The Dunning-Kruger effect is often summarised as “people who are stupid don’t know they’re stupid” but that’s not exactly it. It’s not about intelligence – nebulous concept that that is – it’s about expertise. David Dunning and Justin Kruger found that people who are ignorant and lacking in competence tend to think they know more than they do. They don’t have the right understanding to see how big the world is, or know what competence looks like. They may say things like “If only those morons would put me in charge, I’ll fix it.” Or perhaps “I have words. I have all the best words.”
The Dunning-Kruger effect is enormous in writing. When you’re inexperienced you tend not to see which things in a book make it great. You think “I can do that. I know lots of fancy words. I have a thesaurus and everything. I have words. I have all the best words.” The world of writing is too small to you. You don’t even know how much you need to learn. It’s a recipe for disaster. In this representation of the Dunning-Kruger effect from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, you’re sitting on top of Mount Stupid.
I know the top of Mount Stupid. The terrible book I wrote as a teenager was written at the top of Mount Stupid. There is no confidence in the world at the level of a writer sitting on Mount Stupid, and I have met many of them. The kind of person who wants to be a writer often comes to the conclusion that they are some kind of genius, particularly as they reach the top of Mount Stupid at a young age and see themselves as precocious AF. Writers on Mount Stupid do not think they have anything to learn: it’s all just there as part of their God-given talent. They are snotty about the talent of others all around them and secure in their own. An ex of mine once said: “I’m pleased for you if you think that writing is something you want to do. But you can’t be jealous when I succeed and you don’t.” That’s the view from Mount Stupid.* Other features of Mount Stupid usually include melodramatic language, cliches all over the place, thesaurus abuse, the belief that others may steal your ideas (seriously. Ideas are plentiful and of low value. Nobody cares about yours) and importing ideas from outside that you think make you clever. I have been guilty of all of these.
The route to being a good writer involves climbing Mount Stupid and coming back down again. It’s a normal part of the process. If you think you’re a Really Good Writer but you can’t honestly say “oh yes, I remember when I thought I was a great writer but looking back I now know that I was terrible…” you’re probably still on Mount Stupid at the moment. I’m sorry.
The way that you get down the other side involves five things: reading lots, writing lots, getting life experience, studying craft, and getting feedback. How much each person needs of each of these things is variable. As you keep reading and writing, you start to notice a gap between the two. You’re not writing things as good as the ones you’re reading. You’re actually getting better, but you’re sliding the fuck down the other side of Mount Stupid and your confidence is plummeting. At that point it is very easy to give up.
The glaring flaws in your writing may not be the same ones that I had. Everyone is different. But here’s what I found with my own writing. I’ve always had a reasonable grasp of prose, and as soon as I turned away from my teenage angst phase I found that I was able to put together a delightful scene that readers found entertaining. I could be funny; in fact I find it very difficult to not be funny, because humour is what brings the joy of writing to me. When I’ve tried to be serious, I’ve found my writing sliding into taking the piss out of itself. Readers would start to read, and tell me my writing was great. Then their attention slid away after a few pages. I couldn’t keep them. This is because I had no idea how to structure a plot. I knew nothing about tension, conflict or stakes. I hadn’t given any thought as to how the events of chapter 2 have to not just follow, but be caused by chapter 1. My characters drifted too much.
I completed Nanowrimo several times. They weren’t bad ideas. I wrote two Nanos set in heaven, for some reason (I guess I was fairly theologically minded at this time). In the first (The Eternity Bug), a gifted computer programmer, who didn’t deserve to be in heaven, was brought in purely because the computers had gone wrong and the angels couldn’t figure out how to activate the apocalypse. In the other (Route 3:16), an ardent atheist accidentally repented in his last moments and ended up in heaven. He accepted that he was wrong about God’s existence but decided to make the stand that God was a monster, he wanted nothing to do with any of this, and he was going to appeal to the angelic courts to be annihilated instead out of principle. (That may sound preachy. It wasn’t.) I slammed nonsensical endings on both of these just to finish the damn things. I wrote a rambling silly fantasy story and when I couldn’t come up with endings I just did a TO BE CONTINUED and carried on with it in the next one. I knew I needed to edit, but I didn’t know how to edit at anything higher than the prose level. So I poked disconsolately at rubbish plots, thought that perhaps I had no talent, and became sad about it.
Note something important in the last sentence: I thought I had no talent. This is because I fell into the Mount Stupid trap of thinking that talent is everything. Or perhaps talent and dreeeeeeaams. Not long ago I saw a blogger bemoan that: “People think that writing is like singing: you either have it or you don’t. There’s nothing to learn. But there’s so much to learn about writing!” I found it rather enchanting that this guy managed to be right about writing at the expense of being very, very wrong about singing. Does he not realise that opera singers train like athletes, year after year? Oh sure, there’s talent involved. But there is a staggering amount of practice, learning and work that is unavoidable if you want to develop your voice. I have spent mumblemumble pounds on singing lessons. I know whereof I speak. I have moved from “in tune but mouse-like” to “allow me to melt your face, motherfucker.” Worth every penny.
