What Improvement Looks Like

To anyone whose creative process is a clean, methodical, straight-forward matter, you can ignore this post (also, I hate you).

To everyone else, I want to put forward a theory. We mostly think of creative talent as something that can be improved steadily. Say, you write a book. It sucks. But you learn from it, and the next book you write comes out better. You learn from that one too, and your third book is even better than the second. You learn from that one, and the fourth book is so good you win major awards and attached the phrase “New York Times Bestselling Author” to the front of your name. And so on.

But this is faulty thinking. There are countless examples of authors whose first books make a big splash, garner lots of critical praise, etc, but when their second books come along, the world is less than impressed. There are various reasons why this could be so–expectations set too high by the first book, too much pressure on the author to live up to his or her first effort…

And then there is the matter of creative growing pains. Maybe the second book wasn’t as good as the first because the author is learning and growing, and he or she has hit one of those awkward adolescent phases when the nose is too big for the face, the voice is cracking, acne flares up, and emotions run high. This is the literary equivalent of junior high school.

The unfortunate part of growing creative talent is that those awkward adolescent phases never stop happening. We might write a great book, a lousy book, an okay book, a good book, another lousy book, and then a truly brilliant one. In that order. We get to be homecoming queen one year, and the awkward dork sitting on the sidelines the next.

As readers we all know the disappointment of picking up a book by a favorite author, only to find that we hate it. And maybe we hate the next book he or she writes too, and we start wondering if we shouldn’t just give up on Former Favorite Author. As writers though, we ought to know to be a little more foregiving. We’re all just grasping around, trying our best, hoping we’ve done something someone else will want to read (and, we hope, many someones). Creativity is too messy and mysterious for a clean upward trajectory.

Lori Borrill made a great point in the comments section of my last post (which inspired today’s topic–thanks Lori!), about how she noticed that Meryl Streep’s brilliant career is peppered with bad movies. And yet she’s gone on to keep acting and keep making great movies too. We should all aspire to have such long careers, accepting that no matter how hard we try, there are going to be some horrible growing pains along the way–and some moments of loveliness too.

Who are some of the creative talents you admire most? I bet no matter who you name, their career reflects this process of growing up painfully.


  1. Great post–made me laugh several times in addition to the many great insights.

    I know that for me, my first books offered HUGE learning curves. It was exceptionally obvious that each book was better than the last–so much so that I’m not one of those writers who will ever pull the old stuff out from under her bed. It didn’t sell because it was truly horrible.

    But I did hit that platform, though, where the growth isn’t so obvious anymore. And, more importantly, much of my growth comes through experimentation. Much like actors, once we hit a certain point in our careers, the only new place to go involves taking chances and trying different things. And when you take chances, you’re going to have hits and misses.

    I really enjoyed A Forever Family, your first venture into Superromance. But I have to believe that writing it was a gamble that could have gone either way. You could have walked away going, “Wow, that didn’t work.” (I hope you didn’t because I loved it and want to see more!) But you know where I’m going. We keep venturing out, and sometimes, what we try will work. Other times, it won’t. And I think the important thing is to not kick ourselves when it doesn’t, or equate that to the cold and disastrous end of our careers.

    I know for me, it’s a matter of learning to shrug. Like my father-in-law–a man with a beautiful talent for boiling everything down to basics–would say, “You win some, you lose some.”

  2. I couldn’t agree more. My first books were painfully bad, and while I love some things about them, or an see areas where I was already beginning to shine, like Lori, those books are staying safely in a Destroy After Reading file.

    I got some great advice from Julie Miller, who said that 35+ books in, she usually picks something to work on with a particular book, something to challenge her. I’m only 2 sales into this wonderful creative world :), but I’ve started to do the same, try to write a particular facet of a relationship, or work on POV, or include a setting or component I haven’t developed in the past. To me, it’s important to gain control of my craft so I’ve got a bunch of tools in the box when I’m struggling.

    Last week I found myself getting quite anxious over what to write next. I have 3-5 ideas floating around in my brain, in various stages of development, and I got pretty worked up over which one would be The Best. That’s wrong-headed thinking, IMHO. I don’t know which one would be more likely to sell (if any) to which lines (if any). But I’ll learn something from all of them, so I’m going with the one that’s twisting and shouting Me! Pick me! the loudest.

    Great, thoughtful post! I’m adding you to my must-read blogs!

  3. Hi Anne, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. And that’s a great idea about choosing one facet of the writing craft to work on improving with each project. I’m going to try that!

    And it’s very smart to go with the idea that’s tugging at you the most. We have to spend so much time with our manuscripts, it’s really important to spend all that time on an idea we might be able to maintain enthusiasm about. I know all to well how miserable it is to start hating the idea part-way through. šŸ˜‰

    • Just pack all the basic necessities. Got to http://www.weather.com so you can see what the wehtaer is like before you go, that away you know what to pack. You know warm or cold clothes. Ask your friend what the zip code is so you can look it up. Make a check list of what you have to bring and what you want to bring. Pack what you have to bring first. Also check the airlines to see what is not allowed. Like shampoo. Make another list of what youll need to buy when you get there that you can\’t bring.As long as you go by your lists and check them off as you pack, you\’ll be allright. I\’m notorious for leaving makeup and toothbrushes.

  4. / Hi there MaddieI pick out your book at the library, just a ranodm pick, and I really enjoyed it. Congratulations. It was a fun read. Do you have any more books on the horizon? And why did your blog stop at Jan 25?I hope that was Jan 25, 2011 and not years ago. Sometimes it is difficult to tell how old postings are. Thanks

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