Creating a Masterpiece

photo by Michele Ahin; painting by Vincent van Gogh

In the days when many professions were controlled by guilds, your masterpiece was not your best or most celebrated work.  It was your first halfway decent work – the piece you presented to the guild judges to show you deserved to be named a master of your craft.  I’ve been thinking about this practice as I’ve watched clients go through the long, often disheartening, battle to get published.  I so often want to remind them – your first published work is going to be your weakest.  It is, after all, the first piece that shows you can write well enough to survive in the marketplace.  It’s your masterpiece.

It’s easy to forget that the early work of every writer, no matter how gifted, is usually mediocre at best.  Some years ago, I read a very early novel by a writer I admire a great deal – Rex Stout, the creator of Nero Wolfe. The novel I found was written almost a century ago, more than a decade before the first Wolfe novel.  It was unreadable – so wordy, stilted, and melodramatic that I couldn’t finish it.  So when clients tell me that reading some brilliant writer has left them feeling intimidated, I usually tell them to find an early work by the same writer.  It almost always cheers them up.

Of course, today Stout’s earliest novels would probably never have sold.  Back then, the publishing industry was a lot more receptive to writers who hadn’t yet mastered their craft.  Radio was years away, and television decades, so books formed a large part of an evening’s entertainment, creating a voracious market.  Writers tended to stick with a single publisher as well, so an editor like Max Perkins could nurse budding authors like Hemingway and Fitzgerald through their early, less masterful works, knowing they would stick with Scribners once they hit their stride. Today even the most promising authors are competing against a huge and diverse entertainment industry, and acquisitions editors expect big success with every book they buy.  It’s a tough market, and you need a much higher level of mastery in order to break into it.

So if what you thought was your masterpiece has collected 137 polite rejections, don’t be discouraged.   It may simply mean you still have a ways to go before you’ve mastered your craft. According to Malcolm Gladwell, you become expert at something by doing it for 10,000 hours. You can write quite a few novels – or rewrite one novel quite a few times — in 10,000 hours. As I once heard it put, you can learn to write well by writing badly for ten years.

There are shortcuts available.  A large part of learning your craft is learning to see your own flaws – no one who isn’t a satirist writes badly on purpose.  One way to spot your own shortcomings is to put your first novel in a drawer and look at it again in a few months or years. Or you could find new eyes to point your flaws out to you — a very honest friend, a critique group or <ahem> a professional editor.  In any case, having someone else go through your manuscript, Max-Perkins-like, can get you to mastery a lot more quickly than doing it on your own.

One supposed shortcut I try to steer clients away from is self-publishing. I realize that there are examples of much-rejected novels finding self-published success. I’ve also encountered writers for whom self-publishing made sense for other reasons.  But for most writers, self-publishing is a distraction from the real business of writing.  I certainly understand and sympathize with the temptation.  If you’ve already put in a year or more of hard work creating characters you love and a plot you can recite in your sleep, the siren song of Amazon Kindle can be nearly irresistible.  But while you will get something to put on your shelf, or in your e-reader, you will probably spend a lot of time and money trying to market a novel you should be rewriting.

Some years ago, a client hired me to do a diagnostic reading report. I was expecting her to send me a manuscript and was surprised when a hardback copy of the self-published work showed up in my mailbox.  Seems that she had finished her novel and moved straight into self-publication.  She turned to me when her sales failed to reach triple digits.  The novel had a lot of promise, with intriguing characters, and a couple of very sweet features to the plot.  But her writing style was so flawed – her handling of point of view was particularly inept — that her characters never came to life.

Just the other day, a fan of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers sent me a copy of his first, self-published novel. I can’t open it without finding writing so awkward – expository dialogue, pages of narrative summary, paragraphs-long passages in italics – that it’s clear this one wasn’t ready for prime time.

I don’t mean to discourage.  Creating terrific characters in an engaging story is a brilliant, wonderful way to spend your life.  I just want to remind you that the surge of joyful creation that went into your first draft is just the beginning.  I don’t want you to wind up like a client I had many years ago. She wrote a novel with great promise but a number of beginner’s flaws.  Instead of working on that one, she got bored and wrote another one – plenty of promise, and all the same flaws.

