Monday, 4 April 2011

Incompetence - The Series. Episode Four - Me Competent? Really? WOW! Yay! Maybe.

by Maureen Lynas
NE Regional Advisor SCBWI

Previously on Incompetence - The Series:

Our very excited Lesser-spotted Red-faced Authors have hatched from their egg of unconscious incompetence and discovered a world in which -

they don't know what they don't know.

Please Note : If you've just read the first episode and found no reference to the Lesser-spotted Red-faced Author blame my incompetence and lack of imagination at the time.

The fledgling authors discover just how enormous their incompetence is and

they know what it is that they don't know.

Such a lot to learn!

Such small heads!

They know what they know and don’t they know it! Yippee!

And now for the final episode-

Episode Four - Unconscious Competence. Me? Competent? Am I? Wow! Really?

Meet Flapper. She’s been published!

She’s flown to the land of the Greater-spotted Authors with her book in her beak, and now she wants to know -

Is she a Greater-spotted Author yet and – drum roll for big question – have the flock of Greater-spotted Authors actually achieved Stage four – unconscious competence. Do they instinctively use and apply their knowledge? Because she’s not certain she’s there yet, even though the book is out and the reviews are egg-crackingly excellent.

Does she get an answer? She does. Yes. Then she gets another and another and another until she’s reeling with the confusion of it all.

Then Clever Cluck comes forward to help with some questions of her own.
‘Can an author ever be unconsciously competent when every book is different? What type of author stands the biggest chance of being unconsciously competent? Do you have to be unconsciously competent in everything to write a good book? Was Margaret Mitchell at stage four when she wrote Gone With the Wind?’

One quick tweet and Flapper had an answer, Yahoo!

'According to Contemporary Authors, Mitchell worked steadily on Gone with the Wind from 1926 to 1934, with brief periods of "discouragement" in 1927 and 1934. In April of 1935 she gave the manuscript to Macmillan editor, Harold Latham to read and he sent her a telegram saying that her novel had great potential. It was published in 1936.'

Ten years, thinks Flapper. That doesn’t sound very unconsciously competent at all. I think she was wide awake and full of consciousness. In fact, I suspect much crossing out and redrafting.

‘Then of course there’s Harper Lee?’ says Clever Cluck.

More tweeters join in and Wikipedia’s first to answer.

'Having written several long stories, Harper Lee located an agent in November 1956. The following month at the East 50th townhouse of her friends Michael Brown and Joy Williams Brown, she received a gift of a year's wages from them with a note: "You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas." She quit her job and devoted herself to her craft. Within a year, she had a first draft. Working with J. B. Lippincott & Co. editor Tay Hohoff, she completed To Kill a Mockingbird in the summer of 1959. Published July 11, 1960.'

‘So, only four years,’ says Flapper. ‘Maybe there was a bit more competence, or maybe it was a shorter book?’

‘Have you considered some slightly more prolific authors,’ asks Clever Cluck. ‘How about Austin?’

More mad tweeting and Wikipedia is first again with his answer.
‘Jane Austin’s artistic apprenticeship lasted from her teenage years until she was about 35 years old. During this period, she experimented with various literary forms, including the epistolary novel which she tried then abandoned, and wrote and extensively revised three major novels and began a fourth. From 1811 until 1816, with the release of Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1816), she achieved success as a published writer. She wrote two additional novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, both published posthumously in 1818, and began a third, which was eventually titled Sanditon.'

‘Now!’ Our Flapper is flapping! ‘There’s someone I can relate to! There’s someone who’s been through the stages of learning how to write.’

‘But,’ interrupts Clever Cluck, who’s warming to the theme now. ‘Did the books become more interesting, more engaging, have stronger characters, more complex plots, as she became more experienced? Or did Austen display a tendency towards prolific genre writing.’

‘Aha! Prolific genre writing!’ Flapper feels that she’s getting nearer some sort of answer and her feathers are fluffed. ‘Maybe this is where authors genuinely demonstrate their unconscious competence. What about Agatha Christie? How productive was she!’ This last bit was said as a statement rather than a question.

