The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Writing "Machine" Part Two: Read 10X What you write

So our first rule was to create an output target and stick to it.  The second rule is designed to keep you from creative bankrupsy.   YOU MUST READ.   Lots.  Tons.  Everything you can get your hands on.   But too often, I encounter people who want to publish, say, SF, and confine their reading to the very magazines they wish to write for.

I think this is a bad, bad idea.  The first generation of SF writers seemed to know two things: literature and the sciences.  If you have, say 100 units of ability, and have to spend 30 of them on world-building, guess what?  You only have 70 units of ability to use on the quality of your writing. 

An SF writer would actually have to have about 130 “units” of ability to write fiction that is as good, measured purely as fiction, as a writer who has 100 units but doesn’t have to world-build and extrapolate.   This is why I   like to have students   write non-genre stories BEFORE experimenting with genre.   Do you understand character, poetics, plotting?   The elements of genre can disguise the quality of poor writing.  Easily.  A great idea is forgiven much bad presentation.

There is another factor.  If you eat steak, you know what comes out the other end.    So if you eat crap, what do you think you get?  Sorry for the image, but it is critical to disabuse yourself of the notion that you can be lazy about your input: garbage in, garbage out.    If you take the position that you must read ten words for every word you write, and not only that but must strive to read “up” from your target market, it is hard to go wrong.

What this means, of course, is that if you have the ambition of writing popular fiction, read bestsellers.  Want to write bestsellers? Read classics.  Want to write classics? Well…choose your grandparents very carefully.

That’s kind of a joke, but contains some truth, of course.  Ultimately, there is a limit to what focus, modeling, hard work and so forth will do for you.   There are undoubtedly inborn limits.   Personally, I’ve never met a human being who struck me as being at the absolute outer edge of his potential, although I know a few who come extraordinarily close.  If you concentrate on getting the very, very best from whatever potential you have, you’ll accomplish hella more than if you lament that you don’t have as much “talent” as someone else.  In fact, one of the first clues that a person is focused on the wrong things is if they spend time complaining about the success of others.

Do what you can, to the best of your ability.  And one core element of the “Machine” is to write a story a week (or some other serious output goal), and then read 10X what you write, one level “up.”   The truth is that if your ambitions are the very highest, then you should be spending the majority of your reading time with the classics of the ages.   Also immersing yourself in the mastery of some area of human knowledge.  And stripping away your perceptual and emotional illusions and masks, so that you are free to  cut closer and closer to the truth of your existence every day.

We’ll touch on that again, soon.  But today, look at the application of these two rules in your life. 

Write With Passion!

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