A reviewer recently described me as a veteran, as in “veteran author Susan Meissner yada yada yada. . .” My first reaction was surprise, followed by a warm, fuzzy feeling, followed quickly by utter terror. Here’s why: If you are a veteran of the armed forces you are a hero. If you are a veteran of a trade, however, you are expected to know it all. You don’t make the mistakes a novice would make because you are a veteran. You have seen it all, experienced it all and vanquished all. When someone is an expert at marketing or brain surgery or astro physics, they have risen to the top of their skill. They are veterans. I seriously doubt there is a question about competitive swimming that Michael Phelps couldn’t answer. He’s a veteran of the sport.
Here’s the thing. The more I write, the harder it gets. I demand more from myself each time I start a new book. I don’t have the Phelpsian feeling that I know exactly what I am doing. In fact, there have been many days where I’ve sat down with my current book-in-progress, acknowledged my characters in the frozen state I left them in the day before, and I honestly haven’t known the best place to send them next. To complicate matters, there is this instinctual pulse every novelist has of what needs to happen next: an escalation of the conflict at hand, a deeper connection to the protagonist’s quest, a tightening of the tension that is keeping her from having what she must must have.
Knowing what must be done is different than knowing how it should be done. And even the veteran must admit he or she can never stop learning new ways to execute a master plan. Sometimes the veteran needs to hole up in the situation room and reconstruct a new battle plan. I don’t know it all. I am no expert.
This past weekend I attended my friend James Scott Bell’s fiction intensive in Los Angeles. Jim is a gifted writer, a brilliant writing teacher and totally understands what needs to fall in place for a Story to catapult a reader into the fictive dream without feeling even a hint of motion sickness. I went because I am in the midst of writing my 14th book, a story which I have begun three times. That has bothered me. My own fictive world has seemed elusive to me, the veteran.
But here’s what I learned this weekend. Every veteran of every discipline runs the risk of getting stuck in the ruts of their craft. Push a wheelbarrow enough times down the same dirt path and you will never be able to choose a different route. You will be in a rut. Even if you are a veteran wheelbarrow pusher. You may not even know that you are stuck in a rut. Chances are you won’t. All you will know is, you want to take a left and you can’t and you don’t know why.
Knowing the ingredients of a great story – which every veteran surely knows – is one skill that sets the veteran apart from the novice. But the novice has a huge advantage we veterans need to take note of. They are still making a path with their wheelbarrow. Sure, they get stuck from time to time and will probably take a turn too sharp, spill the thing and have to start over. The veteran’s rut doesn’t pose a threat because for the novice there is no rut. They are still learning what works and what doesn’t.
I came into the weekend with a dozen titles on my backlist but feeling plateaued with the current book. It’s not a great feeling to have. I felt like someone had taken the wheel off my wheelbarrow, leaving me with a bucket of story details I couldn’t move. But the more I listened and internalized, the more I realized there was nothing wrong with my wheelbarrow. It was the rut I was pushing it in that was the problem.
So here’s my advice to other veteran wheelbarrow pushers out there. There might come a day when you feel like you are exerting the same energy you always have and you aren’t making any progress at all. You might think your wheelbarrow has become a dud, or worse, that you have. It’s not the wheelbarrow that’s a dud. And it’s not you. It’s just the rut you are in. Re-enter the world of the novice and learn a new way of doing an old thing. The ingredients of a great story don”t change that much from year to year, and even how to execute the telling doesn’t change. What changes is the storyteller. You can become rut-ified.
If you are a veteran writer feeling like you’ve lost your edge, take a class on the art of storytelling and learn a new way of doing what you’ve always done. I recommend Jim Bell’s intensive, of course, but if you can’t wait for the next one then start with his The Art of War for Writers or Donald Maass’ breakout novelist’s workbook. Do something different. Change it up. Climb out of the rut of your old writing routines. You’ll be glad you did.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a date with my wheelbarrow and an unbroken path. The sun is shining, I can’t wait to break some new ground.