My mentor Dean Wesley Smith is again taking aim at the myth that in order to be a good writer, you have to re-write your work over and over and over, or must somehow slave away at each page like someone will shoot you in the face with a bazooka if every line is not crystal perfect. Down in the comments of this thread I made the observation that writing is a lot like learning to ski — something Dean is well acquainted with, as a man who is a self-described skiing addict.
Having been asked to expound on this comparison, I’m going to import what I wrote at Dean’s blog, and take it a few steps further.
NOTE: it’s been awhile since I got on skis, but when I was a teenager my Dad and I used to frequent the usual Salt Lake City spots: Brighton, Solitude, Park City, and especially Alta. Being both a purist and a technician, Alta was and is my father’s most favorite of all the Utah ski resorts. He and I spent many a Friday — from December through March — playing hookie on the groomed (and not so groomed) runs up Little Cottonwood Canyon. Later this year I’ll be taking my daughter up on the mountain for the first time, so lately I’ve been contemplating my teenaged learning curve — and have been surprised at how similar it is to the learning curve I experience with writing.
Like virtually every sport, skiing has as much to do with muscle memory and unconscious reflexes as it does with deliberate, calculated decision-making. How you proceed down a given slope thus becomes a combination of keeping your eyes on the hill and deciding which paths to take, and letting your body do the rest — according to the accumulated physical stimulus it’s received over however long you’ve been engaged in the sport.
But when you’re very new and you first go up on the hill, regardless of how expensive or newfangled your equipment, you are going to fall on your face. A lot. Over and over and over. It might take you hours to get through even a single run on a modest slope, and you’re liable to come away discouraged and dismayed. What seems effortless in a Warren Miller movie winds up proving near-impossible when you’re doing it for the first time. Second time. Even fifth or sixth time.
So how do you improve your skiing? By reading books and magazines on skiing? By talking about how great it would be to ski, if only you had the time? Or the money? By putting on your bib and parka and boots and standing in the snow in your front yard, imagining yourself skiing? By sitting in the lodge forking out too much money on overpriced, bad lodge food? By complaining to the other lodge denizens about how your boots are too tight, the bindings on your skis are too loose, the snow conditions suck, it’s too cold to be any fun, and so forth?
Naw. You hit the hill! And when you biff it — all skiers biff it, it’s part of what it means to ski — you pick your ass up out of the powder, clear the snow out of the neck of your parka, find the end of the line for the ski lift, go back up to the top of the run, and do it again. And again. And again. And again. And you go home and you rest and heal up — skiing the first few times makes you work muscles you never knew you had — and you come back for more. More runs. More turfing it, sometimes in spectacular style when everyone is watching. Only, they’re not. It just feels like that as you trudge shame-faced across the width of the slope looking for gloves, goggles, poles, skis, and everything else that flew off when you went ass-over-teakettles.
Do this for a whole winter. Maybe take one or two ski classes from the surfer dudes — most ski instructors seem to share 90% personality overlap with their wave-riding brethren — running the hill’s resident ski school. But past that, just keep going up on the mountain as often as you’re able. Don’t worry about looking dumb or feeling dumb. Make yourself get over the fear of doing it bad and looking stupid. Nobody goes magically from beginner to advanced. Everybody has to learn by doing.
In other words, dare to ski bad! It’s the only aperture to improvement!
Keep hitting the hill. Half days. Full days. As often as schedule and other factors allow. Even if you don’t consciously try to improve, you will improve if you do it regularly. I guarantee it. It’s like the body — all on its own — begins to remember what works and what does not work. The more you allow your body to experience the act of skiing, the better you will get at it. Your body remembers, and adjusts all by itself without your having to make much overt effort. Just like riding a bicycle.
Do this for even a couple of seasons, and you’ll start to ski like you belong in a Warren Miller movie. You’ll get ambitious and graduate from green beginner hills to the blue experienced hills, maybe even the vaunted “black diamond” stuff that looks suicidal — at least when you’re brand new. Again, without any real deliberate effort. Let yourself go through the motions again and again and again, and it’s automatic.
