Who’s Getting Better?

Earlier this month, former agent Nathan Bransford took a week to blog about Harry Potter—or more specifically about J. K. Rowling‘s writing. In one post, Mr. Bransford stated he believed Ms. Rowling continued to improve her writing throughout the series. I tend to agree, though I know others may see the books differently.

But here’s the point I want to discuss. Mr. Bransford had this to say about improving one’s writing:

In order to get better at something you can’t be self-satisfied and think you’ve made it and become convinced of your own genius. You have to keep digging deep and keep being skeptical of yourself and keep trying to spot your own flaws and resist the temptations that come along with success. And that is hard!!

I think it’s the success issue that makes continued striving for improvement hard.

When I was teaching, I didn’t really have a way to measure success. Oh, I suppose if I taught all the material in the curriculum guide and every student received an A and their standardize test results showed at least a full year of growth, then maybe I could rest on my laurels and say I’d been successful. But would you be surprised to learn, that never happened? 😛 I thought not.

Since I finished each year knowing that I hadn’t been successful, in the ultimate sense of the word, I would evaluate and plan and work so that next time things would be better. In fact, I often planned en route. I’d tweak lessons from class to class, and I’d make note of things that needed to be scrapped or retooled. There was never any “self-satisfied and think you’ve made it” time.

But besides teaching, I also coached. With sports, there is a winner after every game and coaches along with players can feel successful. At the end of each season, we even had league championships. So what happens if you string a series of those first place trophies together?

The right answer is to add up the hours of planning and practice that went into preparing a team to become a champion and make a new plan for the next year. But in the flush of success piled on top of success, isn’t it possible that a coach might start believing his or her own press clippings? Isn’t it possible he or she could “become convinced of [his or her] own genius”?

I’m reading about Solomon’s life right now, and in a way he was victim of his own success, too. Peace on every hand. Accolades of kings and queens from distant lands, wealth, achievement. He could claim responsibility for bring the glory of God back to His people when His presence filled the brand new temple Solomon constructed.

What happened after that? Solomon went wayward, to the point that God took part of the kingdom away from his heirs. What should have been a great legacy became a tarnished life, half lived well.

But why? Did he stop digging deep, stop being skeptical of himself, stop trying to spot his own flaws and resist temptations?

Spiritually, we have the Bible and can measure ourselves by God’s standard—His perfect Son. Seems like we ought to have no trouble with the success syndrome when it comes to our spiritual lives. Of course, that’s not true. How easy it is to take our eyes off Jesus and put them on the person living next door or on the guy on the street cussing out his girlfriend or on the one cutting me off in traffic. Next to Those People, I can feel pretty successful. Ugh! Using the wrong measuring stick can give a false positive.

Might not that happen for writers too? Might we look at sales and think we’re successful if our book “earns out”? Or if we get a half dozen or a dozen or a hundred dozen emails saying how wonderful our story is?

But shouldn’t the standard for our work be the same as for our lives—that we want to please Jesus? Who cares if a million people buy my book if God is not glorified?

And until He is pleased, with every word I write, with all parts of my writing process, with my work ethic and my relationships with my colleagues in the business, I have to dig deep, stay a little skeptical, look for my flaws, and resist temptation.

Published in: on November 30, 2010 at 6:10 pm  Comments (9)  
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  1. If I actually got hundreds of emails loving my book, I’d sweat trying to avoid being a one note wonder. Too many famous writers became famous because of fabulous writing, then went downhill. I’m afraid of that. Excellance is work, all the time.


  2. You may not understand this, but I am one of those people for whom even the literary mention of something that is not of God immediately stirs technicolor and Dolby-like audiovisual effects. I make it a point to stay strictly away from anything fear-inducing or demonic, to avoid nightmares and flashbacks, as an older adult, even. So I would like to know about the quality of Ms. Rowling’s writing in detail, without ever having to read it. What on earth is she doing in the literary realm that is so enchanting (pardon the pun), that writers with a Christian worldview gravitate so much to her writing? How is she getting better? It is obviously much more than things like sentence and word variation!


