I saw a couple of things on Youtube that made me think recently about the importance of quality work, especially in the arts.
I’m a casual fan of Lindsey Stirling–I’ve watched most of her videos, put them on in the background from time to time, and get a kick out of following her career. For those of you unfamiliar with her, she’s a Youtube sensation who combines violin music, dance, and dubstep/electronica, often in some interesting and beautiful places. This is her most popular video, and probably her best work so far:
Her career is interesting because it follows a path very similar to a lot of self-published authors. She started by putting out videos on Youtube, built up a huge following that way, turned down a number of deals from traditional record labels and put out her first album herself. Now, she’s touring all over the world, collaborating with a bunch of other Youtube artists, and doing a lot of other amazing stuff completely independently.
The other day, I was really surprised that she was on America’s Got Talent back in 2010. Apparently, this was before she got really big, and the connections she made while on the show helped her find success later on:
Two things stood out to me from that video. First, the judges were right–even though she was pushing herself, this was not her best work, and it showed in a way that was rather glaring. I hate to say that because I like so much of her stuff, but it’s really true–her performance fell short.
The second thing that stood out to me was her response to the criticism. It must have been incredibly painful to stand up there in front of everybody and get hammered like that, but she still managed to smile, be gracious, thank the judges, and focus on the positive without being confrontational. That takes class.
When I was in Georgia, I watched a lot of TV, especially on the Rustavi 2 channel. One of the most popular shows is Nichieri (ნიჭიერი), a talent competition show set up much like The X Factor or America’s Got Talent. Even though I didn’t really understand anything the people were saying, I could still really tell when a contestant did some truly amazing.
There’s something about greatness that makes you sit up and pay attention–something that makes it stand out on its own. It’s something timeless and stirring, something that drives you to keep coming back to it, or at least to remember it long after it’s passed. With poor quality stuff, like bad writing, clumsy performance, or the like, you tend to forget it (unless of course it’s a spectacular failure, which in a weird way gains a sort of greatness of its own to a certain extent). But good quality stuff sticks with you–indeed, it’s almost like it becomes a part of you. It certainly becomes part of the culture.
When it comes to talent shows like Nichieri, The X Factor, and America’s Got Talent, the greatest moment has to be Susan Boyle. Everything about it is just perfect, from the awkward, homely way she started out to how she blew everyone away with her stellar performance. She didn’t look like she had it, and she certainly didn’t act like she had it, but she did, and she knew it. She didn’t settle for anything less than her best, and she didn’t let anyone else put her down.
In a lot of my discussions with other indie writers, we talk a lot about discoverability. We’re all anxious to be read, to be heard, to be discovered–to get our shining moment. The thing is, though, that moment is not enough if you don’t have quality work. It’s not going to keep you down or “ruin” your career, necessarily–Lindsey Stirling has come a long way since her disappointing performance on America’s Got Talent. But that’s only because she produces quality work.
I think I need to spend a lot less time trying to boost my discoverability and a lot more into producing the best work that I possibly can. The thing to remember, though, is that quality is subjective and you can’t please everyone. As Lindsey later said, “A lot of people have told me along the way that my style and the music I do … is unmarketable. But the only reason I’m successful is because I have stayed true to myself.” You can’t compare yourself against others, either–you can only really compete against yourself.
How do you know when you’ve done your best? That can be a little tricky, partly because it’s a moving target. I think Genesis Earth and Bringing Stella Home represent my best work at the time, though when I look back at those books I see things that could be improved. I tend to think that Desert Stars is my best work to date, though I’m not so sure anymore. Do I only think that because I struggled so much and for so long with that book? Just because something is a joy to create doesn’t mean that it’s any less than something you toiled and suffered over.
Star Wanderers was both a gift story and an experiment. The novella format was new to me at the time, so I did a lot of learning on it. Outworlder, Dreamweaver, Homeworld, and Deliverance came to me in a white-hot creative heat, but Sacrifice and Reproach were a real struggle. Is there a discernible difference in quality between them? Not that I can tell. I do think that the later stories hold together better on their own, though. I didn’t really hit my stride with the novella format until I started branching off into other characters’ viewpoints.
This is all on my mind because my next big project, Sons of the Starfarers, is something that I really want to do right. I don’t just want to write it for the sake of putting it out there (though I recognize that writing quickly doesn’t always mean sacrificing quality). I don’t just want to put it out so that I can make my work more “discoverable,” though that’s certainly a motivation. I don’t even just want to do my best. I want to improve my writing and storytelling so much that this becomes the best thing that I’ve ever written.
At LTUE a few years back, Tracy Hickman said that as writers, it is important for us to believe that we have not yet written our best book. That’s so incredibly true. You have to always believe that you can do better, not to make you depressed when you look back, but to make you enthusiastic as you look forward. Imagine what would have happened if Lindsey Stirling thought that her performance on America’s Got Talent was the best that she’d ever do! Her career hadn’t even dawned yet.
I think it’s the same with me. I’ve gained a little exposure, suffered a few setbacks, and experienced a small measure of success, but the big stuff is yet to come. And even though I may not want to be the next Brandon Sanderson or Orson Scott Card in terms of popularity, I do need to shoot high in terms of quality. Before I work on my discoverability, I need to make sure that I’m putting out some truly amazing stuff. I need to shoot for greatness.