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March 2017

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writing gorey earbrass unspeakable horro

for the life of me I cannot remember what made us think that we were wise and we'd never compromise

Slapfight watch! Time for everybody to stand in the internet and cat-yell again.

Apparently, this year of all years, the Hugo shortlist kind of sucks and it's all fandom's fault for being willing to acccept mediocrity; and SF authors shouldn't submit their work before it's "perfect," whinge so much about how awful their work is in public*, or admit to their doubts about their own ability. Meanwhile, the estimable jmeadows talks about two kinds of "good enough" (case (a), "Oh, it's good enough," and case (b), "Oh woe is me it will never be good enough!"), and I am about to add a third.

...tl:dr



I do actually have something to say about the "Good enough" thing, because I think it's important.

A while back, when I still waded into slapfights with great gusto because I was young and didn't have so many deadlines, the quarterly slapfight was about how writers should not accept mere mediocrity, but should strive for greater literary values. And at that time, I pointed out that most writers are probably doing the absolute level best they can with their limited talents. (Sort of like me.) And that therefor, yelling at them for not living up to the yeller's standards of literary quality was a dubious pastime at best.**

It seems to me like there's a linking theme in all this, which is, well, insecurity.

Because your average SFF writer is writing the stories she wants to write, as well as she can write them, and is pretty downright miserable that they're not better. If she's not being award-nominated, she secretly wonders if she's any good at all. If she is being award-nominated, she wonders why she's not selling better, and fears that the story is not really worthy of the nomination. Is she's selling well, she can't understand why she doesn't get the award nominations. She can't understand why the novels she knows in her bones are best get passed over, and the ones that seem to her like failures do well.

See, the thing is, your average writer, every day, is a failure. She is failing herself, her talent, her vision. She can never make what she's working on good enough for her, so how can it be good enough for anyone else?

So the ego defenses kick in, because how the hell else can we keep on writing? Somebody, somewhere is going to be miserably unhappy with everything we write, and they will pen us long letters about it, and email them to make sure we didn't miss it. Under those circumstances, when confronted with the regular necessity for creative work, well. You gotta do something to keep your pecker up.

A significant minority of SFF readers like more difficult, literary books ("crunchy"), and are fiercely partisan about them. A significant majority of SFF readers don't want to work that hard ("boom"). They're looking for a nice bit of fun at the end of the day. Everybody then gets fiercely ego-defended about their choices (or How Their Geniuz Iz Goin Unrekkonized) and cat-yells at each other. 

By god, we are judgy monkeys.

As far as I'm concerned, both outlooks are perfectly acceptable and do not need to be justified, though I personally tend towards crunchy with a subset of boom. My brain wanders off if there's not enough for the gears to engage, but on the other hand, I really do want at least a couple of explosions. But that's me. And as mrissa says, thank god we don't all like the same thing, or think of the price of oatmeal.

Anyway, the Good Enough thing. So there's the dismissive "Oh, it's good enough," and then there's the "Well, it will never be perfect, but it's as good as I can make it, so it will have to be good enough."

As I use the term, ("Good enough isn't," a phrase I borrowed from ccfinlay, being the most frequent construction) it means something else entirely. We will call this case (c). It means that if your goal is success in the literary marketplace, the only way I know to go about that is to put out your best effort every single time.

No, none of your work will be perfect. It will always be a disappointment to you, unless you have managed to build up such a solid ego-defense around your work that you will never progress beyond unconscious incompetence, because you honestly cannot see that you are doing anything wrong.

In which case, you are in case (a) above, and your good enough isn't good enough, because you are busy telling me how your book is so much better than all that crap those idiots publish/read/shortlist for awards/whatever. (If you have just told me this, by the way, as a sometimes writing instructor I am now pretty sure you have no self-critical facility.)

If you are in case (b) above, then yes, it is probably time to release the novel.*** msagara talks about the moment of sublime loathing when you cannot look at the book for another minute. I swear the more I work on mine, the worse I get--and yet there still comes a point where I am convinced it's the worst thing ever written, but I can't see anything objectively wrong with it, or how to fix it if I do.

That's when it's time to let go. 

Jodi, I think how this works is that when I go to revise, I have a sense of "okay, this book has problems, and I must be extremely self-critical to find and repair them," and the more I work on it, the more problems I repair, but the self-criticism remains until eventually I reach a point where all I have is the loathing, because I know the book is awful but I just can't fix it, or even find why it's so bad. "Dreadful, dreadful, DREADFUL!" At that point, it's time to PUT THE KEYBOARD DOWN.)

