Writers, Beware the Dunning-Kruger Effect

December 29, 2018

First, you know some stuff. Second, you know that you know it. Third, these are two different psychological phenomena.

That’s the essence of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which is the failure to understand the extent of your own knowledge or competence. If you fail to accurately assess how good or talented you are, that’s Dunning-Kruger.

This is often thrown around the interwebs as an insult: “Look at that buffoon who thinks he’s so smart! What arrogance! Classic Dunning-Kruger Effect!” This is how I first saw it, and so I paused to look it up.

(No, the insult was not directed at ME.)

Wikipedia describes the ur-example of the bank robber who soaked his face in lemon juice so the surveillance cameras would not see him. Because that’s how invisible ink works, right?

This actually happened. To grasp the D-K aspect, imagine his friends telling him that his plan would never work, and he rejects their advice. He scoffs at the fools.

(This is important. D-K is about the failure of feedback. More on this in a sec.)

The other side of D-K is “imposter syndrome,” when, for example, truly skilled and competent writers doubt themselves and their work. Talented people can fail to grasp their talent, and see themselves as frauds. If they receive praise, they think it’s some sort of mistake or fluke.

What about you? How do you avoid delusions of grandeur as people laugh at you behind your back? Or… how do you avoid being overpowered by your own self doubt? In essence, how can you truly know whether or not you are a good writer?

It’s about feedback. When you get it, believe it. And if you’re not getting it, seek it out.

(Not your mom’s feedback. Sorry.)

Do you have a critique group? I’ve been meeting with my group, the Legion of Plume, for years, and one thing they showed me is how I never miss a chance for an unclear pronoun antecedent.

I used to haunt critique.org to get advice on every short story I wrote, and I learned a ton from writing hundreds of critiques for other writers. The site started in 1995 and has expanded to include all genres.

Are you sending your work out to markets, so editors can see it? I’ve got rejections going back so many years, some of them came in the mail. Be glad you no longer need to send stamped return envelopes to magazines. Now, with email, the humiliation is free, and that’s an innovation I welcome.

If you’ve done the above and your work is published, are you reading your public reviews? This is not for the squeamish, but Chris Fox recommends taking your reviewers seriously and listening to their advice. Your Amazon reviews might make you a better writer.

It’s a daring thought. For me, the calls for a sequel in the reviews for New World inspired me to write Hair of the Bear. And more importantly, I used those reviews when crafting the sequel, noting the elements that people liked in the first book so I could include them.
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Finally, to overcome the dangers of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, ask yourself this: am I a better writer than I was yesterday? Work each day on improving your skill set and productivity. Take a tiny step forward today, and tomorrow, and the day after that, and your fate as a writer will take care of itself.


There Are Steps to This Dance

November 5, 2018

The learning curve of your writing career, if you want to save time, should look like this:

1) Craft
2) Productivity
3) Marketing

The order matters. Learn to tell a story well, then learn to produce a body of work, then learn to sell. Master where you are before you move on.

Otherwise, you’ll produce a stack of badly crafted books, or spend a fortune on advertising such a small number of titles that you have no chance of breaking even.

If I were to choose sources for these three stages, they would look like:

1) Rebecca McClanahan & Robert McKee
2) Rachel Aaron & Chris Fox
3) Kboards & 20Booksto50K

What is my wish for you?
Write well. Write fast. Sell books.

Sam at the beach


Research is a perk of this job

July 27, 2018

I’ve written about the perils of fiction research before. Now I want to share some of the fun.

Writers are masters of the arcane. Historical fiction research will make you an expert on a particular time and place, a single town in a single year, down to the slang and eating utensils. Mystery writers know more about police procedure than anyone but a cop. And writers of thrillers and adventure fiction know seven different ways to kill you where you stand.

It’s all learned in moments of spare time, on late nights and early mornings. Reminds me that the root of amateur means love.

I’m reminded of this because I’m editing the draft of Here Be Dragons — Book 3 of the Tales of the New World series — and I find myself looking again and again at pictures in my ancient copy of the US Army Survival Manual. I’ve been looking at these pictures for three novels now… and they’re all about wilderness survival.

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This is a “figure 4” deadfall trap. Young Simon sees Bogg craft these three sticks, and realizes there’s more to his uncle than he thought.

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When Simon and Bogg get deep into the snowy wilderness of Mira, they need to create a warm shelter to survive. Bogg digs the snow out from around a tree, and they have themselves a stealthy little hiding spot.