The whole flock of Greater-spotted Authors is tweeting madly now, Flapper’s still flapping and Clever Cluck's clucking.

And good old Wiki answers with – ‘Agatha Christie wrote 79 novels: 72 under her name, 1 under her second husband's last name and 6 under the name Mary Westmacott.’

Then Jeeves interrupts with a tweet of his own – ‘Christie has written over two billion books worldwide and has been translated into over 45 languages.’

Now that is impressive! thinks Flapper. She must have been unconscious at some point!

Wikipedia’s full of himself as he announces, ‘Barbara Cartland is Queen of the Unconscious Authors! Seven hundred and twenty three books! Her first works seem to have been very different to the books that most readers are familiar with. Cartland published her first novel, Jigsaw in 1923, a risqué society thriller that became a bestseller. She also began writing and producing somewhat racy plays, one of which, Blood Money (1926), was banned by the Lord Chamberlain's Office. But she soon settled down and started to produce novels that proved to be exactly what a lot of people wanted to read,' he added.

‘So, little Flapper,’ says Clever Cluck. ‘What is it these authors have become so adept at? What part of writing have they embedded in their subconscious so that they can write all of these books?’

At that moment (this is turning into a story!) a Masked Agent flew down and landed on a nearby, very conveniently placed, branch.

‘I have the answer,’ he said wisely. ‘These particular authors are unconsciously competent at the following -

They devise characters that can go from book to book.

Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Inspector Japp.

Ian Fleming’s James Bond and M.

Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi.
They use archetypes repeatedly.

Barabara Cartland’s brave and feisty heroine who never the less will require rescuing by the rugged, fearless, yet sensitive, hero.

They keep the structure the same.

Bond - the Hero’s Journey.

Poirot – a murder must be solved, there’ll be clues, red herrings, then a revelation.

Precious Ramotswe – a mystery must be solved, there’ll be clues, red herrings, then a revelation.

Cartland – Woman meets man A and doesn’t like him. Woman meets man B and likes him. Woman realises man B is bad news and man A is the one and only love of her life.

The premise is constant.

Bond – The world is under threat from a supremely nasty villain and Bond must save humanity.

Poirot – Someone (sometimes lots of someones) is murdered and Poirot will find out who did it.

Precious Ramotswe – Someone commits a crime and Precious will make sure they come to justice.
Cartland – Girl falls in love with the right boy.

The voice is consistent.

The author understands how to write, how to use the right tone, relevant motifs, and appropriate dialogue for time, setting and character.

The wise one nods wisely and falls asleep, leaving the flock to wonder – which one am I? And what’s left for my conscious mind to do?

And Flapper is still left with a question -

Am I going to be an author who strives to re-invent the wheel with every book, constantly battling away at my incompetence or am I going to take what I am currently unconsciously competent at and work with it? Where am I on the incompetence ladder?

And the even BIGGER question is - How incompetent are YOU!

Note from the author - I currently consider myself to be extremely consciously incompetent at maths, consciously competent at the aspects of writing that I know about, and I have no idea how much I am unconsciously incompetent at because I try not to think about it.

With thanks to Abraham Maslow for the Fours Stages of Learning.


  1. Brilliant Maureen! I am supremely competent at being unconscious but will now switch the emphasis and strive for conscious competence.

  2. I sometimes wish I'd come to my competent stage a bit earlier. I am turning 50 next year and that birthday just brings home how long it took me to get a book to publication. On the other hand, I haven't been standing idly by - I thoroughly believe that writing is all the better for having experienced living. Thanks for the post!

  3. I don't know what I am but I loved this post! Actually i must be concious or I wouldn't feel so guilty - must get on!
    PS Who did the drawings- was it you? I want one!

  4. I did! The drawings that is. And of course you can have one, Kathryn. I'm swapping them in return for biscuits at the SCBWI Winchester conference. Addy owes me a choc chip cookie. I could put you down for a custard cream! Do I have your email?

    Glad you all liked the post, it was really hard to write about as I am nowhere near stage four yet!


  5. Candy, when I click on posts (Atom)to get email alerts, I get a page of coding. Am I an inept clicker?


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