Your current draft may be the best thing you’ve ever produced.  That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s your masterpiece.  You don’t become a writer by writing a novel.  You become a writer by learning to write.  Your novel may only be a means to that end.

So keep at it.  Eventually you will produce your masterpiece.  Then you can begin the real work of being a writer.

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About Dave King

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website.

Comments

  1. says

    I love this – I’ve noticed the same thing with writers I love. Their earliest published book is rarely up to the standards of later works. (Of course, there’s also the problem of a writer getting stale and formulaic as they mature, but that’s a different post).

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  2. Deb says

    Hello Dave,
    This gave me pause: “You can learn to write well by writing badly for ten years.” I’d like to rephrase that as you can learn to write well by writing progressively better over the course of a decade, or at least I really hope so!

    Thanks for this thoughtful, masterly post.

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  3. says

    Dave-

    Wise advice from a veteran. I hope writers will heed it.

    Many will not. The 10,000 hours required to master the complex art form of fiction is a lot to ask. Most seek validation along the way, hence the trap (for many) of self-publishing.

    I sometimes wonder whether self-published authors actually read other self-published authors. There are stacks of such stuff at my agency and just an hour with them would show anyone why those novels didn’t make it with New York publishers.

    There are other ways to receive validation along the way. That’s why critique groups, professional mentors, independent editors, craft books, workshops, conferences and communities like WU are so important. They keep us going.

    The road to traditional print publication is longer today but it can be done. Writers are doing it all the time, even now. True enough, publishers are highly resistant. This is the toughest market I’ve seen in my 36 years in the industry.

    However, it’s tough because recession battered retailers and readers don’t have the patience to see new authors through their early training novels. They want mastery, in the modern sense, right away. Especially for $25. In a way, who can blame them?

    The very conditions that make it so difficult can also be taken as a challenge. High mastery is expected of symphony musicians, ballerinas, Olympic athletes, brain surgeons and more. Why not novelists too?

    This isn’t an easy road but who wants it to be? There’s no great satisfaction in doing what anyone can do. I’m all for mastery. I know many writers who have met that standard or are on their way. A lot of them are reading this post and this comment right now.

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    • says

      Excellent points, Donald.

      The connection of writing to musical performance is particularly apt. I’ve heard it said that mediocre musicians play pieces they know, and play them well. Good musicians are constantly playing pieces they don’t know, and playing them badly. That’s how they get better. In the same way, I think writers who really want to learn their craft are constantly pushing themselves out of their comfort zones. Trying new techniques, and using them badly, at least at first.

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    • says

      It was twenty-two years from the time I picked up a pen in 1991 to see if I could write a novel and get it published until I finally had a novel published (WaterBrook/Random House) this past August. I wrote nearly every day of those decades, except for a few years in the middle when I was recovering from cancer, then had to retrain myself to write. Amazing what chemo does the brain. I think I doubled Gladwell’s 10,000 hours in the process, but I wouldn’t go back and change that now. Writing for the love of writing was well cemented in me during those years. As was patience. Both are coming in handy now.

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    • says

      “There’s no great satisfaction in doing what anyone can do.” That really moves me. I don’t want the easy road–what for? My main goal is writing the absolute best work that I can; that has to mean more than publication, or I’ve already let down my potential readers. It’s great to have the validation of a contract, but ultimately what I want is the validation of knowing that I did the best I could.

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  4. says

    Dave,
    I’m taking every word you’ve written here to heart. Over the past 11 years I’ve watched fellow critique group members or friends of friends self-publish. Some of these books I edited. I even used the term ‘not ready for prime time’. I especially used this on myself while people kept asking me ‘where’s your book? Why is this taking so long? Who’s holding you back?”
    The short answer? Me. I’ve told myself that I’m in a long master class, learning a craft. Your post validated this for me and made my morning coffee taste way better. Thank you.

