Everything I Write Is Junk!

junk

Everything I Write is Junk!

I think writers come in two flavors: one assumes everything they write is worthy of publication and; the other is convinced that what they write is junk worthy only of being deleted.

The latter flavor is the subject of this post and the former is in a following post called Deathless Prose.

Destructive self-talk

I get it.  The voice in the back of your head is telling you, Why are you bothering to write? You really think you can turn out anything good? Who wants to read this anyhow? Been there, done that. What’s worse is that, in that moment, it feels like an eternal truth whose force will never diminish.

Worst of all, if you succumb to The Voice, it’s less likely you’ll continue to write. And a fresh and unique voice will be lost.  (I know your Voice is saying, Fresh? Unique? Who is she kidding? Ignore and keep reading.)

Well, good news. First, you’re not alone. Many, if not most, writers experience this at one time or another. Second, my observation is that this state tends to be more common with new writers. Not always, of course, since it can also be a manifestation of writer’s block, but often. And that’s good news because if you keep writing—which is what you want to do anyhow—the feeling will fade.

Having said that, however, it’s a difficult period and the following might help.

Strategies to combat believing your writing is junk

No money back guarantee but one or more of these might help.

Difference between craft and worthless. If Your Voice is like mine, it takes a pretty blanket approach. Not only will you never get better but it applies to all aspects of your writing.

But in fact, that isn’t true.  Writing consists of both creativity and craft (e.g. building tension, developing compelling characters, creating a continuous dream). So, especially if you are beginning, your ideas may be great but you need more practice on the craft side to get the ideas across effectively. All of which is learnable. Time-consuming but doable.

Launch many expendable pieces. You need to pour your heart and soul into this piece while holding the idea that it may or may not ever see the light of day. Not because it’s worthless, but because writing is about experimenting and not all experiments are going to work. So, be both committed to the writing and more relaxed about its eventual fate.

Reread later. If The Voice is being particularly insistent, put the piece aside for a bit—a week or so—and then read it again. Odds are, it’s got some real potential which you weren’t able to recognize because It was screaming in your head.

Ignore the evil demon. If all else fails, just ignore The Voice. Try a Scarlett O’Hara and promise to think about It another day. Just keep writing. And remember that it will probably go away eventually. Okay, may come back at some point as writer’s block, but at least it will stop being your constant companion. You can wait it out.

Acquiring Author Credibility

Credibility

Acquiring Author Credibility

In the last post, we discussed the concept of the authority of the author.  In general, I think it’s your ability to allow your reader to sink happily into the world you have created for as long as you want her there. In this post, I’ll make a stab at delineating how you acquire this credibility. Truthfully, I’m a little nervous about this as it’s a difficult idea to pars. But let’s give it a try.

Some parts of author credibility

I think of these as necessary but not sufficient conditions for your reader to trust you.

Expertise. Well, obviously. If you’re writing historical fiction, you make the reader uneasy if you write, “Sir Galahad said, ‘Get your buns in gear.’” (unless the intent is comic). Similarly, even in science fiction, violating basic principles of the physical universe need careful and well-reasoned explanations for the reader to buy it.

Confident handling of structure. This is where mastery of craft comes in. Your ability to seamlessly handle the mechanics of story-telling like the judicious use of description, dialogue, showing not telling, etc. The novel should flow seemingly effortlessly to its inevitable close. You accomplish this only by a lot of effort and technical proficiency.

Believability. The tale itself needs to be believable or at least, the hard to believe parts are carefully explained. This is also true of depicting human interactions. You don’t want to kick the reader out of the continuous dream by having her think “Really? Would he actually do that?”

Belief in your story.  You presumably believe in your story because you’re writing it. And you continue to do so despite the occasional quiver in confidence. However, you can show your belief in the story by avoiding bombast—that is, the desire to tell your reader how she should feel about what you are writing. Instead, you just show the events and let the reader come to her own conclusions. You believe in your plot enough that it doesn’t need these artificial supports.

Belief in self. We all have occasional attacks of writer’s block, or are discouraged by how hard this all is, or are convinced that everything I write is junk. Belief in self will allow you to tough through these wobbles and keep writing. Without it, there will be no stories over which to have authority.

