Tuesday, August 15, 2017

You Don't Know What You Don't Know

I apologize once again for the lack of activity on this blog. It’s not that I’m losing interest or running out of things to say, but I’ve hit a sticking point in my story (the same one I mentioned a couple of weeks ago) and I’m loathe to spend time here until that issue is resolved. However, the fact that I’m posting today is a good sign. I think (fingers crossed) I’ve decided how the scene should resolve itself and how the MC is going to get there. I may turn out to be wrong—it won’t be the first time—but I’m staying hopeful.

We all know how important it is to have other eyes on our work, especially those of us who are still working on our first book. We often have no idea how bad our writing is at the beginning—what our weaknesses are, what’s missing in our stories, cringe-worthy dialogue, etc. Even after we have a few stories under our belt, we still need that vital feedback because we’re often blind to our own problems.

Basically, we don’t know what we don’t know.

Last week, at one of my critique group meetings, the nominal head of the group spoke to one of our newer members about their latest submission. She complimented the writer for already being at a place on her writing journey where her words were in reasonable shape. There were still a few problems, but as the leader pointed out, new writers often have so many problems with their writing that it’s hard for the critiquers to know what to say or where to begin, and this writer was definitely past that stage.

All well and good, but as the leader was saying all this, she kept glancing back at me, as if expecting me to confirm this or something. Finally, after about the fourth look, I finally asked her why she kept looking at me, and after she hemmed and hawed for a while without actually answering, I finally realized she had been talking about me.

I’ll admit I was stunned. I’ve been getting good reviews on my submissions over the past twelve months and this very same leader had publically announced (more than once) that my writing had grown immensely over the past year or so, and how much she enjoyed reading my submissions. So all is good now, but apparently, back when I joined the group three years ago, my writing was pretty bad. Bad as in “we don’t have enough time to tell you everything that’s wrong, but here’s a partial list of where you might want to start.”

I went back and looked up some of my earliest submissions to the group, and yeah, there were some glaring problems that would have been hard to critique. Nothing technically wrong, the grammar and punctuation were fine and the sentences made sense, but my submissions were full of sentences that didn’t quite fit together. There was no glue to bind them together into a coherent whole; no mortar to smooth out the bumps and potholes. In other words, it was kind of hard to figure out where my story was going. But somehow, the advice my crit partners gave me at the time pointed me in the right direction and as a result, I’m a much better writer today.

So the next time I’m asked to look over a submission that turns out to be a mess, I’ll think back to when I first began many years ago and remember that we were all newbies once. When we didn’t know what we didn’t know.


ChemistKen

P.S. Actually, if I had known what I didn’t know back then, I probably would have given up writing right then and there. Ignorance does have its advantages.


16 comments:

  1. Oh no, don't make me go back and read my earliest work. Anything but that. ;)

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    1. Hey, if you ever need to convince yourself how much you've grown as a writer, there's no better way.

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  2. I've looked at my old stuff as well. I count my lucky stars the people that critted my work were honest and full of suggestions on how to grow. I'd still be there if it wasn't for them. :-)

    Anna from elements of emaginette

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    1. If I'm in a particularly cheerful mood, I may go back and look at my early fan fiction, written before I found my crit partners. That should be a sobering punch in the stomach.

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  3. I'm with you on this, Ken. I like to point out what writers do right as much as wrong. It gets depressing otherwise.

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  4. I completely agree! The first novel I wrote was totally for myself as something fun. It was. It was also bloated and rambly and overly dramatic and full of thousands of 'thou must nots'. And I'm SO glad I wrote it :)

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  5. I cringe when I go back and read my earlier stuff. Yet I learned and worked to make myself better. Still always striving to be better, but that's part of the job. :)

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  6. I love that saying - you don't know what you don't know. But it's true. And sometimes we have to learn in small steps and stages.

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  7. I hear you, Ken! I occasionally crack open my original document of Thanmir War and wince at the content. And even though I've discovered a lot of my weaknesses over the years, I keep finding more. Doh!

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  8. My old stuff sucks. We all start in that place... well, most of us. I keep studying as I go along. We can't know everything at once. It's definitely a learning process.

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  9. "Practice makes better even if not perfect." Read that somewhere.
    Juneta @ Writer's Gambit

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  10. "You don't know what you don't know." Stage 1 of mastering the craft of writing....

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  11. So pleased for you, Ken. All the work is paying off. Keep enjoying the process.

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  12. Hope you've fixed the issue. Writing is layers and learning is layers. Never give up, never surrender.

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  13. I know what you mean. I started freelancing as a content editor/beta reader a year again, and most people paying me to critique are new writers.

    Which is cool, but I do often have a "Where do I even start?" moment as I go.

    In the end, I've come to the point where I would leave comments throughout the manuscript, but then I would tell them not to read those comments yet, and instead read an editorial letter I wrote.

    And then I would have a nice think of what would be the underlying problems and have the writer address those first.

    Because that's the thing. One can say, for example, "Gosh this character is one-dimensional." But really, it's the case that the writer has no idea about how to show a character's facets.

    So I write them a quick explanation of how to solve those things, and then I point them in the right direction for them to do their own reading.

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  14. I'm so happy for you. Good work!

    I was wondering how one finds a writers' critique group. Are they advertised at community centers or libraries or are they on meetup.com? (I can check meetup myself but I was hoping being spared an outing to the community center). Please let me know because I can see it has helped you and I think I would enjoy being part of one.

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