In life and in art there ain’t no steps you can skip. I know because I’ve tried to skip them all at one point or another, but now I know every single one of them is essential and equally important. To get good at your craft, you’ve got hundreds of skills to learn and you need to learn them all.
Whenever I think about this, I think about the Michael Jordan commercial “Maybe It’s My Fault.” “Maybe it’s my fault. Maybe I led you to believe it was easy when it wasn’t. Maybe I led you to believe that basketball was a God-given gift and not something I worked for, every single day of my life.”
Nothing comes without work. But it’s not just any work. It’s about working at the things you aren’t good at. Talent only gets you so far.
Maybe you’re a painter and you don’t think you need to practice basic drawing or learn color theory or how to clean brushes and take care of them? Maybe you’re a writer and think you can just dash off a good query letter or whip up a book blurb that sells without any effort? But, all of these steps take practice and dedication. Maybe all of the ones I mentioned are easy for you, but I’m sure there are other parts of your craft that you don’t like or avoid. Those are the most important ones. That’s where you need to focus.
I’m sure you can think of a few exceptions. Yet, if you look at them a little more closely, you’ll probably find they aren’t really exceptions at all. Yeah, some famous writer managed to get published by writing a massive ten page query letter that broke all of the rules. I guarantee you, he did that after writing hundreds of iterations of query letters that went nowhere. Or maybe he just got lucky. However, is that what you want to base your success on? Everyone needs a little luck. But, luck favors the prepared. Learn every aspect of your craft and the rest will follow. You might even find that the part you once hated becomes the part you love the most. When you suffer to learn something, it’s truly yours.
Now I don’t mean you will become equally proficient at every aspect of your craft. You won’t. Frank Frazetta, a fantasy artist, best known for his Conan paintings and who inspired legions of artists after himself, was by his own admission a terrible painter. Nevertheless, he worked at it constantly. Eventually, he got good enough that the true nature of his mastery came to the forefront. His characters feel alive. They seem to move even though they’re standing still. He wasn’t painting portraits, he was painting life in motion. You may argue that his drawing skills were the key to his art and in many ways you’d be right, but without working at understanding color theory and lighting and composition, he would never have created the works he’s known for today.
No matter how small the step, no matter how much you hate one aspect of your art, all of it matters. Whatever kind of artist you are, you have to suffer to learn your trade. I see too many artists who want to leap forward and take short cuts, either because they haven’t learned what’s necessary or they think one part of their art is more important than the rest. It’s all equal.
Let’s look at just a few of the skills that it takes to master writing, art and life:
- First, you have to master the ability to diligently and consistently do your work. If you can’t do that, then the rest is worthless.
- You have to master fear of failure and success.
- You need to understand that one day you’ll have to walk away from your current profession and live the life you were meant to, even if that means making less money.
- You must develop a keen self-awareness of your strengths and limitations, especially your limitations.
- Once you can clearly see your flaws, you have to attack them relentlessly, doing everything you can to overcome them.
- You need a willingness to throw entire works away and start fresh.
- You have to learn that your first draft is never good, no matter how good it is by comparison to others’ work.
- If you are going the traditional publishing route, you have to master query writing.
- After you master query writing, you have to master writing a synopsis.
- When it comes to editing, you need to learn to make crucial edits even when they don’t fit your original conception of the story, especially when ideas don’t fit your original idea, because they just might be better than your first idea.
- You need to find a cohesive and talented writing group and keep meeting with them year after year after year.
- When it comes to criticism, you have to learn how to take it with grace and humility and you have to learn how to give it to your fellow artists.
- If you are going to self-publish, you need to find an amazing editor and work closely with him or her.
- When it comes to self-publishing, you have to find a great cover designer and learn about formatting and figure out how to market your book well.
- You have to master plot, even if you are “character writer.”
- On the flip side, you need to master character even if you love intricate plots.
Some of these steps may come easily to you. That’s good and expected. Some folks have perfect ears for dialogue. Others can craft an intricate plot with ease. For one person it’s simple to ignore the urge to take up law when they really want to play music. The easy ones take care of themselves. It’s the hard ones you have to focus on. You know what they are for you. So let’s take a look at a few I struggled with or that I see other artists regularly struggle with every day.
We start with self-awareness. Self-awareness is by far the most crucial skill any artist can learn, because it opens up doors to all of the other skills. When you can no longer lie to yourself about what you’re not good at, you won’t be able to fool yourself into thinking there is some shortcut you can take to greatness. Self-awareness only comes through a process of deliberate and consistent self-reflection. Whether you use the Socratic method or meditation or hikes in the mountains, this takes time and patience. Keep at it. Look at your mistakes again and again and see what you’re doing wrong and then, most importantly, change. This is a slow and painful process, but if you’re persistent eventually you can clearly see where you work falls short and where it soars.
