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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 [2] 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.

About Dave King [3]

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 [4].