome speculative ideas!” you might say, and I might roll my eyes and say, “wow, this is supposed to be hard science fiction? because let me tell you how the physics of that totally doesn’t work. And also the characters are completely cardboard. Yick.” That has happened. That has happened more than once. On the other hand, the authors with whom this has happened have plenty of fans. So–priorities. It’s really hard to identify everything you might want to improve simultaneously, even if you’re just pleasing yourself and not cranky people who majored in something related to your idea. Sometimes it’s really, really okay to work around one or two things that you know are weaknesses for awhile.

Sometimes it’s time to dive in and try to get better at them.

You’re the one who gets to say which is which.

where you go from here

One of the problems I have with our system of schooling is that it sets up the expectation that if you want to know something, if you want to know how to do something, other people will tell you what it is that you need to know, the steps you need to fulfill, the boxes you need to check off. Want to learn Spanish? Here is what learning Spanish means! First you pass Spanish 1! Then Spanish 2! Here are the vocabulary lists! Here are the grammatical forms you learn and the order you learn them in! Your Spanish class will vary from someone else’s, but you will each have external validation that you are doing it properly, you are doing the thing.

This is basically not how learning goes. It is not how projects go. Most of the time–most of life–there is no one you can ask and get a definitive answer: am I learning the thing? Am I doing it? And even more basically: is this the thing I should be doing? Either learning Spanish itself or this set of vocabulary words, this set of grammatical forms, this type of pronunciation: is this the thing I most need to work on in order to be better at this? Or is there something else? Because there is, isn’t there. If you’re doing translation, if you’ve gotten to the point of real conversation or real reading, there are the parts that are cultural. The parts that do not fit any list. Where no one can say to you, “here is your new list!” or even, “your long a sound, it sounds too broad, it does not match coherently with your i sound to make an accent recognizable in any Spanish dialect.” The parts where you have to reach for a phrase instead of a word, and you start learning about pieces of culture to know what phrase. People can tell you some of that. But if you don’t start reaching for those pieces yourself, you will stay adequate, never better than that. It’s like that with music, with math, with baking, with everything. You can start with the externally validated list of Things To Learn To Get Better At The Thing. You can consult the experts: how do I thing better? And they will have opinions. But if you don’t start having opinions yourself, you won’t become one of the experts yourself.

And this is where I think a lot of writers run into a problem with criticism, with what criticism is.

Criticism is not a substitution for these lists. It is not trying to set itself up as your new list. You can take it as one if that’s useful. When you’re saying to yourself, how do I thing better? In this case write. How do I write better? What do I want to get better at, in my writing? You can say, huh. A lot of people who talk about the last thing I wrote said that the dialog sounded very wooden, maybe I should work on that. But that’s not what they’re doing. They are not your teacher. They are not writing you a to-do list. They are saying what they thought. You can choose to try to work on that thing next time. You can choose to shrug and say, well, I agree or else I don’t, but that’s not what I’m going to try to do.

Your agent or your editor can say, “This needs clearer exposition,” or, “I’d like the voice to come out more vividly here,” or, “I just don’t think this will sell unless you strengthen the protagonist’s motivation.” And if you’ve chosen to go with a form of publishing where you have an agent or an editor, that’s part of why you have them. Your critiquers can do it. But that feedback can only take you so far if you’re not pushing yourself. If you’re not saying to yourself that you want your premise to be more ambitious, or your portrayal of working relationships, or your descriptive prose. They are working on selling the writer you are. They can see the outlines of the writer you could be. But only the outlines. You’re the one who has to color that in. And if you can’t–your critique group, your editor, your agent, your family, your friends, your mentors, all those people–they can give you a boost. They can try to extend your reach. But you’re the one who has to figure out what you’re reaching for.

The critics, the reviewers–they can point out weaknesses. But it’s up to you to decide if you want to work around them or strengthen them until they’re not weaknesses. Or ignore the criticism. It is there for readers. You can choose to learn from it, but it’s not there to teach you.

I am all in favor of clear communication, but it’s very hard to communicate to someone that they aren’t doing something no one imagined they might want to do. There are so many things to be done that if you don’t communicate that you’re trying something, the odds are pretty good no one will think that you are and tell you that you could and how to get there. This is true if you’re not making social efforts: no one will come in and say, “Hey, by not ever asking people to do anything, you’re failing to communicate that you want to do anything.” It’s also true for particular writerly ambitions. Mostly we try not to write reviews excoriating books for not doing what the reviewer imagined they could unless there is some good reason to think the writer meant to. I’ll have some things to say about Diane Duane’s Games Wizards Play in my book post, but none of them will be, “Hey, this is not a very reliable treatise on planetary astronomy.” And there will always be reams and realms of things you could be trying in your fiction that no one will come and chide you for not doing. Because they didn’t know you might want to. They thought you were content as you were.

Don’t be.