Thursday, January 08, 2015


MY LAST Letter to the Slush Pile #21 GENERATED QUITE A BIT OF DISCUSSION on the I Read On Spec Facebook page. Because of it, I invited anyone who had participated to share their thoughts here on Suzenyms. I'm very pleased that Barbara Geiger took me up on my offer. Barbara is one of the brightest and most thoughtful writers I know. Twenty years ago, I had the sense that my writing wasn't at the level I wanted it to be; thirty years ago, I didn't even have the sense of how far I needed to go. There is an actual term for this - the Dunning-Kruger Effect. I'm sure you'll find what Barbara has to say, and the links she's included, very enlightening. (Thanks, Barbara, for sharing this with us):

by Barbara Geiger:

If you are a writer and are not getting the response you want from your texts, please watch this amazing video taken from Ira Glass talking about the gap between your taste for good fiction and your ability to produce it. It’s amazing how well he articulates the frustration between knowing what good is, and not being able to create it yet.
But the gap is less obvious to some. Writers are not immune to the Dunning-Kruger Effect. You can read the article, but in simple words it means people who are bad at things do not understand just how bad they are at the thing they are bad at. And I’m not wagging my fingers from the comfort of the other side of Ira Glass’s Gap. I’m still climbing the gap myself.
When I think back to my early twenties, I remember how absolutely certain I was about the craft of writing.  I did improve in those five years, and I did see some publishing successes, but there were far more rejections than acceptances. I played to my strengths in plotting, but I never went back to do any serious rewriting and my sentence structure often resulted in word salad.
It took sitting around a critique circle with twelve other writers on a really hot August day for almost seven hours to realize we all could figure out exactly wasn’t working in other people’s writing, but we weren’t showing what we all knew in our own. We could have handed our critiques to the person on our left, and any feedback would have been accurate.
I was a rule-breaker except “there are no rules” which I embraced whole-heartedly. I got off the Dunning-Kruger bump by really studying why a story failed, something that is almost impossible to do by reading published work that has most of the mistakes edited out. Around that time, a small group of SFWA  members wrote a sting manuscript to catch a vanity publishing house trying to pass off as legit by writing the worst book in the world. Watching good writers writing badly on purpose is worth the price of admission, but Teresa Nielsen Hayden didn’t torture similes, extend them into next week, or drape her chapter fifteen in purple. In her chapter, to paraphrase, the main character had supper, talked with his girlfriend for a while, watched a movie, and went home to bed. For Hayden, the worst possible writing wasn’t so-bad-it’s-good. Terrible writing was, and is, boring writing, in which nothing significant happens.
For those of us caught on the bump, getting down off it can take as little as realizing that no one is trying to fool you into believing that writing is any more complicated than it has to be. Show don’t tell works on all levels from the sentence structure to your statement on humanity. Cutting or editing anything that doesn’t belong keeps the writing tight, and keeping the conflict in the foreground as much as possible keeps the readers attention. The world doesn’t have to blow up; ending a marriage can be cosmically devastating to the right character.
Show don’t tell works on the page when you’re describing something, but it also works in the plot where you show the reader what’s important to the world, instead of stopping the action during an emotional scene to tell the reader what’s going on. It even works on the thematic level when you’re showing the reader what you have to say about the human condition.
Writers could spend years, if not decades, on the bump, doing the exact same thing over and over again and expecting different results. A friend of mine said she didn’t start selling short stories until she actually started reading short stories, even though she’d been told since the very beginning to read the magazine she wanted to sell to. I didn’t start selling until I realized rewriting is more important than the first draft. Deleting words used to feel like cutting off a limb. But if they are extraneous to the plot, it’s not even an outpatient procedure. It’s snipping off the threads on an itchy tag.
Writing needs both talent and skill, of which you’re born with a finite amount of one, and an infinite source of the other. If you are not where you want to be, but are actively working at improving yourself any way you possibly can, there’s absolutely nothing standing in your way. If you think marketing is the only difference between a best-seller and a trunk novel, then you are the thing standing in your way. Some people spend their whole life on the Dunning-Kruger bump. The view is great, but it gets them nowhere.

Barbara's Bio: Barbara didn’t learn that she had lived in three out of the four Northern Alberta towns that had a known or suspected Wendigo attack until well after she’d moved south to Lethbridge. She grew up loving ghost stories and pony books, and spent most of her summers on the British Columbia coast, where she fell in love with the ocean.
As Angela Fiddler, she has written The Master of the Lines series as well as Cy and his sex demon problem books. As Barbara Geiger, she has written The Tempest trilogy, starting with Coral Were His Bones, which exists in the same universe of the Middle Hill series, starting with Changeling, as well as various other novellas and short stories.
When she’s not blogging about the exploits of selkies, sex demons, and vampires, she writes about making bread at
You can contact Barbara (or Angela) by email at


  1. Yeeahhhhhh! Great post. I'm going to be going over this with a fine-toothed comb. I doubt I'm over that bump but I had a moment of huge transition in 2012-2013 when I forced myself to really learn how to structure stories. God it was tough but made some things very clear. And my success rate in publishing stories shot up. I can sort of see some of the next problem areas I need to work on, but this post is very, very heartening. I too would love to suck less in the long run.

  2. Anonymous2:51 PM

    I had two major breakthroughs too. One in 2006 told me to just tell the interesting parts of the story.If a section is boring, it either needs to be edited or cut. That helped get me to a point where, in 2012 I realized that if you're just telling the interesting bits of a story without actually saying something about the human condition, you're writing a novel in the style of Battleship, the dumbest movie ever based on a board game, or anything else for that matter.