But because writing is a largely intellectual exercise we tend to think we won’t get any better at it the same way we get better at a sport like skiing. Bullshit. To get good at it you have to do it. A lot. And not be afraid to biff it in front of the crowded lift line where hundreds of folk can all see your colossal blunder. No big whoop. The experienced ones know: they did it too. And still do it. You just get up, collect yourself, and get back in the queue for another ride on the chair.
Writing is a project of critical mass. It takes time and effort and constant accumulation, until one day **POOF** the contracts start coming in. But you won’t get that critical mass if you don’t do the constant exercise: writing fresh prose. Dean hammers this, and so does every other pro I’ve met who is working and making a living, yet this seems to be the hardest lesson for everyone to accept and internalize. Everyone gets wrapped up in one of several traps.
What are the traps?
Fear of rejection is a big one. This is the same fear that people will think you’re dumb if you biff it on the ski slopes. It’s an empty fear. Nobody on the slops cares if you biff it, and no editor or other writer will care if you get rejected. Rejections mean nothing about the story, are not personal in any way, and trying to read these tea leaves for insight on how to “fix” a story is a waste of time. Rejections also happen to everyone, high and low. Even bestselling authors. Even people with tens or a hundred books or more under their belts. I know this for a fact because I’ve talked to these writers working at that level and they all get rejected. So it’s not like rejection only happens to new people or the aspirant unpublished. I certainly get rejected, all the time, and I expect it will always be like that — even though I am also selling now too. So put away the fear about rejection, it’s a waste of time. And will stop you from mailing your writing to the editors — and you can’t sell or break in without an editor going, hey, I like this. Remember critical mass! You write enough and keep sending it out, some editor will eventually nab you.
Fear of being “bad” is another. Which is where endless re-writing (aka: polishing) kills people. I used to be in this group. I never had much fear about rejections — though I have let them erode morale in the past — but I absolutely bought into the idea that for a piece of work to be good, I had to re-write the f*** out of it. Every writer is different, but every successful writer discovers a threshold at which they say to themselves, “This is as good as I can make this book or this story at this time, so I am calling it ‘done,’ and sending it to an editor.”
Hence the old adage that stories and books are never finished, merely abandoned. To be successful you have to realize when revision — of any sort — has become an exercise in diminishing returns. For me, it’s usually the third pass. I write to a stopping point or reasonable place of conclusion, and go back through the story twice more: once to look for gross errors in grammar, spelling, bad sentences, etc, and once more to make sure the “feel” satisfies me. But even if I am not overly thrilled with the product, if I can “feel” that it’s as good as I can make it — in that time and place — I wrap it up and send it out.
And surprise, surprise, some of the stories I’ve had the least confidence in, have sold. Imagine that! A piece of work you don’t think is “good” rang true for an editor, and suddenly that editor is having his or her accountants send you a check. Sometimes, it’s a flipping nice check. And if you’d let fear get in the way of you a) declaring the piece complete or b) mailing it to someone who can buy it, that check would not exist. I have experienced this first-hand, as someone who was once badly, badly stuck in the re-write myth.
Let me repeat again, because this is too important for beginners and new writers to miss: if you let the fear control your actions — fear of being bad, of getting rejected — you will never make it. You have to ignore both of these fears because you will be cheating yourself out of opportunities to sell. Moreover, with re-writes especially, you won’t be doing the work necessary to improve. Like skiing, you have to ski to get better. You don’t get better at writing by re-writing. Lots of people will debate that, but it’s been my experience that it’s true. Re-writing is a different chore entirely from writing, and if you find yourself spending more time on re-writing than actual, fresh writing, you’re doing it wrong. And I will nail my butt to the wall on that one.
If you’re spending more time on re-writing than actual, fresh writing, you’re doing it wrong.
Once you learn to work through the fears, though — once you make working through the fear part of your paradigm as a writer… WHOOSH! You’ll be scooting down the mountain, accumulating unconscious writing experience at a cheetah pace! Your writing legs will be humming like the well-tuned shocks on a baja buggy — you’ll be zipping by the beginners and marveling that it ever seemed so hard. It will be liberating. A far cry from the first time you angled downhill, panicked, crossed your tips, and fell forward with arms and legs tied up like a pretzel.