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


How to Succeed When You Don’t Have a Clue

July 4, 2015

I’ve been around the block enough times to have accumulated a few successes and failures – in writing and elsewhere – and some of those have surprised me. Stuff I thought would work, didn’t – and some of my long shots came through. So I wrote this list. There are plenty of “How to Succeed” lists on the internet… but at least mine is only three bullets long.

1) Reject “knowledge.”

The world is much more complicated than we think. Theories about how something should work are nice for making us feel less overwhelmed, but if you fly by theory, and can’t understand why you aren’t getting anywhere, throw the theory away. What’s more: don’t replace it with another theory.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” — quotable physicist Albert Einstein

When smart people fail, they often spin their wheels in endless analysis. Dumb people don’t bother with this — and that is the advantage in being stupid. Most failure is random, and burning time trying to track down the imperfection in your technique (polishing your resume yet again, revising your novel yet again) doesn’t pay as well as just taking another random shot. Dumb people can clean the floor with intellectuals, as long as they’re persistent.

2) Don’t give up.

I’ve taught mathematics for years, and I can report from the trenches: intelligence isn’t what gets good grades. Persistence does. A+ math students push through confusion, get over frustration, and keep on going. The students who fail are the ones who never learn how to climb over that wall. A lot of my job is helping students manage their frustration, so they don’t give up.

When I’m hammering away at troubleshooting a computer, I’m always open to being surprised. I’ll try anything — even stuff that seems illogical — because too frequently, that is the stuff that works. Aside from taking good notes (so you don’t repeat yourself), what pays here is creativity. Are you crazy enough to keep trying new things? If not, and you are truly stuck, you’re shackled by theory — see #1.

Change one variable — even randomly! — and try again.

3) Google it.

I know that some think the internet makes us less intelligent. I’m amazed by this opinion, because from what I’ve seen, the internet adds thirty points to the effective IQ of billions of people. This is on my short-list of reasons I’m excited about the future of the planet. If you can use a search engine, you’re as competent as any expert was thirty years ago. Actually, you’re as competent as all of them.

“I google everything!” — quotable hacker Samy Kamkar

(I don’t mean Google literally — that’s insane. Have some self-respect and use something more private, like Startpage or DuckDuckGo.)


The Writing Process Blog Tour Continues

March 26, 2014

Thanks to Claire Gebben for inviting me to this tour. Claire was born and raised on the southeast side of Cleveland in Moreland Hills, Ohio, and penciled her first novel at age ten. Her writing has appeared in Shark Reef, The Speculative Edge, Soundings Review, The Fine Line, and ColumbiaKIDS e-zine. The Last of the Blacksmiths is her first novel.

Now, on to me.

What am I working on?

Hair of the Bear is the sequel to New World. It’s in the final editing stages and will be available Real Soon Now. These books take place in a fantasy wilderness derived from American folklore and lumberjack tales, a rich cultural source almost totally untapped by fiction writers. Lucky me!

Ninja Girl will be available shortly thereafter. The draft is finished and needs editing. It’s about a teenaged girl who discovers that she has super powers. She learns that ninjas throughout history have always been women, and she’s introduced to a secret society and its quest to save the world from another secret society. But she still has to survive high school. It’s borne of my love for Joss Whedon’s work, of course.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

I have a science-fiction writer’s taste for implications — pushing ideas as far as I can to see what new insights arise — and a thriller writer’s taste for danger and a pounding pulse. My characters are usually faced with mind-bending scenarios, which they struggle to deal with so they can avoid being killed.

I often write about power. My characters are often enormously competent — flawed, of course, broken sometimes — but talented and capable in some way, and they often find themselves granted enormous powers. Perhaps through technology or magic. Then we get to see what they do with that power. Will they fail? Abuse it, destroy themselves? Or will they rise to the challenge?

Why do I write what I do?

I draw a lot of inspiration from writers I love, both novelists and screenwriters. Awe can be motivating. But I think I draw more inspiration from writers who stink, or maybe from good writers who blow it. Nothing sticks in my imagination like witnessing a poorly executed idea. I’ll worry that thing like a toothache, and twist it and twist it and twist it, until I have my own story to tell.

How does my writing process work?

Some writers don’t plan much, because they are afraid that if they take the time and effort to plan a novel, their creative energy will be used up so when they sit down to write page one, they won’t want to do it.

You know what uses up my creative energy? Writing the draft. When I type “THE END,” I’m pretty much done. I sure can’t turn around and rewrite if the draft doesn’t work. So I plan and outline a lot, with notes and index cards on a corkboard. And rather than deplete me, the act of planning charges me up. By the time I start a draft, I’m ready to explode. And when I finish, I’ve got something that’s pretty close to being right.

