writing rengeek magpie mind

December 2014

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writing rengeek magpie mind

Conscious Incompetence

scott_lynch offers the firefighter's perspective on Batman Begins:  when I become a super-villian, I'm taking one fucking ninja off the payroll and investing his salary in a good commercial halon system.

In other news, I've sort of started pecking away at Carnival again, as the Promethean Age revisions are more or less under control. I'm kind of stuck on this next bit, though; I'm not quite sure how it develops, and I suspect my problem may be too much transition. Maybe I should just cut to the middle of the running gun battle, because the problem is that this bit isn't doing much except transitioning. I can probably figure out a way to make it worldbuild and characterize if I poke at it enough, though.

This is one of the interesting things about the learning process. Supposedly, we go through four stages in learning a new skill--unconscious incompetence (where we aren't any good but we don't know we aren't any good, and don't have any idea how to get better); conscious incompetence (where we kind of know we suck, and we kind of know how to improve); conscious competence (where we know what we're doing, more or less, and we know how to do it); and unconscious competence (where we have internalized the lesson and do it automatically).

I suspect the arts (including the one I'm most familiar with, fiction writing) can be so frustrating because they are comprised of so many skills, and so many layers of skills. And some of the more advanced techniques are counterintuitive to what I thought I knew when I was learning more basic ways of doing things.

Specifically, I think I may have identified the mechanism by which the Suck works. It's linked to plateaus, those godawful intervals where one's creative production seems flat and awful and isn't improving, and all is dark and full of despair.

Here's what I think happens. When I was a wee neophyte writer, I rather thought I knew everything, and I had in my head a very well established set of rules as to how stories worked and what I thought they did. They were machines, and if they filled a specific set of conditions they would succeed. And it's true, you can write stories that work--at least on some fairly facile level--almost every time if you follow those rules. It's what permits Hollywood to exist, and what permitted the pulp writers to bang out a story every night over a fifth of scotch and a mechanical typewriter. This isn't to say that there's anything wrong with stories constructed on three-act structure and internal and external conflict and a hook, rising action, climax, denoument model.

Because there isn't.

But it's only one model. It's just the one we're most culturally conditioned to recognize as a story.

The problem is that while I was stuck in this mode, I thought I was pretty hot shit, and I also couldn't recognize other techniques and anything that abrogated my ideas of what a story should be as valuable. Because they were "mistakes," and I was so busy internalizing this three-act structure model that it was all I could swing. My whole brain was busy with it.

And I really kind of sucked as a writer at that point, but I didn't know it.

Anyway, somewhere in here, the Suck first hit. I realized that my stories weren't working, that I wasn't writing well, and in fact what happened was that they looked worse than they had before. Not because they were worse, but because my brain had identified was that they could be better, but I was still writing at the same level. I had moved, in other words, from unconscious incompetence, to conscious incompetence.

It's sort of axiomatic that the persons who are most incompetent are the ones with the least idea of their incompetence. I'm living proof.

Anyway, somewhere in here I stopped being able to read, because all I could see was what books were doing wrong. (Back to that wrong thing again.) Rereading some of those texts now, I can say that in some cases, what I thought was wrong wasn't wrong at all; it was just doing something (and succeeding or failing) that I hadn't learned how to do or even recognize yet.

And here's the first part of the mechanic of the Suck, or the plateau. It requires that the artist have recognized, consciously or not, that she could be doing something better. It's conscious incompetence.

Most things in a book or movie or play are there because the creator thought they served a purpose, and once I figured that out, I suddenly realized that I could start looking at what the creator was trying to accomplish, and figure out if he succeeded or failed (for me.) So say for example the movie Dark City, which I adore, and which has an annoying voiceover at the beginning which I think kind of damages the movie. But when I thought about it, I realized that the voiceover is there for two reasons: one, because somebody (probably test audiences) were confused by the plot (geeks will not be confused), and two, to establish Keifer Sutherland as the protagonist... because he's not obviously the protag, but his actions drive the entire movie.

So, okay, good. It is there for a reason. I think it causes more problems than it solves, frankly, but it does something.

