I can’t remember, nor does a Google search tell me, which of the great science fiction writers said, more or less: “Keep the manuscripts in motion until they are bought.” I think it was Heinlein but it doesn’t really matter. The point is that the quote from a writer I admire has stuck with me for at least the past couple decades. It energized me to keep revising my writing and sending it out–but at the same time engendered a robotic attachment to past writings. The concept became that anything I had written must be considered for publication. After all, I had put effort into creating, evaluating, and revising my novels, and surely everything I had written must have value and I should be remunerated for it.
But this set of morale-boosting marching orders didn’t allow for a deeper evaluation of past writings, for the ability to declare certain works to be the practice or experimentation of a younger writer–and if you’re going to allow yourself to grow as a writer, your younger writer self might just be from a couple years ago!
Does every single thing I write have value for others? That must be preposterous. Am I honoring my entire past history as a writer by mechanically pushing everything I’ve ever done out the door? Can I really demand payment for the effort I put into older works?
I was recently struck by two counter concepts to the manuscripts in motion paradigm. One was from reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, in which he posits that approximately 10,000 hours of practice in any discipline are necessary for true mastery. Although Gladwell focused on the 10,000 hours of computer software geniuses or the Beatles’ musical career, the example that truly rocked me was that of the violin students who practiced 4,000 hours and became high school music teachers, and the violin students who practiced 10,000 hours and went on to play in symphonies.
So … maybe we’re here to practice … a lot … and not to get hung up on any day’s particular practice.
The other example was taking a look through Ken Follett’s web site and looking at his descriptions of some of his early published works, several of which he declared he didn’t want to see republished. You might say on one hand that a highly successful novelist can afford to disdain his early work, yet there are undoubtedly other successful writers, attached to their past practice, who would eagerly welcome the reissue of their entire life’s work in handsome leather-bound volumes with their gold-stamped signature on one hundred covers. I think Follett is listing his early practice to honor his writing life, but he’s obviously not attached to the old works, and knows that it’s his future writing that really matters.
I think everyone has experienced the letdown of seeing some famous writer’s early work–or an incomplete manuscript tidied up after his or her death–and secretly wishing they’d never encountered it. The value, the quality, with an occasional astonishing exception, is just not there. I can remember my first adolescent reading of Lord of the Rings and being so enthralled by the concept of “Tolkien” that I eagerly bought Farmer Giles of Ham … I choked that dry mediocrity down like cardboard. It made no impression on me other than that I could notch another Tolkien book consumed. But that was a valuable lesson about publishers milking everything a successful author has written. But since almost all authors have to write a lot of crap just to learn the craft, pouncing on the low quality stuff just drags their reputation down. In the case of a famous author finishing an incomplete work of another freshly-departed famous author, well, we’re left to wonder who wrote it after all.
I had to retrace my steps back to the fork in the road where I chose to ramp up the “gotta get published” dazzle but in so doing inadvertently diminished my art honesty. It was painful to confront the fact that much of what I’d been writing, and thought to blast out into the world under the zap of keep the manuscripts in motion was full of psychic errors, writer ego trip, disdain for the ideal reader, or just off, even sordidly off in some cases. I knew I had to excavate back down to the ancient sunshine, and I spent a number of years revising several novels into what I hope are fun, high energy, and psychically solid works. These include The Martian Marauders published by Double Dragon Publishing and the next two novels in the Jack Commer series, and it’s an honor to have a publisher and readers appreciate these efforts.
Even so, keep the manuscripts in motion still needs to be reevaluated. A long period of dredging up older work for revision had left me spending more time looking the rearview mirror than was healthy–and while I don’t think I was ever feeling insecure about my further development, I was extremely glad when Collapse and Delusion, a fourth novel in the Jack Commer series, popped out over the past year. It seemed to mark the conclusion of the entire revision-and-repair period, and also helped me see that not everything I had revised and repaired was necessarily something to keep in motion. While I always knew that some of my novels were merely practice and had no real value for others, I’d kept a list of the ones I thought were publishable and was always half thinking that even some of the ungodly efforts might even be dressed up somehow, some way, some day.
So I was chagrined to see that even a couple of the ones I thought were publishable really weren’t of the quality I’d come to demand. Keep the manuscripts in motion would have me do a final edit and blast ’em off, but a new consideration arose: suppose I did get one of these “not quite my best” novels published? And what if it were available on Barnes and Noble and amazon.com right next to my best work? Suppose someone bought a “not quite” and justifiably wrote me off as low quality and never saw the good stuff? In shock I realized that trying to push out something not quite right is actually a pollution of your writing life.
It also made me realize that I may have sampled other authors who dropped some dry tasteless peach into an otherwise luscious fruit basket and, since that’s the one I happened to bite into, I wrote them off once and for all.
It’s a new concept to consider that novels I put a lot of work into may be useful failures. That it was good to revisit and rework their energies, but that they’re not something I deeply want to publish or should attempt to. I have a growing sense that the quality itself is all that matters, the heart of every writing I’ve ever found joy in, and that sane publishing and marketing from that foundation is worthwhile. But if not, it’s all shilling, throwing a lot of crap in the air and hoping some of it sticks … where? And why?
Another realization that spun out of this new thinking was that I’m done with trying to market stories. Forget ’em. I’m a novelist, not a short story writer, and all the sage advice about starting your career by writing and publishing stories in little magazines to get your Wright Brothers career biplane aloft has been a horror for me. I do have one recent story I like a lot (“Perpetual Starlit Night”) and I haven’t ruled out an occasional journey into that format, but basically, I gravitate to the long story arc of a novel.
Just because I’ve “completed” something and it seems “good” to me, it’s still my responsibility not to add mediocrity or “the merely competent” to the publishing milieu. Of the fourteen novels and two novellas I’ve written, one is published and two are scheduled for publication–all these are my best efforts. Three others, CommWealth, Akard Drearstone, and The Soul Institute, are also top quality and I have no qualm about sending them out. My novella The First Twenty Steps is also an example of my best work, and I have no regrets about self-publishing it on PubIt and amazon.com. That leaves eight works I can consider as practice, and I can relax knowing I don’t have to fool with any of them. And unless I happen to get a high energy insight about how to rewrite one, I’ll devote my future energies to new explorations.
Fixing up the rusted hulks in the dark garage out back might be a fun hobby, useful and educational in its own way, but I’m no longer needing to spend time on them–and I’m certainly not about to slap a fresh coat of paint on them and call them completed. New writing obviously has not been written yet, so it’s scary. Enough said. That’s always the case. You don’t need to be Babe Ruth pointing to the center field fence about this. You don’t have to boast of new writing. It’s either there or it’s not–but I’m betting it’s there.
copyright 2012 by Michael D. Smith