On doing what comes easily to other people

Here’s Marissa Lingen with one of those ideas that ought to be obvious, and yet is so very much not-obvious in practice that I’m very glad she wrote about it.

When her critiquers suggested that her books needed more setting, she made a plan for including more setting:

Very, very early on in the writing process I started thinking about setting and the specific locations that each scene would take place in. Then I sat down and wrote settingy stuff for those scenes first. Sometimes it was just a few lines, sometimes a paragraph or more, but, for example, when the protag was going to join her crazy mad scientist magician genius little sister in said sister’s room for some crazy mad science magic, I did not let myself run along with what they were doing until after I had put down some thoughts about what a crazy mad scientist magician genius little sister’s room would look like.

A great idea for adding description, but also a great idea for adding anything that you tend to under-write—because it is so much harder to add this sort of thing in later, when you’ve already got carefully crafted paragraphs, each one leading to the next, beginning with a great opening image and ending with a nice little cliffhanger.

And however great this idea is, much greater is her insight that people who are naturally good at something usually have no idea how someone who is not naturally good at it can get better.

I learned that fairly early, with my difficulties learning how to spell. Teachers tried putting me next to people who were good at spelling, in the hopes that their spelling skills would somehow rub off on me. This did not work at all, because people who are naturally good at spelling have no idea how to get better at spelling. (People who are naturally good at spelling tend to be people who see words in their head and then can just read off the letters and write them down. Since I can’t do that, I had to come up with a completely different way to get (barely adequately) good at spelling.)

I’m always on the lookout for people who do well things they aren’t naturally good at. They’re often hard to spot. (Spend thousands of hours honing your craft, and you too can look like someone who’s naturally good at something.) But there are clues—such as earlier works where the author or artist wasn’t as good, and works where some aspects are crafted like a masterpiece, while other aspects show merely a journeyman’s skill. Those are the people who might have some insight into how they got better.

With this sort of thing, it’s always useful to put it in terms of KA Ericsson’s model for the acquisition of expert performance. Just practice isn’t enough to get better at something—you also need to monitor your performance and evaluate your success—with help, such as a critique group, when possible. Then you need to figure out how to do it better—which Marissa’s post is a perfect worked example of.

Fictional characters getting in shape

I’m a huge fan of a particular sort of scenes in stories—the scenes where the hero gets into shape.

I was reminded of this recently, after reading Greg Rucka’s Critical Space, a thriller I read after it was mentioned by Marissa in a recent post, which has an excellent instance of this sort of scene. The getting-in-shape sequence in this book takes the form of a montage (much as you might see in a movie with such a sequence) written in second person. You swim. You run. You do yoga and ballet. You take supplements and you eat lots of fruit. You lift weights. You see the changes in your body. You learn to be an assassin.

I have long been a fan of these scenes, both in books and movies. They’re a key part of the original Rocky movie, of course, and are practically all there is in Rocky III. I’m especially fond of the getting-in-shape sequence in the book Man on Fire by A. J. Quinnell, and I’m still bitter that the movie completely omitted the sequence. (Easily the best part of the book.)

A lot of sf and fantasy stories have versions of these. For example, Steve Miller and Sharon Lee’s Liad books often have characters learning a martial art. In these, as in a lot of fantasy stories, the hero or heroine often turns out to have an especially high level of natural talent for the art. I view this as a negative—it’s more interesting to me when the hero lacks any extraordinary skill, but manages to excel through hard work. Patrick Rothfuss’s Wise Man’s Fear does a particularly good job in the scenes where the hero learns a taiji-like martial art. Instead of the hero having preternatural talents in the area, his success comes from seizing an opportunity (and, of course, having preternatural talents in other areas).

A whole genre of its own is the boot camp story, where the heroes not only become fit and learn a lethal skill, but also learn something about teamwork and camaraderie.

Anybody out there like these sequences as much as I do? Can anybody point to books or movies with particularly good instances?