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  5. says

    Dave, what an excellent post, and how timely during this national insanity virus called NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month for newbies). The point I personally took away was the expository dialogue critique. I am highly regarded in my critique circles (and even endorsed by a few pros) for my natural dialogue and consistent voice. However, and this may be part of my own work to master my craft, I found myself trying to “get rid of the long, boring parts” in my NaNo this year by falling into that trap. If I edit this novel after I finish the first draft, I will slay that dragon, and just make the prose interesting to my YA readers.

    Donald, your response really got me to thinking. The agent doesn’t really care about developing an author until he is absolutely certain he has something to develop. That means projecting out to the coffee tables and book clubs. Experimental work (my first novel, which had multiple points of view with three distinct narrators, or my pick for best book of the working class since The Grapes of Wrath, David Dennis’s Why She Left Us) aren’t necessarily going to have an easy time finding their agent.

    Thanks to both of you for your many years of wisdom.

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  6. says

    Hi Dave,

    I too find my story to be mediocre at this point and I thought it was all the better I was going to get. I find this article very encouraging.

    Thank you.

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  7. says

    This was a wonderful post and a great reminder that writing is not only learned by writing, but also by reading, setting aside, re-writing, and setting aside. It takes time. And it should.

    My “starter” novel, as I call it, has been years in the process and I have learned a huge amount by the revision process. It is daunting, but if we don’t love to write, and more and better and then more, then what’s the point? Thank you Dave, and Donald too, for your perspective and reminders that writing is not a get-good-quick endeavor!

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  8. Denise Willson says

    Thanks, Dave. You made my morning.

    I’m taking the patient learning route, and often find myself bombarded with friends and family trying to understand why I’m not rushing to have my work in print. “My writing is like a fine wine,” I say. “It needs a lot of time behind the cork.”

    Denise Willson
    Patient author of A Keeper’s Truth

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  9. says

    Great post Dave – helpful and motivational – thanks so much.
    I am fairly new to creative writing and hope to write badly for less than ten years, but we will see…

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  10. says

    Fantastic post. I’ve waffled back and forth about self pubbing my first novel after more than 100 rejections and MUCH rewriting. But I am now looking at that first effort for what it is: proof to myself that I could finish a novel-length work and a laboratory where I have worked to improve my craft. But I don’t necessarily want to invite people into the lab, with it’s spills and burn marks and caustic chemicals strewn about. On to novel #2 and, hopefully, my masterpiece.

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  11. says

    Hello Dave,
    This is a terrific post. I spent 14 years working on my first novel before it was published by a traditional publishing house, and during those 14 years I watched countless friends become impatient and jump the gun and self-publish. The result is that they are now in a cycle of needing to publish rather than needing to write a good book. As for my own first novel, it is obviously flawed in places, but those 14 years taught me a great many lessons that I am now able to apply to my new novel-in-progress. Some days I get very discouraged — this was one of those days — so your post is timely and much appreciated.
    Thank you,
    Kim

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  12. says

    It looks like this post has really struck a chord. I’d hoped it might.

    I’ve held a lot of clients’ hands during the fight to break into print, mostly because it can be massively discouraging to invest time and energy in a novel and then watch it get repeatedly rejected. It can be even more discouraging to look back at your first novel and see that it deserved to be rejected. It shouldn’t be. The ability to see the flaws in your own work is actually a sign that you’ve already grown as a writer. The more you grow, the more you can see your own shortcomings. That’s how the process works.

    I suspect a lot of writers underestimate the amount of effort it takes to achieve mastery, as well. Donald’s right, we expect musicians or athletes to spend years practicing before they hit it big, but novelists often assume their first real work will sell immediately to a grateful market.

    A few years ago, I read a New Yorker article on knifesmithing, a profession that’s still controlled by a guild that hands out masters’ certificates. In order to be named a master knifesmith, you need to produce a knife that can cut through a 1″ hawser in one stroke, chop through a 2×4, then, using the part of the blade that has just chopped through the 2×4, shave some hairs off your arm. Finally, the blade has to be bent in two without breaking.