In case (c) above, what I mean is that "Good enough to get published should not be the goal. Swing for the fences, and maybe you'll hit a triple. Or maybe you will get it over the wall, you never know. But if you swing for a triple, maybe you'll hit a single."

So when I say "good enough" is inadequate, what I mean is strive for perfection. knowing you will fall short. But get this: follow through is important. Swing through the target.

"A novel is a work of fiction longer than a short story, and flawed." But acceptance does not mean acquiescence.



And now I should stop hanging out on the internets, and go to the damned gym.



*(Yeah, I whinge about how much I feel like I suck in public. Full disclosure: Michelle Sagara is a friend, and I am not upset by her post. I just, me, have no plans to stop whinging about how I fail my own standards on this blog, because, well, I fail my own standards all the time. And I'm not going to start lying to all you all now. Besides, this blog has never been particularly about self-promotion, and that's unlikely to change any time soon either. Self-promotion bores me.)

***(I am also one of those writers Jodi talks about (Jodi is also a friend, and so is Scalzi) who hates, loathes, detests, despises, and abhors her own work. Because it's never good enough.)

**(I've also noticed that any time I comment on something, it gets interpreted by some as taking sides. So please note for the record, I am not taking sides. I'm just kind of shaking my head and saying, "God, we are judgy monkeys." And I include myself in that, because this is me being a silly judgy monkey as we speak.)

Comments

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I do! I do like oatmeal. Oatmeal is nice.

I also think that people should not mistake their own characteristic flaws/failures for other people's characteristic flaws/failures and give advice on that basis. (I don't think you're doing that. I think there is a certain amount of Doing That elsewhere, though.)
Yes. This post should come with a Disclaimer: "Bear Is Totally Talking About Her Characteristic Flaws Here."

Mmm, oatmeal. I need to get some steel cut oats, for I am out.

And now I should REALLY go to the gym, as it is raining too hard to go run.

(While you were commenting here, I was commenting on your blog. Hee.)
My odd thought: Awards are tricky beasts - sometimes, they are all about awarding people who are pushing the envelope of whatever the award is for, and sometimes, they are about awarding the people who are the most popular of whatever the award is for...and the thing is, that can change over the course of the lifetime of the award itself, and the pendulum can swing from one end of the spectrum to the other. Twenty years ago, Award A may have been about awarding the best of the best, and now it's about whose got the most fans behind them.
Trust me. It was always about who has the most friends/fans.
And because you write articles like this, I am still writing, because I am encouraged by my own personal failures.

Thank you, Bear. :+)
This business of "good enough" interests me deeply. There's a Hasidic parable which holds that we should each move through the world with two slips of paper in our pockets: in one, a bit of paper which says "I am dust," and in the other, a bit of paper which says "for my sake was the world created!" The challenge is to live in the tension between the two.

Which is to say: on the one hand, everything I write is crap because it never quite fits with the shining image I had in my head before I committed words to screen. And on the other hand, if I've done the best I can to give form to the words and the ideas, then at a certain point I have to celebrate what I've written and send it out into the world. Even though it isn't perfect.

The challenge is keeping myself honest -- not sending things out into the world before they're ready, but also not holding on to them forever because I fear they'll never be ready enough. If I never finish this project, I'll never get to start the next one. Holding my work in too high an esteem, or too low an esteem, feel to me like variations on the same theme.

Anyway. SF/F is not my genre. (Hell: fiction is not my genre!) But I think this holds true regardless of what corner of the literary pond one calls home.
Yah. buymeaclue, who is wise, says you must have Suck and Not Suck at the same time to excel at anything.

I think she's right.
When stats like "half of americans in any given year read less than five books" are bandied about, I think to myself "You know, some of what I read is mindless crap. But I've read an average of 50-ish books per year every year since 2005 (when I started keeping track)" and I figure that my percentages of crap-to-not-crap are probably still higher than your average person who might grab a bestseller or three a year.

Scifi/fantasy fans READ. And if some of it is crap? Sometimes you need something mindless at the end of the day, like you said. But I'd still wager scifi/fantasy fans read more serious stuff within the genre than non-sci-fi/fantasy fans.

(For once, I've read most of the Hugo nominees this year. I agree with some, I don't agree with others. But that's just my opinion, and I'm one of many.
This is totally off-topic and tangential to Bear's point, but I will say it anyway, because I am that kind of dork. But the "americans don't read" statistic is incredibly misleading, because it doesn't count genre fiction or non-fiction. Every horror novel, every murder mystery, every space opera, every Harlequin romance, every book of travel essays. . . none of them are counted in that statistic. By that rubric I barely read five books a year too. It only counts books from the "fiction and literature" section.
And as mrissa says, thank god we don't all like the same thing, or think of the price of oatmeal.

