Search This Blog

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Look Ma, No Practice!

In the creative arts, practice is the norm. It's expected that a pianist will spend hours and years perfecting their playing ability. Rock bands spend days and months practicing a song before releasing it. Actors attend numerous rehearsals for plays, or do a movie scene numerous times before the director is satisfied. And before that goes years of practice in most every profession before an artist ever gets on stage or in front of a camera.

So why do people who want to become published authors expect their first novel to sell? Why do people think authors don't need to practice before snagging a publishing contract?

I was no exception. In October of 2005, I'd written my first speculative novel. Sort of just happened, really. An idea had crept into my head early that month, and I wrote the first chapter to it. My wife and daughter read it and wanted the next chapter. So the next evening I sat down and wrote it. They read it and wanted the third chapter. And so it went all month until by the end of October I had a 94K novel finished. And when I reached that point, I realized this was what I wanted to do.

My wife was so excited, she was sure I would be a best selling author in the following year. I was a little more conservative. "It will probably take a couple of years for that to happen." I figured I would get it edited and ship it off to a publisher. They'd accept it within three months or so, and within a year it would come out in print. So in November of 2005, I figured the book would appear in print sometime in 2007, and the next J. K. Rowling would be born!

Well, that manuscript is still sitting on my hard drive. A couple years ago, I decided to rewrite it by starting over. Too many things wrong with the original to just fix. I needed to write it fresh. I got halfway done with that project. And since then, I have had two books published, a novella and a novel, and so far the world hasn't rushed to my feet begging for the next installment.

But really, what did I expect? That I would be writing at professional levels on my first book, knowing nothing about how to write good dialog, story pacing, believability, and a host of other issues that require--yes you guessed it--practice.

Yes, there are exceptions. There is always a J. K. Rowlings or Palolini who hit it big with their first book. But the exceptions don't make the rule. Doing what they did is higher odds than hitting the lottery. But generally for a book to make it, it has to first and foremost be entertaining and done by someone who knows what it takes to write a good book, and has the words behind him or her to do it.

I've heard the number of words an author will need to reach the professional levels of writing to be around one million. That is, for most writers, it will take one million practice words before you'll start writing well enough to capture people's attention.

The problem is, few potential authors go into writing a novel thinking its a practice session. They don't see it as something they are going to simply write, edit for typos and grammar, then send out to a publisher (you never know when one will love it and take it), and then start practicing on another story. Keep going that way until you learn enough, have written enough words to get not only a good feel for the writing process that works best for you, but your voice develops enough that it shines.

Rather, what most authors do is write a story, then spend years rewriting it. Unfortunately, rewriting is very limited practice. It tends to not use the creative side of your brain, but focus on the editor side. So words reworked there don't contribute in most cases to practice with your creative brain. Instead of putting in more creative words with a new story, the old story gets more and more passes until years have passed, and it still sits on the hard drive.

This is due to not seeing that book as a practice session. We've invested too much work and emotional sweat. We love the book. It has to be perfect, and it has to work!

"But I do have my life invested in this particular story. It is a story that needs to be told."

There are those stories that are special to you. If you think the story is worth something, after some time has passed, you can always do a full and complete rewrite. That is, start off writing from scratch is if you were writing it for the first time. What you've picked up by practicing your writing will make it a better story, and you'll be writing more, and so practicing more. But to go back over it and edit it, picking at it here and there, is lost practice time. Naturally some of that may need to happen to a degree. But cut it off. Do only the essential things. And if there is too much wrong with it, and you really want that story told, redo the whole thing rather than try to fix what isn't working. You'll learn and get in practice at the same time.

But for new authors, don't think you're going to sit down, crank out a novel, sell it right away, and be a best seller in a couple of years. Plan on putting in a few years of writing, learning, perfecting, practicing, just like any other creative profession you can think of. Don't be fooled by the exceptions. This will take some work before you can make it.

How about it? Are you willing to put in the practice needed to write well?

No comments:

Post a Comment