When I was…younger, I bought a new motorcycle. It was my first bike in over a decade, having ridden motorcycles since I was nine years old, until I turned twenty-five (you can do the math if you must).
I was concerned about the fact that, over the intervening years, motorcycle technology had come a long way and I was not at all confident in my abilities to ride the new machine competently.
My new bike was a Honda V-twin Firestorm, 1,000cc and frighteningly powerful, at least to me.
So I undertook a training class in motorcycle safety, something I would recommend to anyone taking up riding, either for the first time or as a mid-life crisis.
Now, this is about writing, so bear with me.
While on this course, the instructor got us to do what seemed, at first, to be a rather odd thing.
As we stood track-side, he got one of the bikes and parked it in the middle of the straightaway, telling us that we were about to see a motorcycle disappear.
He walked us away from the bike until we were about 100 meters (328 feet) or so away.
We were then asked to hold up a thumb about a foot away from our face, covering the bike.
Of course, it disappeared behind our thumb.
The instructor then pointed out that a car’s B pillar (the pillar between the front and rear doors that is often obstructing our side view at an intersection) is quite a bit wider than our thumbs and did we now understand why so many drivers who collided with motorcycles at intersections claim that they didn’t see the biker?
A dramatic lesson at the time; I found it very sobering indeed.
I have no idea what made me think of that today, but it has a parallel with our view of our own works that I would like to expand on a bit.
We look at our finished (or nearly finished) book and all too often what do we see?
Now, I have yet to press the button on The Road Out, but my experience from all other areas tells me that I will find a fault within a few days of publishing, unless I don’t read it, which I will, just because it’s my first book, so there.
However, I know full well that my view of the faults in comparison to the book as a whole, just like the thumb and the motorcycle, will be unreasonably out of perspective.
Have a look at this pencil sketch I did years ago:
Now most people would look at that and see a fairly well executed drawing, obviously not the first time I’ve ever picked up a pencil.
I’ll tell you what I see, though.
I see that the men in the rigging are out of scale and look contrived, the ones on the mainmast are larger than the ones on the rear mast, which is backwards from a perspective point of view.
The clouds are not right in several places.
The binnacle housing to the right of the wheel is out of perspective.
The shading on the left hand side of the uppermost sail on the rear mast is at odds with the shading on the right hand side.
I could go on, but I’m sure you get the idea.
It took me no time at all to find those faults, plus quite a few more, just now. I haven’t looked at that sketch in years, even though it hangs on our lounge wall, but I could see those faults straight away.
Isn’t it true that we all do this to our works?
We also manage to convince ourselves that those who view the artwork don’t point out these faults because they’re too polite.
The truth is, they probably don’t even see them.
Several years ago, okay many years ago, I did a course for installing a certain heavy commercial flooring into hospitals.
During that course, the trainer had us stand in a circle as he placed a small square of the material on the floor in the middle of us.
He then said, “There are three patches in that piece; without bending down (because installers are the only ones that do) try to find the patches.”
Not one of the twenty odd qualified installers could see them.
He then flipped the piece over and we saw that it was glued to a piece of clear perspex. Naturally, we could easily see the patches, one square, one round and one triangle, in the plain grey backing of the flooring.
He then flipped the whole thing back over again and, still without bending down, we could see the patches quite easily; they weren’t even that neat, to be honest.
He pointed out that the only reason they were visible to us now was that we knew where they were, and nobody walking on a floor would ever spot them, outside of the installer himself.
A lesson well taught.
I still do the odd bit of consultancy work for a flooring wholesaler, inspecting jobs customers are dissatisfied with and analyzing where the faults lays as regards rectification.
We have a term in the industry for a customer who is being very picky, at least by the installers standard.
We call it the customer getting ‘too close to the floor’.
This happens when the customer sees a fault in their product and then goes around on bended knee, now seeing faults everywhere.
A common comment is something like, “They (the faults) have only appeared in the last few days.”
In actual fact, the faults were there all along, but they never noticed them, because they weren’t looking for them.
That is the point at which I have to try to get the customer to realize that they have lost their sense of perspective; they have, indeed, gotten too close to the floor.
I will generally recommend some remedial work for the faults that are the most obvious, and take the installer aside and tell him what has occurred.
It’s surprising how often well experienced installers will have no idea that the above is what lays at the heart of the problem and it’s not that the customer is rabidly psychotic, as they first assumed.
So, what’s the point of all this?
There comes a time when we need to step away from our draft, put it aside for a few weeks and get on with something else before going back to re-read it again.
Otherwise, we get too close to the manuscript, we see all the faults whilst ignoring the features, and we are unable to see the overall picture because we have the faults unreasonably close to our eye, obscuring what lays behind them.
If we are trying to write a faultless book, we might as well be trying to put the wind in a jar, or catch sunlight in our hands.
There comes a point where we need to get the ship to sea (pardon the pun) and start building the next one.
We must accept that we are never going to write the perfect book, but we can certainly write a good one.