Learning to write exponentially vs longitudinally

I just finished reading Susan MacGregor’s editorial for the upcoming edition of On Spec. She talks about the errors even experienced writers make and it made me think of all the lost advice that has been greatly devalued since I started getting critiqued. It used to be common knowledge that work did best if it was allowed to cool off in a (now digital) drawer for six months.

It made me think of the example Vihart gives. She uses it for a different reason, but the first draft for so many writers exists as a song revellers all sing together. To them, they know everything that’s not in the text in the work the same way people singing together “hear” the back-up music and vocals that people just stuck on the same subway train do not.

We used to tell writers to let six months rest between writing and the rewriting stage. I usually do a quick edit at the end of my first draft to fix the obvious structural issues that I can see and then let that draft sit for six months or so before doing the first real, substantive edit. I think that six months is enough for you to hear the difference between being in the group of singers ‘hearing’ what doesn’t exist to see the story as it exists, like I’m watching people I don’t know or like sing.

Six months is enough for my brain to forget the subtextual context I’d filled in so that the events of the first draft make perfectly good sense at the time. I had to learn that a critique of a story wasn’t wrong about the story until six months passed and the critiquer was still wrong about the story. Most of the time, the issue I was most sensitive about was absolutely the right call to critique. From that point on, rewrites became me learning how to fill in the parts of the story anyone outside of my alpha-reader wife wouldn’t know to read into the story.

But I wonder if this piece of advice is just one more lost nugget now that writers are being taught that whatever they meant to do is fine because they meant to do it. So many meaningful moments are told to the characters these days instead of experienced by the character. To the author, they can imagine what was being told happening because they can imagine what was being told happening as it was told. The reader at the beginning of the story only “sees” one character telling another character something that doesn’t have the context yet to understand.

Learning how to write from a structural foundation standpoint with a skill-based approach allows for exponential growth. When the structures of fiction become learned skills, any story is possible.

But learning how to write by playing only to the author’s strengths, to me, makes more to the longitudinal growth. Eventually, growth pays off in such small dividends that it’s hardly possible to see with the naked eye but the sum will never equal 2. If “1” equals the raw talent the writer has, is it any wonder that teaching only to writers’ strengths creates a system where only the very talented succeed?

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