I am a very serious critique partner. The writers I work with value me for my deep understanding of story content — structure, world building, and deep characterization, pace — and some of them have asked me how I can help them so much, even though I’m not a serious writer myself (I only write short humorous stories full of in-jokes for my friends.)
After I read someone’s article on what it takes to become a master writer, I realized…
When it comes to critiquing, I’m way, way past the 10,000 hour mark of mastery.
I’ve studied formally for ten years, but before that, I studied for twenty more. I learned to read at 3, so yep, I’ve been thinking about fiction and writing for 30 years. When I was a kid, I read a lot, as did many of you. But I also studied and looked for patterns, ’cause I’m a rather big nerd. As a result, I’ve read a lot of classic works about storytelling from Aristotle to the latest Writer’s Digest books (which can be rather spotty in quality, I have to say.)
But I didn’t just read these books once; I still read them over and over, always finding something new in light of the stories I’m reading and the people I help with their writing.
This is the problem:
Many of the writers I know do read the same books… once. The problem is, it takes way more than that for the information to fully sink in. You don’t learn calculus by taking one math class, but majoring in it.
And look at marketing; it’s a very close analogy. Marketing is a skill that people learn — sometimes reluctantly — by trial and error, like writers, but also with guidance in the form continual exposure to good marketing information. Not just by reading one or two books on marketing once, or even one book multiple times. The best marketers learn by constantly devouring new information — books, classes, seminars, correspondence courses.
Marketing as analogy.
Whatever your opinion of marketers is, you have to admit that they are results-oriented. They will do what it takes to win, and they have no problems springboarding off someone else’s 10,000 hours to be able to start at a higher level. If you look at the general level of a marketing beginner, it’s gone up over the years, thanks to the availability of other people’s work and their willingness to work from it.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about writers, it’s that they always want to do better than the last book or story. They’d be well served if they saw writing education more like marketing education, which includes trial and error, but also includes a constant stream of new information and ideas from outside sources.
Too many writers learn first by reading books in one genre, absorbing all the weaknesses of that genre and accepting them as “givens.” This is a very hard perceptual hole to dig out of. If these same writers had access to outside ideas, it would help them gain more perspective.
(PS. Josh Lanyon is way more direct than I am; he calls this genre inbreeding a “literary circle jerk” in his excellent book about writing M/M romance, which is useful even if you don’t write M/M. Literary circle jerk… hahahahaha!)