18 January 2014

Making Book: Inspirations and Introductions

(With apologies to Teresa Nielsen Hayden)

Before I get into this week's behind-the-scenes stuff, a quick announcement:

Thursday's Children, the 512 book, is officially launching on Friday, January 31, 2014 (less than two weeks from today), in eBook and trade paperback. Mark your calendars!

Now, let me tell you about the notable science fiction author who wrote the introduction for Thursday's Children. (TL;DR: it's Laura J. Mixon, and she's awesome.)

As you know, Bob, I attended the Viable Paradise (VP) science fiction and fantasy writers' workshop in 2008. See how excited I was when I got the news of my acceptance? I was not disappointed by the experience. A bit overwhelmed, perhaps; VP packs a lot of stuff into a single week. And Thursday night... well, we don't talk about Thursday night.

I met a lot of great people at VPXII. My classmates included the amazing Claire Humphrey, munchkin wrangler Marko Kloos, "the other Asian guy" Anthony Ha, and more.

And then there were the instructors: the distinguished Nielsen Haydens, Uncle Jim & Doctor Doyle, Scalzi, Bear, Steven Gould, and Laura Mixon.

Every one of these people had something important to teach me, and even if I'm still figuring out how to apply many of those lessons, the time I spent on the island was invaluable.

In particular, Laura Mixon offered a refreshing, analytical perspective on writing, which resonated with me—we're both engineers by training, and I love it when there's actual data behind a presentation. (Laura even has research to back up her use of the gender-neutral pseudonym "M. J. Locke." PREACH.) At VPXII, she lectured about a cognitive model of the writing process. "There's a study," she said more than once, before explaining the science of it.

The example I remember best involved two creative writing classes: one was told their work had to be perfect; the other was graded by word count. The result? The second class actually produced, instead of agonizing over whether they could produce for each assignment—and their final work was of comparable quality to the first class' output, plus there was much more of it. More practice was better. Quantity trumps quality.

For a time when I was younger, I hated the word "practice," because it meant sitting in front of the piano and playing the same piece or passage over and over again, with very little variation, until I got it right or made some measurable improvement in technique. It was tedious, and as a child, there were a million other more interesting things I wanted to do.

It takes great discipline to have a long-term goal in mind, and to work tirelessly toward that goal. It helps if you enjoy what you're doing along the way, because plans changes, and you may end up in a totally different place than you originally targeted. And here's the thing: you don't need to be good at something in order to enjoy it.

As Laura explained at VP, there are four stages of learning a new skill:
  1. unconscious incompetence - you have no idea what you're doing, and you're not very good at it
  2. conscious incompetence - you're trying real hard, but you still suck
  3. unconscious competence - you're getting better, but you don't really understand how or why
  4. conscious competence - you know exactly what you're doing, and you're good at it
It's important to note that reaching that fourth stage is not the endgame. You may be good, but you're not great. At this point, the ten-thousand-hours rule applies—especially in "cognitively demanding" fields like playing the piano, where competence is a long way from mastery. Writers often talk about the million words of crap (give or take) which you need to get out of your system before you're producing stuff of publishable quality. And even at that point, it's still a buyer's market. It's good to be good, but it's better to be lucky.

Does any of that discourage me? No. Because I love what I'm doing. I spent 4.9 years writing (or at least editing) a new piece of 512 flash fiction every week. That amounts to a grand total of roughly 130,000 words, and maybe 1,000 hours of practice. During that same time period, I also spent a lot of time writing other stuff—short stories, novels, non-fiction, puzzles, and more—but 512 Words or Fewer was the one thing that demanded regular, deliberate effort, and I am confident it has done more than any other single project to improve my skills as a writer.

None of that would have happened without VPXII and Laura Mixon, and I'm elated that she agreed to write a brief introduction for Thursday's Children. Her intro is the source of the blurb at the top of the 512 book web page, and you should also go read her most recent novel, because it's damn good.