Saturday, February 16, 2013

writing and fighting

You might think writing and martial arts would not go together at all, but I've been doing both for more than a decade and I keep finding more and more ways in which they are related.

Everybody wants to be a writer. I can't count the number of people who've said to me, "You know, I always thought about writing a book....". Everybody wants to study a martial art--especially the esoteric ones--tai chi, kung fu, akido.

Eighty percent of folks never get around to doing it. Eighty percent of those who do try--writing a book or studying kung fu-- quit after a few months.

Ninety-nine percent of those who actually do put serious time into their kung fu--say, 10 years or more--or who actually finish a novel-length manuscript, will never actually be any good.

My sifu likes to puzzle over this. "Grandmaster So-and-so had thousands of students," he says seriously. "Name one who's a good fighter. And it's not the teacher's fault. Most students will never be any good."

He has his theories about why. They mostly come down to lack of practice--or at least lack of meaningful practice. "Practice makes perfect is bullshit," he says. "You can practice for fifteen years but if you're doing it wrong the whole time, you're just reinforcing the bad habit."

I'm inclined to agree. I've known writers who churn out reams and reams of fiction, over decades'-worth of time, and they never improve or change in any way. "How's this story?" Doesn't work. "What about this one?" Eh. Sort of. Same weakness, though. "Ok, how about this one?" Sigh....

The problem is twofold.

First, not listening to feedback. I've see way too many defensive knee-jerk reactions to critiques that could have been quite helpful if the author had only been able to suck it up and listen quietly. That's a big lesson in kung fu--"abandon the ego."

This has multiple meanings.

It means, put aside your pride and accept correction.

It means, forget what you know and accept instruction.

It means, stop thinking about me-me-me all the time--a fight is an interaction, you are doing it together, and the winner is the guy who's the better listener, not the better talker. That goes doubly for writers and readers--if your reader is bored, confused, or indifferent, it doesn't mean they're stupid or lacking in taste, it means you're not communicating in a way that they can readily grasp.

I once had a would-be screenplay writer tell me that writers were all just far too jealous of each other to ever give useful feedback. (Needless to say, that guy's a lawyer now.) I calculate I've dealt with close to 100 peer critiquers in the last 20 years, and I can only think of one or two who may have given me bad crit out of jealousy--but both those people had vendettas against me for reasons that had nothing to do with writing. The fact is, when someone is critting your work, who doesn't know you, they have no reason whatsoever to tear down your work just to be mean. You don't even factor into the equation; the words on the page are all they have to go by.

So if they say, "I got lost in this," or "This concept is too familiar," or "You need to do more research," take it at face value! When I get a fresh batch of unfamiliar manuscripts in my inbox, from Critters.org on Thursday mornings, I generally don't even look at the names. I look for titles that catch my eye--stuff that sounds as if it might be related to my genre, or just plain cool titles--and when I select one and open it I hope against hope that the mechanics will be competent, the sentences will be smooth and lively, the concept will be fresh. Alas, this almost never happens, but I am a writer! I am a critter! I am Sisyphus!

I've seen countless editors and agents say the same thing--every manuscript they pick up, they are hoping it will be The One. They're not looking for a reason to reject your work, they're hoping for a reason to accept it!

The second reason writers don't improve--despite diligent daily writing and generous peer feedback--is because they lack the tools to understand the feedback they get. We all speak and read English, right? Why can't we just sit down and dash off a best-seller?

Well, for starters, using the English language doesn't mean you actually understand how it works. Grammar, spelling, sentence structure, paragraph composition--these things matter. These are the nails and 2x4's of your writing. If they are bent and crooked, your story will never be beautiful. Don't believe the old saw about, "It's the editor's/proofreader's job to fix the grammar," because if your story is full of mechanical errors it will never get beyond the gatekeepers—it will be too painful to read.

Beyond the ABC's, there are conventions of story and plot, character development, theme, point, tension, metaphor, allegory—that ought to be followed unless you are just so high-level you can transcend them. (Even if you are, you must at least understand what the conventions are and how/why you are thwarting them.)

Happily, all that mechanical/conventional stuff can be learned. Seek out good teachers and read a lot. Study that grammar you dismissed in high school. Take a composition class. Take a business writing class (seriously—the one I took at age 25 was a life-changer). Expose yourself to every kind of applied writing you can find, and try your hand at all of it. You will quickly find that effective communication is the same regardless of venue.

Take lots and lots of literary criticism classes. Buy a Norton Anthology or a good college Lit textbook that will break down the elements of story. Force yourself to read good fiction—stuff that has stood the test of time—and discuss it with people who understand it. (Most of the amateur writers I have worked with have poor reading skills; they don't understand what they read beyond the surface plot.) Don't worry about genre.

Peer critique groups can be useful, but they are best used as a test market. Every critique represents a faction of your potential reading public. Your job is to communicate with as many of them as possible.

There's an exercise we do in tai chi chuan called push-hands practice. It's a "listening" exercise—you touch hands with an opponent and try to make him lose his balance before you lose yours. To be good at it, you have to have good balance, relaxation, extension of the muscles, and absolute awareness of your opponent's body. It's not about which moves to use in a given situation; it's about applying principles to exploit another person's weaknesses.

So it is with skilled writers. If you have all your tools honed and ready you can concentrate on the story you are telling. And when you know what you were trying to say and can identify how each scene serves that purpose, then you are in the best position to make use of reader feedback.

In tai chi there's a concept called "invest in loss" which means, a) never think you're so good you can't lose, and b) learn from each loss. So it is with writing; if your peer critiquers tell you the story doesn't work, be prepared to strip it down to the bones and rebuild it. Or better yet, set that story aside and write something new, incorporating the new lessons you learned. Too many beginning writers will keep polishing the same lump of coal for years, not grasping that the plot, or worse the concept, isn't solid enough to ever be workable.

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