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(Stop) Comparing Yourself to Successful Authors

on May 25th, 2014 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill and last modified on May 25, 2014

A reader recently left a comment expressing doubt about whether his writing could/would measure up to books already out there, especially good books. Maybe memorable books. Books that resonate or that get readers thinking.

We all want our writing to be good, even great. And I’m guessing that even those writers who make a solid living from their words, who aren’t in it for fame and fortune but see writing as a job, still dream of writing the novel, a life changer, the one dissected and researched and studied in literature classes for years to come.

This reader’s comment stopped me, had me concerned about other writers who might feel the same way, even writers who’ve been at it for years, yet without much seeming success or progress.

My first thought was that of course a first effort would not compare with a published book, especially not a revered one. Especially not the tenth novel of a nationally or internationally recognized novelist.

But what of writers who’ve been writing for a few years, who’ve finished a couple of novel manuscripts, and who know that what they’ve produced doesn’t compare? What of those who aren’t beginners?

While a beginning novelist might be discouraged by reading the classics and bestsellers, reading great novels may be harder on those who aren’t beginners, who have worked through the writing and rewriting process. They’re not guessing that their work doesn’t compare—they see the evidence.

But my advice is the same for both groups—don’t compare yourself to the best of the best. Strive to write as well as they do, if you like, but don’t hold your work up to theirs. The comparison does little more than frustrate writers. Yes, you might get fired up to work on your skills when you compare, but you’re not writing their books or meeting their standards or following their paths. You’ve got your own stories with their own strengths to work on. Admire other writers, read them and learn from them. But don’t try to be them.

Because your experiences and training and influences are different from theirs, your work will be different as well. Your approach, your rhythms, your diction and syntax will be different. Your concerns and themes will be different.

Trying to graft your style and voice and story concerns onto the frame of another writer will not work. Everything you bring to story is different from what other writers bring. Work at building your skills and interests on a foundation that begins with you, not another writer.

Again, it’s not that you can’t learn from other writers and admire them and gain insights. But they can’t be the foundation of your life’s work. That foundation must be you.

First Efforts 
I’m not being uncaring or dismissive or even deliberately discouraging when I say that a writer’s first efforts will not stand up to a revered classic or to that one memorable story that changed the writer’s life, that maybe gave him the desire to write fiction. What first effort can compare to a master work? What neophyte can compare to an experienced writer?

The truth is this simple—your first couple of novels will not compare favorably to the perfected work of an experienced writer.

This knowledge should take a whole lot of pressure off as you write and rework your first few novels. Don’t expect to sell them. Don’t expect that they’re worth the money and time of anyone other than friends and family.

No first effort in any field will be an example of greatness.

It is a step to be celebrated and encouraged, a milestone, but the quality of the work will be far from stellar.

So what does that mean for novelists? It means that you keep learning, keep training, keep practicing, and keep writing.

Be realistic—your first try at anything will not compare to your second, your fifth, your tenth, or your fiftieth.

But you’ve got to start somewhere. You have to do it, get that first novel written. You’ve got to learn what goes into a novel and what should be kept out. You actually have to write a full novel, not only scenes and a few chapters and a few sections of dialogue, to gain experience with every step of the process. If you write only opening chapters, even if they are marvels of technical prowess and have every reader clamoring for more, and yet you don’t finish the story, you are not a novelist. If you don’t put the full story together, lining up events and revealing your characters’ strengths and weaknesses, their goals and motivations, and if you don’t resolve your story issues with a solution that’s rooted within the story, then you aren’t a novelist.

You may be a good writer of opening chapters, with great skills at hooking readers and foreshadowing, but if you don’t ever finish, you can’t assume you’re an accomplished novelist.

If you don’t finish the story, you’ll never get better at the tasks necessary for completing a novel. Another simple truth—you will never get better at novel writing until you write novels. Multiple novels.

