Category Archives: On High Quality

Nope, Writing Is Still NOT About Creativity

“We are about contribution. That’s what our job is. It’s not about impressing people. It’s not about getting the next job. It’s about contributing something.”

 

What’s different about a book is far less important than what’s the same.

Conventional wisdom holds that all true artists abhor convention and delivering what’s expected. They’re just too creative for that.

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Unfortunately, that notion is dead wrong. No one is interested in such “pure creativity.” Readers aren’t interested in books that are completely out of the box—what would be the point? No, we all want what’s conventional and unoriginal. Yes we do. Most of any paragraph, scene, or chapter should be expected. Anticipated. 

Conventional.

Put another way, most of a story must follow the reader’s expectation.

When I was an acquisitions editor, I learned this was one of the important hidden keys to book proposals that sold. If the writer delivered what readers of that type of book expect, we’d be much more likely to be able to sell that book. That means a writer has to know the best books in their genre and how they met expectations.

DSC_0019Of course, there are uniquenesses to every successful book, and true, they break conventions and delight readers with creative surprises. But the total amount of those differences is less than 5 percent. The actual number may be higher, or even less, but most of the enjoyable parts of any successful book–fiction or nonfiction–are not new. Think about it.

In fact, if you want to know what made a particular book so successful, consider how that tiny amount of new, unpredictable material was actually a liability until it proved just enough to add to or improve on what was already available.

Higher purpose writers need to know good stories are built by following the conventions of good storytelling–a person we can identify with, a quest and settings we’ve experienced countless times, and plot developments that arise naturally from what the protagonist wants, and how they’re obstructed from it. You must see how your favorite author built their story with the existing material of their genre, the very same materials everyone uses, the traditional building blocks in the right sequence and with the proper attention—characterizations, plot points, descriptions, dialogue, strong verbs—then you too can use the elements to succeed–

Any artist brings particularities of expression. But more importantly, they satisfy expectations.

What’s too often missed is that a professional writer often allows readers to very nearly predict every single word because they’ve mastered the conventions so completely. Subtle nuances, and unique stylistic things notwithstanding, the surprises are secondary to everything first being perfectly placed.

And the proof is that a book can completely conform to your expectations to a remarkable degree, and somehow still convince you that writer is worthy of your attention.

In fact, the similarities between a new book and its established category may be what convinces you most.

DSC_0023What’s great about this is that it’s in the simple, expected ordinary elements of a story that we can give rise to the greater possibilities in any story. It’s just some colors blended from the primary three. Just eight basic notes in the scale. Just one alphabet, 3 acts, the same journey toward freedom. But when your readers are all desperate to get home again, they don’t want to be confounded at every turn. They want, first and foremost, to be comforted by what’s reassuring, and this is what makes an artist great: he has our best in mind.

Or as Pascal the restauranteur says in the film, Big Night, “Give people what they want, then later you can give them what you want.”

Any writer can write something completely new. New ideas are literally a dime a dozen. Only a writer with a higher purpose cares what readers want and delivers it. What’s different about a book is far less important than what’s the same.

With every professional artist’s work we talk about what’s special but only because it was built on the conventional foundation of perfection—that is, mastery—of every single element in that discipline.

All art is this way. Practiced conventionality is the work. It’s always been true and it will remain true forever: “creative” work is far more predictable than creative.

Or maybe the truth is that’s what creativity is. Learn what’s expected and how to deliver it. You won’t write other writers’ stories. But there are only a handful of archetypes and storylines. You’re offering an interpretation, much more than you even realize.

What you write matters. What you emphasize about the human condition and experience is a vitally important, needed perspective. But being different is inevitable. And when you get back to the work today, aim to be disciplined by the conventional and tradition.

Because that’s where you’ll prove you’re a writer: in the discipline that leads to freedom.

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“The writer is only free when he can tell the reader to go jump in the lake. You want, of course, to get what you have to show across to him, but whether he likes it or not is no concern of the writer.”

Flannery O’Connor

Can that also be true? Maybe we just all have to try and find out.

For the tried and true higher purpose,

Mick

Truth Can Only Be Written by Including All of It

“This man, I think, wanted to enchant the reader, to set in words certain amorphous and important sensations he had experienced….

“He wanted to transcribe his own inchoate experience. He wanted it to become art. He felt, as many of us do, that he had a right to that. Perhaps he wanted to feel his suffering had been worthwhile, was dignified, for he did write about suffering; perhaps he wanted to feel less alone, to feel his life had been redeemed, and its true worth, the value so absent from his daily experience yet so necessary to his heart, was now realized on paper, the dross burnt off and the gold revealed.