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That’s it! Now, if I had done my job right, I would have found a couple of writers to link to next… but no luck. Writers are often too busy to blog, so I’ll just pass the buck to my partner this week, Stephanie Lile.


A Writer’s Commencement Speech

September 5, 2013

Last month, I graduated from the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts with my sparkly new MFA. My fellow grads were kind enough to elect me as their commencement speaker.

Among other things, I said this:

There are benefits to a writing career. Nicholas Taleb, in his book Antifragile, says that in most careers – teacher, banker, janitor – the unexpected is bad news. (He calls this the “turkey problem”: most turkeys are fed and cared for, day after day – it’s very predictable… until Thanksgiving, when those turkeys confront the unexpected.) Most professionals don’t like surprises, because the biggest, most career-changing surprise possible is downsizing, budget cuts – sudden unemployment. And what’s the best surprise they can hope for? A Christmas bonus? A three-percent raise? Teachers, bankers, and janitors crave the status quo.

Writers love surprises. We struggle to escape the status quo, because in our business, that’s called “breaking out.” For us, the unexpected is good news. We don’t get downsized. For us, the biggest, most career-changing surprise possible is sudden best-sellerdom.

Plenty of turkeys are optimists, but wouldn’t be if they could see the future. Plenty of writers are pessimists, but wouldn’t be if they could see the future.

A lot of people seem to have enjoyed the rest of the speech as well. And trust me — the line about lentils was really, really funny.


Write or Die, etc.

December 27, 2012

I’ve found a couple of great writing tools lately, and I want to pass them on. Both are by a guy called Doctor Wicked. Normally I would hesitate to recommend anything from someone with a name like that, but it’s the internet age, and apparently, that sort of thing is okay now.

One is a proofreading program, what I would call a bot editor, called EditMinion. You paste your work in, and it makes suggestions. It’s borne of the universal frustration created by the mentally challenged spelling and grammar checkers found in Word and similar programs, and designed specifically to catch what the checkers miss.

But how good can a bot editor be? Don’t you still need beta-readers? Don’t you still need a good critique group… with humans in it?

Of course you do. But a bot editor may show you things that your human readers missed. And bots are fast. I like clicking a button and getting results instantly, because I can consider those results while waiting three weeks for that email.

I can’t declare that something like EditMinion (or even impressive, expensive bots like Nina Davies’s Autocrit) will make you a better writer. But I do think that they are pretty neat.

And information tech improves quickly, so in another year… watch out. They might be smarter than you.

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Doctor Wicked’s real masterpiece, though, is a little gem called Write or Die. I’ll quote his description of it:

Write or Die is a web application that encourages writing by punishing the tendency to avoid writing. Start typing in the box. As long as you keep typing, you’re fine, but once you stop typing, you have a grace period of a certain number of seconds and then there are consequences…

The idea is to instill in the would-be writer a fear of not writing. We do this by employing principles taught in Introduction to Psychology. Anyone remember Operant Conditioning and Negative Reinforcement?

When I sit down to write, it takes me forever to get going, and when I get stuck with the need for just the right verb, I stare at the wall. Then I’m relishing the glory of the previous scene or daydreaming about the upcoming chapter, and ten minutes have gone by.

I’m a daydreamer. It’s what made me a writer in the first place. But it costs me a lot of hours in the chair to get a novel down. Write or Die happens to be just what I need to crank my words-per-hour up to a reasonable level. It keeps my fingers striking those keys.

Or else.

Consequences:
*Gentle Mode: A certain amount of time after you stop writing, a box will pop up, gently reminding you to continue writing.
*Normal Mode: If you persistently avoid writing, you will be played a most unpleasant sound. The sound will stop if and only if you continue to write.
*Kamikaze Mode: Keep Writing or Your Work Will Unwrite Itself.

Write or Die screenshot

I used to write in four-hour blocks on the weekends. Nowadays, I get the same wordcount in a handful of ten-minute sessions, because if I stop typing, my computer screams at me. It doesn’t sound fun, but strangely, it is. And I can sneak writing time in on weekdays, which is boosting my weekly wordcount.

It feels a little funny saying it, but I will: Thanks, Doctor Wicked.

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If you’ve got a program or website that helps you write or edit your work, please mention it in a comment!


Book Promotion Shouldn’t Make Your Head Explode

March 21, 2011

Look, I’m a huge fan of new technologies and the power they grant to artists like us. I’ve even gushed about my favorite fiction-writing innovators.

But this stuff can make you crazy. I’ll admit that as fast as anybody. I think my friend Lindsay Buroker captures the feeling nicely: