Learning Plateaus

We often hear about the “learning curve” but infrequently about the learning plateau. Educators understand that these leveling off places exist, and curriculum is often created with the plateaus of the “average” student in mind.

What I’m thinking about though, has to do with writers and our learning plateaus. It seems to me that some writers continue to grow from book to book. The characters are more realistic, the plot more engaging, the theme stronger even as it is more subtle.

Then there are writers who … well, frankly, they seem to be in ruts. One book is so very much like the novel before it. The characters seem interchangeable, the plot void of anything surprising. Why, I wonder, do these authors seem to climb hard, reach a plateau, and stop growing in their writing?

Here are my best guesses.

1) A schedule that doesn’t allow the person to spend time studying the craft or reading fiction as they once did. So many writers now seem to spend their time flying from rough draft to marketing event to edits to interviews and back to the next rough draft.

2) Adequate sales. I imagine it’s hard to think writing should improve when 50,000 people are buying an author’s books, less so if the sales top 100,000. Or more.

3) Fan mail. If readers are emailing an author to gush over their latest and greatest book, why would that writer think, “I have to do better”?

But here’s what I’m thinking. If a novel has a delightful character, a textured setting, an engaging plot with unpredictable twists, a timeless but subtle message, why wouldn’t that author “break out” and become a best seller?

Could it be that something is missing? That the author only thinks all those parts are in place?

Or maybe the author isn’t aiming for the best seller list. Maybe the author knows the message isn’t subtle or isn’t timeless. Maybe a predictable plot is just fine because the target audience keeps coming back for more.

But my question is, How will an author know how far he could reach if he settles on the plateau? How will he know how high his audience is willing to go with him unless he continues to climb?

Has the perfect book ever been written? I don’t think so. Name a book, and before long, someone will stand up and say why they didn’t particularly like it, though a majority of readers might say it was The Best Novel every.

I think, for example of The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin, a book one blogger has recently raved about, a book so many at Faith in Fiction loved. I tried to read it. Started about three times. And the last time, I made it probably half way before putting it down. I don’t love it. Rather the book feels painful to me to read. It is not something I will ever finish, I think.

Is it because it’s about barnyard animals, a rooster in particular? I don’t think so. One of my all time favorites is about rabbits (Watership Down by Richard Adams).

The Book of the Dun Cow has appeal to some, obviously. For me, something is wrong. It’s too dark, too hopeless, too distancing, too … something.

But what if the author could write that story in a way that widened its appeal without watering down its existing strengths? Is that possible? And shouldn’t an author try?

Until the perfect novel has been written, shouldn’t we authors always be striving instead of settling?

Published in: on March 10, 2010 at 12:04 pm  Comments (4)  
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4 Comments

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you. That’s exactly what I feel about The Book of the Dun Cow! I thought something was wrong with me. I’m delighted to be counted in such exceptional company.

    Annie

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  2. Brilliant.

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  3. Mm. I must admit I tried Dunn Cow several times myself and could not see the attraction. I love the author–or at least I love the philosophies I’ve seen him express in various interviews. Just didn’t relate well to the hen. Or the rooster. Something.

    And I loved Watership Down. So we must share some sensibilities.

    As for the rest of your argument…I wholly agree that we should never stop on a plateau and think we have no more mountain to climb. But I don’t necessarily think we need to widen our appeal. I mean, I write for a specific audience and I’d like to write better and better books for that audience so they will like them more and more (and maybe my audience will grow from five kids in the neighborhood to ten thousand kids in the world if I get better at my craft) but I don’t think I need to widen my appeal to kids who hate fantasy, or kids who love horror. I don’t think I need to try to figure out how to drag them in, necessarily.

    What do you think?

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  4. Becky, I don’t think it’s a conscious decision to “plateau”. Most authors continue to improve over time. Not many are the one book wonders who seem to have acheived all they need in that single effort.

    Professionals often write to their muses, but perhaps more often write to satisfy what their publisher(s) perceives as the public’s desire for them. How many times is it stressed not to leave your genre? Well, let’s face it: within one genre it’s easy to plateau no matter how unique the characters or the plots. After several books, the same thing is often said in different ways, and if an author has a following, they expect certain things from said author. How many of us have abandoned authors we used to read because each new book “feels” the same as the last? I don’t think it’s a craft thing. JMO.

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