Query writing is another skill most writers seem to hate. I know I did. How could those cruel and unfeeling agents and publishers want me to boil my masterpiece down to a few paragraphs? It can’t be done. It’s unfair. I have to strip the story of everything that matters. I can’t get at its essence in a few paragraphs, I thought. I realize now this comes down to laziness and fear. I had to have many stories rejected to learn that I needed to get better at this crucial skill or I would never even get the chance for the world to see my work. I vowed to learn query writing and I studied as many books and online resources as I could. I then wrote fifty drafts of the query letter for my latest book. It’s good now. I know this because I went from having nobody request my last book, to having seven agents request the entire manuscript.
One of the biggest mistakes I see in writing is an inability to recognize when your original idea about the story isn’t working. Sometimes, that means tearing apart the whole manuscript and weaving in whole new plot strands and subplots. Sometimes it takes adding a new character, combing others or just completely changing the personality of one or more of them. Sometimes it means that your plot just isn’t working at all in its current state and you have to do whatever it takes to get it to make sense. I see writers make this mistake most often because the changes that their peers and editors want them to make don’t fit with their idea of what the story was supposed to be about when they first started writing it. But, stories are not our own. They change. They are as much the reader’s stories as ours. And we have to learn to trust those who are closest to our work, because they see things we can’t. I can tell you that my editor had a number of changes for my book. Some of them I said no way, but about midway through my editing I shifted focus and tried almost all of them. To my surprise most of them were right on. And I found that in the end, the book was more like what I originally intended, because I’d corrected the numerous weaknesses that made it fall short of what I dreamed it could turn into when I first started hacking away at it.
Because these steps are hard and humbling, it’s easy to think you can get away with not doing every one, or that you can cheat forward. You can’t. Well, you can, but that work of art that you sacrificed for and struggled for will suffer because of it. It won’t get anywhere close to its Platonic form. And that’s tragic because you put so much into it in other ways.
This is true in life too. My lady is a master of the physical world. She does everything, from cleaning the house to running errands with intention and commitment. The material world isn’t one I’m as comfortable in, but I’m learning from her that the same dedication I’ve applied to my art, needs to be applied to everything. And when you do that, when you take each step and give it the attention it deserves, that begins to inform your whole life.
Let’s take re-organizing my books as an example. I’ve got a lot of them, around 1800 or so, maybe more. She suggested I set them all up by category. It took all day and into the night. After I’d organized them all in piles, she recommended I wipe down all the shelves. She let me know that the best way to do it was to lightly wet a rag, ring it out and wash every inch of the empty shelves. After that I should dry it with a dry rag. Make sure to go over every spot in an orderly fashion, she said. After she showed me, she went off to do her own thing. I realized at that point that I could just kind of take the easy way out if I wanted, maybe skip a few corners here and there or not re-wet the sponge or not ring it out. Nobody would notice. They were my books. The dust would pile up on them again eventually, so who cares right? However, by doing the work completely it gave me absolute pride in my accomplishment. I wiped down every fucking inch of those shelves until they looked like new and then I put the books back. I appreciated my newly organized library because I’d given it everything. When you do every chore with the same dedication and persistence, you suffuse your entire life with meaning. You don’t need to look for it somewhere else anymore because everything you do has meaning. This is the way of the artist. This is the way of the master.
There is an old saying. What does the student do? Chops wood and carries buckets of water. What does the master do? Chops wood and carries buckets of water. The task never changes. But, just becoming proficient isn’t even the last step. You still have to do all of the steps every time and with determined consistency. Once you think you can skip steps you end up with a work that’s really no good or a life that is filled with misery. Every day is a total reset. What you did in the past is irrelevant. It’s gone. The future hasn’t happened yet. There is only now.
Let’s take an example from film: The Matrix trilogy. The first film is a classic. The Wachowski brothers suffered to make it. They sold one of their early movies, Assassins, and the studio altered it dramatically. It was a flop. They vowed never to relinquish artistic control again. So, when it came to the Matrix, they rewrote it again and again. They wrote fourteen drafts. How many iterations did your last work go through? When they were making the film, the brothers made their actors do fourteen months of martial arts training. They gave them reading lists. The preparation paid off. The Matrix was an enormous success and the brothers quickly received permission to create the next two installments of the trilogy, with much bigger budgets. Unfortunately, that’s where the story goes off the rails. The second two installments were commercial hits, but the stories lacked the unrelenting power of the first one. Why? To me it’s obvious. The artists got lazy. They had all the money they needed. They had control. They had people telling them they were geniuses. Without even knowing how many drafts they wrote of the second two, I can tell you it wasn’t anywhere near fourteen. Any author can tell you that, just by breaking down the plot and story arc. There are major holes. There are set pieces that make no sense, like a long dance sequence that should have hit the cutting room floor because it served no purpose. In other words, they skipped steps. It doesn’t matter if you are just starting out, or if you’re already a master story-teller. If you skip any of the steps necessary, then your story will fail to win audiences on some level. That’s because every one of those original rewrites were essential and there is no shortcut to greatness. And there never will be. Do the work, every time, and everything else will take care of itself.