Philip Brewer's Writing Progress


Wednesday, 04 February 2004

Everybody's been linking to Barth Anderson's blog entry about being a writer and breaking the rules. Rick Polney had a bit to say that resonated with me, and I couldn't resist commenting on Rick's site.

It all reminded me of one of the things Steve Barnes pointed out, the very first day of our Clarion. Mini-plot and anti-plot stories are hard to sell. Not just because they appeal to a smaller group of readers (those with the skill to reconstruct the plot) but also because most readers won't even try unless they have some reason to believe that this story will make it worth the trouble.

The result is that you see a lot of stories that are experimental in one aspect, maybe two, but very traditional in all other aspects. By providing, for example, an absolutely traditional story structure, the writer is demonstrating to the editor a certain level of competence. That grounding can give the editor enough confidence to read a story carefully and take the trouble to deal with the aspects of the story that are challenging.

I suspect that's the way for a new writer to sell to a pro market: write a story that's really, really good in all aspects, but is also challenging in one or two. A story that's challenging in none won't stand out (and even if it's really, really good, probably won't sell, unless it's by a name author). A story that's challenging in every aspect also probably won't sell, because the editor won't put in the effort to figure out if it's genius or just pretentious (again, unless the author is a big name).

I'm still working long hours and weekends. It's not so bad, though. I'm getting lots done, have a sense I'm contributing.

We got a heads-up this week that our whole big group is going to get a crappy bonus this year. Management (not just here, it seems to be true everywhere) simply doesn't understand how little motivation a bonus scheme provides. It struck me as ironically perfect that, at the moment that I'm working possibly the hardest I've ever worked, I get the word that my bonus will be crappy.

As a thought-experiment, I urged some of my coworkers to come up with a bonus scheme that was more demotivating than the one we've got. Except for anti-bonus schemes that actually take money back that's already been paid, nobody has managed it so far.

My wife suggested that an explicitly demotivating scheme (such that the worse your work was the bigger bonus you got), but I don't think even that would do it. I bet (I don't know a good way to measure it, but I'd be willing to put money on this) that the engineers I know are so strongly motivated intrinsically to do good work, that they would do good work even if it cost them their bonus. No doubt they would try to game the system--find some way to qualify for the bonus according to the rules of the plan--but I don't think they'd do it by actually doing bad work.

The engineers I know are motivated largely by an intrinsic sense that their work is worth doing and worth doing well. The next biggest motivator is extrinsic but local: the respect of their peers. Those motivations are so strong that little things like a bonus don't even make the list.

None of that should be any surprise to struggling writers. How many of you are doing it for the money? That's what I thought.

My dad got to go see Joel Mabus in concert. As far as I know, Mabus never comes to Champaign-Urbana. Fortunately, he puts an occasional tune on his web page, including his recent "You can't buy my records at Wal-Mart."


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