Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Amateur Goes Professional

The Nanowrimo exercise always has beginning and professional writers talking all over facebook and twitter about how many words they produced in a day, or week, and declaring failure and dropping out of the race if they can't produce words by the yard.

Measuring of success at writing as a number of words has two sides to it:

a) many markets do pay by the "word" so the faster you produce the more money you make.  Words/day = $/day = professionalism

b) but novel markets don't pay by the word but by the well turned, completed, plot with all supports in place to make it fun to read without much editing.

And then there's the non-fiction markets.  Newspapers, print and online, pay by the article -- with a total subject covered within a specified number of words, K bytes, or space (lines, whatever). 

Good writing is not measured by the number of words you produce -- if it were, then only short words would be professional.  (one could argue that's the trend!)

However, there is something to be said for professionalism being measured in SPEED of production. 

This measure is entirely market driven.  Novels usually produce an advance against royalties and after the book has earned the advance, the author gets a little bit each time a copy sells.  But that business model is dying very quickly. 

The e-book market pays no advance, but a bigger royalty per copy sold.  And books don't go out of print in a couple of weeks. 

The e-author's business model then is not to write quickly, but to write something that will be talked about, tweeted about, commented on, and recommended on goodreads etc.  The author's objective under the new business model must be to write solidly.

But there are bills to pay now.  You can't mount a social media campaign if you can't pay your internet connection bill.  So you must produce quickly, but also solidly.

This is a dilemma brought to my attention by the following tweet.
SheviStories 11:44am via Tweet Button

Improv for Writers, Part 3: Speed Writer--learn to write FAST! shevi.blogspot.com/2011/11/improv… #litchat #kidlitchat #YALitChat #WritersRoad #NaNoWriMo
Improv and Nanowrimo have something in common - training.

I've made this point many times in this blog - you don't "learn" to write, you "train" to write.

As I was taught when I was in elementary school, by the professional writer, Alma Hill, "Writing is a performing art."

This is also true of journalism where one must go out, get the story, come back and type it up for publication within the hour.  The words have to be there, making sense, covering the entire topic with all the facts straight, and most of the spelling correct. 

There's a college degree in journalism that gets you started, but nothing except practice actually brings that skill online for you.

And the same is true of fiction writing.  Fiction is a performing art.  Fiction writing is brought to professional levels and standards only by practice against a clock, against a deadline, or in competition.

That's the good thing in the nanowrimo exercise.  Many people need "pressure" in an open forum, a classroom atmosphere, a newspaper's bullpen, or a filmmaker's pitch session to perfect these skills.  Others master the skill set faster in private, and alone. 

Most fiction-writer personalities actually do better in solitude -- at least up to a point.

So we are seeing a variety of these online open, public forum exercise halls appearing where creative people practice their skills.  This crop of online trained writers will be the top tier of the profession within then next 20 years or so, the core of their career building years.

But the participants in such open exercises where they obsesses on words-by-the-day output as being "writers" will also be the occupants of the bottom tier of always-rejected writers.  Those will be the folks who practiced their errors until their brains had literally incorporated the errors into their synapses and no further lessons can fix their errors.

Since the measure of professional success is $$$ income, which is caused by words-by-the-day output goals being met, and all the books on writing craft come to the same bottom line -- a million words for the garbage can before you produce anything worth selling -- how do you avoid ingraining errors?

I've seen careers go both ways -- each successive published novel a vast improvement over the last, or each successive novel repeating the same errors. 

What can a beginning writer learn that can prevent that from happening to them?

That may be the wrong question.  Let's phrase it another way. 

Where can a beginning writer find out how to write fast?  And just how fast is the right speed?

Back to the model of writing that Alma Hill taught me.  Writing is a performing art.  So look to the training processes in performing arts to find the best model for mastering novel writing at the professional level.

Look at the training of little girls in ballet class -- then look at a Master Class at the New York Ballet.

Look at a little boy's first violin lessons -- then look at the "lessons" taken by a member of the Philadelphia Philharmonic.

Look at piano lessons for 6th grader -- then look at jazz pianists jamming.

Is the measure of professional ballet dancing how fast you can dance?  Well, yes and no.

Must a violinist play fast to earn money at it?  Yes, and no. 

What makes the difference between the amateur performer and the professional? 

It's not the actual speed with which they do the performance but how fast they are able to understand instructions and produce what is required on the first try.

A professional actor comes onstage with a troupe from a High School, knows the whole play from having done it dozens of times, looks around the stage, sees the taped on marks for the actors, asks the director a few questions, listens carefully, then just does the performance -- with precision, effortlessly.

"Effortlessly" is the key -- as I learned from Robert Heinlein's characters, sounding spontaneous is a matter of careful preparation.

How do you get to where you can project the seemingly effortless performance of something which is inherently difficult?  Repetition. Practice.

But what exactly do you practice and how?  Does just doing it over and over produce that ability?

Think of the ballet mistress drilling a professional troupe.  She walks among them as they do routine stretches and moves, jogs an elbow here, prods a knee there, lines them up, pokes a chin, scolds for a sour expression -- correcting and correcting their errors and never letting them practice an error, not by a fraction of an inch.

