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The problem with fiction-writing education…

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!)

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Romance Issues: Sparkling jewels & glistening portals!

So many romance books appear to be obsessed with eyes.  Every major character in romance books has some kind of extraordinary eye color, whether it’s vivacious aquamarine, smoky whiskey, cool ice gray, startling emerald, or unreadable obsidian.

I’m so sensitized to this facet of romance lingo that I start to laugh every time I read about someone’s sparkling pools of azure.  The only time I’ll accept strange eye color is in fantasy or science fiction, but I’m on my guard at finding a hint of any description that should properly belong to something like a unicorn, fairy, or elf.

Human limits, please, unless describing were-tigers.

Human eyes are eyes — expressive, yes, but realistically people’s “glistening orbs” run the spectrum between dark gray-blue, watery blue-gray, dull green, light brown, dark brown, and nearly black.

Yes, I know it’s part of the romance genre for the hero and heroine to have magnificent eyes, but when no human currently on the Earth has topaz orbs that seem to glow from within with a mischievous light, it pulls me out of the story to wonder exactly when everyone in the book got dosed with acid.

What color are Kate Moss’s eyes?

Characters do not have to have outlandishly beautiful eyes to be beautiful themselves.  Even the most beautiful people in the world have eyes of plain brown, blue, and green.  I think that giving a hero or heroine extraordinary eyes tends to be a lazy shortcut for deeper characterization, though there are exceptions, of course.

Think of the people you love.  How would you describe their perfectly normal — and yet unique — eyes?  My best friend’s eyes are…

  • rather large for her fine-boned face, since she is a petite 5′ tall
  • widely-spaced, giving her a little bit of an alien look sometimes
  • almond-shaped with rather heavy lids and fine black lashes, due to her Italian heritage
  • a dark, clear brown in color
  • framed by eyebrows that are arched in an expression of intelligent surprise

When she laughs, her eyes do transform into crescents, but she still looks at you directly to share her humor.  She is very expressive (Italian!) and rolls her eyes a lot.  She does a lot of outdoor stuff, so her eyes have fine lines around the edges from squinting.

Her son’s eyes are quite different.  Even at less than a year old, his light blue eyes with almost no lids sit rather flat on his soft face — I call him the googly-eyed baby because he looks like a soft blond teddy bear.  His eyes are always round, like a stuffed toy’s, and he doesn’t squint much, even when he cries.  His expression always seems to be one of casual, accepting observation; he doesn’t have the sharp edginess of his mama.

Do this for a couple of people you know well.  It is possible to make characters special, stunning, unique, and brilliant without describing their eyes like a jeweler does specimens.

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Response to “What do publishers bring to the table?”
This article is iynteresting, but the answer seems like it has missed the big picture.  I admit, I’m an outsider to traditional publishing.  Coming from a more general direct marketing background, I have a much more flexible view of what publishing is (and should be.)

How many hats should an author have to wear?!

You’ve heard that saying, “A business owner has to wear many hats,” or some variation thereof.  I work with a lot of small business owners — or aspiring business owners — and find that most people are just not cut out for this.  The “wearing many hats” saying is misleading: it’s more like…

If your area of highest value is the ability to organize, stay on top of a lot of different areas, have a top-down view of a system, like to hook up different people talented in different areas to form a highly-efficient machine, and like to tune up the machine constantly, then you’re cut out to be a business owner of any scale.

In a perfect world, authors wouldn’t have to do anything but produce output in their area of highest value — the writing.  Most authors I know would love it if this were the case!  They could focus only on doing what they do best in the world, and the other modules of the publishing “machine” would take care of the other stuff.

What a publisher should be.

This, to me, is what a publisher should be: a “machine” whose job it is to distribute the highest-quality output to the people who want it.  To achieve that, the publisher has to make it possible for everyone — writers, editors, agents, marketers, artists, reviewers, etc — to function in their areas of highest value, to not have to dilute their time and energy with tasks that they don’t want to do.  There are exceptions, of course.  Some writers love to do their own PR and marketing, and some can self-edit or make book covers or other things.  But just because they can doesn’t mean that they should, or that they want to.

For a writer, the publisher’s job is to handle everything else but the writing.  A publisher should not offload the jobs that it should be doing onto its talent; that would be like making animators at a movie studio also write the scripts.  Sure, some would be able to do it, but most would want to get back to the thing that they most want to do — draw!

As a reader, this is what I want.  If everyone is free to contribute in their areas of highest skill, the books will be the best that they can be.

So, in response to the original article…

My answer is to stop focusing on the specific current functions of a book publisher, such as providing editing and refinement, creating book covers, getting catalog coverage, etc.  This is a limited view that promotes the uncreative “me-too” thinking that is the death of any business or industry.  Instead, the focus should be on the end result — connecting buyers with the highest-quality output — and how publishers can achieve that.  If I were interested in writing professionally, instead of questions about editing, PR, and cover art, I’d ask myself these:

  • Will a publisher allow me to function at maximum capacity?
  • Does the publisher inspire trust that it will do its job so that I can do mine?
  • Do I have confidence that my publisher can do the best job selling my work so that I can keep writing?

Do any publishers inspire this kind of confidence?  From the general response of writers on Twitter (a limited sample, but honest), I’d say that this whole business needs a tune-up.