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August 2014

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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

*(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.