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.”
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.
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?