Is this enough?

I wish I could say with confidence that I had wrestled all the components of author credibility to the ground. But I’m pretty sure I haven’t because there is a know-it-when-you-see-it residual which resists analysis.

This is the magic I have talked about. It is that indefinable fairy dust that sometimes you can sprinkle over your writing and sometimes you can’t. But you keep writing in the hopes that your Muse or inner spirit or the drop into the right space, will give you the magic. And by the by, credibility, too.

Authority of the Author—What is it?

authority

Authority of the Author—What is it?

Sounds a little New Age, doesn’t it? Authority of the Author.  It is, kind of. I think the best way to start is with an example.

As always, I remember reading this but can’t remember the source so you’ll to have to take my word for it.

In her earlier writing, Margaret Atwood published a short story about girls at a summer camp who collaborate on writing a novel. A bad, clichéd one as it turned out. The humor is in how inept it is.

But what would have happened if the writer herself had been a bad writer? The joke would fall flat or disappear because the reader wouldn’t see a difference between the quality of the writing of the novel-in-progress and that of how the story itself was being told. For the short story to work, Atwood had to establish that she herself as a good writer before she introduced the girls’ efforts.

She does this by her vivid description of the setting and the dialogue through which she introduces the idea of the group effort, among other ways. Atwood has established her authority to tell the story.

What is this authority of the author?

The Atwood example is the clearest I’ve found where a lack of authorial authority makes a difference. But it gets murky beyond that. Honestly, there’s not even unanimous agreement on what it means.

Brooke Warner in her Huffington post article believes “getting published writing under your belt (including books, of course) is the key to true authority.” That doesn’t quite sit right with me as I’ve read plenty of unpublished pieces which have authority.

The blog Wistful Writer comes closest to a definition I agree with:

Authority is important in any sort of writing, but especially so in literary fiction. Because the writer is creating a world that is essentially made from thin air, the reader must feel safe and confident that the world she is entering into is real and true. The reader must be able to trust the writer in order to engage with the work. As such, the writer absolutely must work hard in order to gain the reader’s trust.

However, the blog then gives an example which doesn’t actually capture the concept for me.

Memoirs should have this power

Memoir writers presumably have this completely covered. They certainly are experts on their own story. They have sort of spontaneous authority, no?

But even with this presumed knowhow, memoirs can also be seen as self-serving, light on truth, or verging on the unbelievable. So they don’t automatically get a free pass into being trusted.

Defining authority primarily as a writer’s expertise on the topic of the narrative doesn’t feel right to me. While I agree a writer needs to know what he’s talking about in both content and craft, I think authority encompasses a realm which I may not be able to adequately define but will nevertheless give a try in the next post.

But for a final word:

Why does it matter?

Really, who cares if you have authority? Big deal.

But actually, it is. If you do, your reader will relax into your story and go willingly where you want to take her. You have put her in the continuous dream state.

Authority has another, practical advantage. With it, you can probably rely on your readers to stick with you through bumpy/puzzling plot bits or necessary but slow scenes. So they can experience your dazzling ending.

 

Who/What is the Tale About?

tale

Who/What is the Tale About?

The tale is about?

When you’ve finished the first draft of your novel and looking to strengthen it and even lengthen it, who or what your tale is about is a good question to ask. This may seem quite simple-minded. You might think, “Well, my tale is about Minisha because she’s the main character.”

You’d be right, of course. Your novel has taken Minisha in a particular direction. She might have traveled to experience the world. She might have never left town, but longed to. Or she didn’t want to leave—just more leeway from a strict mother. Any of these and many others could be interesting paths.

Who/what the story is about shapes choices

I am a great proponent of just writing whatever comes up. Minisha meets a smarmy charmer. She almost gets run over in the street. She realizes that she can tackle the mountain after all. Whatever interests you.

But somewhere near the end of the first draft or when you are editing, you need to consider who or what the novel is really about. For example, is the story about Minisha discovering who she is on her journey (whether physical or mental) or is it about her romance with the professor she meets along the way?

Which path you choose can and should shape your thoughts on what scenes can be kept; which deleted; and which rewritten or reoriented.

