How to get better, and how to know when you're backsliding.

So last week, we talked about the difference between not failing, and succeeding. Which leads to the obvious next question: how does one go about leveling up?

I’m afraid this is one of those depressing emails where I tell you that there’s no shortcut and no magic “get published” button, and remind you that the point is not just to “get published.” It’s to build the skillset to enable you to reliably produce quality work, and continue to sell it indefinitely. And this requires (I am sorry) a constant process of leveling up.

Good enough isn’t good enough, I’m afraid. We (almost all of us, anyway) have to continue to improve over the course of our careers, because in my experience the moment you stop pushing yourself to learn new skills and improve, you start to backslide. I don’t know why this is, but it seems inevitable—either one keeps a little bit of an edge and gets better, or one gets too comfortable and starts doing the same thing over and over and inevitably gets worse.

(That’s how you know if you’re likely to be backsliding, by the way. I’m not saying you always have to operate on the absolute edge of your ability—because that gets exhausting—but it’s a good idea to stretch out and try to do those things that are a little harder, every couple of projects at least.)

One way to keep doing that—stretching yourself—is to surround yourself with a community that pushes you. Writer’s groups (the good ones—there are bad ones, and more on that in a future installment) will often provide this kind of structure and challenge and encouragement. But it doesn’t have to be a crit group: it can be a chat room, or a local meetup, or any kind of club scene.

Engaging with a peer group who are all or almost all bent on improving their craft and who take producing new work seriously is one of the best ways to make sure you’re learning.

A side effect (or possibly the main effect) of such a peer group is that often the creative processes of everyone in the group feed off each other. The members of the community learn from each other, and challenge each other, and everybody’s skill is increased thereby. This happens, I think, by the same mysterious process by which musicians who jam together improve together. I call it “hothousing,” but I’m sure other artists have other words for it.

But Bear, you say, what if I can’t find a community?

Well, first, look harder. Meet people, online or in person (workshops, conventions). Network (which is just a marketable term for “making friends with colleagues). Find your community. I can’t tell you where to look—in my day, it was livejournal and the Online Writing Workshop; before that it was the Rumor Mill and before that it was GEnie and before that it was ‘zine ads in the classifieds in Asimov’s, but that information is basically useless now, as all of those places are gone. Poke around, though, and see what you find.

(Watch out for scam artists. A community that charges you for membership, unless it is also a value-added workshop with professional instruction of some sort or a professional organization, is usually a thing to avoid.)

If you can’t stand people and want to go it alone, that’s also a valid choice, though progress may not be as fast as if you find a community. In that case, you’re going to have to force yourself to stretch, set yourself goals, and be reasonably ruthless with yourself about your own skill levels and what you need to learn. You’ll need to be your own tutor, in other words, which means reading a lot of books on how to write, and also being extremely critical of what they tell you to do, and also setting homework for yourself.

Honestly, it’s probably easier to make a few friends.

The added benefit of making those friends is that the friends you make now are the friends you will likely have for the rest of your career. And you’re going to need those friends: for advice, for emotional support, for somebody to bitch to when your publisher turns out to be a crook or your agent gets busted for embezzling.

(Yes, both things that have really happened to people I know.)

Anyway, I hope this helps to at least give you a soft spot in which to sink your teeth, so to speak. I know it all sounds like terrifically hard work; I’m sorry. It turns out that art is still hard.

But worth it in the end.