There were a couple of things that spurred me on to learning, but once I actually sat my butt down and started to do so, the other side of Mount Stupid started to open up to me. There’s actually a formula to structuring a plot. There are ways to keep people interested. You don’t have to take a creative writing degree in order to learn these things, but you do have to learn them. The best resources I have found are:
The Great Courses course entitled “Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques” by James Hynes is great. These courses can be pricey if you get them directly from the Great Courses website, but it’s also on Audible for one credit.
Ellen Brock’s YouTube videos. Eye opening.
Examine the books you read. Look at where the high and low points are. Consider how questions are left open, how threats sneak in, and when you get into MUST KNOW MUST FIND OUT territory, ask yourself what it is that the author has done to manipulate you into turning those pages.
So back to MEEEEEEEEEEEEEE because I’m like that. The first lightbulb moment that helped me to haul myself out of the Stupid Valley (that’s what comes at the other side of Mount Stupid) was a very simple revelation. Every character wants something. Figure out what they want, work out where those wants clash, and that’s your plot. These clashes have to be right at the front and centre of the action. This may seem like a very simple thing and there are probably people reading this and thinking “well DUH.” It had never occurred to me. I made a point of figuring this very simple thing out for my next Nanowrimo work, and it resulted in a story entitled Between the Dales and the Deep Blue Sea. This book wasn’t especially good. There were a million ways in which it could have been much better. It wasn’t worthy of publication, and being a Nano it was too short anyway. I still didn’t really know how to revise a first draft – that came later. But what BtDatDBS did have was a plot arc. It had a beginning, middle and end that made sense and tied together properly.
The really key point here, however, is that I had discovered that I could learn something, take it on board and have it massively improve my writing immediately. When it’s not just talent, you have the freedom to haul that skill towards you, rather than just getting sadder and sadder that it’s not already there. Since the revelation that talent is really only one small part of the picture, I’ve become fascinated by which skills are allowed to involve hard work, and which ones are supposed to be talent alone. Professional athletes obviously have talent, but nobody suggests that that should be enough and that they don’t need to train. Scientists are allowed to spend their days studying. But for some reason, people are often reluctant to believe that visual artists must learn and practice in order to become good at what they do. Music can go either way. The violinist is expected to spend hours each day practising. Singers, as we have seen, are supposed to have mad vocal technique through talent alone. I’m not sure what exactly makes the difference here, and I’d need a whole other blog post to work through the possibilities that are occurring to me. But here’s the real comparison between music and writing. You might be able to come up with a pretty tune, without hard work or study. But you wouldn’t set out to write a symphony without learning a great many things first: how does harmony work? What instruments are in this orchestra thingummy, and how do they all work, and what do they sound like? What kind of music has gone before? How was that structured? What are the characteristics of pieces of music that have been widely praised and enjoyed? And so on. A novel is a symphony. Or it damn well should be. If it’s just you pissing about on a recorder, making up a tune as you go along, then you have fun. You just can’t expect anyone else to want to listen.
Like many people who have struggled to fit in, I’m not the most comfortable when it comes to asking questions. My first instinct, drilled into me for many years as a child, is that this is probably part of that vast body of stuff that other people just know (because they’re neurotypical, in fact. I didn’t know that at the time). I should keep quiet and try not to be found out, because if I ask the question I will probably be ridiculed rather than helped. But once I find an avenue of learning that doesn’t require any social interaction, I am in there and I am sucking up knowledge like a sponge. So 2018 became the year in which I learned how to write. 2019 has become the year in which I’ve finished the first novel that I actually think is good enough to be published. By that I mean that I’m fine with the idea of charging someone money to listen to me drivelling on for 450 pages.*** Whether or not they’ll get the chance to do so is not entirely within my control, of course, and here’s another difference between the me of today and the one on top of Mount Stupid. Back then I had both the expectation that it would all work out, and the need for it to all work out. These days I write for the love of writing. If this one doesn’t get published, I keep writing others until someone pays me to drivel on.
The drivelling here, of course, is free.
* I’m not trying to say that this particular scenario in which my ex becomes successful and I don’t is impossible. I just take issue with the certainty about it.
** Don’t get me started on shows like Operatunity (yes I know that one was many years ago, but I have a long memory for this stuff) that insist that people can be opera singers with no training at all. If you’re using a microphone, you’re not doing it. And if you’re trying to do it without the right training, you’re at risk of doing serious damage to your voice.
*** Yeah, it’s on the long side for a debut. I know.