You may be a phenomenal writer of essays or newspaper articles or poems, with word choices and a style that have readers eager for more, but until you write novels and learn the specifics of novel writing, you won’t be a great novelist.

Learning the craft is vital.

Reading in your genre and in others is vital.

Practicing with exercises is vital.

But until you write a number of novels, working through all the issues inherent in long fiction, your novel-writing skills will be untested. And they won’t improve.

We know that, right? But do we believe it? Probably not. If new writers knew that, really understood the importance of working through the issues involved in writing a novel, they’d eagerly be writing their second, third, and fourth novels after gleaning all they could from the experience of writing the first and without fretting about publishing that first effort.

Face it, it’s a wild, wonderful dream to imagine you’ll sell your first novel and receive universal acclaim as a writer. It’s the kind of dream that keeps you plugging away at 2 a.m. when you have to be at your day job at seven. It’s a dream that buoys you when your family pooh-poohs your “little hobby” or when you can’t sleep because you’re wondering if you’ll ever be good enough to write the kind of story you like to read.

But if it’s only a dream and you do nothing to make that dream come to pass, it remains a dream. And an unlikely one.

If you truly want to create the kind of novel that has readers sighing or gets them fired up, the kind of novel that grabs hold of the reader’s heart or soul or spirit, you have to actually practice writing novels.

In other words, there’s more to putting together a novel than simply perfecting your skills with the individual parts.

Master Chef, Master Writer 
Becoming a novelist is like the journey of a chef. Even if a man already knows how to cook, with training and practice he can create culinary works of art. Experience helps the chef know which ingredients go together, what happens when they’re blended, and the reason some ingredients never go together. The chef, after trying the same dish multiple ways, knows what works and what doesn’t.

He knows that variations based on the same ingredients can work, even if the results are different with every combination, and he knows how each variation will taste and look, how each will come together into a final product.

He understands that he might want one variation for a children’s menu and another for a menu for diabetics and another for a five-star restaurant’s signature dish.

The master chef knows what works. And because of his experience, he can also guess what will work, even before he starts pairing food items. He may not know what will sell (a different issue requiring different skills), but he does know what combinations of foods and spices achieve what he wants to achieve. He knows this from trial and error. From the teaching of others. From experience. From knowledge of the properties of his ingredients, how they blend or separate or overpower other ingredients or enhance them.

Another chef, a mentor or teacher, may tell him what works and what doesn’t, but until he tries mixing ingredients himself, he won’t have a true feel for what comes out when ingredients are blended in different measures. He won’t know how the addition of one ingredient will change the flavor or consistency of a dish. He won’t know how adding foods and spices in different orders will affect the outcome. He won’t know how different proportions will affect taste and quality and appearance.

Cooking well, especially creating something new in the kitchen, requires head knowledge and experiential knowledge and guesswork guided by instinct and grounded in practice. Yes, a cook could throw ingredients together, hoping for something magical. But he could narrow his options by combining ingredients whose properties he knows. The magic dish will come about sooner once he has some skills and a feel for combining elements.

The same is true for writers creating novels. The writer who knows how to combine the story elements—who knows that adding more action may require a reduction in setting details, who has learned that a first-person narrator has to shut off her thoughts in order to let action take center stage, who knows what adding sense elements or color or emotion can do for a scene—is at an advantage over writers who don’t know how the elements combine. How one can overshadow another. How too much dialogue, like too much salt, can simply be too much. How some story elements need to be stronger and bolder than others.

You, the writer, have to do more than learn techniques and tricks. You have to do more than study the how-tos of plot and dialogue and character.

You actually have to write novels. And that’s novels in the plural.

You have to put the whole dish together. And if you want to be good, you have to do it more than once.

Your first effort will not be your best. It can’t be. The reality of To Kill a Mockingbird aside (and would it have been Harper Lee’s best book if she’d written others?), it’s not likely your first novel will be comparable to great novels we know and love.