That line has made me deeply happy. I would like, if I may, to leave my thanks to mrissa here.

Also, this was really great to read, and thanks for the links.
And if she is selling well *and* getting award nominations, she secretly thinks of herself as a fraud and wonders when everyone else will figure that out. ;)

Silly, silly human beings. We believe we're bad when we're good, and we believe we're good when we're bad.
Secretly? *g*

Impostor Syndrome: It's the Flavor of the Year.
Well, I wish I hadn't wrenched my wrist last night, because I'd like to give this post the attention it deserves. Thanks for posting it. Muchly. As you know, I'm just starting out, really, with SFF, and reaching the stage where I want to go over the whole book and rewrite sections, but each one's already been picked over three times and needs to be picked over again, then the rewrites picked over, and then beta-read and rewritten and picked over again.

But I'm going to the Anticipation writing workshop with a chapter I'm not really ready to show, nor happy with where it went or how it got there because I already know it's weak, but I just can't find where to fix it. I think it's important to do that.

Whether the workshop helps me or not, I know the place I'm going to find at the end. It's not one of disgust, but ennui. At that point, I won't be able to see any place to improve it, although I know it could be written so much better, just not by me right here right now. There comes a point where you have to let go of it, because it's just self-indulgence past that point. Someone else needs to read it, because at that point, it's become a work, love it or not, and a work does not exist in a vacuum. The child must go out of the nest and become whatever it is going to be, and covering your eyes isn't going to change it. The work exists because someone else had run their grotty neurons over it and re-interpreted into their particular scope. It's a bit like digestion. Some people can't stomach certain foods, some readers can't stomach certain works. But at that point, IT'S NOT YOUR PROBLEM if they choke on it, or it makes them break out in hives. It's their version of your story they are reacting to. You've already expelled yours.

Of course, at that point, you don't want to read it again for ten years. I'm revisiting old docos I edited ten, twelve years ago because the videotape is deteriorating and needs archiving digitally and having the sick-making experience of seeing your amateurish work paraded out again, and again. But I remember the hours on hours I spent nudging a widget here, waiting for the video to be generated, coming back in an hour to a crash or a disappointing effect, tweaking again, repeat, repeat, repeat.

But ten years is long enough. You're a different person and can re-interpret your work. And occasionally, you can see a flicker of that story you wanted to tell. Here's the cool part--someone else wants to tell that story, too, and if you live long enough, you just might be able to see it happen.
All this talk about "follow-through" and "hitting through the ball" made no sense to me until I was well into my adult years. It's just totally obvious that what the bat (or tennis racket, or whatever) does after it's done hitting the ball cannot possibly make any difference. And PE teachers were obviously not very bright to begin with, so it was easy to believe they were just spouting nonsense.
It is true that what the hitting implement does after impacting the small, fast-moving projectile does not matter for the projectile. It is, however, also true that your intentions while swinging the implement before it impacts the projectile WILL matter for the implement's movement characteristics at the precise moment of impact.

Of course, I learned this in a subtly different context (no implements, for starters).

So I'd say tha both young dd_b and the PE teachers were right. In different reference frames.

It's the standard parable

Open a restaurant and sell one perfect meal for $100,000 or 10,000 hot dogs for $10?

Yes, inflation has hit the high-end hot dog business too.
The best part is that the post on perfection by that agent leads to selected titles represented by the agency: Is Wolf Tales VI really a perfect book? Really really? How about Catholicism for Dummies? (Maybe that one is at least the best Dummies book ever.)
Nick, that would be that judgy monkeys thing the nice lady was talking about above.
It's the striving that counts, isn't it? In all things. At least that's what I 'got' from reading this. On tv we see these 'perfect' models and aspire to be them and no matter how much we say, hey, I'm fine as I am, the next time we look in the mirror we only see the love handles and the zits. You know the ones I'm talking about though, with the perfect hair, the perfect skin, the perfect, petite little bodies. In magazines we see, again, perfection, forgetting that half those pictures are touched up and without make up how many others are truly beautiful in the 'perfect' sense? But they aren't real.

When we see a 'published' author we immediately place them on a pinnacle of perfection. Hey they 'made' it and we look at our own drivel and think, but mine's as good as that and immediately start to bring down the perfection. Why? It's an attempt to make ourselves look better. I can honestly say I don't do that. I might say, I don't like something or it didn't grab me. I will admit to envy and wishing I could be 'good enough' to be in the same bracket. Don't think there's anything wrong with a little envy if we turn it to good.

