Raising the bar

This post was first published on Mint Kang’s blog.

A while ago, when I was porting my fiction work from the now-defunct Yahoo! Geocities to WordPress, I found myself looking very hard at a particular line in the formatting of each piece. It said: “Mint Kang reserves the right to be identified as the author of this work.”

That claim is actually a very good one which anyone publishing on the Internet, especially on a free-access basis, should make clear before releasing their work. But the more I looked at it in the context of my work, the more I found myself thinking: why the devil do I want to be associated with some of this crap? Do I really want to be identified, now and forever, as the author of some angst-loaded teenage poetry?

Well, at some time in the past I certainly did. I can remember, in fact, being convinced that various freshly-written stories and poems were the latest and greatest masterpieces of my (short) career, and showing them off to everyone I could get hold of. But on looking more closely at some of those pieces and my own reaction to them at various times, I realized something. Each story or poem was inevitably overshadowed by later pieces, whether in content, style or maturity level. And the more recently a work was written, the more willing I was to assert my ownership of it.

What I had been doing, I realized, was subconsciously raising the bar. The older I got, the more I saw of the way the world really works and the more widely I read, the more stringent I became in my criticism of my own work. Which, in the writing process, translated to increasing severity of quality control. So a piece like “Silver Eyes” (2004) necessarily turned out better in certain ways than one like “First Contact” (1999), although both are set in roughly the same time period, in the same imaginary world. And “The Wedding Runner“, which I wrote in 2009, is a very high cut above both of them. (“The Wedding Runner” is not from the same setting as the other two.)

As an example of what makes each one better than the last: “First Contact” has no particular qualities other than its spoof-like nature. ”Silver Eyes”, however, contains a considerable amount of characterization and realistic treatment of the setting and premise, not to mention some mature content. And “The Wedding Runner” has not only realistic treatment and characterization, but also a number of strong hidden messages dealing with the modern attitude towards culture and tradition.

It’s arguable that the increasing quality of each piece can be pegged to changes in my own thinking as I grew older, but a change in thinking does nothing if it’s not paralleled by action. I clearly remember having no particular goal in mind when I wrote “First Contact”, other than amusing myself and some classmates. On the other hand, I wrote “Silver Eyes” with a very strong image of the main character and a desire to illustrate the things that fascinated me about his personality. And I wrote “The Wedding Runner” with not just the wish to bring out a unique concept, but the distinct desire to take a potshot at some aspects of the modern mindset.

Essentially, I began to write not just for the sake of churning out a story, but because I had something in mind theme-wise or plot-wise. And I began to pay more attention to details of characterization and setting – “show, not tell”, “less is more”. In recent years I’ve become a great critic of my own work, which is why only a small proportion of what was hosted on my Geocities website has made it to WordPress so far, and those few pieces with plenty of misgivings. All this as the result of constantly, subconsciously (until I recently acknowledged it) raising the bar that marks what’s acceptable to me and what isn’t. Raising the bar is, overall, a good thing. It gives perspective – if you can bear the retrospective embarrassment of realizing how terrible your early work really was and how amazingly egotistical you were about its (and your) qualities. It helps you figure out for yourself what went wrong and what went right. And best of all, it helps you actually improve the quality of your work, which is the really important thing.

But at the same time, it can leave you stuck at the gap between what you want to do and what you can actually do. It’s like the inner editor kicking in halfway through your work and holding its completion up in favour of prematurely polishing what’s already been done. If you can jump 1.2 metres and you set the bar at 2.4 metres, you’re not going to get anywhere, except maybe by doing the limbo rock.

The saving grace, however, is that you don’t need to deliberately do it. When you read through an old piece of work and think “Hey, it could be improved in such and such a way,” you’ve already realized that the bar is set lower than you can actually jump. When you rewrite that piece or set out to write the next piece with those improvements in mind, you’ve raised the bar. And when you complete the rewrite or new piece with the improvements actually incorporated, you’ve successfully gone over the new bar – possibly without even realizing it until you look back and compare the old and new versions. Congratulations.

Some things are needed to get to that point. They include a constantly broadening perspective – gathering more points of view, more styles, more skills from reading more different books by more different writers (no one, NO ONE is ever going to write a great novel by reading nothing but Mercedes Lackey), thinking about things more often in more different ways. Basically, going out and getting a life of some sort. Whoever says writers don’t need a life is talking through the seat of their pants. Because without external points of comparison, you’re never going to know whether your 1.5 metre bar is high, low or below average.

Mint Kang

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One thought on “Raising the bar

  1. I definitely agree with you here — writers are often told “write what you know,” but if you have had limited real-world experiences, you probably don’t know much. Reading is good but it’s no substitute.

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