1. TDFuhringer
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    TDFuhringer Contributing Member Contributor

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    Gentle rant: You're not a skilled expert, until you're a skilled expert.

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by TDFuhringer, Feb 2, 2014.

    Something happened the other night that got me thinking about skill development. Please, let me tell you the story. (YES, this is about writing, bear with me.)

    I visited my friend "Hank" on Friday. His wife left him recently so one of his buddies and I went over to his house to cheer him up. Hank told us he was going to make spaghetti. His wife had always done the cooking and his mother before that. In short, Hank has the cooking finesse of an infant slow loris.

    He set the pan on fire while trying to cook the beef. He didn't put enough water in the pasta pot. He thought he had spaghetti, when what he really had was a package of fetuccini. He had no cooking oil and couldn't figure out why he'd need any. He thought one can of sauce would be enough for two pounds of ground beef.

    It was a disaster, but it was a fun disaster. We helped him get through it and eventually we ended up with a dinner that, while not spectacular, was far from bad. But he got really upset. He realized he's a forty-year old man who doesn't know his way around the kitchen.

    I'm a skilled cook. I tried to reassure him, and as the words were coming out of my mouth I had an epiphany. I said, "The only reason why I can cook is because I've been doing it for thirty years. My parents let me start cooking (I wanted to) when I was ten. My first few attempts to make dinner were disastrous. No one is an expert when they first start doing something."

    No one is a skilled expert when they first learn how to do something. You're not a skilled expert until you're a skilled expert.

    Just because you know how to write, or have good ideas, or your friends tell you that you tell great stories, or you've read a lot of books, doesn't make you a skilled writer. On the other hand, unless you've put in the hours and work necessary to learn the craft, why are you beating yourself up over the fact that your writing isn't publishable? Why do so many aspiring writers expect to write a publishable novel the first time out?

    I attempted my first novel in the summer of '93. The only reason why my writing now gets more compliments than criticisms is because I've been learning the craft for twenty-and-a-half years.

    Stop thinking you're Hemmingway just because you wrote some alcohol-fueled hoopla that your friends told you was wonderful. BUT also, stop kicking yourself for not being Hemmingway if you're only just starting out. Please learn that you can't be a best-selling author after your first draft, just because you know how to write. I know how to use a scalpel, but I would make a terrible brain surgeon. But brain surgeons exist, and so do published authors. Why? Because they put in the work. They learned, from books, from schools and from professional experts in the field. And it took time. If you've only been writing for a year and you think you've got a masterpiece, you're deluding yourself. If you've only been writing for a year and are ready to stab yourself in the eye because your book is a plot-hole ridden, cliche driven, amateurish grab-bag of unoriginal ideas and mental masturbation, PUT THE KNIFE DOWN. It's okay to be awful when you first start out, EVERYONE IS.

    You're not a skilled expert, until you're a skilled expert.
     
  2. JetBlackGT
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    JetBlackGT Contributing Member

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    Persistence is key. Don't give up. Keep trying to get better :)
     
  3. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Well said. I've mentioned in the past that it can take decades before you write something great. A lot of teenagers and young adults expect to write masterpieces before they're out of college. That rarely happens. I don't see what the rush is, either. In the writing world, someone who's 30 is considered a very young writer.
     
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  4. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    This also speaks to something that's a very low-key dynamic, but I think it should be something to which writers pay more attention. You should be perfectly willing, striving, and making time to write things you will never publish or even have a wish to publish. How do you come to the real magnum opus without trial and error, without practice, without refinement of skill?
     
  5. JetBlackGT
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    JetBlackGT Contributing Member

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    I ask people who read my books to tell me what is wrong with them or if something felt clumsy. My "working" email is in the beginning, asking everyone to please do so. :)
     
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  6. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Thanks for the pep talk :) Been writing for 3 years in earnest (writing since I was 8 or 9 but in terms of serious writing that I actually thought about and edited - only the past 3 years) and I do definitely want to stab my eyes out over my plot-less novel, so I had to smile when I was reading your message. Not quite as novice as your target audience but it applies lol.

    I haven't quite got over thinking of my mash of a novel as a complete waste of time and wasted potential though, but that will come (eg. the realisation that it wasn't a waste and I'd eventually come back to it with fresh eyes and all that blah). I have no real desire to write much at all since dropping the novel, though I do have a 2nd novel idea in the back burner.
     
