There’s only so much you can get out of preparation.
If you want to teach someone to swim there’s certainly no harm in explaining the basics to them and giving them an idea of what to expect, but when it comes down to it there’s no substitute for getting in the water.
In fact, explaining nothing and giving them a shove is often the best method. Certainly the quickest.
Will they panic and flail around making things worse? Most likely, yes. But they’ll figure it out. They won’t drown (even if it feels like they’re going to).
With writing—and pretty much everything else—preparation only gets you to the edge of the swimming pool. The rest you can only learn by diving in.
The feeling that you’ll be much better if you delay getting started to study up on the subject, see what the experts have to say, pick up a few pointers, is often less to do with a well-thought out strategy and more to do with fear.
And, ultimately, it just isn’t anywhere as useful to think about what might happen than it is to just do it.
If two medical students take their final exams and both pass, but one is top of the class and the other is bottom, who do you think will fare better once they get out into the real world and start practicing medicine?
I can assure you they will both be equally terrible. Patients will fear them (with plenty of reasons to do so) and nurses will roll their eyes. Mistakes will be made and lives will come very close to being lost. It won’t matter that one was able to remember the symptoms to a hundred tropical diseases and the other took a biochemistry degree for extra credit. Real learning comes from doing. Expertise comes from doing it a lot.
This doesn’t mean preparation is useless, but often the point of it isn’t quite what we’re led to believe. In many cases it isn’t for your benefit.
If lots of medical students are going to apply for the same top jobs then you need a way to separate them. If how good they are at being a doctor is yet to be determined, you have to rely on other factors.
Similarly, a guy who goes to an interview for a job in a factory making cardboard boxes will dress in a suit and tie. Not what he’ll be wearing if he gets hired.
For writers, writing queries has little to do with being a good write; it’s just a way to thin the herd.
My point is that knowledge is only as useful as the use it’s put to. In the above examples it’s useful to the people assessing you: the gatekeepers.
Most of the stuff that will help you personally can only be accessed via personal experience. You’ve got to figure it out for yourself.
That’s not to say other people’s experiences can’t be illuminating, but by its nature second hand insight never gives you the full picture.
It’s very easy to make something seem essential by only providing the evidence that supports the theory. A lot of books on the craft of writing do this, although maybe not always intentionally.
If I told you that I had studied the best-selling books of the last year and had discovered they all contained Ingredient X and for your book to be successful you too should include this ingredient, that can seem like a reasonable suggestion; especially if I can provide lots of examples quoted from these bestsellers.
As an example, let’s say my Ingredient X is that all the successful books I’ve analysed have all had a beginning, middle and end. Not exactly revolutionary.
Now, are there any successful books that don’t follow this structure? Yes, a few. There’s always going to be other ways of expressing ideas. But by and large the top books that we all know and love use this structure, and so should you.
Fair enough, you might think, probably worth considering.
But there is an additional question you should ask yourself. Are there any books that use this structure that aren’t successful?
Any books with Ingredient X which were bloody awful?
I think we all know the answer to that question, it’s just that we don’t often think about it. The successes are much more visible than the failures, which sink into obscurity (if they even get that far).
So while it’s impressive that the top five grossing films of the year all have an inciting incident on page 22 of their scripts, you have to bear in mind that far more movie scripts that had an inciting incident on page 22 made no money at all.
Which is to say as instructive as this kind of information might be, it isn’t the thing that makes your writing good.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth knowing. A doctor has to know which end of the syringe to stick in the patient, but they won’t know how to do it without causing pain by reading up on theory. You gotta stick needles in peoples. And they’re going to get bruised the first few times, and they’ll let you know about it very loudly.
And that’s how you’ll get better.
So all knowledge apart from the basics isn’t worth pursuing?
Actually, quite the opposite is true. It’s very helpful to read up on the craft of writing as much as you can. Not to get good through some shortcut or to suddenly become a kung fu master like Keanu in The Matrix. It doesn’t work like that (sadly).
But within all the information out there, there will be the occasional nugget that will turn on a switch in your head and allow you to evolve your way of thinking. What this golden nugget of truth will be for you is different from what it might be for me. No one can know what you personally need to hear to turn on that switch, so what we get is a mass of all the possible information and it’s up to you to sift through it.
I’ve read a lot of books on the craft of writing. Most of it was obvious and made little impression. But every now and again something stands out. For me, the first thing I learned that really made me change how I wrote fiction was the idea that actions reveals character. This small piece of advice made me want to try things out on the page to see what I could do with it.
It didn’t make me a great swimmer, but it got me in the pool.
For you it might be something else. Finding those ideas without knowing what you’re looking for can be a long, slow process, but it will be rewarding (eventually).
In the mean time, don’t wait—get in the pool and splash around. If you find yourself sinking, don’t panic. Just hold your breath till you feel something firm beneath your feet, and then push off. You’ll always make it back to the surface.
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*Will be back in the New Year. Have a good holiday!