Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Four Step Program

            Probably not the one you think of when you think of professional writers...
            I’m a bit pressed for time this week, so I wanted to revisit an idea from a few weeks ago.  Hopefully in a way that may resonate with a few of you.
            There are, in my experience, four stages of being a professional.

1) Not knowing what you’re doing
2) Thinking you know what you’re doing 
3) Realizing you don’t know what you’re doing
4) Knowing what you’re doing

           I first came up with this rule set after about eight or nine years in the film industry.  I can’t remember how I came to it, but when I did I realized it mirrored my career.  As I looked around, I realized it was possible to place almost everyone on set in one of these categories.
            To explain...
            I ended up in the film industry by chance.  A guy I knew needed grunt labor and I was thrilled with the idea of working on a movie.  There was an immediate culture shock, believe me.  Different terms, different hierarchies, different expectations.  I spent my first month on set trying to soak up everything I could, because it was clear I didn’t know anything.
            Of course, by a week or two into my third project, I felt like I had it down.  I knew all this stuff, and I made sure that everyone knew I knew how to do it.  There was no doubt in my mind that I could do my boss’s job at least as well as him, if not better.   
            It was another year or so before I had the chance to be the boss... and learned how unprepared I was.  There were tons of basic things I didn’t know.  My assistant (a friend of a friend who’d offered to help) knew far more than me, and it was a minor miracle she didn’t smack me three or four times a week.  And I deserved to be smacked, believe me.  Then my next job went the same way (although I still hold that one was a 40-60 share with very unrealistic producers).
            So in the end, I sat down and decided to see what I had to do to be better at my job.  I took a good look at the tools and equipment I was going to need.  I paid attention to everything, not just the stuff that interested me.  I planned ahead.  I was more careful with the projects I chose, and the people I chose to work with.
            At which point I noticed other people were telling me I was good at my job.  I didn’t need to tell them.  It was apparent in the work I was doing.
            A while after this, I noticed this pattern applied to almost everything.  Almost any job you could name.  I saw it in many other jobs on film sets past mine.  I had a friend who was a cop, and he agreed a lot of police officers followed the same pattern.  So do programmers.  Watch a show like Kitchen Nightmares and you’ll get to see some restaurateurs go from step two to step three and head toward four.
            Because that was the other thing I noticed.  There were some folks who weren’t that good at their job but were convinced they were.  They were stuck at step two because they never had (or never acknowledged) that slap down moment.  So they never bothered to improve.  They just stayed at those early, flawed levels.
            So why am I bringing up the film industry and cooking shows here?
            As I’m sure many of you have realized, being a writer follows this path, too.  Not knowing what you’re doing. Thinking you know what you’re doing.  Realizing you don’t know what you’re doing.  And then knowing what you’re doing.
            When I first sat down to write a story, every aspect of it was a mystery to me.  How to structure my plot, how to reveal character, how to describe action.  Hell, I barely understood what plot, character, and action meant.  But I waded in and tried to put my own twist on other stories.  And at some point I decided I was at least as good as half of these people writing for Marvel or DC or Del Rey.  And my mom agreed that I was very talented for an eleven year old.  So I started submitting stuff.  And I got rejected for some reason.  And I submitted other stuff.  And that got rejected, too.
            After many years and even more rejections, I was struck with the wild idea that maybe the problem wasn’t all those editors.  Maybe it was me.  Maybe my stories just weren’t good enough yet. 
            I went back over some of the things I’d sent out in earlier years and realized they were... well, pretty awful.  Some of the basic ideas were neat, but the stories were clumsy, my dialogue was awful, and my vocabulary was grade school level at best.
            So I decided to improve.  To write stronger stories, better characters, more believable dialogue.  I read everything I could in several genres and tried to figure out what worked and what didn’t.  And did it really not work, or did it just not work for me?
            And, well, years after that... here I am today.
            Some people never get past that second step.  Most people don’t, to be honest.  Especially these days when its easier to skip past possible rejection and claim almost anything as “success.”  These folks don’t need—or don’t want—to admit they need to improve, so they never do.
            How many steps are you down the path?
            Next week.... well, next week’s Thanksgiving, so I’ll be watching The Day The Earth Stood Still, Casablanca, and The Maltese Falcon while I make eggplant parmigiana from scratch for the vegetarians in the home, and some turkey for the rest of us. 
            But the week after that, I’d like to talk about that fantasy world you’re living in.
            Until then, go write.


Marcus the Blackheart said...

Clearly still at 1. But can you skip over step 2 if you are aware of it?

Virtual Stranger said...

That's a fair question.

To be equally fair, I don't know. I don't think I've ever heard of someone skipping step 2--most people who'd insist they did were probably stuck there.

I do think being aware of it can help you minimize it a lot. But skip it altogether... :/

Casey Poma said...

Hello Peter! It’s Casey from MG!

This is very interesting and makes a ton of sense.

I guess what I would want to know is how we can measure our own abilities and find out where we are in this four step process. I was definitely guilty of step 1 in high school, with all those “excellent” epic fantasies that now elicit a facepalm and an “I thought this was cool?” (Velociraptors with swords, really?)

Since then, I’ve continued to write stories and articles, read, study story structure, watch lectures by writers, and, of course, read writing blogs (like this one! :D). I’d like to think I am on part 3 and working toward part 4, but am I on part 2 still? Where am I on the spectrum of experience? Any way we can measure this? Getting published, hearing we are good writers from people, making sales?

Until then, I’ll just write.