“No delight in language motivated his pen. The world’s physical details were so much debris. His few scenes puddled toward ellipses, seemed uninterested in achieving “moment”–they gestured hastily toward something never glimpsed on the page, although each chapter concluded with triumphant relief, as if to say, “So there. Now that’s established.” It made you want to flip the page over to see if there was something you were missing. Yet he meant to write fiction; fiction was what he attempted every night. This man seemed to want the transcendent transformation that novels can achieve. He didn’t know how to achieve it, though, and he wanted a shortcut. Like all of us, he was in a hurry….

“You may convey terror or longing or regret or exhilaration only by giving us the color of somebody’s hair and exactly what she ate for lunch, and red high heels, and an attache case’s handle stained darker by the oils of a human hand, and a skinny buck-toothed girl singing “Yes, We Have No Bananas” on a black-and-white TV, and olives, and three o’clock, and the Scotch-taped hem of a Bergdorf Goodman dress, and venetian blinds, and a woman’s eyes fixed for many minutes on a scarred tabletop, and a tin spoon ringing against the side of a mug. There are no shortcuts….

“When the conditions are right, live things creep up. The author does not need to airlift them in. No need to insert your own opinion here, something symbolic over there. The most potent meaning arises indigenously. It looks like earth, like mud, like a log. The more your eyes discern the particulars of the physical world and its inhabitants, the more meaningful your work becomes. This is the meaning that, when it’s laid dormant in the mind long enough, strikes with devouring force.”

  • adapted from Writing Past Dark, by Bonnie Friedman

What Writers Need to Know about Talent and Self-Discipline

The most important thing you can do is a lot of work….

– Ira Glass

 

 

 

They need to slow down.

Sitting with the other parents in the little orange plastic chairs at Charlotte’s cello lesson, I have to force myself to be quiet. The teacher is trying hard to get the other kids (the boys) to go slow and it’s obviously the hardest part of class, the push-back against his instruction, the reasons, explanations and excuses, the playing while he’s talking and continual interruptions.

Can’t they be quiet?

In fact, I don’t think so. At least not for a while. To slow the kids down and get them to pay attention and listen takes at least 10 minutes encouragement before they can relax and take in what he’s saying. But it’s work, and it’s easy to see it’s challenging for him.

It reminds me of how often I’m working hard to get writers to do the exact same thing: to take the time it takes to think their thoughts all the way through and not cut off the process.

Our tech age pushes us faster and faster, teaches us to expect fast. This is bad news for us.

Because we all naturally want to go fast. We want to see quick and easy results. But learning is always first about unlearning that impulse. And to unlearn the other bad habits we’ve accumulated, we’ve first got to slow down to notice many specific deficiencies. How slow can you go is an essential question for anyone learning music (or any art), but it’s a question very few of us truly want to consider because we want to believe we are faster, i.e. smarter than others.

We convince ourselves we already get it because we’re such “quick learners.” Who is telling everyone this same lie?

No one learns quickly. No one can appreciate everything they need to consider about a complex craft, let alone achieve artistic mastery, without a significant investment of time. And every single accomplished person has taken a lot of time to become so. Destroy your shortcuts. 

Because what we’re really talking about here is process over product and enjoying the journey. And that requires self-control, a deeply misunderstood fruit of the Spirit. Yet it’s the topic of this month’s Christianity Today cover article on “ego depletion,” The Science of Sinning Less:

“Because Christianity requires self-control, it logically follows that it also builds it, and thus we can expect active Christians to have relatively high levels of self-control.”

The article goes on to give four general strategies based in the latest science for Christians to develop greater self-control and willpower.  (I highly recommend the article, by sociologist Bradley Wright.)

An uncontrolled person is an impatient person. And patience is only available to those who’ve learned to wait. In other words, those who’ve slowed down.

My wife Sheri teaches piano lessons to kids. Guess what every single one of them needs to learn over and over each week?

Fast doesn’t matter. Fast kills growth. No plant grows fast. Nothing worth living for and having as your own comes fast. You must slow down and think about how much you really want this, how much you’re wiling to commit to it. Slowness is the painful work required to develop patience. And patience is required for a peaceful life.

I work with grownups to form and write their books. Guess what each one wants to do every week? Yes, move on, move forward, make “progress.”

And here’s what all of us need to realize about progress and speeding up: we’re being conned. Life is not about how fast you can live it. And no one cares how fast you can go if you can’t first do it well.

The great violin instructor Dorothy Delay, famously claimed talent is a mood. The truth of that is only acknowledged the more you practice and refine.

A young artist just wants to get all the notes right. A mature artist wants to use the art to express the right ideas and emotions, the mood, and to do it with that essential level of controlled intensity (the key quality of writing well). 

I believe to get every artist to realize what’s needed and then to pursue it, God has to be the great patient teacher, using our frustration and impatience to draw out our passion, and to help us learn to express what the art demands in the way we were specifically designed to do it.

