Being Good Enough
(First posted to Facebook 04/7/2010)
When I was first brave enough to admit to the world that I'd begun writing a book, one thing I heard quite often was, "Really? Me too."
It wasn't always in those exact words. Sometimes it came along the lines of, "I have so many ideas, I just have to find the time to start," or, "I've always thought I should write." But the general idea was "me too."
The very first time this happened, we were newly returned to the United States, struggling to figure out how to make thirteen-dollars-an-hour stretch through the whole month, I had just barely set out on my charted course, and the other writer was one of our neighbors in the apartment complex.
He offered to let me read his stuff.
His book turned out to be a hundred hand-written pages that read like a mixture of personal notes, movie script and a rough play-by-play of an action movie he might have been watching at the time.
I was still starting out, still learning the ropes, still trying to teach myself what I'd need to know in order to pace and plot my way through three hundred and fifty type-written pages. I knew there was a hell of a lot I didn't know, but I could tell he knew even less.
I was at a complete loss in knowing where to even start to try to point the guy in the right direction, and the last thing I wanted to do was stomp on his dreams, so I think my response was something like, "Wow, I can tell you put a lot of effort into this, that's awesome!"--I really didn't know what else to say. Incidentally, I'm still occasionally handed things and asked to read them, and sometimes I'm still at a loss.
He was the first to open my eyes to how many people dream of writing. I really had no idea at the time.
After THE INFORMATIONIST finally sold, the "me too" kind of changed. I'd moved from "wannabe," across the aisle to "gonnabe," and I suppose that got me a smidgen of credibility. Which meant that now, the "me too" was followed with, "but I don?t know if I?m good enough."
I hear that so often, "I don?t know if I?m good enough."
The thing is, nobody's good enough when they first start out. Many novelists write several books before they finally produce one worthy of publication. (And yes, before you yell at me, I agree that there are some well-paid authors who truly suck as writers, but I also have to admit that they are excellent story tellers, and that's why they sell so many copies.)
Back to the point: There are many routes to get to the end destination of "good enough," and although some journeys may be shorter or longer than others, everyone who wants to write professionally has to make the trip because nobody's born there. Nobody starts out good enough.
I feel that it's fairly safe to say that out of the thousands of novels traditionally published in the United States every year, very few, if any, got to where they are on the expertise of the writer alone--especially so when speaking of the good ones. Because even when a writer is good enough to get published, guess what? S/he's still not good enough.
When it's time for me to submit a draft of a book to my agent, I'm nervous. I'm biting my nails. Because even though at the time I may feel that I've done my best work up to that point, I know--I don't think, I don't wonder--I know with certainty--that it's not good enough.
In my particular case, I'm not so much worried about the quality of writing. (Thank you, Bill Gates, for spell check. Thank you, Strunk and White for your "Elements of Style," and especially thank you Gotham Writer's Workshop for publishing your guide to creative writing). Personally, I really struggle with pacing and structure. Those are my two greatest weaknesses as a writer, and even though I've been told I write very well, those issues are big enough that I will always have that "not good enough" shingle hanging over my head.
Being able to write--that is, the mechanics of writing--is important up to a point when you want someone to take your work seriously, but it's not the be all, end all, nor the key factor to getting a book picked up. As anyone who's reading this note can attest, my punctuation sucks, my grammar could be better, and sometimes I can take a really long time to get to the point. Likewise, there are amazingly gifted writers who punctuate perfectly and bandy about witty and florid prose, who are unpublished and may never be published. Being able to write well is only part of the equation.
When my agent gets hold of one of my manuscripts, it's not good enough. Like one of those little Lego kits with pieces that can be turned into all sorts of things, she deconstructs my basic car, hands me a few new pieces and helps me put it back together so that it looks a bit more like Lego luxury. And guess what? It's still not good enough.
Eventually my editor will get her hands on it, and she'll pull it all apart again, add a few more pieces, and by the time she's done handing it all back to me, I've got what I need to build a Lego Maserati. Then the copy editor comes along and puts on the equivalent of a brand new coat of paint.
All the readers ever get to see is the showroom Maserati.
So back to my point about "not good enough": If you want to write, if you dream about writing, and you worry that you aren't good enough, well, frankly, you're right. But so what?
As both a reader and a fellow writer, I'd be a little worried about you if you didn't think your stuff wasn't good enough, because it seems that the writers who believe their creations are brilliant are the ones who truly suck. (No offense meant to anyone in particular).
The only way to get good enough is to write and learn to spot your own bad writing. Sometimes it takes a lot of practice to learn to see it, but if you read your own work and you think that you're awesome, that should be your first clue that your writing needs help--it's the Kruger-Dunning Effect in action.
The guy in the apartment complex with the hand-written book (no matter how poorly his effort might compare to just about any published work)--he did what so many people say they're going to do, or say they're dreaming of doing but never actually start: he wrote.
I don't know what happened to him, but I hope he kept writing. I hope he searched out how to make his writing better and kept at it until he figured out how to spot and correct the errors, because that is the ONLY way to become good enough--not thinking about writing, not dreaming about writing, not plotting or outlining or building characters, but sitting down in front of the computer (or typewriter, voice recorder or piece of paper) and hammering it out one word at a time until you get to a point where it no longer sucks.