Week 9. On practicing perfectly

One of the things I love about writing is getting into that mental state where the words come effortlessly, without my having to think too hard about it. That moment where I’m lost in the work, and have no awareness of the ticking clock or the buzzing fly. Just me and the work. Beautiful. Zen.

Unfortunately, flow is also a state where you, or at least I, can produce an endless amount of crap. Flow, by its nature, circumvents the editor on your shoulder who hates every other word you write. Now, often the editor on your shoulder will keep you from writing if you let her, so you have to find a way to shut her up. One way is to just get into flow, where she can’t follow you. EOTS hates flow.

On the other hand, the editor on your shoulder is often right. You’re writing crap, and you need to do better.

Here’s the thing: practice does not make perfect (this is something we learn in martial arts). Perfect practice makes perfect. That is to say, if you practice a sloppy kick ten thousand times, all you’ve learned how to do is kick in a sloppy way. That is not mastery. It’s not even competence.

So the problem with flow is that it can be sloppy, and not in an organic, generative way where you can make something of it. It can be a form of masturbation. And while you may enjoy that, no one else really wants to see it.

When you’re doing the work, you need to be able to do the work even without flow. Even with the editor on your shoulder criticizing every third word. Even when it’s just no fun at all.

Week 8. Understand and respect the art

When I first began training in the martial arts, I met a lot of people who were interested in what I was doing, a certain number who would do it themselves if only they weren’t so afraid of getting hurt, and a handful who rolled their eyes and asked me if I thought I was a match for their eight-year-old nephew who was taking Tae Kwon Do.

I didn’t really care what other people thought, but what always struck me as odd was how many of the eye rollers ended up taking classes and then—surprise surprise—got nothing out of the experience. I guess they wanted to prove to themselves that they were right to scorn.

Doing the work, whatever the work is, requires understanding and respecting the work. I once took on a write-a-novel-in-thirty-days challenge (not Nanowrimo, but a situation where I had to deliver a manuscript to a publisher in a month). I succeeded, but that would never have been possible if I had never written a romance before. There’s no way I could have learned all I needed to learn about writing romance in thirty days.

What I did is in some ways quite straightforward: I did something I already knew how to do, I just did it faster. If I hadn’t known what I was doing, all the slogans and atta girl!s in the world wouldn’t make any difference. I wouldn’t have succeeded.

What I notice is that a lot of people don’t understand the work they want to do, and they don’t take the time to gain that understanding. There are people who have contempt for romance who try to write romance because they think it’s easy. (There are people who try to write children’s and YA for the same reason, despite never reading the genre. The list goes on.)

While I suppose you can “understand” something you have contempt for, it’s very difficult to do the work required to succeed under those conditions. Mostly because it’s a lot of work. I don’t know about you, but I don’t spend a lot of time on things I think are ridiculous or pointless or unimportant, and I don’t care enough about them to do them right. This is why my house is never vacuumed.

To understand what you need to do, and to do it well, you have to care about what you do. Start from there. I am never going to care about vacuuming so there is no point in my giving it any mental space.

When you’re trying to understand the work—and trying to do the work—naturally you will look to others along the way for help and guidance. You can’t do the work completely in isolation, although you do need a lot of time alone with your butt in that chair. You have to find out if you’re succeeding at your endeavor, and that means getting feedback.

How you get better at doing the work is by figuring out where you are going wrong. The feedback tells you. Now, some feedback is more important than other feedback. Who cares what Joe on the street says unless Joe on the street happens to be your target reader, an agent who reps your genre, or an editor who acquires books like yours?

On the other hand, if nineteen agents tell you that you don’t have the first clue what a romance is, then it’s quite possible you don’t have a clue what a romance is. Shaking your fist at them for telling you the news and saying, “I’ll show you!” is what ten year olds do. You’re not ten. You need strategies that help you get better, not strategies that keep you in a state of denial.

Care about the work. Learn about the work. Be open to guidance. Do the work. #WishICouldTattooThisOnMyForehead