Think Your Writing Sucks? That’s a Good Thing

Vivienne Raper is working on a science fiction novel with the help of the Kingston MFA.

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It takes ten thousand hours of deliberate practice to become an expert. Spend 1,040 of an estimated 6,685 leisure hours each year to actively improve your fiction writing, and you’ll be a successful writer in 10 years. That’s according to Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success, which aims to debunk the myth that some people are born geniuses.

The Beatles, Bill Gates and many other exceptional people, he argues, became brilliant through deliberate practice… Practice… And more deliberate practice. They set out purposefully to improve and stretch themselves. They taught others, surrounded themselves with like-minded people, sought feedback, worked on their weak spots and evaluated their progress.

The idea of natural talent is a myth common to many areas of life. Creative writing is no exception. There are serious discussions about whether fiction writing can be taught. Some authors believe literature emerges by spontaneous genius and teaching will make students emulate others at the expense of their own voice.

No one can give someone a voice if they have nothing to say. But, more typically, beginning writers struggle because they don’t know basic technique. Story construction. Scene construction. Sentence construction. Paragraph construction. How to construct convincing dialogue (tip: take a tape recorder on the bus). They also don’t know the idiosyncrasies of their chosen genre, whether it be literary fiction, women’s fiction or romance. They discover through brutal trial-and-error, familiarity and socialisation what editors and competition judges will accept, and what readers want to read.

Ten thousand hours of practice is a lot of books and stories read. Many short stories and novels written and rejected. Long evenings spent in workshops and critique groups hearing how to make work suck less.  Thousands of hours spent alone in front of a keyboard. Writing. Editing. Tearing up the thing you just wrote. Rewriting it again.

Does that sound harsh? Maybe. Perhaps you’re reading this thinking “I don’t need to do that. My friends think my work’s great. My first novel is a work of misunderstood genius”. If that’s the case, you’re on the starting blocks my friend. Ahead is one of the biggest causes of writer’s block out there. It’s called the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is named after two social psychologists who discovered in 1999 an interesting fact about human behaviour. As shown in the graph below, people’s assessment of their own skill doesn’t rise in line with increasing experience. Geniuses know they’re geniuses. Partially-trained people can tell they suck.

Unskilled people don’t know they suck. They’re too incompetent to accurately judge their own performance. Say you woke this morning and thought “Hmmmm, I want to be a best-selling novelist like Dan Brown. Or maybe I want to write the Great American Novel” and hadn’t written a work of fiction longer than your last tax self-assessment. According to the Dunning-Kruger Effect, you can’t know your novel is rubbish because you don’t know enough about novel writing. In fact, you’re likely to think you’re the next J.K. Rowling or James Joyce, and publishers are ignoramuses.

We all know the stereotype of the unpublished novelist who believes their diabolical work is amazing and won’t listen to criticism. The real trouble comes when a humble unskilled writer embarks on ten thousand hours of deliberate practice. They march along the Dunning-Kruger curve, improving their performance. Hopeful. Joyful. Certain of imminent publication. Oblivious of the length of the road ahead. At some point or another, they realise “I suck. Everything I’ve written sucks. And I didn’t know.” Instant writer’s block. How do you continue writing when you know you suck? What’s the point? You’re only going to delete it anyway. Trouble is, you must practise writing rubbish so you can eventually rise swan-like from the bottom of the Dunning-Kruger curve.

Lesson learned? Embrace your knowledge that your writing sucks.  It means that you’re learning something. Carry on practising, improving, working on your weak points, putting your work out there. Learn from informed criticism and rejection. Suck. Fail. Learn. Suck less. Fail better.

Summer Reading Series at the Rose Theatre: 10 July 2013 Event

Frog Prince Communication

MFA student Vivienne Raper has been hard at work with several other students and the Rose Theatre in Kingston-upon-Thames to organise a brilliant series of public readings beginning on the 10th of July in the Rose Theatre’s Culture Cafe. The series will kick off with N M Browne reading on the theme of transformations. Short stories, poetry and other short forms of writing on this theme are welcomed from the public! Email vivienneraper@gmail.com to book your open mic slot or turn up on the day to see if there are still spaces left. Pieces should be no longer than 5 minutes in length.

Not to worry if you can’t make this event, there will be events in August, September and October with headline readers and Writers-in-Residence Kayo Chingonyi, Mark Barrowcliffe and MFA lecturer James Miller and open mic slots every month.

This is a wonderful opportunity to meet writers, get involved with Kingston Writing School and to get public exposure if you’re a writer, yourself!

Is Science Fiction Out of Ideas?

Vivienne Raper is working on a science fiction novel with the help of the Kingston MFA.

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‘THE OVERWHELMING SENSE ONE GETS, working through so many stories that are presented as the very best that science fiction and fantasy have to offer, is exhaustion… In the main, there is no sense that the writers have any real conviction about what they are doing. Rather, the genre has become a set of tropes to be repeated and repeated until all meaning has been drained from them.’

So begins British science fiction critic Paul Kincaid’s 2012 review of The Year’s Best Science Fiction in the Los Angeles Review of Books. He argued today’s short science fiction ‘unadventurously’ rehashes robot and spaceship stories seventy years old, historical tales on Mars, or fairy stories where technology replaces magic. He concludes that science fiction authors have lost faith in the future.

Amazing Stories

          His review sparked debate, including a fascinating – although incoherent – essay by freelance critic Jonathan McCalmont. Entitled ‘Cowardice, Laziness and Irony: How Science Fiction Lost the Future’. In it, McCalmont argues that speculative fiction authors are evading their responsibility to tackle political subjects.

But are Kincaid and McCalmont right? I’d argue not. The crisis in science fiction is not exhaustion or pessimism, but overload. At least four different technologies are advancing simultaneously. Their lockstep development over the next fifty years could reshape humans, nature and society in exhilarating and terrifying ways.  More

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