Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Articles that start fiction ideas, #2

A piece by Timothy Pychyl in Psychology Today points out something that is of obvious use to beginning fiction writers, but of even more use to those of us trying to retain and use the Beginner's Mind:

If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing poorly at first.

I've seen a few potential book doctoring clients whose fundamental problem is that they're not willing to let their first book suck, and have thus found some way to waste many years on something that can't possibly be any good, ever, rather than figure that to write a bad book, all the way to the end, is a major accomplishment, just as running a really slow marathon, getting a third of the way through a weight loss program, etc. may be all that's on the menu for you at this point in your development.

In general I try to turn down contracts that involve being the seventeenth sow's-ear-processor on the project, usually with a curt "Start with silk next time, and learn purse structure.  Drop this and get on with the next time."

Pychyl's better thought, though, which I think applies for everyone, is that if you can't learn from doing poor work, you probably can't learn at all. (Yes, you can learn more from doing good work.  Sometimes that is on the menu, and sometimes it's not.  Sitting and starving till it is will not cause it to become available, but doing poor work -- and enjoying it, Pychyl's main point -- is often the only road there is to being able to do it well, and that's part of why so many people never start.)

Personal example: I usually turn on my phone's voice memo feature at church choir rehearsal, so I can review later.  Since the phone is in my pocket, the thing that is clearest and loudest will be my own voice.  This means hearing what I do when I am simultaneously looking for a pitch, trying to read the words at the same time, and occasionally remembering to breathe.  It's an incredibly awful noise -- but it's how I get to sounding right by performance. 

Last thought about this: we don't depict nearly enough of this in fiction and in fact we resist it when it shows up.  One of the editors that Betsy Mitchell had supply Buzz Aldrin and I with comments for Encounter with Tiber had been a Star Trek editor for a while, and couldn't understand why there were places in the book where engineers and scientists, desperately trying to get something to work, would try things that didn't work, or made the situation worse.  Sometimes those engineers didn't even seem to know what was going on.  We received a stern little note telling us that all those mistakes not only delayed the story but they would destroy the reader's respect and sympathy for the engineer-characters -- a hero should know what to do and it should work!

Of course, phrased that baldly, it's obvious what was wrong with that.   (We spent a while crafting a note explaining it).  But sometimes the most interesting thing to do is to give the job to someone who has to do it -- and doesn't yet know how.  When I think about the tinkering and struggling in Neville Shute's Trustee from the Toolroom (a nerdy machinist who builds models for a hobby finds himself in Clive Cussler territory) or Harry's many collisions with the porch roof and everything else in Zilpha Keatley Snyder's Black and Blue Magic (why don't magical wings come with directions?), I think those things in part made those books.  It might have been great to see Asimov's roboticists coping with a stripped bolt and no tool to take it out, or Kip (in Heinlein's Have Spacesuit Will Travel) struggle for a few pages with a valve that just wouldn't close, before he figured out what he did wrong three steps ago.

Oh, and we did win the argument, and all that knuckle-barking, frustration-generating struggle is still there in Encounter with Tiber.  Whether you're going to the moon or hitting a pitch (baseball or choir), starting off badly may be all there is, and it beats not starting.