Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Patience is the Biggest Challenge of Them All

To begin with, I have an admission to make: I have been lax in responding to everyone who has submitted a book for review. I am still working my way through the list of submitters and I really should have sent out some kind of formal response (ie "I got your submission, I'll let you know when I'm ready to read it, don't take this response as a no, etc.") right away, which I didn’t do. For that, I apologize.

Having said that, I noticed that one of the people who submitted to me showed up in the comments thread on an up-and-coming industry blog. When this submitter sent me an email, that email landed in my spam folder, which is never a good sign. When that submitter commented on the blog, others started tearing the submitter apart, for good reason. The comments were grammatically awkward and the pdf that was submitted was both poorly formatted and lacked simple things, like capital letters and punctuation. Worse, when this was pointed out, the submitter got argumentative, accusing people of not reading the entire work before passing judgment.

I’m not trying to shame this person in any way, shape or form. But they do make an excellent object lesson in what not to do.

First, posting in broken English is fine for Mahir, but not for native speakers. Make sure that every sentence you write is clear. If you are not sure if your sentences are clear, read them aloud to yourself. Even better, read them aloud to someone else. I really shouldn’t have to tell you this.

Second, by producing a book that does not contain the basic elements that most readers expect when a thought has started or ended, this person has staked out territory in the realm of difficult composition. Difficult composition means that the reader is automatically challenged to understand what information is being conveyed. The problem is that the reader has a multitude of choices when it comes to entertainment. By producing something that produces more frustration than hook, you are offering them the choice to simply put it down and move on to the next piece. (I’ll come back to this in a minute.)

Third, the submitter was argumentative when given honest feedback. “This book is difficult to read,” is a well-meant, honest critique and can be given after only a few paragraphs of reading. Arguing with that critique is an easy path to ridicule – a place that most readers will not hesitate to go, with or without provocation.

Remember, as you interface with the world around you, your words and actions will help determine your reputation. More importantly, arguing with the wrong person can get you banned from a potential market, which is never a good thing. (And, lest you think this is a problem that is confined merely to writers, look at these rules for artists and spot how many apply to writers.)

Now, I said that I’d come back to the point about challenging narratives, because it is important. One of the things that first-year art students are taught is that they must learn art history and composition before they are allowed to try anything difficult, abstract or conceptual. Take Picasso – do you really think that he started with Cubism? In fact, his early paintings are filled with realism, mostly because he was learning how to use things like color and composition properly. It was only after he got comfortable with these tools that he felt confident enough to step outside the boundaries and truly experiment.

I point this out because I sometimes feel like first-time authors take a look at something like the thirty six dramatic situations or the grand list of role playing game plots and think “I should be able to produce something better than this – something edgy, different, challenging!” While those authors are not necessarily wrong, in a greater sense, they are not always right, either.

It used to be that when an artist took his first steps along the path of creativity, he would find a master and apprentice himself. After a few years, he would graduate from apprentice to journeyman and, finally, to the rank of master. To cross from one stage to another, the artisan would produce a definitive work, which is where we get the term “masterpiece” from. To be honest, I’m not sure how easy it is to find an author who is willing to mentor a new talent anymore, although I’m sure it does happen from time to time. But the idea of a series of gradual steps is still an appealing one and should probably be reintroduced.

I read once that the first novel or two are usually autobiographical. It is only after the author has taken a look at someone else and wondered “what is their life like?” that he begins to get into a different mode. I’m really not sure how well that holds true for every author, but I do know that new authors could do a lot worse than to pick a plot that interests them and just knocked out a single novel that shows how well they can tell a story. It doesn’t have to be new or original or fancy or marketable at all.

In fact, I would argue that the first two or three novels should never be exposed to the light of day. Those are the apprentice works – a chance to work all of the bad narrative choices out of the system before getting around to the real job of writing a proper novel that breaks the rules the author has worked so hard to learn.

At this point, reader reaction will probably cut in one of two directions. Writers with a single novel (or less) under their belts are no doubt cringing and saying something to the effect of, “But what if I never get another novel-worthy idea?” Seasoned writers, with at least two novels under their belts, understand that it doesn’t work like that. Getting good at novel-writing takes time and effort and an inability to be dismayed by something as simple as an anonymous blog writer with delusions of grandeur.

But getting good at self-publishing can only work if you have a good novel to work with. And ignoring the basics of writing in a rush to get something published will not serve you as well as you might think. You might end up in the same boat as the individual who inspired this post and nobody wants that. It doesn’t make you look good and it doesn’t make the prospect of self-publishing look good. In the end, you aren’t just hurting yourself – you are hurting the rest of us as well.

So, for the good of your writing, the good of your self-publishing career and for the good of the community in general, take it slow. Be the best writer you can be and then write another novel where you strive to be even better. It’s the first step on an important journey and the rest of us would prefer that you not destroy the road we’re all walking on.