When is a first effort ever a best effort? In what field? Not cooking. Not surgery. (Who among us would volunteer to be a budding surgeon’s practice body?) Not painting.

A first effort in any of the arts is simply a first step, maybe a watershed moment for the one taking the step, but merely a first step on the beginning of a long road of steps.

You may be so excited by your first painting that you decide to make painting your life’s work, but it’s not likely that you’ll sell it for thousands or millions and be acclaimed for your great skill and artistic insight after painting just that one.

It’s more likely that you’ll toss out your first works or paint over them.

A decent driver who’s never been in an accident but who’s never raced before will not win the Indianapolis 500 on his first attempt. A teenage girl who’s taken one ballet class a week for a year will not win an audition to perform Odette in a professional performance of Swan Lake.

If we understand that practice is necessary and that a first work is not ever the best work, why do we imagine our first novels will be worth buying and reading? No matter how much practice comes before—with classes and exercises and the writing of essays, opinion pieces, and even short stories—a first manuscript is just like a first sculpture or first painting. All fall short of what we’d imagined they’d be.

They can’t be perfect because until we actually complete a book or a sculpture—until we finish a painting, a symphony, a dance, or a race—we won’t know how to do it. Not in our heads or our hearts or our hands.

Until we actually complete something, we don’t know, not truly, how the elements fit together. We don’t know what’s necessary to make it work and work well.

Until we’ve worked through the process, we don’t know what needs to be taken out or added in. Like a chef with his new dish, we don’t know what will be created until the thing is actually created. And even then, the creation will need tweaking.

Yes, yes, yes, I understand that some writers publish their first novels to great acclaim. But that’s a very few writers out of thousands, out of hundreds of thousands. And there are typically unusual circumstances that contribute to their story’s success, often because the story speaks to society or  some segment of society that then hails the story a classic or a bestseller. It’s the right characters facing the right dilemma at the right time.

Are you willing to wait around for unusual circumstances that may never come in order to catapult your story to worldwide acclaim? Why not instead go for the path known to lead to success—writing one novel and then another and then another. Learning the craft. Developing a style and a voice. Producing tastier and tastier offerings until you craft one that readers will love.

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Be Realistic
Your first novel will be crap compared to your second and to your fifth and to your tenth.

If that shocked you, you may not be looking at your first efforts realistically.

You will get better with practice, and in novel writing, practice includes writing novels that may never be read by anyone but you.

Don’t expect the first novel to be worth anyone’s time but your own.

Some first novels are better than others, of course they are. And some are much, much better. But remember that a first effort of anything is never the masterpiece. It’s simply the first effort.

For novels, that means it’s missing nuance and subtlety and subtext. It’s missing a tightly woven plot. It’s missing emotional depths. It’s missing pointed dialogue.

The links between setting and plot or between setting and characters are weak and superficial. The story is bloated with characters, too much time is spent in the viewpoint character’s head, and dialogue is too straightforward.

In a first novel the theme may be highlighted in every chapter instead of being allowed to seep lightly through the text.

In a first novel there may be no conflict, with characters too polite to engage the reader. Or the conflict may be exaggerated, with characters jumping straight into fights over nothing issues, with no gradation of conflict levels.

In a first novel there may be too much setting description, too much dialogue, too much explanation, too many flashbacks.

First novels often have disconnects between chapters and scenes, with no links other than major characters showing up in some location. Cause and effect, action and reaction, may have no seeming connection or even be absent.

First novels have characters acting without purpose or sufficient motivation, or acting contrary to their natures.

First novels are often too long, with digressions and rabbit trails leading nowhere and doing nothing except to leach power and impact from scenes.

First novels tend to have complex phrasings in character thought and dialogue that show off a writer’s skills but that don’t match character personalities.

First novels may be missing scenes and consist almost solely of reports, as if a newswoman were narrating events that took place before the news crew and cameras arrived. Rather than getting a story that readers can dive into and experience, one they can pretend to be living, readers are treated to secondhand reports told not by the characters themselves, but by an outsider looking in after the fact.

