What if a writer doesn’t get better?

I ground out another chapter and this one was pure fun. Lots of action, with of a turn of events that will be a bit of a surprise. I enjoyed writing this one because not only does it tie up some things in this novel, but opens a very wide door to things that will go on through the other novels and stories.

This world is going to be a blast.

Casey Cosker asked three really good questions in his comment on yesterday’s blog post. I’ve pulled them out of his general comment:

My question is–how could that feel as a writer, to have already written your best work? Worse–what if you consider yourself to be growing as a writer when your readership thinks you’ve written your best?

One other thing–you mention that a reader’s favorite book of yours is usually the best book for them at the time. How do you feel, then, when a reader says one of their favorite books of yours isn’t the book you consider to be your strongest?

Man, Casey, you’re bringing your A-game with those questions.

I think the answers to those questions are going to vary from writer to writer. I think the saddest case, to my mind, is an author for whom those questions never occur. I always try to do something new and different in my books, just to make myself grow as a writer. Okay, and to prevent boredom. But if I’m not bored, I figure none of my readers will be.

Boy, if I felt I’d written my best work and nothing would ever equal it, it would really suck. I’d probably pack in the whole writing thing and get a 9-to-5 job where I didn’t have to think. I’d probably figure my batteries just needed recharging. At least, I would hope that was it. I’d probably also drink a lot.

Your second question carries with it a really dangerous precept: that readers are right in their judgment of your work. Readers, oddly enough, tend to love or hate books for reasons we can’t quantify, as per what I said yesterday. Readers providing critical feedback that would prove that you’re not only not growing as a writer, but losing it, is rare, and open to debate.

Still, if I found my audience evaporating for whatever reason, I’d do a lot of research and analysis to try to figure out why. It’s really what any producer of a product would do. If Miller noticed beer sales dropping, you bet they’d figure out what folks were drinking instead and find a way to get into that business. If it meant I had to add some sparkles to a vampire, I might just do that. (After all, makes them so much easier to acquire with a Hellfire (and Holy Water) missile on a Predator drone.)

With your third question you’re really going back to the crux of the situation I mentioned before. There is no way to account for reader taste. I remember, years ago, doing a book signing where a guy had me sign a BattleTech novel and he gushed about his favorite chapter in the whole book. He went on for a couple of minutes. I told him that I was glad he enjoyed that chapter and thanked him for coming by.

What I didn’t mention was that the chapter he cited never appeared in the book. He’d taken two chapters and mashed them together, and tossed in the viewpoint character from a third chapter for good measure. And that’s what readers do. If a character gets chewed out by his boss, its the reader’s boss’ voice the reader hears in his head. (Or his mom’s or his father’s or his wife’s…) We just can’t control for that, and we’re damned lucky when it doesn’t blow up in our faces more completely.

Ultimately, however, the important thing for any writer is this: keep pushing the envelope. Do new and exciting things, things you never thought you could do. Experiment. Play. It might not work. Or it might work, but no one wants to buy it. Or they might buy it, but no one understands or likes it. Doesn’t matter, as long as you had fun doing it and are convinced you did your best possible work at the time. You may come to hate the piece later, but as long as you gave it your full and best effort, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Tons of folks never even get that far—though are often the most vocally critical of those who do try. (Imagine that.)

You’ll find your best work will hit good enough, then good, then great; and that is more fun than you can believe possible.

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2 Responses to “What if a writer doesn’t get better?”

  1. It’s difficult accounting for taste, whether it be the reader or publishers. I can find all kinds of interesting quotes on the internet; for example, “An editor from the San Francisco Examiner sent this in a rejection letter to Rudyard Kipling: ‘I am sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just do not know how to use the English language.’ Even e.e. Cummings wasn’t immune to rejection. Did you know it was Cummings’ mother who first published his poems after a dozen publishers rejected them? Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit was rejected at least six times before she published it herself. If these acclaimed authors faced rejection, why wouldn’t you or I?” (http://www.writersbreak.com/Fiction/articles/article_fiction_rejectionslips.htm)

    Sometimes a writer gets a piece published and, perhaps because it’s part of an anthology or zine, gets no feedback at all. Criticism, at the very least, lets you know somebody is out there reading your stuff.

  2. Exactly! That Publishers Weekly review I mentioned in an earlier comment meant not only that somebody read my story, but that they (mostly) got it. That they didn’t necessarily agree with the theme isn’t my problem. (I’m writing to entertain, not propagandize.)