Mark Terry

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Getting Serious

November 13, 2008
A very long time ago I read the first volume of pianist Artur Rubinstein's autobiography. He was a fairly typical example of the child prodigy, one who was giving concerts when he was in his teens.

There were two things I remember most about the autobiography and I was thinking about them this morning while walking Frodo. First was, he noted that things came very easily to him and he didn't work very hard when he was younger--because he didn't have to. At one point, he was living in a boarding house somewhere, and he was supposed to be practicing, so he would sit down at his grand piano, put a box of chocolates on one side of the piano, a book he was reading on the music stand, and then do finger exercises with his free hand while reading his book and eating his chocolates. Although that sounds sort of difficult, the point was that he was only doing the practicing half-heartedly and without much concentration.

Rubinstein was a great pianist, a genius, no doubt, and he could have continued successfully as he was, probably. But he didn't. Somewhere, when he was a little older--I believe it was after he had children--he realized that he wasn't working up to his potential. That his repertoire wasn't as broad or as large as it should be and he didn't play them as well as he should, certainly not if he wanted to be taken seriously.

So, he said in one of his autobiographies, he rented a house for several months, brought in a concert grand, and spent an intensive several months concentrating solely on becoming what he was capable of becoming, practicing for all his waking moments and really re-learning his art.

I am by no means suggesting you lock yourself away for several months to concentrate on your writing (unless you actually can).

What I'm saying is that most of us drift along, growing incrementally if at all, assuming that what we're doing is pretty good.

But the fact of the matter is that, unless we're really being successful, our "pretty good" probably isn't good enough in the marketplace. And what we--and I am by no means excluding myself from this--need to do is really take a hard look at our writing and how it's being received (or not received) and ask ourselves: Is this as good as we can do?

I know that when I answer that question "Yes" then I'm likely to have a commercially viable project.

Also, I grow. Or try to. When I finished the manuscript for "The Devil's Pitchfork," the answer to that was "Yes, this is good as I can do at this time." I think I did better with "The Serpent's Kiss." I'm not quite sure that anything I've written since was better, or for that matter, much different. It may, in fact, be time for me to take a deep breath and slip my current fiction work under the microscope to see what I really think about it.

I'm reminded of a talk I heard this summer by a psychologist. He was talking about dealing with stress and how are reaction is to get angry or defensive or to lash out when things don't go well at work or our life. And he said that when people come to him and talk about this, the question he asks is: "So, how's that working for you?"

In the context of my fiction, I've thought a lot about this, frankly. There is a tendency for us to do the same thing over and over. And get rejected, over and over.

And I think, for me anyway, it's time to take a hard look at my approach to fiction and the types of fiction I've been writing and ask: So, how's this working for you, Mark?

And it doesn't necessarily mean, "You've been writing action-adventure thrillers, so let's change to deep and meaningful literary fiction." But I think it might be time to look at the way I approach the types of stories I like to write and ask myself, "What is it about my approach that isn't working in the marketplace? And what can I do about it?"


I'm wrong.

Mark Terry


Anonymous Anonymous said...

As always, good stuff.

7:30 AM  
Blogger Zoe Winters said...

I'm always disappointed when a writer puts out a good book or two and then the third or fourth, the quality drops considerably. It happens a lot.

I think maybe people start to 'relax" some. But I think it's always important to keep improving. We never "arrive" with writing.

Someone arriving financially is not the same as perfecting craft. I'm not sure the latter can ever be done, but it gets sloppier the less we try.

8:05 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

I change a lot. I told my best friend that I was down to tweaks rather than doing completely new teaching methods in my studio, but then I realized I'm doing most everything differently this year. Change is my normal.

I'm not good at understanding my own writing, though. I can pick apart others, imitate others, but I have a hard time understanding and even imitating myself. (Okay, that sounds crazy.) I feel good about the way I construct a story, but that's a constant battle, holding a whole story in my head. I'm really irritated with my paragraphs. They're often too short. I don't know.

Rubinstein was definitely from a different era. I have a couple pages of notes from his protege that I should find and share with you. Inspiring! But he could sure play sloppy. Musical, artistic, but sloppy by our standards.

I tell my students that the last little bit from good to great takes just as long as to master as 99.99% of the way. That last mile is a killer.

8:26 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Rubinstein and Horowitz both.

Today's piano giants are technique machines.

9:23 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

OMG--get outta my head, Terry.

All right . . . here's the thing. I have been wondering why it is I am not working on something I KNOW I can sell. I mean, I have a half-dozen books on my computer, any one of which, if I brush them up, I think I could sell.

INSTEAD, I am fiddling with a book about a girl who can see Death. It's literary and weird, and oddly romantic, and strange, and it's got some writing I consider poetry in it. And it is making me GROW as a writer, but it's painful and incremental and it's harder work than anything I've done. And I didn't know why. And this is why, I think. Great post.

12:34 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

You're scaring me. Great minds think alike, etc., but we must have been twins in another life or something.