I recognize that some writers are naturally good at some of the fiction and writing elements; I’ve read writers who are geniuses with plotting or who can write lyric phrases that will have readers weeping. Yet that doesn’t mean that all the elements come together in the right way for these writers; natural skill with some elements doesn’t translate to skill with all.

And I don’t mean right way according to me or to some standard. I mean elements coming together in the way that makes the story work for the characters, the plot, and the genre.

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Perfecting Skills
The only way to improve, to perfect, your skills, is to work them. And while working on the fiction elements piecemeal is necessary, so is completing and then rewriting a full-length novel and then another and after that, another.

If you’re not ready to write that really cool novel that’s pounding at you, demanding to be written, shelve it. Put it on the back burner. Pick your cliche, but set that story aside and begin with something simpler. Or just something that doesn’t matter as much. If you know that you’re not ready, that you don’t have the skills and insights, don’t try to write the story that you hope will compare favorably with your favorite author’s best work.

If you’ve never been mountain climbing, it would be suicide to tackle Annapurna or K2 as your first climb.

Save the dream climb, the dream book, for your experienced self. Hold that dream out as a tantalizing incentive, as reward, for when you’re experienced enough to handle it. Rather than comparing your skills and abilities to those of another writer, why not compare them to those you’ll need to craft your own dream story? Work your craft until you’ve got the experience, know-how, and instincts capable of creating the kind of story you want to be known for.

A jeweler doesn’t put a priceless, irreplaceable emerald into the hands of an apprentice who’s never cut an emerald before. He gives the cutting job to the experienced cutter who has proven himself with lesser gems and practice stones.

You have to make that same decision for yourself. Tell yourself that you’re not ready for the master work you envision producing. But remind yourself that you do have to begin. Diligently work your way through stories that you may never show to others.

Not being ready to write the novel doesn’t mean not being ready to write a novel. To prepare for the great book you want to write, you don’t quit or step back. You actually step up. Jump in and learn what you don’t know, and write a couple of novels so that what you didn’t know becomes what you do naturally.

Work at technique and individual skills, as both the stone cutter and the climber do, but also write a whole novel to discover your strengths and weaknesses. The climber tries lesser mountains first. The cutter works on less valuable gems. But the climber does complete a climb—the first, the second, and then another. He completes all the steps of the climb on an easier mountain so he can understand what is involved at every stage before he takes on the bigger challenges.

The cutter doesn’t only practice, but he begins to cut gems. And not just a first cut or the difficult cut—he fashions the complete stone. He may even design a setting for it.

The point is, these professionals complete many projects before tackling the big one and before expecting to be a master of their craft.

If you expect to be good, to be read, you’ve got to write more than one manuscript. An unnecessary worry about that first manuscript being good enough can paralyze a writer before she even begins; don’t let such a concern stop you. Assume that your first couple of manuscripts will be valuable only as practice and get writing. Work through a couple of stories before assuming that one is good enough to be published.

You may be surprised to discover that your third or fourth manuscript is worth reworking, worth submitting. But don’t be surprised if it isn’t. It may not be until you finish the fifth or sixth that your style and voice come together in a way that helps you create strong fiction.

So what if no one sees your first manuscripts? Consider them part of your internship or apprenticeship. No one sees an artist’s early or practice works.

Yet know that they are valuable, worth every hour you spend pouring over them. Each is worth a couple of writing classes or workshops. They are necessary to your advancement. They are a necessary precursor to your masterpiece, that manuscript that says you’ve arrived.

Keep in mind that the masterpiece still isn’t your best work, not the best of your lifetime. It’s the piece that says you’ve graduated, that you are ready to work on your own, away from the tutelage of others (though you may have mentors all your writing life). The masterpiece may be your fifth or sixth novel; it’s seldom the first or second. The masterpiece is the work that tells others, and yourself, that you are ready to tackle your dream job. The masterpiece is not the dream story, the one you set aside until you were ready to write it. But it will let you know when it’s time to try to write that story. And your masterpiece may be your first published work.

