Being Good vs. Being Lucky and Art as Hard Work

Recently, authors Joe Hill (Twitter) and Myke Cole (Twitter) had posts that struck a chord with me–hence the late post today. I’ve been wrangling with these ideas all morning.

Hill wrote about self-publishing vs. traditional publishing, and Cole wrote about when he “stopped thinking of a novel as a work of art, and started thinking of it as an engine.”

In Hill’s post, this line caught my eye:

Luck comes into it of course… but it’s better to be good than lucky (and ideally you hope to be both). If you’re consistently writing appealing, professionally executed work, eventually an agent will notice, and decide to roll the dice on you; and eventually an editor at a traditional publishing house will follow suite. But in the end, if you’re good enough, that’s what will happen anyway, even if you give your book away for free on the internet. Just ask John Scalzi.

This echoed a sentiment that I like: making your own luck by working hard. By failing, learning why you failed, and failing better the next time. Repeat until you finally succeed. But do my actions reflect that sentiment? Have I adopted the proper mindset?

That’s where Cole’s article comes in to play. In his post, he talks about how he stopped thinking purely in terms of art or inspiration from a muse. Instead, he started thinking of a novel as a piece of machinery–an engine to take apart, study, and rebuild. Accordingly, how he read novels changed. He writes:

That was when I began reading different. I gave up much of the resonance and wonder of the reading experience. [China] Mieville’s prose ceased to transport me as I picked apart its breathy elegy and look at just how he was evoking it. [George R.R.] Martin’s characters lost their luster as I dove deep into how they were constructed, looking for the WHY in their appeal. I began to see where some of my favorite writers interrupted their narratives with unnecessary description, or tripped up a character with clumsy dialouge. I began to spot the places that made me want to put the book down, began to understand why.

I’ve often heard of “reading like a writer,” but I have trouble doing it. When I pick up the latest book by Peter V. Brett, Patrick Rothfuss, or Scott Lynch, I read in a passive way. I sink into the story and lose myself in the world, the characters, and the story. I’m enjoying the book as a reader. I’m not reading the book as a writer. I’m not reading actively (i.e., reading to learn how those authors wrote a high caliber novel).

So I tweeted Myke about how he did it. (Note: Myke replied almost instantly. He has always been great at reaching out to fans–something he deserves quite a bit of praise for) He said “It helps me to take notes. When something makes my heart race, I stop and ask why.” I responded that perhaps I should try reading slower, and take more pleasure from determining why an author made certain decisions.

But it was Myke’s response to this tweet that brought me to a screeching halt:

I’m not interested in finding pleasure in things. I’m interested in accomplishing the mission. That’s a key mindset.

In the future, if ever I need a one-sentence statement that separates fan from professional, that’s it. I just stared at his response for a while. So stark, so clear. It was the jolt to the system, the boot to the ass that I needed to push me out of a rut I had found myself in.

You see, making that jump from fan, to writer, to professional writer is something that has been weighing on my mind. I mean, I’m making progress, but I’m not satisfied with the rate of that progress. So I’m reaching that point where it’s put up or shut up time. During past moments of doubt, I would to look for tips or tricks to make my writing better. But perhaps it’s more about mindset. Get my mind right, and the right actions will follow.

I often hear the advice (in podcasts, blogs, etc.) about “fake it until you make it” or acting like a professional when you attend conventions instead of fanboying or fangirling all over your favorite author/editor/agent. That saying didn’t sit well with me, and I think it was because I was focusing (and misinterpreting) the “acting” bit as something phony. I think that misunderstanding was apparent when I attended the Nebula Awards weekend in DC–unfortunately landed on the fan side of things. Instead, I should have been thinking in terms of training my brain to think from a certain perspective so that other good qualities will follow.

So, time to reorient. Think professionally, and act professionally. Don’t just read, but read to learn. Don’t just write to hit a word count goal, write to learn. Keep improving. And by the time I start getting those professional market sales, it won’t be some be-all, end-all thing. It will simply be external recognition of what I already know about myself.

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