Don’t Be Satisfied With Competence

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

In reviewing Uncommon Type, a short story collection by Tom Hanks, the critic concluded that, with one exception, Hanks’s stories “are forgettable, middle-of-the-road and touched by the special banality of mere competence.”

Ouch, man.

I like Tom Hanks. I’ve liked him ever since Bosom Buddies. I haven’t read his stories, so this is not a pile-on. And critics have been known to be wrong (ya think?)

But I was struck by that phrase, the special banality of mere competence. That’s because when I teach workshops, I usually lead off with this quote from a former acquisitions editor for a major house:

As my first boss used to warn us green editorial assistants two decades ago, the type of submission that’s the toughest to spot—and the most essential to avoid—is the one that is skillful, competent, literate, and ultimately forgettable.

Over my two decades of teaching the craft and reading manuscripts submitted at conferences, I’ve seen a rise in the tide of competent fiction. A big reason is, I think, the internet, with great teaching blogs like **blush** this one, and so many others. There are **blush** online courses and podcasts. And we still have the tried-and-true teaching avenues, like critique groups (in person and via email), books and Writer’s Digest, panels of writers at conferences, freelance editors, and so on.

All of which I love. I still get excited about diving into a good article on writing, or revisiting one of the many craft books in my collection.

So yeah, there is a lot of competent fiction out there.

But that’s not good enough.

Let me amend that. What’s “good enough” is highly subjective. But the ministers of content within the walls of the Forbidden City (that is, traditional publishing) are always looking for that “extra” thing. Much of the time they call it voice, and treat it the way Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously approached obscenity. He couldn’t define it, he said, “But I know it when I see it.”

Of course, now it’s possible for writers outside the walls to publish whatever they like. And competent fiction may bring some return.

But for a long-lasting career, I say make it your goal to go higher.

How?

Create a self-study plan.

There are seven critical success factors of fiction: plot, structure, characters, scenes, dialogue, voice (or style) and meaning (or theme). You can, in conjunction with others (trusted beta readers, a good editor, a critique group) assess your strengths and weaknesses in each of these areas. Try giving yourself scores on a 1-10 scale.

Then start with your weakest factor and design a six-week self-study program. Get a couple of books on the subject. Write some practice scenes. Get feedback.

Then move on to the next factor.

Just think about it. If you were to improve each of these areas just by 10%, the overall effect on your writing will be enormous. And you can get there in less than a year.

Of course, as you’re studying the craft, keep writing your current project and developing your next, and the one after that.

Is this work? Um, yeah. Like any pursuit of excellence.

Is it also fun? Oh, yes. When you see and feel your improvement, there’s nothing quite like it.

It took me a good two years to get to competent. And no buyers. Then one day I had a literal epiphany reading a certain chapter in a certain book (it was Writing Novels That Sell by Jack Bickham). Sirens went off in my head. The next thing I wrote got me a Hollywood agent.

A few years later, I got a book contract (this was seven years after I began to seriously study the craft). When I got another contract with another house, I had the privilege of working with one of the best editors in the business. His feedback took me to another level. When I started working with my agent, Donald Maass, there was another hike.

Each of these stages was a beautiful thing.

I wish you that same beauty, writer friend. It’s worth all the effort.

I’ll leave you with a quote I’ve always liked, from an old-time ad man named Leo Burnett: “When you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.”

Are you reaching?

20+

37 thoughts on “Don’t Be Satisfied With Competence

  1. One of his stories can be read for free at The New Yorker website. It’s called Alan Bean Plus Four. The characters in the story are also reaching for the sky.

    I’ve also found finding fiction that I end up loving to be more tricky because there are so many opinions out there, so many more websites devoted to books and writing. I’m curious what other peoples best methods are for finding novels that they end up loving.

    • John, there’s certainly no exact science because we all have different tastes. When it comes to movies I have a couple of reviewers I trust more than others because, over time, I’ve seen that they track with me. I think with a little effort one could find trusted Amazon reviewers, too.

  2. I totally agree. I just returned from a novel boot camp at Tahoe. The main take-away was what you suggest in the middle. Correct your issues one at a time. The mistake about drafting is that we newbies try to fix everything at the same time with each draft. I feel like not enough is written about the later drafting process.

    I now have a new approach: I am starting with POV, adjusting (deepening, clarifying) voices of 2 main characters. Then I will deepen my antagonist. When those are done, I should know how to stick the landing at the end—which I apparently didn’t do in drafts 1 and 2.

    • Nancy, that’s a very important point. Indeed, one that I’m going to address with my next first-page critique. Be systematic and not scattershot. I like the approach you’re taking.

  3. Thanks for this reminder! I need to be more diligent with my writing journal. After this discussion, I have a new section: list ideas for changes in subsequent drafts so I can keep writing the first/second draft and not waste time correcting as I go along.

    • Boy, that is so important, Julie. This insight will help you enormously.

      In Word, you can insert a comment and keep going. In Scrivener, you can do the same, or jot a document note for later.

      When I know I’ll have to research a point, I put in *** and keep writing. Then I can search for that section later.

  4. Check out an NBA practice, or even the pre-game warm-up sometime. Now here are guys who’ve played basketball almost their entire lives, and were the best in JV, high school, and college. They had to beat out a lot of talented players to make an NBA team. So they’re the best of the best.