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Issues to Settle  in Your Mind

~  Don’t expect a first novel to sell. Do expect it to make you a better writer.

~  Write a second manuscript and then a third, using what you learned writing the first.

~  Dream about writing an outstanding story, but don’t compare your first efforts with the best novels of the best writers who were edited by the best editors; the comparison may kill your dream. It isn’t even a valid comparison since you’re not comparing like items.

~  Let other writers inspire you; don’t let them crush you.

~  Don’t admit defeat before you’ve begun. Put yourself through the training—complete several novels—and then compare your starting place with where you stand after you’ve written those four or five novels. Your response will be clear: you’ll either be excited at what you’ve accomplished or you’ll decide that novel writing isn’t for you.

~  Don’t worry about being as eloquent or as moving as your favorite authors; that’s their thing. You may bring raw passion to fiction. Or maybe your strength is in hard-hitting dialogue. Perhaps your characters leap from the page, they seem so genuine. Maybe the way you link character to setting is something never before seen. Whatever it is, you have a strength that comes out in a manner that no other writer possesses; that’s what you want to be honing as you write those first couple of novels that no one else will ever read.

Yes, dream about writing the novel of the century. But when it’s time to write the first novel, write knowing that it’s a practice work. Write knowing that you’re going to sit down and write another and another until you complete the one that says you’re no longer an apprentice but a master, ready to take on the tough stuff, the stories that are worthy of public consumption.

Write until you forget about comparing yourself to other writers and strive instead to best yourself.

And then write those novels that only you—with your outlook and experiences and quirky insights—can bring us, the kinds of stories that have us catching our breath and getting lost in your masterful creations.

***

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Tags: ,     Posted in: A Reader Asks..., A Writer's Life, Beginning Writers

10 Responses to “(Stop) Comparing Yourself to Successful Authors”

  1. It’s a long one. I hope you enjoy it at your leisure.

  2. Peter Pollak says:

    Beth: You’re absolutely right that writers need to write in order to improve their craft. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell points out it can take ten thousand hours of practice for someone to reach the top of their craft. Where I disagree with you is that I recommend writers show their work–even that first novel–to others. The goal is to get feedback. I always benefit when I bring a piece of writing to my critique group. They see things that I don’t see. That can speed up the learing process.

    In terms of learning from reading, I recommend Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. The benefit to budding writers is to understand how the novel has evolved as an art form and how the novel fits into social evolution. She also includes a list of 101 novels that writers can sample from.

    • Peter, Malcolm Gladwell points out the hours, others have pointed out the million-word benchmark. The common element is that it takes doing and doing and doing to master any task, and the more complex the task, the more doing that’s required for doing it well. (I love Malcolm Gladwell’s books.)

      The use of feedback from competent sources (including mentors, teachers, and critique partners) is invaluable. I hadn’t included them in this article, choosing instead to focus on the writer’s attitude and actions. When I spoke about not showing early works (and even WIPs) to others, I meant they weren’t ready for the public. Using early works as a means of training can involve many options, and I wholeheartedly agree that gaining feedback from knowledgeable sources on specific issues is a necessary component of a writer’s training.

      Of course, knowing when and who to ask for feedback is an issue in itself.

      Thanks for highlighting those points and adding to the discussion.

  3. Mira Prabhu says:

    Dear Beth — another excellent and caring post — every serious writer should have a guru like you! I, for one, am in no rush to finish the 3 novels I planned to write a long time ago — the first took me 20 years to complete and is now getting 5-star reviews; the second has already been in the works for several years — i moved countries a lot so the work has not been steady – and i won’t put it out into the world unless i think it sings….and the third is for my old age, when i can pour all the richness of a life well lived into it…thank you!