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  7. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    Well said. I totally agree. No one is born an expert. In my humble opinion writing is not an art or a craft. It's both, and even if you are born with the talent you still need to work on it, perfect it, put down the time to learn all aspects of writing and storytelling. And that is not done overnight. I guess those who are known as born talents has been writing since they were kids, and learning all along the way, so even if their first novel gets published, they probably have been writing since they first picked up a pen. Pretending to reach immediate success on the first try is, like you say, like believing you can be a master chef at the first attempt in the kitchen. One needs to get acquainted with the tools, and learn by experimenting with different spices and ingredients and combinations and ways of presentation.
     
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  8. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Let's talk about after the meal. You've eaten, the meal was edible if not a culinary masterpiece, and you and your friend are relaxed with beers in hand (and some in belly).

    You could dive in and discuss every step of the preparation, and how to do it better. Of you do, you might as well dump those beers down the sink, along with that feeling of relaxation.

    On the other hand, you could pick out two or three key steps that would have made the most difference, and have a good laugh over the cooking disasters that taught you to do it a better way.

    So which way will best help the friend with his next attempt? Which way will stick in his mind in a constructive way?
     
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  9. JetBlackGT
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    JetBlackGT Contributing Member

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    And maybe now he appreciates a little more of his ex-wife's help. But pretty soon maybe she will be wondering how her oil ever got changed. :)
     
  10. Bryan Romer
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    Bryan Romer Contributing Member Contributor

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    When it comes to writing, unlike rocket science, it is something that most people can already do to one extent or another. Deep down, too many people think that it is not really that hard to write a good book, and that if they only applied themselves, they too could be the next "big thing". So when the next bestseller doesn't effortlessly flow from their fingertips they are outraged and angered.

    Almost no one sees writing as needing the kind of practise that even a computer game would require to be really good at.

    As for cooking, having to eat the results provides an extremely effective feedback loop with regard to developing your skills. I love my food, so I long ago learned how to cook. I am also of the opinion that cook books are all a secret plot to drive people to restaurants.
     
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  11. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Great post, OP. The only thing I would have to add is that there's a fine line between good ol' carefree writing and stagnation. Like with anything, over time you can become complacent. There's a point where you have to start challenging yourself. I'm not saying go for broke, but small things, like contests, articles, etc. At some point, one should be working on completing their short stories and finishing their first draft novels, maybe not to be submitted then, but perhaps years down the line when they can come back to it with a much more critical eye. So yeah, it's hard to push one's self while not taking things too seriously. I suppose it takes maturity.
     
  12. obsidian_cicatrix
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    obsidian_cicatrix I ink, therefore I am. Contributor

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    Are there better writers than me out there?—Hell, yeah!

    Did I put my guitar back in its case, at age six, and swear blind I'd never play it again, just 'cos my fingers ached and I didn't sound like Segovia?—Hell, no!

    I've come to think of my attempts at writing in a similar vein. My initial critical eye verged on self-loathing, and then I thought back to my experience of learning guitar. Even 41 years later, I'm not there yet, I can always see room for improvement. That got me asking myself: Why be so hard on yourself right now?

    I wonder how many skilled experts doubt themselves, or feel they could do better? Isn't that part and parcel of the motivation that keeps us ploughing onward?
     
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  13. yagr
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    yagr Contributing Member

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    Great post, OP; I can relate. I believe that writing is much like my previous profession as a poker player. In five minutes anyone can learn how to play, but it can take a lifetime to master. I studied and worked my butt off to become good enough to play professionally and made a living off of those who refused to study or work for proficiency.
     
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  14. TDFuhringer
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    TDFuhringer Contributing Member Contributor

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    Man I love poker. But after a couple years I knew I wouldn't be able to play it professionally. That's another thing putting the time in does. It shows you whether you really want to do something, or are even truly able.
     
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  15. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    This is true. I have a gorgeous, rather expensive (for me) acoustic guitar that after much money was spent on lessons and much diligence was honestly applied now serves as a decorative item in my living room. o_O
     
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  16. Renee J
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    Renee J Contributing Member

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    I don't hate my writing. I know it's not good. But everytime I change it with strategies I learned, I get excited about how much better it looks. That's what keeps me writing-not the thought that I might have a publishable book in twenty years.
     
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  17. ddavidv
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    ddavidv Contributing Member

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    One of my other hobbies is model railroads. We have a term, "chainsaw layout", that describes what most first attempts at building a train layout are. You usually wind up taking the chainsaw to it, because there are things about it that simply don't work (the track arrangement, wiring work, mediocre scenery, etc). However, without the skills acquired from working on the first one, you can't progress to building a better one the next time. And the next time. It's not uncommon for modelers to build and destroy several layouts in their lifetime.