That's what editors do for writers. 

It's feedback.  Writers can't get it from readers because "the book the reader reads is not the book the writer wrote."  Reading is a very personal experience, a creative experience, a unique experience.  A good story can be reread many times, and become a classic down the generations, because if there are none of those "errors" the ballet mistress corrects, the performance is "effortless" and the reader can't see the writer at all.

Each time the reader reads that book, the book is different because the reader has changed. 

The editor, on the other hand, is not reading subjectively but objectively.  The editor's job is to judge the work by how well it conforms to its trope, to its genre signature. 

See my series of 7 posts on editing.  Here is #7 with links to the previous ones.


Training in writing as a ballet dancer trains in ballet, or a violinist, pianist, actor, singer, football player or martial artist trains, will allow the writer to produce product at an optimum rate to allow the product to change with the reader.

The trick is to train under supervision, not just do the same thing doggedly over and over. 

What Events like nanowrimo and the "games" suggested on the blog entry I found on twitter lack is that kind of feedback from supervision that a ballet mistress or voice coach provides, immediate correction, immediate discipline.  The immediacy, the interruption of the move to reposition precisely, causes the training to be effective.

Haven't you wondered why working professional actors go to "voice lessons"?  Surely after all these years, they don't need "lessons."

They aren't "lessons" -- nothing to learn.  They are training, with instant correction of errors to prevent the ingraining of the error. 

"But," you may be thinking, "there is no wrong way to write, no wrong way to tell a story!"

That's true.  There is no wrong story, and no two writers achieve their end-product via the same path.  In fact, any given writer will choose a different path for different works. 

But just as music has a structure which is innate in the structure of the universe, so too fiction has a structure which is innate in the structure of the universe -- which is fine, because each human being is a unique bit of the structure of the universe (very possibly containing the whole universe, too).

Yes, Chinese musical scales differ (markedly) from European scales - mid-Eastern scales - etc.  But each scale works in its own way from the mathematics behind sound. 

Many musicians grow up playing and then composing music "by ear" -- having internalized the scale they're familiar with so they create with it.  Many writers, likewise, fall right into storytelling effortlessly, by sheer talent.  Emotion is to storytelling as sound is to music.  There are 7 cardinal emotions behind the structure of fiction, just as there are 7 tones in an octave (two do's, different but the same).  Some of us are born with a Talent for seeing those 7 emotions, others not. (this is a sub-set of the Chakras and we have to talk about Chakras and Cardinal Emotions together with how a writer can use language to stimulate the reader's Chakras, but that's a tiny bit off topic today.)

Other writers have to learn, and then train, to be able to produce their stories for a wide market.  Even the talented have to train to make the top tier of worldclass performers in the scales of emotion.

So how do you train? 

#1) you learn - you find out what you must do, get it into your head what the objective is.

You do that by reading blogs like this one, lots of books on writing, reading about writing, and then reading a whole lot from the field you want to write in and analyzing as I've shown you in previous blogs.  And of course, you construct your business model.

#2) you practice - you train in your dojo every day, morning, noon, and night, and in between. 

That means you write, just as a would-be violin soloist for a Philharmonic orchestra or a beginning opera star would practice. Six to eight hours a day, you practice. 

And just what is the secret to practicing an instrument?

Tempo.  That's it in a word, tempo.

First you go very slowly, striking each note with careful, precise deliberation.  But not unevenly -- in tempo.  The spaces between the notes, the silences, are as meaningful as the sound in forming the ultimate product, the song, the poetry of emotion.  So you start by striking those notes.

In fact, you learn to touch-type and become speedy at it the same way.  Careful, singular, deliberate strikes, one plodding strike at a time, but in the correct rhythm.  Go slowly enough that you can do it accurately.

Once you have the basic process down, one note after another, you do it again and again, nice and even, but with a relentless BEAT -- you make a mistake, you don't stop, you just plonk right onwards.  Next time through, you focus on that missed-spot and you hit it, staying in tempo.  And then again, and again, until you get it right.  If you stop every time you make a mistake, you learn to make a mistake right there and stop.  It ruins the performance.  So you play through the mistake, and plod on. 

If you try the nanowrimo too soon in your mastery, you'll fail because you aren't ready for full speed.  It's just like martial arts training - you get fast by going slow. 

Gradually, you pick up the tempo, but not so much that the speed makes you make mistakes.  And you do it at that speed until you don't make mistakes.  Then you pick up the tempo, and do it again and again.  Then faster.

Once you've learned a number of songs that way, you begin to find that the next one you learn is easier to learn.

Now a "song" in music is like a "genre" in fiction -- a song, a piece, a symphony, a quartet, and so on -- each has a structure, a protocol, an appeal based on expectations.  In dance, choreography has "composition" -- (competitive figure skating too) -- each type of artform has its "rules" comprised of the elements that have been successful with large audiences.