As artists, we sense that to achieve what we want, what the world demands, we need discipline and self-control. And if willpower is more like a muscle than a battery, our goal must be to develop strength and stamina by increasing our capacity and tolerance. It’s easier to let the muscle atrophy by letting it do what it (thinks it) wants: to rest. But to grow, it has to be stretched and strengthened.

Writing is a long-game goal. Every real author I’ve ever known has thought they were the exception to the rule and could go fast and take a few shortcuts–because they were smart and had already gone through so much schooling or written more than most people, or whatever.

But the process is the process. And every song you learn to play well takes the time it takes to learn the fingering, and when to put in the pauses, and how to change the expression and dynamics just right. And every single time, you have to unlearn something you thought you already knew, slow down, and get it right for THIS song.

And every book you write is just like learning to play a new song. Every creative work you ever decide is worth your investment will be just like that. If you want people to take time with your work, then you have to be willing to be the first who took the time with it to understand it well.

Every successful book requires at least four drafts to refine. Everyone’s process is a little different, but slower equals clearer, and from first draft to last, slowing down with each pass is essential, I promise you.

As the kids play together, the song becomes the way they are pulled along to enter the moment. And for a brief half-minute, they’ve slowed-down to find the timing of the harmony, to stay together. It is work, but you can hear how they’ve managed to internalize that slow rhythm, and the effect is beautiful. The learning that’s happening is obvious.

Long bows, and slow resonant notes. They’re getting it.

And I think the parents in the audience are getting it too.

For the higher purpose, 

Mick

Why Writing Alone Is Impossible

Writing is a solitary occupation, and one of its hazzards is loneliness. But an advantage of loneliness is privacy, autonomy and freedom.  – Joyce Carol Oates

We all believe this fallacy that writing is a solitary sport.

Of course we write alone. At least, that’s what we tend to think. It’s not a team activity. It’s one writer, sometimes two, but even then, they’re not actually writing together.

The words are your only company and they’re strung together alone.

But every writer knows they’re not truly alone. 

There are people to your right and left, before and behind you. Where you’ve come from, where you’re headed, people who’ve helped and advised you, and those who form the oppositional voices in your head.

They’re all there, waiting and watching as you work to bring everything you have to bear on the draft, saying it all and saying it well.

And then there are your advisors, readers, teachers, coaches, family, editors, agents, publishers, and friends who form your team. Some, obviously, are more helpful than others. Some you’ve internalized, and some give you opinions even when you didn’t ask for them. We all struggle to decide how many and which ones we should give access to. Is their advice or support important or even necessary? And beyond how it makes you feel, how do you know who should be allowed in? What factors or characteristics should qualify them?

Or should we let no one in? Is limiting outside influences best? Or do we cripple our potentially broader appeal when we don’t share?  These are important questions and we can’t afford not to consider them carefully.

In Writing Alone and with Others, writing coach Pat Schnider says, “Writing can be a lonely endeavor, much of the work must be done in solitude. However, too much solitude–or too much conversation with people who do not write, and too little with those who do–can lead to depression and despair. Having a place to listen thoughtfully to new work by others and having the option of receiving response to your own writing can be invigorating, encouraging, and tremendously helpful.” (p 177)

I’ve found that during the first draft, as difficult as it is to write straight through without stopping or looking for outside affirmation, it’s important to limit influences at that early stage. Other than that hopefully short time relatively (maybe 10-20% of the actual work), your select, surrounding influences are very important as you research, rewrite and edit.

Writing may be a solitary sport, in a way. But your influences and internalized voices are always there. And the rest of the process of completing a book (80-90%) is unmistakably about teamwork. 

What’s more, as a writing coach, I get all up in writers’ business. I think it may be that for some writers, other books are their best friends and advisors for the research and revision. Other times, a “translator” helps, someone to guide and discuss the process with.

There’s an essay I love and often refer writers to, written by T. S. Eliot, called “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” In it, he describes how each writer stands upon the shoulders of those who came before her and must draw upon that tradition while emptying of self to attain the highest universality of experience and thought:

“No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.” (ref. 4)

Figuring out your place in this literary heritage is admittedly for those who seek to contribute significant art. However, every writer has comparable writers. And it may be wise to seek out a respected reader or family member to serve as your “coach” or first editor in this. Ideally, everyone you’re taking advice from would be familiar with your goals and at least some of your literary influences. However, those books themselves are usually the most important sources of feedback on your work, far more than the interpreters of those books, however trustworthy your friends may be.

When it comes to editors, you can’t afford to think about saving money. Almost every writer I know starts out trying to save money. It’s important to be able to pay, of course. And yet, most of us can make sacrifices for what’s really important. And there’s nothing more important than ensuring your editor understands your type of work, your vision, your literary influences, and the vagaries of style to improve your work and make it appeal widely.

