One of the members of my writing workshop had a major breakthrough. “She’s writing at a publishable level,” I said (when someone’s work is being critiqued, we discuss it as if she’s not there). Rachel, the workshop leader, nodded and agreed and looked visibly moved: she’s been working with this woman for a while now and knows how far she has come.
I believe this woman is the real deal, and by that I mean: if she continues to do what she’s doing, someone will pay to publish her. It’s a delight to see, because “the real deal” doesn’t show itself like this very often. Many things have to knit themselves together in someone’s personality. Scott Berkun blogs about how the stars in his field achieved their level of success not because, or just because, they are passionate and innovative. The less-glamorous reality involves a “diversity of talents [these people] had to possess, or acquire, to overcome the wide range of challenges” to become rockstar entrepreneurs.
Writing fiction isn’t so different. What this woman has demonstrated (at least to me) is that she possesses the “diversity of talents” required to get to where she wants to go:
1. She is authentic in her motivation.
She doesn’t just want to “get published” or to “have written”: she’s passionate about the craft itself. You can see it in the way she lights up and animates when she discusses someone’s writing or hits upon a new insight.
People who love the task, and not just the potential outcome of the task, are more likely to work in a state of flow, — or as I think of it, in the zone. They work harder and longer because the work itself is what fulfills them. They’re also more likely to log the 10,000 hours of practice that is required to get excellent at something — fiction-writing included.
2. She makes herself vulnerable.
In writing, your vulnerability is your strength. There are two reasons for this.
You have to be willing to “go there”: dig deep into those personal places and write from the innermost points of your being. As a writer once observed to me, “The things in your life that you’re afraid to write about [however you may choose to write about them]…are probably the exact things you should be writing about.”
You expose yourself in your work, and you expose yourself in a different way when you show that work to people.
And you have to show your work to people. You must collect honest feedback and swallow the bad with the good. You must seek out the tough love of wise, constructive criticism.
This woman did exactly that. She found a workshop with talented members and an excellent leader/instructor. The group’s atmosphere is positive and supportive, but rigorous. When your work is critiqued, you are said to “disappear” from the group: no one is allowed to acknowledge your physical presence in any way, and you are officially forbidden to speak (until the end of your turn, when you’re asked for feedback on the feedback). The group examines their reactions to the piece, what’s working — and, perhaps more importantly, what’s not working, the flaws and weakness of craft behind that, and how they can be improved.
This woman has been with the workshop much longer than I have, and from what I hear she’s made a remarkable amount of progress. She’s made that progress because she’s learned how to open up her self and her work. She can take the criticism. She absorbs everything she hears, takes it in, mulls it over, and applies it to her fiction. She writes, writes, writes and revises, revises, revises. She learns. Then writes and revises some more.
3. She reads like a maniac.
One of the remarks I made about her work: “You can tell this author reads. She reads a lot.”
“She does,” the instructor confirmed. “She reads her ass off.”
Your reading informs your sense of craft. There’s no getting around this. If you don’t read all that much, and take your understanding of storytelling from movies and TV, your writing reflects this. Your story might move quickly, have plot and energy (and these things are important, no question) — but the writing is flat and generic. Your characters don’t ‘pop’: they don’t come alive off the page.
Writing fiction is an art, but it is also a craft. There are things that writers accomplish through specific ways of handling language that you can also do to make your story rich and evocative, your characters memorable, your readers turning the pages. But it’s not enough just to ‘learn’ craft from a workshop or an issue of Writer’s Digest. You need to absorb it so well that it becomes a natural part of you: trained deep into your undermind, your subconscious, so that you can reach for it automatically, reflexively, whenever you need it. And the only way to do this is through the experience of constant reading (and then practice, practice, practice).
4. She consciously analyzes other writers.
She did this to me. I submitted ten pages of my novel-in-progress THE DECADENTS for critique. She expressed enthusiasm for my work and then said, “I want to try what this author does, where she has a bit of dialogue and then a character gesture and then more dialogue!” I was startled to have my writing reflected back to me this way. I do exactly what she described, but it’s become so ingrained in how I visualize and write my scenes that I wasn’t aware of it. It took a full day for me to remember how I myself picked this up from one of my favorite writers, Paul Theroux. At some point in my mid-twenties, I made the conscious decision to imitate the lean, clean way he handles dialogue and underscores it with subtle character actions…and then over the years this became such a part of my own style that I no longer think about it. I just do it.
I do it differently from Theroux, and this woman will do it differently from me: everything we (coughstealcough) from other writers gets filtered through our own sensibilities and, in the end, becomes our own. But this is an example of how a certain aspect of craft is noted, learned, practiced and incorporated into our writing-selves until it becomes second nature.
5. She’s willing to “slow it down”.
There’s a lot of talk in our workshop about “writing slow”, which is another way of saying “writing deep”. It’s a reminder to let both the work and the comments we receive about the work sink into our undermind. You need to give your subconscious time to work things through. That’s when you’ll flash on new insight, better ideas, deepened understanding. That’s when you’ll start to discover the images in your fiction, the ‘little things’ that didn’t seem like such a big deal when you put them there, but as the story evolves can gather associations and meaning. They do this in a way that isn’t forced or contrived but grows naturally inside the writing. Layered, textured fiction — the hallmark of a professional — needs time to cook.