Learning is never on a smooth curve; it just averages out that way when seen from a far enough distance and with a heavy hand on the smoothing of data points in the report after the fact. In reality, it often feels like hitting a wall, then all the ups and downs of try-fail cycles while mastering something, then plateauing while you integrate what you’ve learned and practice it until it becomes second nature, then hitting another wall… which is actually starting the next step in learning.
Unfortunately, in the arts where each piece is unique and there’s not necessarily any objective standard beyond “Is the reader interested enough to give you their beer money / were they entertained enough to give you beer money again?”, it’s really hard to tell where on that learning curve you are, and what you need to work on and how, next. Not that there’s a shortage of answers, oh no, there are ten thousand how-to books out there on writing. But some of them fit as badly as advice on making your next modern art into a provocative enough performance people will pay for the experience, when what you want is to get better at the anatomy on your dragons so they look even more realistic and dangerous.
Which is where the desire for the perfect structural editor comes in: the longing of “If only I could find the person who could tell me what the road ahead is!” Or, alternatively, trying divination from the reviews of the last piece.
Which is where I find myself looking at “likeable characters” and “excellent worldbuilding”, and going “I can tell there’s a skillset I have not yet obtained, but I don’t know how to get there from here.” Not that those aren’t great reviews, and I’m very happy that the readers enjoyed the book! More that they’re still seeing it as characters and worldbuilding. There’s a level beyond that, that I want to reach, where the readers enjoy the story without thinking of it as a story. Where the readers, well… As another writer put it:
“What did I want?
I wanted a Roc’s egg. I wanted a harem loaded with lovely odalisques less than the dust beneath my chariot wheels, the rust that never stained my sword,. I wanted raw red gold in nuggets the size of your fist and feed that lousy claim jumper to the huskies! I wanted to get u feeling brisk and go out and break some lances, then pick a like wench for my droit du seigneur–I wanted to stand up to the Baron and dare him to touch my wench! I wanted to hear the purple water chuckling against the skin of the Nancy Lee in the cool of the morning watch and not another sound, nor any movement save the slow tilting of the wings of the albatross that had been pacing us the last thousand miles.
I wanted the hurtling moons of Barsoom. I wanted Storisende and Poictesme, and Holmes shaking me awake to tell me, “The game’s afoot!” I wanted to float down the Mississippi on a raft and elude a mob in company with the Duke of Bilgewater and the Lost Dauphin.
I wanted Prestor John, and Excalibur held by a moon-white arm out of a silent lake. I wanted to sail with Ulysses and with Tros of Samothrace and eat the lotus in a land that seemed always afternoon. I wanted the feeling of romance and the sense of wonder I had known as a kid. I wanted the world to be what they had promised me it was going to be–instead of the tawdry, lousy, fouled-up mess it is.”
― Robert A. Heinlein, Glory Road
Clearly, a list of good sources to check on authors who made people jump right past “relatable character and excellent worldbuilding.” Now, if only I could figure out what they were doing that I’m not yet…
What books made you forget it was a book, and just want to eat at the George and race through the NeverNever on spell-box powered motocycles and play with the band, command that ship, and run with the pack?