Why the heck *do* we always home in on the negatives? Even when given a full-blown compliment half the time there is a part of the brain that says, are they dumb? Someone Id'd me the other day when I went to buy a pack of ciggies. I'm 50 for christ's sake and she was serious. Instead of basking in the glory of someone actually thinking they *needed* to id me I immediately thought, hey you *must* need a new pair of glasses, woman. Can't you see the crow's feet and the grey? I didn't think, hey, I must be looking good. I thought, she must be mistaken.

I'm the same as many. I look at my writing and think, no one ever wants it when I know that's a lie, at least part of me does. I cite lack of confidence, lack of knowledge, any excuse not to think that it might truly be 'good enough'. By that I mean something other prople than me would enjoy. I whine that if someone would show me that magic formula everything will be just tickity boo.

I don't think we see our true selves in the mirror either.

Oatmeak is *nice* but Joe over the road thinks it tastes like the sweepings off the floor.

You're right, we're all weird :)
Why the heck *do* we always home in on the negatives?

I think we're conditioned to remember the odd, strange, or ill-fitting. Maybe it has to do with the monkey part of the judgy-monkey. You remember the fruit and the crocodile, and ignore the basic greenery. It's what makes the story interesting, and when there's something "interesting" pops up that isn't good for the story like a typo or an ill-written phrase, we pick at it like a louse running through our fur. Gettitoffme, gettitoffme!
"By god, we are judgy monkeys."

But without being judgy monkeys we'd all agree with everyone and the internet would be a boring place.

Ah well. To have a perspective, at least everyone involved in this latest slapfest is capable of writing for professional publication. The reality is, no one is going to like the most recent list of Hugo nominees, no matter what year it is (I happen to agree with Scalzi on this one). One year it's going to be quality; the next, it's likely to be something like "who's missing." I don't think there is any award, whether popularly nominated to an eligibility criteria or more carefully juried and screened, which is going to perfectly reflect the quality of any single year's offerings. Either the nominating process or the selection process is going to be imperfect (and I say this having been on the inside for a few years of an award as a first reader).

But hey. At least we're debating quality. What does get ridiculous is the slapfest like the one I got into last week (rather mild by SFF standards) with another teacher (okay, ahem, educator--a word I hate and will never fracking use about myself!) about the methodology of teaching writing to K-12 students. Too many teachers of writing in K-12 programs don't write for professional publication outside of peer-reviewed articles aimed at the profession as a whole and not the general public. That's not the same thing as writing for professional payment. Ergo, a lot of what they advocate ends up being--well, somewhat gimmicky, in my not so humble opinion.

OTOH, the teacher sorts do have those shiny labels which serve as convenient shorthanding when we get in the slapfest mode. I'm afraid I've been labeled a die-hard "prescriptivist" for advocating that students start with a standard five sentence paragraph formula. It's insufficiently "authentic" and "meaningful" enough for "constructivists," and nobody, but nobody, uses the five sentence (intro, detail, detail, detail, conclusion/transition), five paragraph writing formula outside of the classroom (or so I was told during this slapfest). Therefore, teaching that particular formula is useless and inauthentic and should not be taught to students at all, even beginning writers (for fear it might warp their little minds and turn them off of writing forever, oh noes! Even though my own experience has shown otherwise with struggling young writers).

Ranting further on this topic will be saved for my own LJ.

I read the post in question about "good enough," and I think you (generic "you", not you, Bear) have to take the audience for that particular agent into consideration before you get too judgmental. That particular agent has a lot of beginning writers looking for publication, and based on both what she wrote and what arcaedia writes, in this case the target is not someone who is currently writing and selling, or even starting to sell. It's the rank beginner who thinks a rough draft is "good enough," or who hasn't quite gotten down the techniques of editing who needs to read what was written. I read it, then read the comments, and the intended audience was fairly clear once I read the comments.
Apparently, this year of all years, the Hugo shortlist kind of sucks and it's all fandom's fault for being willing to except mediocrity

It's always comforting to witness the continuities of life.

I think I am not going to read the links, though, because I think my time can be better spent trying to figure out exactly why my current brand of fey are so interested in stealing magicians' children from the city of Absalom, so I can keep writing this fun manner-punky thing I've got going, because it's making me happy.
Only vaguely on topic, but I just wanted to say that even though this blog may not be about self-promotion, if it weren't for the awesomeness I regularly read here, I never would have bought any of your books. And that would be a shame.
Likewise.
This post and the comments are made of pure awesome. There is something so comforting in knowing I'm not the only one who thinks his / her work is made of 100% suck.

