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Excuses for Writing Badly

Last night Sweetie and I attended the Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy concert performed by the Oregon Symphony in downtown Portland. Since I blew my state tax refund on tickets for the center front row of the dress circle, I made an unusual effort to "dress." And since I went through all that effort, I made Sweetie take pictures on the porch before we left.

T.K. Marnell before the Distant Worlds concert

Lipstick and a necklace. Can't get much fancier than that.

The concert was very enjoyable; however, it might have been a bit more enjoyable if Sweetie and I had no experience in music. Both of us performed with orchestras in our teens (he played cello, I played flute), so it's difficult to shut off the parts of our brains shouting, "Trumpets, tone it down! Double basses, step it up! Piccolo, you're going flat!" It's a lot like reading books as a writer—near impossible to switch from "creator" to "audience" and simply enjoy the show.

Shutting up the mental critics was especially hard for a concert like this, for a couple of reasons. (1) Sweetie has listened to the Final Fantasy music loop for hours on end since childhood. The pieces are so deeply stamped on his conscious and unconscious mind that when the musicians were practicing before the show, he could recognize the fleeting isolated stanzas. I've heard them often enough since college to be able to name which game they came from, at least. So any variations from the beloved recordings pop out and seem like shortcomings. It's like watching a remake of a favorite classic movie—the new version will never be as good as "the original."

And (2) the Oregon Symphony had only one rehearsal before the concert. Distant Worlds is a "traveling show" with one conductor who flies around the world commissioning local talent to perform the scores. The musicians met him briefly for one run-through before the live performance, and that's it. Most of their practice had to be independent, and practicing by yourself is only the prerequisite to practicing as a whole.

The result: though the musicians were top-of-the-line, and they did their best under the circumstances, there were many times they just didn't "jive." One section would drag or another would rush. The percussion in the far back didn't adjust for the sound delay. The flutes and trumpets played too loudly and the less potent instruments were too soft when they carried the melody. And during the "opera" piece, the three soloists were all but drowned out, though they tried valiantly to be heard over the orchestra.

To put on a great concert, having talented musicians is a good start. But it isn't enough to seat them all on one stage and say, "Go!" They must practice together to polish the sound. A hop, step, and a jump in reasoning: to write a great novel, being a talented writer is a good start. But it's not enough to type a bunch of letters into one Word document and say, "Done!" You must revise to polish the story.

Many people adamantly refuse to revise. They say, "I'm an artist. This is my voice." Or, "I'm a professional. Perfection isn't realistic." To be frank, these are nothing more than excuses for writing badly. They're the self-righteous chants of the lazy, the impatient, and the arrogant.

Let us dissect and demolish, shall we?

I'm an artist. This is my voice.

Many people undertake fiction writing because they were told, or they believe, that they are talented writers. They earned all A-pluses in their English classes. Their family and friends call them "smart." From K-12 through college they got away with never revising at all, because the sub-par first drafts they turned in were better than the sub-par first drafts their classmates did.

But when writing as an adult, like in all other things, being smart and talented isn't enough.

People who use the excuse of "artistry" tend to dash off the first draft of a novel and believe that, because they are brilliant, the novel must be brilliant too. They believe they have some golden well of genius deep in their souls whence award-winning prose flows unadulterated onto the page. They say, "The first draft is my real voice. If I edit, the perfectionist kicks in and sucks all originality out of it!"

Or, as Oscar Wilde purportedly quipped, "I never rewrite my own work. Who am I to tamper with genius?"

Genius or not, every writer is human. And no human will produce his or her best work on the first try. You'll overlook basic errors and inconsistencies. You'll come up with better ideas later, long after you've "finished" a scene or chapter. You won't notice that you used the sentence "She bit her lip" twenty times in one manuscript, or that you have a half dozen repetitions of "really" on every page. You'll realize with a shock halfway through that your hero is an unlikeable jerk, and you'll wake up in the middle of the night a year after starting and say, "Fudge. My novel has no plot."

The "voice" excuse doesn't even make sense. If you're the one rewriting, how could you possibly edit out your voice? Do you cease being you after the first pass? Maybe you become someone else instead, hmm?

You will not lose your voice when you rewrite. You will only refine it to a less wordy, rambling, weak and confusing version of it.

(And for the record, in case you can't detect tongue-in-cheek, Oscar Wilde rewrote the heck out of his work. Do you think the super-streamlined and witticism-packed Importance of Being Earnest was dashed off in a couple of sittings? Please.)

I'm a professional. Perfection isn't realistic.

The sort of writers who use this one tend to preface it with meaningless numbers. They say, "I've been writing fiction for fifteen years, and..." or "As someone who has written more than twenty books..." as if the length of time they've been writing or the amount of "stuff" they've produced is an adequate substitute for the quality of their work.

They also tend to devote a lot of effort and passion to convincing other writers that taking the time to build and improve a few books, instead of churning out as many as they can, will doom them to poverty. To be a "professional" you have to settle for a fraction of your fullest potential, or you won't make any money. The only way to make money is to write a lot of books that are "good enough" for people to buy them.

Question: When you were a wee lad or lass with dreams of becoming A Writer, did you go up to your English teacher and say, "I hope that one day I'll be a novelist who writes mediocre books that are just good enough for me to make a living, and that nobody will remember me when I die"?

If you did, forgive me. This post is not for you.

But for the rest of you, remember that annoying old adage, "Shoot for the stars, and you'll land in the trees"? Remember where you land when you shoot for the trees?

The mud. Yes, the mud.

We never write as well as we think we do, because we see the stories we intended to write instead of the ones that are actually there. People who aim to produce mediocre novels write trash. People who aim to write the best book in the history of the universe might end up with something "okay" or even, if they're very tenacious, "pretty good."

The "never ever rewrite" advocates paint a picture of two mutually exclusive options: either never ever rewrite, or revise endlessly in pursuit of unattainable perfection. But it is possible, believe it or not, to rewrite until you've done the best you can, and then move on. Saying you might as well publish slapdash work because perfection is impossible is like saying you might as well skip studying because you could never get straight As, or you might as well gorge on junk because you could never be a supermodel. It's not an either/or choice.

But if you never even try—if you aim to satisfice and never push yourself for better—your tenth novel will be only marginally better than the first. That is, if it's any better at all.

In developmental psychology and educational theory there are a lot of technical terms, like "zone of proximal development" and "scaffolding," but they all mean this: people improve only when they're challenged to do things they can't handle yet. It's common sense, right? If you play flute and can't hit the fourth octave D, you're never going to hit it by staying comfortable in the third octave. If you can't run more than one mile, you certainly won't train yourself to run a 5k by jogging only one mile each day.

And if you only write safe, perfunctory books that you can put out with minimal effort, never considering how to correct their weaknesses or how to express yourself better, you can't expect to become anything more than a mediocre writer.


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