Learning Curves

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?

12 comments

  1. I’m here about the learning curve actually. Because I am smashed against a learning wall I can’t climb over so I wanted to cry in public a little. But I’ll throw in Narnia and don’t I wish I was there right now.

  2. I have chapters that are one placeholder summary long.

    I’m not sure if it’s actually better to leave it for later and try to keep momentum than stop and bang my head against the wall until I break through.
    (The most recent was how the secondary character could tell the protagonist/reader insert that she was absolutely not at all interested, without coming across as cold or condescending, or being in a pre-existing relationship.)

    1. If you’re still wondering, having been the one rejected, something along the lines of “You’re a good guy and all, but I just don’t like you that way. I hope you understand” would satisfy your criteria.

      (Take notes, ladies. If a guy’s a good enough dude that you’re actual friends with him, he’ll be okay with this, or at least willing to live with it. Don’t lie to him, that’s just annoying, especially if the guy you end up getting with doesn’t meet whatever criteria you said he didn’t.)

    2. Bear in mind that you can’t control the readers. I put in a bit where a inn’s servant pestered the heroine as she was leaving and there were beta readers who insisted that the servant was just being friendly and the heroine had no right to object.

      Fortunately, unlike yours, it was not crucial.

  3. I guess the only objective standard I can measure against is, “How close is this novel to the one in my head?” Because the novels in my head are awesome and would win everything from the Dragon Award to the Nobel Prize for Literature, if only I could get them out into the world without this pesky “writing” step.

    1. THIS.
      It took me, oh, six or seven books to understand that the book on paper will never, ever be as good as the book in my head – and that this does not necessarily make it worthless. (Some of the earliest attempts, on the other hand… well, I’m truly grateful that e-books weren’t a thing at the time, so I couldn’t publish my darlings.)

  4. It will come. The mind/muse is a strange, sometimes irritating, sometimes drunk in the bar, occasionally prodding one to write that ONE paragraph the subconscious has squirreled away that suddenly unlocks the ‘way’ to do what you want. FWIW, I tend to rely on my research and subconscious to come up with a ‘believable’ world and the characters that populate it.

  5. The single “how to write” book in my past was by Steven King. The only thing I remember is his comment that smoking helps. I quit but still vape, and it does help! Not that I approve of that filthy habit….

  6. I started writing the stories in my head, some of which were Odd (talking airplanes, anyone?) I have a lot of those, some of which I burned two decades ago. Writing readable academic papers forced me to learn how to describe people in ways that were 1) true to the documents and 2) engaging for the reader. A whole lot of words later, I’m sort of closer to what I want. Description? Y’all have no idea how many thousands of words of wardrobe description got cut out of the Cat novels. Wow, it was up there with some volumes of the Wheel of Time for a while.

  7. My first few drafts of my first (of my whopping two) was horrendous. I mean it SUCKED. Then somebody here or over in the Diner mentioned a book “Show Don’t Tell.” I read that and went through my drafts line by painstaking line. Then I read that draft. Oh my GOD! Head and shoulders over where it was. That book, with its “things you need to do” was the breakthrough I needed.

    1. One day, I learned to tighten up my prose. Everything I wrote before that day, I could compress enough to remove a third to a quarter of the words. (After that day, the first draft I wrote was tighter, so I didn’t need to revise it out.)

  8. A world that completely sucked me in was written by one of your (can I say “our” even though I don’t write, yet?) own: Merchant and Empire. I didn’t expect to enjoy it much, but I try to read everything y’all write, so I gave it a whirl. Wow! There is something, which I can’t identify – and I’ve tried – that makes it seem right next door and fully alive.
    Speaking of which, when’s the next book coming out? (I may have missed it; book five is the last I’ve got. Nope, no book six, yet.)

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