The Hateful Virtue of Patience
Anybody who knows me can confirm that I’m a wildly impatient person. Maybe it’s that alleged millennial need for instant gratification, but more probably it’s just a character flaw I’ve had since I was a little kid. I hate waiting for anything because I hate doing nothing or feeling like I don’t have options.
Impatience isn’t a great trait for any career, but in a writer it’s close to a death sentence. The problem is that it’s taken me a long time to learn that, and it’s something I’m still grappling with. Largely to my detriment. I have written about being patient with stories before, but today I want to examine why it’s important, not just from a creative standpoint but from a pragmatic, business minded one as well.
The thing about young writers is that you’re almost never as good as you think you are. Even the successful ones kind of suck; look at Eragon. It’s popular, sure, but it’s written by a fifteen-year-old and it shows. What seemed awesome when I was a kid is now kind of cringeworthy. And if you as a writer can say that about the work of another young writer, then you will almost definitely say it about yourself.
Writers, usually are fascinated with human experience. Something happens to you that makes you feel an emotion or consider an idea you never have before, chances are you want to write about it. And that tends to lead to creative advancement. The first thing I wrote that had what could, loosely, be considered artistic value was the first Chris Hawkins story, Born of Dread and Fear when I was fifteen. Prior to that most of my writing had been weird, adolescent mashups of Kill Bill, Lord of the Rings and The Silence of the Lambs. I saw the stuff I thought was cool and tried to emulate it. Born of Dread and Fear, however, was different because that story was about something that mattered to me. It was about the need to conform I felt every day in school and about how much I hated it. It was angry, bombastic, and trying to say something that I felt was important.
Was it good? Hell no. As you’ve probably guessed from the title, it was clunky, derivative, overwritten and shot through with self-seriousness. It was over the top in its attempted edginess and every character basically existed to worship at the altar of my protagonist. It was, in short, a book written by a fifteen-year-old. But I’m not ashamed of it, even if it will never see the light of day, because it was something I had to write to find my own voice. A means, not an end.
But around this time a high school girlfriend’s mother read the story and offered to pass it on to an author she knew. I was ecstatic; all my friends told me Born of Dread and Fear and its tangle of varied sequels were good, so surely this author would agree, pass it on to his publisher, and at sixteen I would be a celebrity author.
Well, spoiler alert, ten years later I’m still not so you can guess where this goes. The author gave me a phone call and was extremely encouraging. He thought I had talent for my age and clearly had a lot to say, but he felt about the story much the same way I do now. I was a little disappointed, but it did bode well, right?
I don’t regret that author reading my stories. It led to some early encouragement from a legitimate source that I probably needed, and in truth, there was no way Born of Dread and Fear was going to get published in any form. The issue was that, as I got older and surer of myself, I kept doing the same thing. Any time an opportunity arose for someone in the industry to read something of mine, I would seize it with both hands without ever really considering if the story was ready. And furthermore, I did something even worse. I sent first draft after first draft to agents and publishers, again and again. I hadn’t considered, for any of those stories, why anyone should read or enjoy them. I hadn’t thought about target audiences or marketing or what made my story special. I honestly just thought my obvious and formidable talent would mean that these people had to publish me. Even if I didn’t think the story was perfect, I did think I was too good to ignore.
Look, there was some interest here and there, but not much. And I sent a lot of emails. Mark Hamill said in a recent interview that the internet has changed the way fans engage with creators; it’s a lot easier to fire off a vitriolic tweet than it is to sit down, write a letter, find an address, and mail off your invective. Likewise with publishing; when you can just copy and paste a query email, attach a manuscript and send it off to a hundred people, you don’t take the time to consider whether you’re doing the right thing, or whether your story is even close to ready. As I said in another recent blog, publishing a book is expensive. If you can’t justify the cost of thousands of dollars to yourself, how can you ever expect anyone else will?
There’s a great article called “I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script”. Apart from explaining all the reasons that I don’t give feedback on people’s work without being paid, it also has a great anecdote about an aspiring writer who sent his work to a professional then, not long after, sent a follow up email saying something to the effect of ‘don’t read what I gave you, read this one instead’. The first time I read it, I cringed. Because I’ve been that guy. And now I know what the other side feels like. If you send work to anyone in the industry, telling them shortly after to read an updated version instead is the ultimate signifier of unprofessionalism. It says that you wasted their time with something that wasn’t up to scratch and furthermore, that you knew it wasn’t up to scratch. Sterling way to get respect right there. If you’re not confident about something, don’t send it, unless you specifically want developmental feedback on that version. And if you’re not a hundred percent confident, don’t expect for a second that the response will be glowing praise and an instantaneous contract. You’d be stupid to expect that even if you think your work is impeccable. Other people don’t see what you see, they don’t fill in gaps in the story with what they know you were trying to achieve. They just see the work, as it is. And if the work is a messy first or second draft, well…
Here’s my imperfect litmus test; after you’ve written a story, after you’ve done the first round of edits and gotten feedback from a couple of honest friends, put it in a drawer for six months or even a year. Let that overpowering joy you felt upon finishing the story dissipate. Forget about it and write something else. Then, when your palate is well and truly cleansed, when you’re as clear eyed as it’s possible to be, pull it out again and see what you think.
In high school and early uni, even a year after finishing a story, I would cringe when I looked back at it. That doesn’t happen anymore. There’s stuff I wish I could change in Boone Shepard or Springsteen, but not major stuff. I wouldn’t be ashamed of any industry heavy hitter reading or watching anything I put out to the public in the last three years, and a big part of that is because none of that stuff was rushed. Most went through multiple drafts. Most sat there for a while even after I finished it and told everyone how proud I was. When those stories went out into the world, I was confident I had achieved what I wanted to with them. Whether I succeeded is up to the consumer and always will be.
None of this is suggest you shouldn’t try getting feedback on something. Of course you should. But if you have any contacts who can really help you, hold off until you’re sure. Wait until you’re absolutely confident in something before assuming anyone else might be too. It can be frustrating, but it’s far more likely to pay off.
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