    That’s what mastery of a craft looks like.

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  13. says

    Maybe this wasn’t supposed to be the main point of your piece, but I was most inspired by the idea that the “masterpiece” wasn’t, traditionally, your greatest work. I’m looking forward to digging up some early works of now-famous novelists – I’m hoping that will ease the pain of the struggles I had with my first book!

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    • says

      I just checked. Jane Austen started writing in 1797. Her first published novel was Sense and Sensibility in 1811. Along the way, she’d written three others, including an epistolary novel she abandoned. Apparently, writers have always needed this kind of dedication to their craft.

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  14. says

    Sobering post, but one that definitely got this fledgling writer’s attention. I’m resistant to self-pubbing and at times, as I see others pass me by (while my year-old draft still goes through revisions), I get anxious. But, while my last name may be Swift, my process sure isn’t.

    Thanks for the piece of gristle to chew this morning, Dave.

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  15. says

    Dave, I like your “You don’t become a writer by writing a novel. You become a writer by learning to write.” But I have to ask, doesn’t it become more than that if you are really serious? Self-published or not, all writers need more than learning and practicing their writing skills, talent, and achieving professionalism (yes, editors, editors, editors!). We also need the highest commitment to the journey: writing is a way of life in perspective, creativity, thoughts, words and deeds. I wonder, isn’t the true masterpiece … becoming a writer?

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  16. says

    Two things I learned in the twenty-two years it took me to see a novel traditionally published:

    1. Love the writing more than the idea of being published.

    2. Be patient.

    There’s lots more, but those two top my list.

    Great post, Dave. Good reminders for writers at whatever stage of the process we’re in.

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  17. says

    Thanks SO much for this post, Dave. It hit home for me as well. As Marialena said, “writing is not a get good quick” endeavor. After having what I think is my best work yet rejected time and time again, I finally hired another editor who knows her stuff to look at the first 100 pages of the book. I’m awaiting her reply. I can’t wait to see what it is that I’m “not” doing right. I’ll get there some day and I know it will take many more books and rewriting to find what is truly worth getting out there to the public these days.
    Patti

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  18. says

    It’s too easy to be overwhelmed by your own “brilliance”. It’s so easy, it happened to me.
    I can remember telling a friend, “Most first books aren’t worth the paper, but mine is.”
    I’d self-published it and it became a best-seller on my tiny island. But it wasn’t my best work. However, it did teach me to write.

    Thank you, Dave, for your wise words.

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  19. says

    Wonderful post, Dave. I thought I was brilliant when I first started. Even submitted dummies with instructions. Editors were kind to send me encouraging notes of rejections. I am thankful for them. Now I see myself growing but again I see the distance between where I am now and where I want to be … and the only way to bridge the gap is to read and write. Take classes. No shortcuts.

    The 10K rule makes sense. It’s how long it took me to become a good scientist. Same holds true for becoming a writer.

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  20. says

    Great advice. I went through the early phases of the emerging author. I just knew I was the one you’ve all been waiting for. That little fantasy imploded quickly. After kicking a few chairs and house pets, I settled into learning mode. I’m still there, and it’s been about ten years (I took a break for politics…I don’t recommend it), and can really see the improvements as they happen. While I’ve given up on Donald Maass offering to house my children over the summer in exchange for taking him on as my agent (they don’t eat much…really), I’m confident that a little persistence will go much further than the power of ego. Thanks for a great post and a great book.

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  21. says

    Sobering, indeed. I agree, there are no short-cuts to GREAT writing.

    However, those who choose to self-publish should not be made to feel they are second-rate writers. And we all know, some of the stuff published by the big houses should never have made it past the slush pile. Even recently.

    There is a fine line here. You cannot lump all self-published writers into one group of validation-seeking writers. There are other reasons to self-publish, and I think there are even a few self-published masterpieces out there, whether the industry likes it or not.

