I had a gig last night (as I write this) that was fun and a bit different. It was a semi-unplugged thing at a nice restaurant, and in the interest of space and volume and simplicity I only brought a cajon (plus some smaller hand and foot percussion, etc.) instead of a full drumset. Which I’ve done before, many times. But due to some of the specifics of the gig we also played some tunes I hadn’t played before (including some I’d never heard before), and a lot of tunes I’d never played on cajon before.
All of which was fine, and actually enjoyable. (The venue had a fun, forgiving crowd, which helps. There may have been wine involved.)
The interesting part was that I had to figure out how I was going to best replicate the drumset part on the cajon--while playing the song on cajon—and then modify it as I went along, trying to optimize the groove without causing any undue musical bumps along the way. Again, this is fun and the right side of my brain enjoys the challenge. The not-so-fun part was when I’d arrive at a pattern that seemed to work well, playing something new to me, and then I’d sort of look down at my limbs to see what I was doing… and it would start to fall apart. I had to laugh—it was the tale of the centipede stopping to think about moving all those feet and then suddenly not being able to walk.
The writing lesson for me here was the benefits of not being over-analytical during the creative phase. (And by “over-analytical,” you know we really mean “critical.”)
Because if there’s one thing writers do that most others don’t, it’s stopping to critique our own work in the middle of producing it, frequently to the point of abject discouragement where we no longer even want to produce it.
Imagine someone building a concrete block wall like a writer: He sets the first block in mud. Fine. Then he sets the second one and immediately stops everything to take detailed measurements. Oops—the second block is 1/16th of an inch out of alignment. Dang! He pulls it, scrapes the mud, and re-sets it repeatedly until it’s perfect. But by then the rest of the mud in the wheelbarrow has set so he throws it all away and quits for the day.
Contrasted with how a builder would approach it: She builds the wall, realizing there are small imperfections along the way but continuing working because she knows she won’t have a smooth wall until she has a rough one. Then she cleans the joints. Then she puts on a rough coat, getting it somewhat level. Then a second, finer coat, to even out any little imperfections, followed by a smooth color coat to get it the way she imagined it at the beginning.
The process is iterative, not monolithic. We probably don’t want to worry about the final little polish when we’re in the middle of laying the first course of blocks. Thinking that way can drive us crazy, and distract us to the point where the writing comes to a standstill.
Thinking and doing are both important parts of the process, but generally not simultaneously. Everyone’s creative methodology is different, of course, but it usually helps when I try to follow some approximation of the following six-step process:
1. Think (about what you might want to do), then…
2. Do (until you don’t feel like doing any more at the moment), then…
3. Think (until you’re happy with what you previously did), then…
4. Do (some more), then…
5. Repeat thinking/doing until “the end.”
6. Go back and think/do/think/do until you think you’ve done as well as you can do.
So… if you’re at the desk (metaphorical or literal) creating output of any quantity and quality, consider not getting analytical in that moment and just continuing to create until the flow subsides. No matter how rough or raw or downright flawed the work may be. Because you can always smooth out rough work, but it’s hard to improve something that doesn’t exist.
So, first build the wall… then plaster it.
In a recent post I briefly mentioned this and I want to expand on it here, as I think it applies to all areas of writing (fiction, nonfiction, short works, book-length works) as well as several aspects of the industry itself.
In the middle of my nonfiction workshop I usually throw up a slide with a couple different mastheads on it, one from a healthy, mid-sized national magazine (50,000 – 100,000 monthly readers) and one from a big one (closing in on a million). The mid-sized mag (which I’ve written for quite a bit) has maybe a dozen in-house people on staff. I point to the person at the top of the masthead—the publisher, in this case—and look at the class. “Do I send it to her?” I shake my head. “No way. Her job is the big picture of keeping the whole business afloat.” I go down a bit further, to the editorial staff, then zip past positions like Editorial Director and Editor-in-Chief until I get to Managing Editor. “This is the guy I send my stuff to.” (And when I started my relationship with him, IIRC, he was an Associate Editor.) Then I look at the big masthead (close to a hundred people in all) and we play the same game, after going through a bunch of people just to get to the editorial dept. “Her? No chance in France. Him? Not even close. This guy? Probably not. Her? Maybe, if I had a strong resume and was pitching a feature. This woman?” I ask when we’ve gone down a dozen editorial positions to Assistant Managing Editor. “Yeah, I’d probably go with her if I was pitching a piece to them for the first time.”
Why? Because those people are in the sweet spot, where they have the horsepower to make decisions (or at least recommendations) about article acquisitions, but not so far up that they don’t care about smaller (single article) editorial decisions. They may also give your query a little more attention. I once sent a story to a small magazine with a small staff, basically consisting of the editor (who I think was also the publisher), an assistant editor, and an admin assist. I sent it to the junior editor on a hunch. She read it/liked it/bought it (not sure if she got the concurrence of her boss first, and I didn’t really care). She also told me this was the first time someone had sent a piece directly to her.
Moving beyond periodicals, this methodology can also work as you get into the broader book publishing arena. New agents, for example, are typically looking to build their roster (hard to place books if you don’t represent any authors). This doesn’t mean they’ll automatically sign anything that comes across their desk—all the usual criteria of quality saleable fiction still apply. And they may not have the clout (and industry relationships) of established, successful agents. But on the other hand, newer agents are more likely to be actively seeking out new stuff, as opposed to well-established agents who may already have their hands relatively full with existing clients.
Similarly, when an editorial assistant becomes an assistant editor, they will be looking for manuscripts to acquire. As with new agents, most newly acquiring editors don’t already have a group of existing authors to work with and must build their list from the ground up, so they may be more willing to read your work. (Again, this doesn’t mean their standards are lower than established editors—they may in fact be very picky about their “first” books. And they will almost certainly need the concurrence of senior editors within their imprint before they can give you a “yes.”) But in general, they may be more open to at least taking a look at any given submission.
And I’ve seen several instances of a newer agent or editor posting on social media about the types of projects they’re looking for… sometimes with a general wish list and sometimes with fairly specific criteria. (Please note that if an editor muses on twitter that she’d love to see a near-future SF version of Gone With The Wind featuring an LGBT cast with global warming filling in for the Civil War, this doesn’t mean you should necessarily sit down and write that novel. These sorts of posts are really aimed at writers who may already have an existing work which somehow fits into the general gestalt of the request. And if you happen to have one that does… fire that query off right damn now!)
The real lesson here is that while most aspiring authors would love to be working with a rock-star agent or editor, the odds are mathematically against that happening—at least right away—for the majority of new writers. (As discussed in this post, an editor at a big house may work on a dozen or so books a year, and most of those will be from existing authors.) So consider increasing your chances of representation and/or publication by keeping your eyes and ears open for newer/junior editors and agents who are looking for a foothold in the industry just as you’re looking for yours.
Who knows? Maybe you can team up and make it to the top together...
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.