For every book that succeeds, there’s an editor who has become an author’s best friend.

This isn’t American Idol–writing isn’t singing. Yes, you’re channeling universal thoughts and emotions, but it’s not only you being heard up there. And even singers have coaches, teachers, and trainers. Neither is writing painting. The brushstrokes aren’t going to all be yours. That’s for your good. You can’t complete your work without a number of dedicated people contributing their colors, content and context.

We all know plenty of books underperform. That’s a failure of community. A competent content editor and/or coach could have helped. Reputable writing coaches would prevent the thousands of books that go unnoticed from getting published without careful scrutiny and vision-casting, not to mention the lack of consideration of the market’s readiness for that message. Qualified readers, other writers, and developmental editors worth their salt can and do prevent many writers from falling on their faces.

The point is, every Higher Purpose Writer needs to be clear on this: Writing is the solitary part. The rest of the journey is teamwork.

Construct your team to succeed.

The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done. And he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.  – T. S. Eliot

For the higher purpose,

m

What Excellence Requires: further thoughts on integrating new knowledge

Hi there. How are you? Thanks for showing up.

I feel like I need to start this week’s quick message with some basic encouragement. You made it. You got through. You’re going forward.

It’s hard to believe all that happened last week. I barely had time to catch my breath. And now a new week begins.

But I learned so much last week, it’s frightening. To think of who I was even a week ago and how I’ve changed today is humbling and holy.

I didn’t write all I expected to write, but I wrote a ton. And through keeping me focused on last week’s big thought on healthy integration, and the hope of greater excellence to follow in my work, God revealed himself in my writing process, once again.

This week, I’m pondering that big result of skillful integration we all hope for: excellence. What is it and how important is it?–I want to look at that some more.

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So after realizing that my news feed betrayed me, the shock, depression, and initial horror, morphing into a reserved hopefulness, converged on me to convince me that though I thought I knew what I was doing, I do not. This election has consumed so much of us. Our candidates and their positions were completely skewed by almost every source, whatever it was–media or friend. We all seem to have swallowed a poisonous cocktail–either red or blue–and now we can’t understand or even talk with those who drank the opposite one.

I feel sick learning how intentionally our media is skewed to be more sensational and competitive, and how social media then amplifies that unbalanced extremism into viral surges using us to infect the entire body politic, until it’s convulsing with internal pain.

And yet every writer I know is actively working to integrate what they’re learning to use it to inform their work and their place in this complex world. There’s also been a surge of revelation this week seeing how our sweet poisons made us sick, and how now we must learn to consume healthier, purer, unbiased sources. But like with everything, the better is hard to find.

And the best, maybe it doesn’t even exist yet.

And going that way, giving yourself to only the best, it’s an uncompromising, lonely and difficult way.

But to progress and move beyond our competition, we have to leave behind our former limited selves.

dsc_0042As I wrote last week, integration is how we come to use and demonstrate growth from new things we learn. And we’ve all learned a lot this week that’s naturally and inevitably going to change us, as writers and as people. Likely as Christians as well. As children we used to integrate new ideas into useable knowledge all the time–we’d learn new info and abilities and then draw on them every day. But as adults, this process became less frequent, smaller in scope, and we became less changeable. We became set in our ways.

I’m praying we can remember how to change, learn and integrate new information and broader truths.

Our happiness, our future success, our very survival may depend on it.

Last week I argued this skill of healthy integration was a core writer thing. Through reading and questioning ideas and beliefs, writers must be our “cultural conscience” keep this process alive in adulthood. It’s an obligation of creative work to promote the good, the better, even the best that hasn’t even been born yet.

Which is why I’m convinced we must remain more malleable than your average bear. As a group, we have to be world-class integrators.

But how? What does all this mean for you and me pounding away on keyboards in obscurity? I’d like to suggest that this superpower of writers has far reaching implications for our culture in helping others understand the big problems in the world, and their role in working on solutions.

Writers help people make sense and use of their world. Our goal is nothing less than excellence–the best ideas, the best words, sound logic and beautiful, weighty, undeniably vital art.

And we achieve it through judging rightly, through humility and empathy, and by doing the hard work.

I believe this is how we move forward today, knowing all we now know, yet to learn all we still need, but pursuing excellence in all things, to the glory of he who created all things, and writing as part of our whole-bodied and embodied spiritual act of worship.

When all our skills and knowledge are working together in proper alignment, I believe excellence should follow.

And as we go forward this week with each other, let’s keep pushing for the integration of new knowledge, receptive and seeking the truth and justice for all God’s people.

It’s a lot to take in and process, but we know who is ultimately in control.