    Fortunately, we don't have to destroy the work we do. It can just sit in a folder, a desk, on a hard drive...

    My new project has a young female protagonist who is bright but never finished high school. She knows little about anything. She finds herself in a position of having to learn to defend herself, and with voracious reading and live practice learns to handle weapons and some anti-terrorism driving skills. She can do these things...just. She makes mistakes, because she hasn't mastered it all, and these will generate more danger. In this case, failing to master is a good thing (for the story), as it both creates drama and additional opportunities to excel in the future if she continues learning.
     
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  18. Nightstar99
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    Nightstar99 Contributing Member

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    You do need indomitable and irrational self belief to be writer though.
     
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  19. Alesia
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    Alesia Pen names: AJ Connor, Carey Connolly Contributor

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    I have been a model builder for twenty-two years, both as a hobby and professionally. It took twenty years to develop my craft to the point where it was worthy of winning regional awards and being published in international magazines. Why should writing be any different? I learned how to build by reading magazines, talking to other builders, participating in message boards like this one, and a hell of a lot of trial and error--many paths leading to the same destination of greater knowledge. I think writing can be learned the same way. Some folks will disagree with me, but I don't think learning to write is as simple as reading a how-to book by a famous author, then calling yourself an expert. The book may help, but it is simply one of many roads leading to the same end.
     
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  20. matwoolf
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    matwoolf Contributing Member Contributor

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    It ain't gonna be much fun reading an author who carefully applies twenty years of worthy writer forum posts tho', I mean, c'mon, what porage, eh?

    Give us a break. Some of us are just a bit boring. That's why we have CW. We should embrace our pond.
     
  21. TDFuhringer
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    TDFuhringer Contributing Member Contributor

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    @matwoolf I can't figure out what this sentence means. I've really tried. No matter how I break it up or rearrange it, I can't for the life of me figure out what you're trying to say.

    Closest I can come is "It isn't going to be fun reading an author who (then I get completely lost) what porridge."

    I'm not trying to be a dick. It sounds like you've said something really interesting but I have no clue what it is. Any help or clarification would be appreciated, thanks! :)
     
  22. obsidian_cicatrix
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    obsidian_cicatrix I ink, therefore I am. Contributor

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    Hmmm... I was thinking on @matwoolf's post just after he wrote it. Obviously, I'm not in his mind space, so I can't be sure how it was intended, but my take on it is that the reference to 'porage,' (I too am assuming this is the alternative spelling of 'porridge') speaks of the gradual homogenisation that might occur, if one constantly adapts and alters ones own writing to suit the sensibilities and preconceptions of others.

    Of course, I could be completely wrong. ;)
     
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  23. matwoolf
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    matwoolf Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hi TD, you're not a dick.

    'In my opinion, ultimately it would not be very interesting to read something that had been produced by taking into consideration every facet, every opinion of the collective wisdom of the writers' forums, the local writers circles, and combined CW courses over a twenty year period. This would be a very dull dish to eat, like eating porridge.'

    At some point you have to say this is my voice, jump in, come along...or not. I think the edge is lost on these forums with so many tales of people toiling over stories on their own with writing that is not fresh or attractive, when a more productive angle for an individual would be to focus more on the writing itself...as in exchange, show of drafts in the workshops, even first drafts...I'll pause for breath.

    I mean it would be more exciting...
     
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  24. matwoolf
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    matwoolf Contributing Member Contributor

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    It's 'porage oats' on the box, spelt both ways :)...

    Y'know TD, my brain doesn't work right on these things. I really enjoyed your first post...but 'my' mind was drawn to the clause where you criticised the divorcee for not spotting the difference between spaghetti and linguini, whatever it was. That was gold dust, imagine the pleasure in writing that scene, all the beer guys in the check shirts and Bob nagging on 'it's not spaghetti, it's linguini,' don't you find that funny? We're all different, I know that's not exactly what you meant,

    much love only.

    apols the edit after you slapped my back/kissed cheek
     
    Last edited: Feb 4, 2014
  25. obsidian_cicatrix
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    obsidian_cicatrix I ink, therefore I am. Contributor

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    @matwoolf Yup, I had to look it up. I don't buy the branded stuff. I'm wayy to cheap for that. ;)
     
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