And you are not going to believe this. Word verification: woopi

12:39 PM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

I think most of us probably never work up to our capacity. I know I had a vague idea of wanting to sell fiction for years but until Mary and I started working together my attempts were -- I see now -- only desultory. The problem is, I didn't quite see it that way at the time. I thought I was making an effort. I believe that luck plays a big role in artistic success. But it is also true that those who succeed have very often worked and sacrificed to an extent most people, including myself, can barely imagine and would never be willing to do.

4:13 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Apparently I have a tendency to rush toward the climax, so I'm working on my foreplay skills at the moment.

4:24 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

No laying back and thinking of England, ey?

6:04 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

What's wrong with a kiss, boy? Hmm? Why not start her off with a nice kiss? You don't have to go leaping straight for the clitoris like a bull at a gate. Give her a kiss, boy.
--from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life

Probably some of the best writing advice I'v ever heard.

4:54 AM  
Blogger Richmond Writer said...

Great post. I love Harry Potter so I tend to spend way too much time reading about Rowling. She did that very thing, spent hours and hours writing up backgrounds, etc for her story. Stuff that never made it into the story. This is why the world was so real. I don't want to get into arguments with folks who fault her writing, what I want to say is that she withdrew from the world and focused on being the best writer she had the potential to be.

It would be nice to know what was the trigger that made the pianist see he wasn't living up to his potential. Who pointed it out to him in such a way that he heard it? Or what were the circumstances if it was an event. What exactly made him want to live up to his potential.

5:17 AM  
Blogger Amy Nathan said...

Sometimes writers spend way too much time thinking about writing instead of doing it. It's the peril of being one who pays attention to his or her own thoughts.

Self-doubt is just that. Self-doubt. Amidst plenty 'o rejections in my day, I don't get discouraged. Maybe I see trees instead of the forest. Maybe so much of my life has been riddled with strife that the actual ability to write and to try and simply to be here to do so makes me see that complaining or twiddling my thumbs gets me no where fast.

If we take a step back and appreciate every moment, and nothing makes sense or is how we want it to be, then I say, change it or deal with it.

But that's just me.

6:01 AM  
Anonymous Joe Barone said...

I believe I read somewhere that Rex Stout used to shut himself away when he wrote each Nero Wolfe novel. If I remember correctly, he was fanatical about it.

6:07 AM  
Blogger Edie said...

Great post! I want every book to be better than the last. So far, for the last few books, I feel I've succeeded in that. And reading over my wip, I'm catching problem areas before I send it to my CPs. That's progress for me.

7:33 AM  
Blogger Merry Monteleone said...

This is such a great post - I'm glad Erica pointed it out.

My daughter is naturally bright in her own ways (I think every kid, every person, has their own areas). For her, she's very creative and dramatic and she has an immediate ear for language and sound. After taking piano for a year she could play intricate pieces, moving her thumb under the rest of her fingers in this smooth movement where the rhythm sailed along as her fingers careened the keys... but she never plays the simple scales right because she's bored and she won't memorize the notes because she prefers to play by ear... and in school she tends to skip reading the material because she knows that she can still get a B without doing the work.

In short, she drives me crazy, because she has more potential than anyone I've ever seen but in her case that same potential makes her lazy, because she can be. She also tends toward the creative and don't we all know that creative people need more work ethic than most if they want to actually make a living at it.

My oldest son has a hard time with language. We've had to really work on reading and grammar because it doesn't come naturally to him. He doesn't have that ear for sounding things out or hearing when the sentence structure is wrong. And reading skills go hand in hand with every other subject.

Oldes son also gets B's - in fact he usually carries A's in elective subjects and Math and B's everywhere else, because he works hard at it. In the long run, he'll have learned just as much academically, but he'll also have a work ethic that my daughter is dodging and I think, in life, that's going to give him an advantage.

Talent is a great thing and I don't discount it - but it's also something you're born with, not something you earned. You can be proud of it when you've stretched yourself to fully realize your potential.

I haven't stretched enough yet - but I'm working on it. Ideally, I think your whole life should be about learning and growing and incorporating that in your writing, that's what I'm aiming for.

9:00 AM  
Blogger lainey bancroft said...

Had to comment. Guilty conscience because I mentioned my lurking on Erica's blog and I don't want anyone to think I'm 'talking behind their back'.

As your first commenter said: 'as always, good stuff'

Reach. Grow. Change it up...YES.

Erica is very good at that (oops, forgot to tell her on her own blog how cool her death love concept sounds)

But IMHO, you nailed it! Keep pushing, not just doing same old...

(plus, I downloaded your freelance info and I don't think I ever said Thank You, so...THANK YOU...I'd sooner grow that than pursue more freelance book work, cuz, ah...I sorta suck at math--don't tell my clients!)

5:19 PM  
Blogger Kath Calarco said...

I'll keep my comment small and simple.

You've written the blog I've had in mind for quite some time. Thanks for beating me to the punch. ;)

I believe we should always try to out-do ourselves, and with a box of chocolates at our elbow.

3:04 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

You guys have really responded to this post. I suppose it is easier to just say, "Make your next effort better than your last." Oh well.

5:54 PM  

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