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This is bracken fern — delicious if you happen to be starving. Simon and Bogg survive on this for a time in the deep woods of Mira.

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And here is a vivet-style campfire. Flames are below ground, hard to spot from a distance. If branches above disperse the smoke, the villains won’t see you sneaking up on them.

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This is Sam the Novel Dog. He’s not in any book… yet.

 


How to be a (faster) writer

April 22, 2018

I’ve always been slow at it. But I’m here to post a breakthrough. I just wrote a novel (New World 3: Here Be Dragons) at four times my normal speed. Here are three points about how I did it.

(1) I set a goal that was easy.

I’ve learned that failing to meet a writing goal is quietly devastating to my writing psyche, but achieving a writing goal consistently will unleash a poweful fuel — an explosive mixture of confidence and habit. The best goal is one that you can achieve on your worst day.

My goal was 500 words per day, no matter what. The number doesn’t matter. Yours might be much more or much less. What matters is…

(2) I achieved that goal with machinelike consistency.

I wrote when I was tired, when I was busy, when I didn’t have time. As the words piled up, I learned that I could do it. Some days, I didn’t get my 500, but I always made up the difference the next day.

It began to feel normal. And that’s an important feeling.

(3) I changed nothing.

I felt ready to raise 500/day to something more ambitious. But I didn’t. I got smug, then I got bored… but I wrote on, stopping somewhere after 500 and never holding myself to more. I noticed which days were easy and which were hard, which scenes were easy and which were hard.

I call this phase “Sustain and Observe.”

I want do do 1000/day or 2000/day, but I need to take the time to get strong (writing is a muscle) and notice my strengths and weaknesses, so I can amplify my strengths and sidestep my weaknesses.

The novel’s finished. Now it’s editing time. I’ll start the next one August 1, 2018, and I probably won’t change the wordcount goal. I might go another year at 500/day — and when I finally raise it, I’ll raise it to something I can achieve on my worst day. It’s a long game.

Keep the goal easy, always hit it, and sustain.

(I need to give credit to fast writers Rachel Aaron and Chris Fox, who inspired me to look closely at my process.)

Sam the Novel Dog

Sam the Novel Dog


Dialogue Crash Course

July 10, 2017

Here are cinematic examples of everything I know about dialogue, basic to advanced. Listen…

Basic:

Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The intersection of your normal world and your story world. Immerse yourself in your character’s point of view… and just tell the truth:

 

Gilmore Girls. Adversarial dialogue. Watch for the set-up… and the payoff:

Intermediate:

Firefly. There’s jargon… and then there’s language. Do you have the guts to try this?

The Avengers. Adversarial, metaphorical, agrammatical, great use of beats:

Bonus Avengers, for the art of the POV monologue, and the importance of character names for each other:

Advanced:

Heist. Now that you get Joss Whedon, you are ready for David Mamet. Once you have the skills to make your dialogue sound totally natural, you can dare to make it sound unnatural:

Brick. Dialogue so good, they printed it in the trailer. If you can write this, there’s nothing more anyone can teach you:


Vonnegut teaches plot

May 29, 2017

Here is Kurt Vonnegut having some fun explaining curves of emotional energy in stories. This is worth four minutes:

I found this referenced in The Bestseller Code, by Archer & Jockers, a book about algorithmic text-mining of bestselling books. Can a computer spot patterns in the text of the novels on the NYT bestsellers list? I’m sure I’ll post about it when I finish it.


TV Tropes will ruin your life.

April 2, 2017

TV Tropes might save your writing, though. It’s a venerable wiki from the early days of the internet that has chronicled countless story elements:

“A trope is a storytelling device or convention, a shortcut for describing situations the storyteller can reasonably assume the audience will recognize. Tropes are the means by which a story is told by anyone who has a story to tell. We collect them, for the fun involved.”tv_tropes_is_like_crack

This website is the most undervalued tool for writers I know of. It’s a kick forĀ readers, too.

Don’t believe me, writers? Try these:

Dialogue

Plots

Settings

Symbolism

In the short story I’m writing, I wanted a prison break as a minor offstage event. But how to portray it originally? How to include details that aren’t cliched? If only there were a list of every prison break trope ever portrayed in anime, comics, film, literature, TV, video games, cartoons, and the web? Oh, look! I’m saved!

The folks at TV Tropes say that the site may ruin your life. But you might think it’s worth it. Have fun!