*group hug*
Do we need to dig up the old writerbo post? I still look back at it and laugh.
We are remaining above the fray, because we have no clear idea about what you are speaking.
1. Because your average SFF writer is writing the stories she wants to write, as well as she can write them, and is pretty downright miserable that they're not better. If she's not being award-nominated, she secretly wonders if she's any good at all. If she is being award-nominated, she wonders why she's not selling better, and fears that the story is not really worthy of the nomination. Is she's selling well, she can't understand why she doesn't get the award nominations. She can't understand why the novels she knows in her bones are best get passed over, and the ones that seem to her like failures do well.

YES. A million times YES.

2. Every year we have the Hugo slapfight, and every year, I want to say (and some years, like this year, I do): "Dear pontificants, Please remember that the Hugo is not awarded by Science Fiction Fandom. It is awarded by those people who (a.) buy a membership in that year's Worldcon and (b.) VOTE. That's actually a relatively small percentage of Science Fiction Fandom, and it's all very well and good to tell people they OUGHT to participate and OUGHT to care enough to fork over a substantial chunk of change for the honor (and OUGHT to think deeply and seriously about their vote and their posterity), but here's the thing. If they don't want to, there's no 'ought' about it. There's no moral obligation to vote for the Hugos."

3. Bob Uecker, who does play-by-play for the Milwaukee Brewers, said something the other day that I'm still thinking about. He was talking about power hitters, and what makes a really excellent one, and what he said was, "They hit mistakes really hard." The key here is, he's not talking about the PITCHER's mistakes, because of course the slug the bejesus out of those. He's talking about THEIR mistakes. Even when they get ahead of the ball and they're not going to be able to pull it, they still hit it with everything they've got. And sometimes, that ball goes out of the park just the same as if they'd done what they wanted.
Yes. this.
Well, I've always found your mutterings about your writing to be extreamely helpful, and not always about writing. I mean, just living can be hard enough for me at times, and having someone strong enough to be honest about feeling like a judgy, sucky monkey helps me to do the same.

It also is much better you write all this than not.

I loves me a "judgy, sucky monkey"!
An interesting third POV on the 'Good enough' thing.

Thanks for sharing :)
I have to say, as a reader (not a writer), I've noticed that I respond to negativity in writer's blogs by not buying the books. It's not that I don't understand or that I am unable to make my own judgment. It's just sort of like if the menu at the restaurant said, "Grilled Veal Cutlets (which are really not the best because I am actually a terrible cook and I don't know why I was hired for this job and also I am not sure that the veal wasn't going off a bit)." I might give the restaurant the benefit of the doubt, or I might walk out and spend my $25 on a meal presented with more confidence. Although I really sympathize with the author, and know exactly how feelings of insecurity and dissatisfaction can happen with even a brilliant book, I just can't get over that put off feeling when I am trying to choose something to read. I notice the same thing happens when authors link bad reviews. All of this has resulted in me making it a personal policy to minimize negative statements about a work in progress, and not to link to or comment on negative reviews.
You're totally welcome not to buy my books. No skin off my nose.

After all, as I've said repeatedly, the purpose of this blog is not self-promotion. It's to provide the blog I wish had been around for me to read when I was a struggling writer.
*(Yeah, I whinge about how much I feel like I suck in public. Full disclosure: Michelle Sagara is a friend, and I am not upset by her post. I just, me, have no plans to stop whinging about how I fail my own standards on this blog, because, well, I fail my own standards all the time. And I'm not going to start lying to all you all now. Besides, this blog has never been particularly about self-promotion, and that's unlikely to change any time soon either. Self-promotion bores me.)

One of the reasons I have always read your posts is because you talk so much about process, and some of the posts are like mirrors. If, you know, the abyss-of-writer-torment is a reflective surface.

I don't think that anyone should change what they do; I by no means form a cheering section for the competence or confidence in my own work when speaking about process on-line. In the case of LJ in general, people talk fairly continuously about process in writing, in which case there is context for the "OMG this is the worst thing I have ever written". But I do, about four times a year, find myself explaining to readers in the bookstore--not on-line-- that every author loathes every book they have ever written at some point in the writing; none of these readers are writers. So, in part, I wanted to make clear that what writers say about their own work ... is not always definitive.

Mostly, I wanted to say I never feel the book I'm working on is perfect or close to perfect. I would love to experience this, one day, but... I'm not holding my breath, and the lack of this feeling of pride at my near perfection has not, in fact, stopped me from being published.
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