When I visited my school guidance counselor to discuss my future careers, the term “creativity scientist” never came up. Then again, neither did “musician” or “novelist” or even “computer programmer,” all of which I have used to describe various aspects of my “career.”
But “creativity scientist?” Wow, that sounds like a good gig. Of course, “zookeeper” sounds great, too, until you realize that it’s mostly shoveling poop. Come to think of it, “shoveling poop” describes every single job I’ve ever had, to one degree or another. Sometimes it’s my poop. Most times it’s someone else’s. No matter what, it’s poop. Everyone shovels poop.
Anyway…Jefferson Smith, who runs the Creativity Hacker website and blog, obviously attended a different school district than I did. He is a creativity scientist and novelist, and he’s got some interesting ideas and thoughts on all things creative, and especially about creative writing.
One of his ideas is his “Immerse or Die” program: Take a book, get on the treadmill, and see how long the author keeps the reader immersed in the world of the novel.
Writing, you see, is only half of the equation. The other half–perhaps the most important, and certainly the most unpredictable half–is Reading.
For his program, Smith chooses an “indie” book (self- or micro-press-published), steps up on his treadmill for his daily workout, and reads until either (a) he passes the 40-minute mark, or (b) he experiences three “WTF” moments where the writing pops him out of the story. Some books make it the entire 40 minutes without breaking Smith’s immersive trance, but other books last as little as six minutes.
Think about that. Six minutes. That’s right, some indie-authored books are so fraught with problems that, in the time it takes to toast a bagel, Smith has been thrown out of his willing suspension three whole times.
Though reading his IOD book reports is illuminating and, at times, hilarious, what I want to draw your attention to is his recent aggregate report: The 5 Most Common Writing Mistakes That Break Reader Immersion. Granted, this is just Jefferson Smith’s opinion, one reader’s viewpoint, but as he is someone who’s studied the form and the world of the creative story-telling mind, his findings carry more weight than most.
On first glance, we note that a lot of the problems that pop Smith out of his immersive reading state are purely mechanical. Yes, I mean spelling, grammar, word use, etc. In fact, weak mechanics comprise nearly 25% of the WTF moments reported. Smith sets these aside quickly, to concentrate on the other 75%, but let’s look at this a bit longer. While these are only a quarter of the WTFs in the aggregate, they represent a major target for all self-published authors.
Let’s put it this way: You can eliminate 25% of reader immersion issues simply by running a spell-check.
Okay, yes, it’s a bit more involved than that, but you get the drift. Nearly a quarter of indie-author problems come from sloppiness and/or laziness. I’ll tell you honestly, this does not surprise me. Having read slush for a while, I know how bad it usually is. The advent of self-publishing technology hasn’t upped the aggregate Author IQ or suddenly taught writers how to spell or punctuate. In fact, the opposite is true: in an industry without gatekeepers, quality suffers, and it is the consumer who ends up shoveling all the poop (Someone’s gotta do it.)
Looking deeper–which is where Smith concentrates his analysis–we see the remaining three-quarters of his WTF moments involve poor story-building skills (≈32%) and poor story-telling skills (≈44%). Bad story-building includes cliché plotlines, impossibly inconsistent characters, unbelievable plot twists, and bad world-building. Bad story-telling skills are harder to quantify, but examples might be bad dialogue, uneven or ineffective pacing, show versus tell, and so on.
You can’t fix bad pacing with a spell-check. Our word processors have no “find/replace cliché” function.
No, to fix these things takes study, time, and discipline. But first of all, it takes awareness.
If you, the author, don’t understand what bad pacing is, if you don’t recognize bad dialogue, if you don’t know that your “and in the end, it was all a dream/they were Adam and Eve/she was her long-lost daughter” plot is a terribly overused cliché, you haven’t a hope in Hades of turning this turkey into Thanksgiving dinner. No spell-checker, no developmental editor, no creative scientist can teach you how to write well. You have to read, you have to analyze, and you have to practice.
With luck and hard work, each book we write will be better than our last. With each revolution on the novel-writer’s carousel, with each grab for the brass ring, we learn. It is not, however, an unconscious process or some form of osmosis. You have to think about what you’ve read. You have to think about what you’ve written. And you have to care enough to make it as good as you can, today.
FWIW, I submitted Unraveling Time, to Smith’s “Immerse or Die” challenge. I’m not fond of the opening section, and I may very well fail to get to the 40 minute mark, but either way, if Smith chooses to read it, I’m willing to accept his judgement. I just hope I do better than six minutes.
Six minutes. Damn…