The novel is about self-discovery

So, let’s say you’ve decided that the novel is primarily about Minisha’s self-discovery. Review your scenes to ask questions like:

  • The romantic scenes are appropriate still but do the number, length or even emotional impact of these scenes outweigh those of the self-discovery? If they’re very prominent, does the relationship overshadow the self-discovery?
  • How do you make the self-discovery more show than tell? This is an important way to signal your main theme. What does she DO which indicates her changes? Much of self-discovery happens in the character’s mind. But can you have her taking a physical risk or buying clothes more fashionable than she usually buys? This can show increasing self-confidence.

The story is about love

But what if the story is primarily about falling in love? You might ask similar questions:

  • Can you/do you want the self-discovery to revolve around the falling in love? E.g. she didn’t realize she could be lovable; she is getting in her own way in romance. If so, do you need to tone down the angst and revelation around her faith or career?
  • How much of the self-discovery do you need to show on stage, as it were? Slowing down enough to give a thorough picture of the internal struggle Minisha is undergoing should be compelling and hopefully, more intense than the scenes about the love interest.

Why do I have to make a choice?

Well, of course you don’t have to. It’s your novel after all. But considering the question helps to bring focus to the novel. It also helps decide what scenes you need to write in SHOW mode and what can be TELL or shorter or perhaps not needed.

Decide later or at the end

Again, ask yourself these questions when you’re near or at the end of your first draft. Examining this too early in the process will wreck the spontaneity of allowing the tale to take the path it needs to.

You do need to ask it. But only after the first draft is in the bag.

My First Draft is Too Short!

draft

My First Draft is Too Short!

Finishing a first draft is a milestone. I want to say the job is done but there is more to do.

Congrats! First draft done!

First off, take a minute to slow down and pat yourself on the back. No, do more than that. Treat yourself to a dinner out or that sweater you’ve been lusting after. Take the time to savor the great accomplishment. Thousands have started a novel but given up before reaching this point. Well done!

But is it a novel?

There is probably an existential answer to the question but I’m focused on a more practical issue. Is your novel between 80,000-90,000 words? That’s typically what both publishers and readers are looking for. As with any rule in writing, there are exceptions. War and Peace has 587,287; A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 46,333.

It’s not that you can’t have a novel outside the normal boundaries but you’ll probably have a hard sell both to publishers and your eventual readers. I don’t know whether readers have trained up publishers or the other way around, but they usually expect some heft in any novel they’re committing their time to.

So, to avoid an unnecessary and uphill battle, make sure your novel is in the optimal range. And if you are newish to the game, your word total will almost always be seriously short of the target.

Bump up word count and engage readers more

A low word count can cause panic as you may feel written out, but there are ways to bump up your word count while engaging your readers more fully.

Don’t gallop to the end

If you have a story in mind, you want to get the bare bones of the plot down as quickly as possible. And that’s not a bad thing. But give the manuscript a read and consider where you could elaborate on the basic design.

Your hero needs to destroy a piece of code which has world-ending potential. You have a lot of scenes where he is plotting his movements once he has broken into the facility. But what about adding a scene or scenes where he has to learn how to physically infiltrate the building? You might have given passing attention to this aspect in your draft which you can expand into an interesting quest in and of itself. You increase the suspense for your reader and up the word count simultaneously.

Flesh out characters

Say you have created a character (let’s call her Delilah) who likes to get her way. The protagonist (Angela) is the target of her pressure. You show Angela doing what Delilah wants despite her misgivings so that you can go onto the juicier parts where Angela gets into trouble.

But what if Delilah breaks down Angela’s resistance gradually rather than Angela giving in during one scene? What if you show Delilah’s war of attrition? That way, Delilah is a more interesting character, not just a steam-roller, and Angela doesn’t seem as weak (not usually a good look for the protagonist). Better story and higher word count.

Use subplots

A sub-plot is a story parallel to the main story which may enhance or amplify the main plot. I know that doesn’t give you much but I think I need to spend time on this so I will talk subplots farther on.

Anyhow, alls to say, increasing the word count for your novel can also heighten the excitement and engagement of the story. The next post will cover a question you might need to ask yourself as you are improving your manuscript.