    • Mira, your plan sounds like it’s working for you. I wish you success with each book, and I hope you are (pleasantly) surprised with an idea for a new book, something that keeps you passionate about writing, but maybe in a different way. Something unexpected and fun.

  4. This post touches on all of the minute insecurities persisting in the back of my mind as I complete my first novel. It gently introduces the writer to the real world of publishing. I appreciate it. I wonder, however, if I were to write the sequel to this book (I already have it set up in my mind) then go back and re-write my first book more effectively, am I wasting my time or is it a worthwhile investment? I am very happy with the plot, and the characters are complex (although I’m unsure how effectively I presented their qualities). In other words, I have a great imagination and great ideas, but I am only an above average writer. I am a realist and confidently believe that with the write conditioning (and possibly some formal training) I have the potential to be a great writer. I have an economics degree, which does not encompass much writing, other than business writing. I would love your thoughts. Thanks so much.

  5. Carla, I don’t think it would be a waste of time to go back and rework the first manuscript after you have more experience. The training would definitely be useful. But if you’re asking if the work would then be publishable, that’s something I can’t answer. But I’m guessing that it probably wouldn’t be.

    The rewriting in itself is a necessary part of learning for a writer. But you probably want to look at it in that light and not assume that rewriting your first work will make it ready for publishing. The knowledge and experience you will gain are worthwhile, yes, so reworking an old project wouldn’t be a waste. But you could gain some of that knowledge and experience working on other projects as well.

    I’m all for rewriting and reworking stories—that is definitely where many of the skills of writing come into play. You do have to rewrite and change many parts of a novel manuscript before it achieves the form you intend for it.

    But a first manuscript often has so many problems, including problems with the very foundations, that reworking it, trying to fix every issue, may never produce a strong manuscript. I’d hate to see a writer get discouraged with her growing skills solely because the material she was working with was so flawed it was beyond fixing.

    It’s not that you couldn’t use the first manuscript to work on specific issues and skills, picking it apart and putting it back together piecemeal. But it just might not be redeemable.

    Yet if you started with almost the same plot but actually wrote from scratch—which means not reworking the scenes your already have but literally starting over without considering what you wrote the first time—you might produce a manuscript closer to being publishable. But even then it might not be ready for publication. (It all depends on what else you’re writing and what you’re learning and how well you’re applying what you’re learning.) And yet even that work would improve your skills as a writer so that your next project would be even stronger.

    I’m not saying that it’s impossible to make an early work shine—writers have done it many, many times. I am saying it depends on the condition of the work and the skills the writer has perfected.

    Whatever you decide to do, keep in mind that manuscripts, even the best ones, do need reworking. So you should get in some practice with rewriting. That is, you don’t want to write a first draft of every novel and then toss it aside to work on the next. At some point you have to tackle rewriting. You have to get inside the manuscript and make it work. What you’ll learn while doing that is just as valuable, more valuable, than learning how to put a story together in the first place. Your first manuscript might not be the right one to try this with. But by the third or so, you should be rewriting as a matter of course.

    I don’t know if this helps, but I hope it does. I wish you success with your writing.

  6. Haydee says:

    I’m feeling extremely insecure at the moment. I don’t compare myself to other writers as such and I don’t strive to write like the classics, but lately, I’ve been feeling intimidated and jealous of the level of success some of the recent YA works have achieved. I know my chances of my work in progress becoming a bestseller are very slim to none, but I can’t help dreaming.

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  1. [...] “If you’re not ready to write that really cool novel that’s pounding at you, demanding to be written, shelve it. Put it on the back burner. Pick your cliche, but set that story aside and begin with something simpler. Or just something that doesn’t matter as much. If you know that you’re not ready, that you don’t have the skills and insights, don’t try to write the story that you hope will compare favorably with your favorite author’s best work.” – Beth Hill’s “(Stop) Comparing Yourself to Successful Authors” [...]