Friday, February 20, 2015

Writing: Improving Our Craft

Before you read this, please know that I'm not a drinker, and certainly no expert on wines. Matter of fact, I had to look up some of the material here. But the analogy works. 

The phrase sticks in my mind: "We will sell no wine before its time." The man making this pronouncement was a very sedate and dignified Orson Wells, assuring the viewing public that Ernest and Julio Gallo would be gatekeepers of a sort, only allowing the best of their product to be sold. That was in the mid-70's.

However, twenty years earlier, the Gallo brothers were making no such claim. They were marketing a different product--Thunderbird--a fortified wine whose clientele didn't particularly care whether the contents of the bottle had been aged long enough...or at all.

What happened in the time that intervened? There was improvement as the brothers accumulated experience. If they'd just kept marketing Thunderbird (or Boone's Farm, which came a bit later), people would have bought the products, but there wouldn't have been expansion into improved ones. Their audience wouldn't have enlarged. And, presumably, what they turned out later would be no better than it had been.

What does this have to do with writing? As many of you know, I'm a fan of the late Robert B. Parker. I just reread (for probably the sixth time) Parker's novel, The Godwulf Manuscript. This book, probably the earliest of Parker's, introduced a private detective, Spenser. In this book, compared with later ones, the writing was rougher. It still conveyed a message, but the characters weren't so well-drawn. The plot didn't flow quite as well. I found a few inconsistencies in the book, things an author and editor should have spotted and corrected. It was the Boone's Farm of writing--accepted by a limited audience, but by no means polished and smooth.

But Parker matured as a writer. Despite the fact that he had a PhD in English, he recognized there was more to learn about the craft of writing. As he learned, his writing improved. In addition,he discovered what people liked about his books, and he incorporated that into subsequent writing.  Every novel he turned out was an improvement on the last. That's the way a writer grows.

Writers, no matter how much you think you know, there's always room for improvement. That's why we continue to study the craft. People depend on us to turn out the best books possible. If we don't, our books will be like Thunderbird or Boone's Farm wine--they may sell, but they're not anything worth telling others about. What do you think?

(image via Graeme Weatherston at

Click with a single tweet: "Writers, is it important to improve with each book?" Click here to tweet.

There's an announcement about a "special" price on one of my books, but I can't reveal it until tomorrow. I'll tweet about it after 8 AM Central tomorrow, right here.


Carol Garvin said...

Good analogy. Of course, unlike wine, writers won't improve if they just cork up and wait in the dark. But analogies only go so far. LOL. I think authors who strive for constant improvement are the ones whose books endure through generations, as I expect yours will.

On the flip side, of course, there are always some who use their experience to begin churning out quantity rather than quality, and later books are formulaic instead of better...titles that are soon forgotten.

Richard Mabry said...

Carol, thanks for the kind words about my writing. You bring up the exact point I wanted to make--some writers never reach the stage where they stop trying to improve, while others are content to churn out formulaic work that may sell but doesn't show any artistic side.
Thanks so much for your comment.

Shirley said...

This reminds me of something my piano teacher taught me as a youngster. Practice only makes perfect if you practice perfectly. Just practice in itself is NOT enough

Richard Mabry said...

Shirley--quite right. Whether in piano, golf, or writing--if you practice without correcting mistakes, things never get better. Thanks for your comment.

Southern-fried Fiction said...

That's for sure! I'm always learning more. I hope I always will.

The only caveat to this would be to warn the newer writer our work will never be perfect. You do the best you can at that time, then put it out there. :)

I've seen some writers who spent years on one book. When they finally got it published, their sophomore novel wasn't as good, since they didn't have years to perfect it.

Good topic and a great analogy. I'd love to get better with each book I write.

Richard Mabry said...

Ane, Good point and one I plan to address in a future blog post. As one of my professors used to say, "Perfect is the enemy of good." It's hard to say "That's the best I can do," and I suspect all of us can re-read something we've written earlier and see areas where we could have improved a bit more.
Thanks so much for your comment.