Thursday, May 19, 2011

On Hatchlings and Neo-Pros -- When Is A Writer "Good Enough"?

Thirty years ago, I went to the Clarion Workshop, and the first week, Algis Budrys told me that I would have no trouble making a living in this business. (Boy, was he ever wrong, but he didn't realize I was unable to stick to a genre to save my life.)

In the last week at Clarion, Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm read my partial novel and told me in great detail how it was utter crap. It was hard to take, and I sat there, kind of shell-shocked and certain they were missing something. At some point I happened to mention that I had actually only ever written three short stories before (the third of which is what got me into Clarion). They looked at each other in surprise, and then burst out laughing. "Oh! Well that explains it! You're just out of the egg! You're doing fine. Keep going." (They did not, however, encourage me to finish or attempt to publish that novel.)

Looking back on it, I can see that all three of them were both wrong and right. Kate and Damon were holding up a mirror as to what editors see (which was a whole lot of immaturity) but they also didn't see beyond the surface immaturity and cliches to the story that was worth writing. They couldn't. I wasn't a good enough writer to tell that story yet.

But it wasn't just me. The story wasn't what you'd call a Kate and Damon kind of story. If I had been a better writer, I'm still not sure they could have seen what I was going for. They had a very different sensibility than I did. Luckily for me, someone else could: Orson Scott Card was also at that Clarion. He was the only one who saw that I was not writing science fiction humor, I was writing P.G. Wodehouse -- and for that I was not only relieved and gratified, but I have to cut him some slack for his recent obnoxiousness. He let me see that what I loved was valuable and not to be hidden.

In the meantime, there was another young author at that Clarion, named Dean Wesley Smith.

Dean has written over a hundred books, and is a very successful author with lots and lots of pen names, etc. He was already far more advanced than I was back in 1982, though he sometimes claims not. Oddly enough, his "you're just out of the egg" moment happened later -- after he had started publishing books. He told this story in the comments on his blog recently:

"I have a great friend who is a bookseller, and he called me a neo-pro for a long time. One day I asked him when I would stop being a neo-pro ... , how many novels would it take. (Honestly, my little ego was getting hurt by his attitude. I was selling books, damn it, I had a right to be called a professional writer.)

Without hesitation he said, 'Ten.' So I asked him why ten and he said 'Most writers don’t make it that far. You publish ten novels, I’ll call you a professional.'

And since I went by ten, he has ... and somewhere about twenty I started to understand what he had meant and why he had that policy."

So to sum up:

One young writer (me) hears from four masters: one told me I was ready to make a living, another saw I had a dream worth following, and two more saw I was immature as heck. It was like the blind men and the elephant. It has been thirty freaking years putting that fractured picture together and figuring out who I am. But none of them were really wrong.

Another young writer (Dean) was already having the success so many others are desperate for, and yet it wasn't enough to be taken seriously. He didn't understand it then, but he understands it now.

Why am I telling you these stories?

First, because newbies will always have this problem of being told by somebody that they aren't yet good enough, and it can help to know that it isn't just you, and it won't be just when you're a newbie either. And, horror or horrors... you're gonna say it to some newbie too someday. You may not think you will, but you will.

And second, with the advent of Indie publishing, I meet more and more writers who are thrust into the unforgiving world of publishing without any idea of what such criticism means. So often they seem to think it means, "Give up! You're no good!" or even crazier, "You should just wait your turn, because I did!" but that's not what it means at all.

Dean's story shows that no matter where you are in the process, you aren't at the end. You can write books, and you can get them published, you can make a living...and you still haven't impressed people who are old hands. Even when you reach the point to impress them, you still don't know why. It's only later on, when you've written ten more books, that the real meaning of work and talent and "good enough" hits you. And the cool thing is that after yet another ten books, you'll know even more -- stuff you never imagined.

My story tells you that even at a single moment in time -- one immature newbie with three stories and a quarter of a novel -- there are still many different perspectives and many different meanings to the advice you get. Each person can only offer you what his or her experiences have taught, and nothing more. Plus even though what they say is true, you may not be able to understand it until you get to where they are.

And worse yet, even if the criticism is true, it still may not be helpful.

It's like the old joke about the lost helicopter:

A helicopter is lost in the fog in Washington State. The GPS is out and the pilot and passenger are worried. Then a skyscraper looms out of the fog. They can see people in an office, looking out at them, so the pilot tells the passenger to write up a sign: "Where are we?"

They hold the sign up, and the people in the office scurry to get a marker and board, and they answer, "You're in a helicopter."

The passenger groans and slaps his face with his palm, but the pilot gives the office workers a thumbs up, and flies straight off to the nearest airport.

When they get to the ground the passenger looks at the pilot, and says, "How on earth did that answer tell you where we were?"

"Easy," said the pilot. "The answer they gave us was accurate but not helpful, so obviously that was the Microsoft tech support building in Redmond."


When you are new to this business (and probably to any business) you will get a LOT of answers which are accurate, but not helpful -- at least not until later when you have enough context to do something with it. And sometimes it's not helpful even then. It's easy to get frustrated and angry at this.