  3. Lovely post. You count yourself to be a successful blogger, I think. 🙂

    Peggy, I am one who didn’t think the books got better as they went. The first three were my favorites. Not that the writing got worse, but that the story was not as entertaining for me as it went on. (Not that it was shoddy in any way–it was well worth reading.) But what I found so crazy good about the story at the beginning was the way she built her world and made me believe it was real. All the details she put in made the world feel as if it were a real place.

    And then the concept was so fresh. British boarding schools have been done to death, but schools were you study potions and eat ear wax flavored jelly beans? Where the pictures move and speak and you can run into dragons and giants? Where you might ride an invisible train to school or fly in a car? That is a very cool school. And to have that magical world set inside of the real world, was really a fresh thing, I think. You take a poor, abused kid and give him more power than anyone else on earth has. And you see how his mentors help him develop his power and you see what he does with the power in the end. It’s a wonderful story.

    It has shades of Christ, born in a manger, a powerless babe. Then he grows in wisdom and stature and he grows in favor with God and man. But he’s in a constant battle with an evil foe. In the end he has to make a great sacrifice to save his friends. This story–His story–is the one that all great stories imitate, I think.


  4. heh heh I meant to say you “should” count yourself to be a successful blogger.

    I wasn’t trying to accuse you of arrogance.


  5. Diana, I understand what you’re saying, but I’m guessing that after a couple, three, four books worth of positive feedback, there might be the temptation to settle in and think I’ve made it. I recently heard that this settling in thing is endemic to the human condition. What at first seems extraordinary, if it repeats often enough, becomes the norm and we forget it once seemed extraordinary.

    I think that’s why Scripture is replete with warnings for us to guard against temptation, pursue, press on, stand firm. We’re in a battle and Satan will use every avenue to bring us down, even success.



  6. Peggy, I think you and I must have the same technicolor audio/visual imaginations. I HATE to be scared. In what I read, what I watch. If I know it’s a problem for me, I stay away from it. I don’t find recurrent nightmares fun!

    That being said, I didn’t have a problem with Harry Potter, though there are dark moments. That doesn’t mean you wouldn’t have a problem with it. I see the good vs. evil struggle most fantasy shows as very triumphant.

    But you asked what about J. K. Rowling’s writing is so good. I personally disagree with Nathan Bransford about her writing. He talks about Rowling’s use of the close third person point of view and wonderfully that pulled readers close to Harry.

    I’m thinking, I remember her using more of an omniscient POV and I never felt all that close to Harry. I’m reading book 4 right now, and I’m specifically watching the POV. So far, omniscient.

    So I am not gripped by the writing. It’s not particularly beautiful, and I can name a number of flaws. Then what is it?

    Sally’s said it—the world! She has mad a place that feels so real I could walk to the train platform and catch the express to Hogwarts.

    She’s also clever. She takes familiar things (British boarding school) and puts twists on them. She takes something common (shopping for school supplies) and applies this to what it would be like for someone going to school to learn magic (they would need an owl, a broom, a wand, and of course the requisite books, but the courses would all be related to magic).

    She invented a game that has its own World Cup, and school competitions, and a Ministry of Magic. The latter, then, brings in the whole world of politics, all within the magic community.

    Her stories are also suspenseful. There’s some mystery involved and quests that require courage and nobility. There are heartaches, too, and losses, so it feels very real.

    I also found the stories surprising. I rarely could predict the outcome or anticipate where the story would go next.

    And ultimately, the story is about good vs. evil, so I found it to be utterly true, in much the same way I find Lord of the Rings to be true.

    Hope that helps.



  7. Sally, thanks for your kind words about my blogging and no I didn’t take your comment to mean that I’m arrogant about it.

    I love the way you describe His story and point out that good stories are all really imitations of that One Great Story. Love it.



  8. As a Christian (would-be-)writer, I know that any true good or true value in anything I produce doesn’t come from me, but from God. I also know that any temporal success or failure comes from him, and that both are equally worthless compared to being able to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Yet anyone whom God thus commends will truthfully say, “We have only done our duty.”


  9. Great perspective, Jonathan. Thanks for taking the time to put it in words.



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