New Year’s Blog: Keep on Trucking

Novel writing is a long-term struggle with little good coming of it. Why would I say something like that? After years of contemplating how long does it take to get one published, I found this quote: “What this means is that writing those three or four novels an average writer has to before they burn through before they write a publishable novel will likely take years.” John Scalzi, 6/09 Whatever, Probably just made of bugs Blog. http://whatever.scalzi.com/2009/06/24/why-new-novelists-are-kinda-old/ .
Again, I would like to return to my martial arts training for a comparative example. As an educator who was also a martial artist, I noticed that many of my martial arts students would smile and nod their heads as I instructed them on techniques. To their way of thinking, they had just mastered something new to them with little effort. My observation, to the contrary, was they executed the technique incorrectly before I explained it to them and continued to do it wrong after I told them and showed them the correct way to do it.
There was a gap between their assessment of attainment and mine. They sometimes had a look of disappointment when I, or another instructor, told the how to do it again, and again, and again. It was our practice as instructors not to tell students they were wrong or use any other negative assessment, but to show them over and over how to execute a technique correctly. Somewhere along the way, I might notice they began to doubt how perfect they were. It was only after that little spark of doubt warmed and glowed they began to improve on their technique. Some of them reached the level of mastery they only thought they had before. The wise ones began to doubt their perfection in other areas. That gave them room to grow. If they stayed confident in their perfection, they seldom progressed and eventually gave up on martial arts.
Once they got a technique right, when they practiced it perhaps 1000 times, it was theirs. They had the technique drilled into their muscle memory so completely that when a situation called for a certain technique, it was there without thinking. After years of practice, they had years of techniques at their immediate disposal.
For some examples: I fell off some airplane steps one foggy evening. As I was falling, I tucked and rolled and got up from my fall without injury. A fellow martial artist was standing on a platform setting up a display in a department store. He forgot he was on the platform and stepped back to get an overall look at his display. He fell, but managed a back fall technique and was uninjured. Another friend was riding his bicycle and a motorist ran him off the road. When his bike flipped, he executed a forward roll and was uninjured.
Each one of us had no time to think about the steps in a break fall. If it hadn’t been in muscle memory, any one of us would have been injured.
So, cross walking this to writing is obvious to me. Many beginning writers, including me, believe they are doing perfectly when we begin. We love our own work and think others will love it too. It’s only when we give it to someone who really knows what they are doing (often not your best friend), that we discover that there may be some holes in our writing.
As we continue, we may find that we have to go to grammar and creative writing books. Or, we may have to read many ‘how to write a novel’ books. We have the same kind of doubt the martial artist has just before they begin to make real progress.
For many aspiring writers, that doubt comes too late. They are discouraged and stop writing. They may give any reason like, “Editors were against me; I couldn’t find a decent agent; or the game is rigged to only publish New England writers.” But the real answer is they didn’t doubt their ability soon enough. They didn’t begin to grow after their third or fourth book.
For me, the conclusion I hope people reach is that it is important to keep on working on improving, keep a little doubt about your level of perfection and keep on trucking.