Here's the Truth about What You Can't Fake in Your Writing

Ever find yourself just going through the motions as you work? Me too! But that's a dangerous place to be... | lucyflint.com

It was a normal piano lesson. A normal Tuesday morning. And I was playing the assigned piece while my teacher sipped her coffee and squinted at my open music book.

Suddenly she stopped me. She leaned forward and stabbed at a single note. 

"You played THAT note as if you didn't care about it," she said in her dry voice.

I sat there silently for a second, fingers hovering over the keys, smarting at the interruption. 

I DON'T care about it, I thought. But it wasn't the kind of thing I could say to my teacher.

A couple of months before, I botched my initial piano audition. Thanks to that crappy performance, I was playing songs beneath my level. I hated the pieces she assigned me: I should be playing something more challenging! I always thought. Something gorgeous and exciting. 

Not this lame little dance tune.

Plus, the note I didn't care about was just a pick-up note: the eighth note that introduced the much more interesting and much more challenging run of sixteenth notes on the next page. 

No one cares about the stupid pick-up note. It was just the welcome mat, the indicator that a beautiful bit was about to happen.

So I never thought about that note. I played it without a thought. Without a care.

And my teacher--darn it!--noticed.

I didn't get up from the piano bench that day until I gave the eighth note, that stupid little pick-up note, its full due. Until I played it with good tone, the right amount of attention.

Guess what. The run of sixteenth notes sounded all the better for that firm introduction. 

So why am I telling you all this? Not so that we all become amazing pianists (though that would be fine), but because my teacher was darned brilliant. I mean: she was good.

She knew when I didn't care about something I was playing. She heard it. 

She was the unfoolable listener. 

Kinda like a really good reader. 

Did you know that you can't trick a reader? You can't fake your work. Readers are good.

They know when someone is talking down to them. They know when a writer should have cut a lame-o passage. They know when the writer stopped caring.

They don't stab the page with a finger and tell you about it, though. Instead they chuck the book, or close the web browser, and just find something else to do. 

Yikes, right?? 

So what don't you care about in your current piece? What feels like it's not worth your time? 

Where do you tell yourself: "Aw, man, this part of writing, this part of the work--it's beneath me. I should be doing something flashier, something more impressive."

What in your writing feels like the stupid little introduction for the main attraction, the pick-up note to the place where you prove yourself, to the place where you'll get the applause?

Here's where it lurks for me. Here's what happens when I start to care a bit less:

  • I'll fill my cast of characters with people I feel obligated to include: token players. Stand-ins. Characters just to add balance or dimension, just to round things out. But then I stop caring about them, because I'm not really invested in them.
  • I rely on "standard scenery." I'll plunk a scene in the first setting that comes to mind (kitchens! nameless outdoor areas!), not because it serves the story but because I'm so darn LAZY. Whoops!!
  • In between the larger plot points, I am tempted to let my story slump. Settling for humdrum plot movements. Clichéd conflict. Canned antagonists. 
  • And, oh yeah, RESEARCH. (Oh poop, can't someone else do this for me?)

What about you? Where do you find yourself throwing material on the page without a care?

I think what my piano teacher was saying to me boils down to this: 

You are not above any of the notes that you're playing. If you're too good for this song, then prove it by playing every single note with excellence.

And she was so right.

We prove ourselves on those pick-up notes. We prove ourselves on the small things.

It's those details, after all, that show the kind of writer we are. It's the care we lavish on what could have been a throwaway scene; the precision we use on the introductory moments; the careful construction of all our marvelous settings. 

Let's take a lesson from my piano teacher, that savvy listener.

And let's be worthy of every word we write.