If you're an indie writer, and someone tells you that 99.999 percent of all indie writing is trash, you may feel you should do the equivalent of Get A Mac (as long as we're in the Microsoft motif). You're an indie! You can just reject the reality of the person giving you this info. Indie publishing is like being a Mac user -- you get to Think Different! Big brother cannot control your computing life!

Dude, I love Macs. I am one of the original Mac Evangelistas, but even I gotta say: a Mac ain't gonna fly your helicopter, and it ain't going to write your story.

So what if that other person doesn't "get" everything you're doing -- that doesn't mean they have nothing to offer. You still gotta crawl before you walk. And you've got to learn to walk before you can run up and throw that revolutionary sledge hammer through Big Brother's control screen. (Um... am I getting a little too Mac Evangelista here? Maybe you should watch the first Macintosh Ad from 1984 and see what I mean.... Seriously, it has a nice Indie Publishing feel to it. You'll like it.)

Okay, we're back: the point is that nothing worth doing is easy. Especially not revolution.

The people who went before you, like it or not, DO know something that you need to know. They may have prejudices that make their answers accurate but not helpful, and their advice may be out of date, and you have no duty to obey them.

But the wise person listens, figures it out, and adapts. And if you can't figure it out now, you can file it away and maybe figure it out later, like Dean did.

Which brings us back at last to whether you're good enough.

Good enough for what?

That's where the "accurate but not helpful" comes in: Good enough for publication? Even in the traditional publishing world we were all encouraged to TRY before we were ready. And Dean had already published several books and was not considered good enough to be a pro by his bookseller friend.

The fact is, on some magical scale of excellence, you're not good enough. You never will be good enough, because you can always be better. So being told you're not good enough is like being told "You're in a helicopter."

Just don't shrug it off -- you may need to look past that "you're in a helicopter" sign to see the information behind it. Because that information may be what you need to get where you want to go.

See you in the funny papers.

(And for those of you who are dealing with Writer Desperation, you might read the companion post "The Times That Try Writers' Souls."


ModWitch said...

Wow. It's easier being a Mac user these days!

I'll bookmark this post, and read it again after I have ten books under my belt :).

a said...

(Oh gawd am I old or what? I remember that ad soooo well. LOL)

Unfortunately, the people understand your point are already on the right path. Sadly, I fear there's no help for the ones lost in the woods in the fog.

What's true for the writing is also true for the business side, but people don't grasp that, either. Santayana said those who can't remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Those who refuse to study the past march to the starting gate with a heavy handicap.

The Daring Novelist said...

Modwitch: I still have one of those t-shirts (though it is a t-shirt and not a halter top like that). And in ten books, you won't need to look back at it. I ten books you get to be like Slappy Squirrel yourself.

Azarimba: True, but sometimes, when somebody's ready to move to the next level, hearing about how someone else went through the experience helps.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I have to agree with Dean...I'm starting book 8 right now and I feel like I'm really just figuring out what I'm doing still.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the post. I found it quite encouraging. I try to think of the overall topic of the post more in the bigger term. That is to say, it applies to life on a wide spectrum. We should always be learning and growing, so it is with writing, and so it should be with life in general.

Thanks Again! (Bookmarking this one!)

The Daring Novelist said...

You're so right, Elizabeth -- the more you write, the more you learn... and the more you realize what you don't know.

Michael: You are so right -- this really isn't about writing, it's about life. I do find it interesting, though, how many writers who seem to know this about life, but when they jump into writing, they forget the wisdom they acquired elsewhere.

Rebecca Knight said...

Fascinating post! I especially like the idea that you'll never be good enough because there's always another level of excellence...

and that's okay :). It's weirdly comforting, in a way.

Steve Perry said...

Me, I'm up to sixty-some novels now, and I still get lots of helpful how-to-write notes whenever I offer a story for input. Mostly I nod and listen, because there is sometimes a grain of truth I need.

When I'm feeling cranky, I think -- and usually don't say -- that I'm happy enough with my skills that I don't think I need writing lessons until the teacher is better at it than am I.

One always has to consider the source. When a reader takes me to task for making up too many neologisms and points out a particularly foolish one that is, in fact, a word already in the dictionary, then I can discount that opinion ...

David Michael said...

I enjoyed this post. Maybe because I think I'm well into my own neo-pro phase (which could be a sign of the hatchling ;-) ).

I can remember the first time I read something I wrote and really enjoyed it. I can also remember when I re-read that same bit of prose some years later and cringed, embarrassed beyond belief. I consider both of those moments of growth. :-)


The Daring Novelist said...

Rebecca: yeah, it is a good feeling in many ways -- to know that all that you've done is only the beginning. When you accomplish something, it's like finishing a great book and knowing there's a whole lot more the series.

Steve: Oh, yeah. The problems with people who don't know what they don't know are endless. (Sometimes I think it's a variation on this: the criticism you get in critique is sometimes accurate and still not TRUE.)

I am pondering a post about dealing with readers who believe themselves to know more than you do (and are wrong). But I haven't got the right approach yet. (Need a good joke, maybe.)

David: One thing I can say is that there does come a time when you do not cringe any more. That is, when your skills reach a certain level, the story will not make you cringe no matter how much more you learn -- you may see opportunities missed, or know what you should have done, or regret your lack of skill at the time, but you will be able to take the story for what it is too.