Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Love Loop

(A fun side note, we just broke 600 blogs. That blows me away. Great job everyone. And thanks for continuing to read us.)

By Jeffrey S Savage

Okay, first of all let me start by pointing out—despite the title—this isn’t an ad for some adult novelty. So those of you who Googled “Love Loop” looking for a hookup, you’ve come to the wrong place. Thank goodness we got that out of the way. Perverts! Wait, Rob come back.

So if a love loop isn’t a web ring for swingers, or a fund raiser for Ron Paul, (tell me these searches don’t boost our blog hits) what is it? Personally, I think it is the reason that most of us do whatever we do that makes us happy. Let me explain.

Recently I read an ESPN letter on Truehoop about doing something because you love it. Here’s part of his quote. “If you play every day, and feel bad if you can't, and you do so for years and years, it's love and work that make you great. Yes, there are a few prodigies out there, so talent does exist. But I'm saying it's way overrated. Have you ever tried to think of a way to measure the minutes Jordan played? Total minutes, from childhood playgrounds and lonely mornings in the driveway to high school practices to pick-ups to summer league and international play to NBA games. If my theory holds any water, then Jordan, before his decline, played more than anyone . . . LOVE TRUMPS TALENT.”

I thought a lot about that. Is it really true? Was Michael Jordon so good because he loved to play the game or did he play the game so much because he loved it? And can you, in fact, even separate the two? I don’t think it mattered to Michael Jordon. He was so dang good at the game that talent and love went hand in hand. But what about someone who loves to play basketball more than anything, but they aren’t any good at it? Would they ultimately be better than someone with tons of natural talent who could take or leave a game of b-ball?

Then today Sam Bloomberg-Rissman, who is a professional photographer sent this response. “. . . I think it overlooks a key point: Positive feedback loops. Michael Jordan spent that much time playing basketball because he was good at it. He excelled at it so he spent more and more time working on it. If he had started playing basketball and had had no talent whatsoever he probably would not have continued to play the game. The fact that he was good, and practice made him better, gave him enough positive feedback to continue pursuing the endeavor.”

This resonated more with me than the first post after I thought about it. Let me give you an example. When I was about six or seven I used to go fishing with my parents and my grandparents at places like the Trinity River. While they used fancy poles and expensive lures, my general routine went something like this. Dad ties a hook and line on a stick. I run around with a pine bough swinging at big fat grasshoppers, until I manage to knock one senseless. My dad sticks the hopper on the hook and I drop my line in the water and wait.

Surprisingly enough I caught a lot of trout that way. And every time I caught a fish, everyone told me what a good fisherman I was. Since I knew I was such a good fisherman, I loved to fish. And every time I caught a fish it reinforced the fact that I was a good fisherman. Even today, my idea of perfect relaxation involves a line, bait, and a bobber (or occasionally watching a good baseball game.) Am I a talented fisherman? I think so. But is that because I love to fish? Yes. And do I love to fish because of my success? Again, I think so.

So how does this apply to writing? I think it applies quite a bit, and in several ways. First let’s start with the concept of writing what you love. That’s the advice every writing teacher gives you. “Write what you love. Not what you think will sell.” Okay. I can buy that. But the thing is, don’t we also love to sell what we write? If you could write your favorite genre and sell no copies or write some other genre and sell a million copies wouldn’t you quickly learn to love that new genre? If you love to play baseball and golf, but you are great at golf and only so-so at baseball, how long before golf becomes your main thing? Don’t believe me? How long did MJ keep playing baseball before he went back to the NBA? Here’s a question for you to ponder: Do you think JK Rowling would have completed all 7 HP books if the first one bombed? Or if everyone hated it?

The second way it applies is a question I am asked a lot. Friday morning I did an interview with the Salt Lake Community College radio station. It should soon be on the archives here. Halfway through the interview by Bus Driver Fred and WP (who are Storymakers Conference attendees by the way) I was asked, “Can you learn to be a good writer or do you have to be born that way?”

Isn’t that kind of a trick question? I know for a fact you can become a better writer through practice and training. Nearly every author I know, or have read, has improved with time. So yes you can learn to be a better writer. And without a doubt, the more you write the better you get.

On the other hand, don’t you have to have some talent in the first place? A base to launch from if you will. So maybe that is where the love loop comes in. You do it because you love it. You love it because you are good at it. You get better at it by doing it. But how do you know you are good at it? My hypothesis is that you know you are good by positive feedback—because people tell you you are good.

Right about now, alarms should be going off in your head. If you are only good because people tell you, does that mean you are bad if people tell you you are? Didn’t I blog just last week that you should ignore rejection? Ignore no. Overcome and learn from yes. Constructive criticism can be good. But if you get enough rejection, I believe most people will quit doing whatever they are getting rejected from. If every time you write something people tell you it stinks, how long before you decide you are not a good writer and quit?

Which brings me to my final point. (Any of you who actually made it this far deserve some kind of point don’t you?) Everyone talks all the time about getting honest feedback (which usually means negative feedback, or at least critical feedback.) But maybe it is just as important to get positive reinforcement as well. When James Dashner and I were working on our respective YA novels, we swapped manuscripts and gave each other critiques. The first thing I did was note everything I thought James could have done better. I just assumed he already knew what a great novel he’d written. He didn’t need me to tell him that.

When he gave me back my manuscript though, at least half of it was what he liked. Not what he thought needed to be fixed. Recently I asked Kerry to read a more polished version of the same manuscript, since she had done such a good job evaluating Fablehaven 1 and 2. She gave me some very helpful advice that I was delighted to implement immediately. But she also gave me a page and a half of what she loved. I have to say that I would have happily taken feedback from James and Kerry even if they hadn’t included what they liked with what they didn’t like. But just as it’s easier to take medicine if you can wash it down with something sweet, the positive comments helped me every bit as much as the negative.

Ever since James gave me his comments, I’ve tried to do a better job at telling people all of the good things I find in their writing as well as the things that could be improved. I’ve always tried to make sure I tell my wife and kids how great they are and notice all the wonderful things they do, why should it be any different with authors?

This is a hard enough business as it is. You either learn to live with a lot of rejection or you get out. But maybe instead of always saying, “Tell me what doesn’t work.” Or “Highlight anything that is boring.” Or “Be harsh.” We should occasionally say, “Tell me everything you love.” Or “Put a smiley face by everything that makes you laugh and a star by everything that pulls you in.”

In grade school we got lots of smiley faces and gold stars. Our work was posted on the classroom wall and displayed prominently on the refrigerator. The love loop was in full swing. Over the years we get far fewer gold stars and the only thing of ours on the fridge is the Chinese takeout menu. If you truly do get better at the things you love, and you love the things people tell you you are good at, make sure people tell you often how good you are. It can only help you get better.


At 12/04/2007 12:49 PM, Blogger Kerry Blair said...

I LOVE THIS BLOG! A big gold star for you, Jeffy!

At 12/04/2007 1:21 PM, Blogger Annette Lyon said...

Good reminder. I'm going through Michele Holmes's evaluation of my latest ms, and bless her, she included smilies and stars. That certainly makes seeing all the other red marks easier to face and the entire process much happier.

At 12/05/2007 11:42 AM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

Thanks, Kerry. Does it make up for the fire in the garage?


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