Wednesday, April 20, 2011
It Came From The Slushpile!
I’ve beat up on editors for unprofessional behavior towards writers, and I’ve beat up on writers for being wussies about rejections. Today, girls and boys, dragons and butterflies, we’re going to look into everyone’s favorite punching bag... The slush pile.
Or rather, we’re not just going to look into the slush pile. We’re going to look into beginning writers and why they really, really – really, really, really – need a second opinion. And not just from their dog or girlfriend. Particularly in these days when anyone can just throw their work on Amazon or self-publish for nothing. Because you run a risk of making a really big – not to say huge – mistake if you do it without vetting.
There is a peculiar arrogance to a beginner writer, a particular certainty that their work is the best thing since sliced bread, peanut butter and the invention of the rotto tiller – the sort of brass faced “read me, I’m wonderful” that nine times out of ten means this person can barely string a sentence together, has half a dozen words in the first paragraph that don’t mean what he thinks they mean, and is either playing with a world/idea that has been done to the point of nausea or most of the world is still in their heads and what’s on the page is a disjointed mess.
Conversely, the beginner writer who slips their work at me reluctantly and only after I asked to see it is, nine times out of ten either already publishable or very close to it.
I thought this was a peculiar curse of publishing, which makes the current system – dependent on self-confidence and self promoting – a peculiarly counterproductive one. But it turns out it’s actually the curse of any task whose completion doesn’t show immediate and concrete results, at least according to this article: http://www.damninteresting.com/unskilled-and-unaware-of-it
For those of you unwilling to click through, the idea behind that article – which is research supported – is that the less skilled you are at a task susceptible of personal evaluation (i.e., not whether you mowed the lawn or not) the more likely you are to think you are extremely competent at it.
The thesis is that until you gain basic competence you don’t see your own errors. I have to say I have found this to be true for myself at any variety of crafts (from crochet to embroidery) as well as at art and writing. It is not till I learn SOMETHING about the tasks that I start seeing all the errors I made in the early projects that, when I did them, seemed perfect.
Apparently this correlates to the four stages of competence theory, which can be summarized as follows, in progression:
1- Unconscious Incompetence
The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit.
2 - Conscious Incompetence
Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit.
3 - Conscious Competence
The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration.
4 - Unconscious Competence
The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become "second nature" and can be performed easily. He or she may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.
These four stages correlate completely not only with my writing, or my progression in art – where I am, at best, in stage 2 – but with such tasks as fine-chopping an onion without either cutting myself or being excruciatingly slow.
Unfortunately confidence seems to move in inverse progression through the set. People in the stage of unconscious competence, often assume that they’re not very good at all because they still see how much further they have to go. This unfortunately means that if you get to stage four without showing your work to anyone, you’re not going to have the courage after that.
It also means that slush piles might drive most if not all editors insane. I’ve read some of these and the sheer volume of unadulterated, imaginably bad... Raw sewage that hits those is almost unbelievable. A lot of it is literally incomprehensible. And then there’s any number that’s just understandable enough to be repulsive.
Oh, come on, Sarah, you’re saying. Surely writing doesn’t fall to incompetent-but-unaware. I mean, people have been reading their whole lives, so they know what makes a book/story.
Uh... yeah, theoretically. But the problem is when it’s your book/story you have to be playing chess on both sides – to learn to be both the writer and the reader, and not to read into your stuff more (or sometimes – ick, trust me – less) than you put in. Until you get there you’re often unconscious incompetent. Very, very incompetent.
Unfortunately this is also, often, the bane of writers groups, because there is an effect associated with that. As you’re going through the stages (as the first article mentions) you’re not capable of evaluating anyone who is above you. This means unconscious incompetent will rate down conscious competent who will accept it because he/she underrates him/herself. This is one of the reasons I’m STRONGLY against anonymous or semi-anonymous, large online critique groups: after a while a certain tyranny of hte unconscious incompetent rules and destroys anyone who might have had a shot. Writers groups should be small and personal and you should be able to evaluate the person’s opinions in relation to where the person is on the writing journey.
And then you won’t risk letting your little monster into the wild, trailing excess adjectives, incoherent sentences and unresolved plots and making half of the readers scream “Oh, no, it came from the slush pile!”
Do you see yourself in those stages at all, or is it just me? Do you see the stages in others? How do you think this affects self-promotion ability? And do you have any slush horror stories to share? (I brought some slush-tentacles, if pressed to share mine.)
*Crossposted at According To Hoyt*