That was a bit of an epiphany for me, anyway. Starting to look at stories not in terms of what I thought they did wrong, but what they were trying to accomplish. It's easy to slag things. It's not so easy to understand why they are structured in a particular way.

Usually, it's because that's the best way the author, at a particular skill level, could figure out to do a particular thing that seemed needful.

Anyway, that brings us to the next stage of evolution of the writer: conscious competence. This is the point where the plateau breaks, and suddenly, one is writing better, and one knows it. (I suspect this applies to other arts as well.)

So here's what I think the tricky thing about the Suck is. Specifically, art is a layered complex of skills. We jokingly say things like "If it was easy, it wouldn't be fun," and "You have to write a million words of shit," and "You've got talent, kid--now go write for ten years," and so on, but the fact of the matter is that it's all true.

This stuff is hard.

And just writing for ten years isn't enough. You have to do it in an environment that provokes the emergence from unconscious incompetence into conscious incompetence.

And the trick is, the Suck never really stops. You get a breakthrough, you get off a plateau, but then the back brain is happy enough to hand up another complex of things you could be doing better, and a whole fresh wave of Suck starts. And it doesn't actually mean you're writing worse, but it fells like you are writing worse, because the things that you were aware of doing well before--"hey, I figured out this characterization thing, go me!"--have receded to the level of unconscious competence, so you are no longer aware of doing them well.

Because that's just baseline now, and it probably could be better. But it doesn't suck as much as this one thing right here.

This was really brought home to me this summer by revising B&I, which is still the most challenging and most-rewritten book in my history (and I hope it will remain so.) and then going to work on Whiskey & Water and Carnival, and remembering that earlier, when I was first working on both of the latter, I couldn't find my feet and the voice was elusive and I felt that all my sentence-level skills had deserted me. And my beta readers couldn't see why I was so upset, and were in fact telling me that they're better-written than anything I've written before.

And I totally didn't believe them.

But in comparison between the two books--Blood & Iron, first written in 2002-2003, and Whiskey & Water, written in 2005... well, there is no comparison. I've learned something.

I still think Blood & Iron is a pretty strong book (no matter how sick I am of it by now) but the fact of the matter is that when I wrote it, it was the absolute best I could do, prose-wise, and I sweated over it, and I fussed over every line, painstakingly.

And I have, as Cyrano de Bergerac once said, done better since.

It's a little humbling.

So in the extract, what I'm rambling on about is this: The Suck (or plateaus, if you will) are simply a natural outgrowth of the process by which any skill is learned. But in a complex skill--or a skill, more precisely, that is comprised of a complex of other skills--(if one continues to grow as an artist) one layer of competence quickly becomes internalized--unconscious--and is forgotten or disregarded under the clamor of the skills that want developing.

And the only way to develop them is to practice, and to put them before an audience, so their competence can be judged by somebody who is not in the grip of the the Suck, and the struggle through conscious incompetence.

Especially, as one improves, one's standards of incompetence come to embrace things that others would consider competent. Because one learns the difference between serviceable and elegant.

It never stops, unless you stop improving. But you can become innured. Even somewhat Zen about the whole thing.

Thus the process behind the age-old and effective advice, You must write. You must finish what you write. You must submit what you write.

Because it works.

Comments

Excellent! Must add to Memories, which, I should inform you, I have never used before. Have a cherry.

There's a dark side to The Suck, mind you, which manifests itself in all areas of life: the Forbidden Fruit syndrome. The human nervous system, thanks to millennia of hunter-gatherer legacy code, is hardwired to pay more attention to things it hasn't got than to things it has. Nothing is so enticing as a fast-moving target. This is often why married men have affairs: they've grown so used to women as something that must be chased that the one already caught falls into a blind spot and is forgotten. This is also why Bill Gates would be ready to retire if he could only conquer one more market and sock away another ten billion. And it's why so many of us writers won't let anything out of our claws without that one last revision that turns the prose from slick to shopworn, and the plot from elegantly complex to Rube Goldberg incomprehensible.

I think I feel an essay coming on.
essay on, dood!