Becoming a professional writer is just like becoming a professional musician able to play "requests" at a party, or an audition for a movie, or to be in the orchestra at a circus performance.  Yes it takes practice, but you must not practice your mistakes.  Speed is not the objective.  Just because you can play it fast doesn't mean you played it well.  The "speed" the professional has that the amateur doesn't have lies in the ability to do new things as easily and proficiently as doing old things. 

That "speed" comes from spending one's whole work-day on just this one skill, acquiring, practicing UNDER SUPERVISION so errors get corrected before they get ingrained, teaching, and performing -- a whole life focused on this one skill. 

That's why you must get paid for your work -- because there's no time to do anything else, no strength or attention.

To get paid, you don't write a certain quota of words per day, you write the appropriate amount at the appropriate tempo for this performance.  Professionalism allows you to judge what is "appropriate" in each instance and be right -- because your very life depends on that judgement.  If you're wrong, you don't get paid and can't buy food.

Trust me, money sharpens the judgement remarkably.

Look at the career of Johnston McCulley -- historical yes, and in an era with a slightly different business model than we can use today -- but well worth learning from:

----------FROM "Tales of Thubway Tham" Wildside Press 2011 on Kindle ----------

Johnston McCulley will be forever famous as the creator of Zorro, the Robin Hood-like hero of old California. But few realize how truly prolific and creative McCulley was throughout his long career as a writer. McCulley (1883-1958) made first true specialist in pulp-fiction periodical, Detective Story Magazine, a special home for his work. In its pages he launched series after series . . . The Avenging Twins (who appeared in a series of eight adventures between 1923 and1926), the Black Star (fourteen stories from 1916-1930), The Crimson Clown (seventeen stories from 1926-1931), The Man in Purple (three stories in 1921), The Spider (eleven stories between1918 and 1919), Terry Trimble (four stories between 1917 and 1919), The Thunderbolt (three stories between 1920 and 1921) but most especially Thubway Tham (who appeared in more than one hundred and eighty stories between 1916 and 1948, at first in Detective Story Magazine, but later in such places as Thrilling Detective, with later reprints in The Saint Mystery Magazine, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, and others). The Thubway Tham series, you will note,starts before and lasts longer than all of McCulley’s other mystery series combined! Clearly Tham was a favorite character, one to whom the author returned time and again.

Thubway Tham is a small, short-tempered gnome of a man, a professional pickpocket with an annoying lisp. But he is no mere thief . . . he is the king of his chosen profession, a master “dip” who works only in the subways of New York City. Like all such villains, he faces a cunning adversary in Police Detective Craddock, who is always half a pace behind. Craddock has sworn to put Tham behind bars, where he belongs. But Tham is clever enough to always remain one step ahead of Craddock and everyone else.

Johnston McCulley; John Betancourt. Tales of Thubway Tham (Kindle Locations 48-50).

There are echoes of the pulp era business model with the advent of e-publishing, Indie publishers and self publishing.  The similarities may far outweigh the differences, so study the careers of famous writers of that era for how they learned and honed their craft.

Nanowrimo is trying to simulate that pulp era honing, and may just be the tonic you need to get you going and keep you going.  But remember the ballet mistress training already famous professional ballerinas, pounding her cane and shouting ONE-TWO-THREE-ELBOWS OUT CHIN IN - FOUR FIVE!

Improv has a lot to be said for it, but as with acting, it's more a matter of with whom you improv than what you improv.

If you can find an elderly Johnston McCulley to watch you write, smack your jutting elbows and elevate your chin and remind you to smile while you type, you may find these online exposures to writing/pacing well worth while.

Just remember success isn't counted by a certain number of words per day but by the appropriate number of words per project.

You want to earn the title true specialist in the e-book world?  Practice, practice, practice performing your art.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg


  1. Incredible post. You could seriously put this into an e-book for budding authors. I've been writing for close to 30 years, have published a novel, and have one of those journalism degrees you speak of, but I just feel that I'm coming into my own as an author. It is so important for young authors to realize that need to work at their trade beyond just throwing words onto a page. Kudos.

  2. John Betancourt10:38 PM EST

    I agree with Suze Reese. Great essay. (And glad you are also a fan of McCulley and Thubway Tham!)

    Important lessons for everyone. Even "pros" need to realize they can still learn a thing or two, even after years -- or decades -- or writing. The markets change, and those who can change with them are the ones who thrive.

  3. @SuzeReese I've pointed a couple people to your comment as something new writers really need to absorb on a deep level.

  4. @JohnBetancourt -- absolutely! The reason I launched my writing career at the age of 16 and decided that no matter what bread&butter profession I ended up in, my real career would be writing is that I discovered something about myself.

    I can't stand to let a day go by that I don't learn something NEW. I can't just do the same thing over and over. So the changes in the world due to ebooks and audiobooks (and YouTube etc) are exactly what make my life rewarding.

    Writing is one of the few careers that demand constant acquisition of a) knowledge, b) data to plug into the knowledge and c) synthesizing all that into "wisdom" (whatever that may be.)

    Gaining Wisdom is what makes life FUN!