Yesterday, writer Blair MacGregor posted a really detailed and thoughtful analysis of one of my fight scenes. It’s incredibly gratifying to inspire this level of consideration. I’ve said many times before that I am no Emily Dickinson. I write to be read, to send a signal out and get a signal back.
But there was something else in MacGregor’s piece that really struck me. She’s incredibly complimentary, and I hope it won’t be considered egoboo if I accept the praise. I think the things she says are working, do work, and they work for the reasons she says they do.
There’s just one problem: I had no idea I was doing them.
If you have time to read MacGregor’s whole piece, great. If not, take a look at this snippet:
“We have Shouts. Not Someone shouted or the stupid-clunky He heard shouting. We have instead a single word that tells us, “At least one human is making lots of noise that others will hear, and since we’ve established we’d recognize the voices of our own guys, we know it’s an enemy.”
That’s an impressive and hard-working word there, Shouts.”
She’s right. The use of the single word, “shouts,” is more effective in the context of this fight scene. I totally agree with her. What I don’t agree with is the impression that I in any way meant to do that. At no time did I sit down and deliberately choose the single word “shouts” over the more cumbersome “someone shouted.”
I feel the same way about the other praise she gives my work. I agree with her, but the truth is that all I did was sit down and tap on the keys. I worked from an outline, with a solid idea of where I wanted the story to go. I got to know my characters as well as I could (not well enough, if I’m being fully honest) and liked to think that I was making them react in character given the pressures I was putting them under, but the kind of good choices that MacGregor accuses me of making were entirely incidental. I see what I did, and I have absolutely no idea how I did it.
What does this mean? The temptation is to cry “instinct!” or “talent!” and nod sagely. I strongly disagree. If my ability to write effectively were instinctual, or hardcoded in my DNA, then I would have gotten a book deal without having to throw myself at a brick wall repeatedly for 15 years. The fact remains that I could not write effectively then, and I can write effectively (if you believe MacGregor) now. What changed?
Like artist/writer Howard Tayler, I am a big proponent of focused practice. I firmly believe that talent and luck are either myths, or so protean as to be irrelevant. The thing you can control is the work, and that I have controlled. Here’s what happened over 15 years: I tried. I tried really really really hard. And when I got knocked on my ass, I got back up and I tried some more.
That’s it. No secret. No magic key. I just kept doing the same damn thing over and over, looking for ways to do it better. And the whole time, I kept thinking that I wasn’t getting better, that the quest was futile, that I was pushing a rock up a mountain that had no end. But here’s the cool thing about focused practice: When you’re down in the mud, pushing away, it becomes your world. After a while, all you can see is mud and all you can feel is your muscles straining to keep going. If each push is faster and harder than the one before it, the mud’s still brown and your muscles still hurt. Nothing appears to have changed. We train ourselves that self-praise is no praise at all, we are wary of compliments. We don’t like to rest on our laurels. We tell ourselves we’re not good enough that, after a while, we start to believe it.
But we are getting better. Even when we don’t think we are. Especially when we don’t think we are. The thing that people are calling “instinct” is the wages of focused practice over years. It is the mud you push in migrating through your skin, getting in your blood, until it’s a part of you. Until, when you sit down to write, it comes out, even when you don’t know it.
I wrote a good fight scene. To me it was just sitting down and writing, but the truth is that I when I sat down, it was on top of a mountain built of 15 years of training, a foundation so baked in that I didn’t even notice that it was there, couldn’t see it at work even when it was.
You may feel like you’re banging your head against a wall. You may wonder why you bother, whether its worth it, if you’re wasting your time. You may ask yourself if you’re getting any better.