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    • says

      Pamela, I think you may have things a bit backwards. I’m not saying that people who self-publish are second-rate writers. I’m saying that a lot of writers who are still second-rate writers choose to self publish rather than hone their skills until they’re first rate. I agree that there are good self-published books, and that self-publishing makes sense for some writers for other reasons.

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  22. says

    Love this. It does indeed take continued hard work to improve. I’ve looked back at pieces I wrote even a year ago and cringe in response, but also with a kind of glee, because I was so much younger as a writer then.

    Ron Padget has a great poem called “Scotch Tape Body” in is collection, How Long. In the poem he talks about the enjoyment of looking on the past and finding old poems he’d written and taped into notebook. He wonders briefly if it would have been better if he had never written the poems at all, but realizes that without those poems, he would be denied:

    the pleasure of wincing
    then forgiving myself
    of catching glimpses of who I was
    of who I thought I was

    And I think that is just so true.

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  23. says

    Masterfully done, Dave!

    I (naturally) especially liked this: “…having someone else go through your manuscript, Max-Perkins-like, can get you to mastery a lot more quickly than doing it on your own.”

    So true. I had the good fortune to find such an editor/mentor years ago when I was a shiny new novelist. I remember his excellent advice, and kindness, still. He helped my writing advance exponentially. Now I try to do the same for others as an editor.

    Friends, beta readers, and writing groups can all give valuable feedback. But to really understand what’s working, what’s not, why, and how to fix it, a pro is irreplaceable.

    Good editors share their secrets, can tell you “why” and “how” with every suggestion, so that you become a master, too … with practice, of course.

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  24. says

    Excellent. I really appreciate this piece, Dave. I’ve long had a copy of your Self-Editing book beside me as I write, and appreciate that breaking in to print requires mastery, dedication, and patience. Thank you for the eloquent reminder. I’m printing this to keep as a great reference. Thank you!

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  25. says

    As usual, you’ve written an excellent article.

    I’m still working on my first novel and I suspect I’ll still be working on it next year. Every day I’m learning more. It’s strange to look at my early chapters that I haven’t seen for awhile. Instead of discouraging me, they give me confidence because I know my writing has improved.

    When I hear of writers who are ready to publish their first draft, I think, “Aw, bless your heart.” I think of it as only being halfway there.

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  26. says

    A great post, Dave!

    I’m one of those writers who’s in the camp that if a book’s not good enough to interest a trade publisher then a writer ought to keep refining it, or move onto another and learn from that book (I do believe that either one can lead to publication – take Andrew Davidson with his debut novel Gargoyle, for example; developing a story is like an onion, you can keep going until you get to the heart of it, if you’re willing to persevere through all those tears).

    It’s definitely a mind-set that separates writers who love their craft from writers who just want to see their name on the cover of a book. But that’s just my opinion, I guess.
    :)

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  27. says

    Dave,

    This post (and Don’s comment) should be the first part of a “required writer’s curriculum.”

    There are factors that get in the way of heeding this advice, however.

    Factors such as:

    1. The value one places on writing as a craft.
    2. The learning environment that exists for the writer.
    3. The value others place on writing as a craft (how many posts have you read about simply “writing what you know”?).
    4. The value one places on self-education in relation to how much experience a writer has.

    And on… and on… these factors work both for and against the 10,000 hour rule.

    This post is absolute GOLD, great piece Dave.

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  28. says

    I’m hoping my 2nd novel is better than my first.
    One of my mistakes was keeping too much in my head and not in the story. I think I corrected it since I added 100 pages to this book. Maybe I went overboard?
    My second mistake was using a lot of the same, tired words. When you have word-finding difficulty, it seems easier to keep using the ones you remember! However, the more writing and reading that I’ve done, the better my word-finding has become.
    Organizing my story was a problem with the first one as well as this one. I tend to chase rabbits down the rabbit hole on a regular basis.
    Outlining? I don’t do it but probably should. I have a great story start and can get close to the middle of the book, and I have an ending; but I don’t have most of what happens in between. I normally let my characters tell me what they’re doing, but I’m going to try to outline my next novel. Hopefully, that will help me write it faster.
    That covers my worst sins in writing.

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