    Despite that, they STILL keep trying to perfect their free throw shots. Over and over. We writers have to do the same: Never stop improving. Never.

    • I love a good sports example, M.C. Thanks for that.

      Another one: Tom Brady, ageless wonder, still putting in more work that QBs half his age. He is the G.O.A.T. for a reason.

  5. Thanks for the reminder, Jim. I remember reading this advice in one of your books -? Revision and Self Editing?

    I’m always reading a book on craft, along with a novel. I need to become more analytical and focus on the seven “keys” to avoid banality – one at a time.

    I recently recruited a large group to beta read my WIP. I noticed that some in the group would focus on only one type of weakness in the manuscript. I think I need to keep track and recruit a beta reader for each of the seven keys.

    Thanks for the reminder.

  6. I’m reaching, Jim!

    I love Tom Hanks. Poor guy. Critics can be brutal. Now I’m curious about his collection. How bad can it be? He’s the multi-talented Tom Hanks!

  7. “When I know I’ll have to research a point, I put in *** and keep writing. Then I can search for that section later.”

    Great, I’d say even crucial advice. Mine’s “xxx,” but if I hadn’t forced myself to do that–especially since the internet and the research rabbit hole is only a click away–it would take me twice as long to finish a book.

  8. Craft is a tool we use to create stories, and without it the story fails on many levels. However, if we only have good craft, we create competent yet boring and forgettable stories. To go beyond competence, we must include important stakes/goals that matter to the reader, characters the reader can care about, emotional resonance, and our intelligence about the world and what we believe about it.

  9. Yes, I’m reaching. The more I learn, the more I learn what I don’t know. It’s daunting. Everybody starts at zero, so I figure just one year into my (serious this time) writing pursuit, it’s okay if I still have a lot to learn. I keep pressing on.

    Another sports metaphor since I’ve been a swim coach, like, forever: Competency is merely swimming the race without getting DQ’d.

    • Well, just your first year, eh? Boy I remember back to mine, It really was a matter of seeing how much I had to learn. But I was loving the learning. I still do.

  10. Many will see my comment as mean. Others will likely want to run me out of town.

    I looked up the James Scott Bell course linked above. On the landing page is this statement: What they are saying about James Scott Bell.

    Here’s one of things we know they are NOT saying: He’s no Tom Hanks.

    • Diana, that’s the way it’s always been for me, too. Now I like to take from my shelf one of the books I read years ago and go through what I highlighted.

      I think plumbers must feel this way when they read the latest issue of Drains Illustrated.

  11. Thank you! this article is just what I needed. I am working on “My Writing Improvement Program” right now because of your previous suggestion in one of your books. I’ve been writing all my life. Mostly opinion pieces, long handwritten letters, and papers in college. I’ve been going through the writing hoops for nearly a decade, but not seriously until 2 years ago. You have been my best and most helpful writing mentor and I wanted to thank you not only for your words, work, and inspiration but also for speaking so directly to me through your work. My writing has grown by leaps and bounds and I cannot wait to see what my writing is like by this same time next year. You have my gratitude.

    • Hi Mike. Thanks for stopping by. I don’t know that I’ve ever contemplated that exact question. I think it’s just a matter of picking something I wanted to do more than anything else, and then setting goals. The goals always keep me moving forward.

  12. When I read “the special banality of mere competence,” my first thought was to check out the writer who made this comment about Tom Hanks. Is he the same Alex Preston who wrote The Bleeding City, which has 3 reviews (average 2.5 stars) on Amazon? Oh, if everyone could be merely as competent as Tom Hanks, with those inconsequential little Academy Awards and boatloads of nominations. For anyone who is curious, here’s a link (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=siRDEvijvRE) to Alex Preston reading from his debut novel. What a bombastic pile of noise! I don’t normally critique writing after it has been published unless it’s to say something kind. I prefer to support writers once their books have been published. However, Preston made the mistake of trashing Tom Hanks. “With one exception, Tom Hanks’ debut collection of short stories could be the work of Forrest Gump himself,” Alex Preston writes. Now that’s just mean. Interestingly, Tom Hanks’ collection has hundreds of 4.5 star average reviews on Amazon. And, what a pity that poor Tom Hanks only had one of his short stories published in The New Yorker.

    Even so, I must concur with JSB that writers should always strive to write as well as possible. What is the point of doing anything, if not to do it well?

  13. Thanks for this great piece. Regarding reading craft books, I do read them, and find nuggets of great wisdom, but find I have difficulty REMEMBERING what I’ve read long enough to apply it. I have an enormous OneNote file of notes from books, classes, websites, etc. but I’m not facile at remembering to apply the stuff once I start writing. I’ve thought about making up exercises, but with no one to review them, I’m not sure how useful it would be. I’m sure some of the information is getting through, even subconsciously, but there has to be a better way.

    How do you keep track of your notes/apply the information?
    Thanks!

    • What I always did, Tammy, was practice what I learned. I’d write a sample scene, for example. Sometimes I’d see a passage in book and then write it out myself, word for word, to get the rhythm of it.

      Like grooving a golf swing, you practice so it gets in your “muscle memory.”

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