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.

Is Journaling Writing?

journaling

Is Journaling Writing?

Yes and obviously, journaling is writing if writing is strictly laying words down in a comprehensible string.

But I want to talk about journaling and writing fiction.

What is journaling?

I think of journaling as an episodic or regular recording of your thoughts, feelings, events, etc. A natural way for writers to think through and about the current of their lives.

I know some people journal every day. I tend to journal about once a week—whether through a paucity of life or thoughts, I leave you to decide. And my journaling is decidedly of the pedestrian kind. I mostly write about how my week has gone, who has pissed me off (often accompanied by a pithy and well-reasoned analysis of their failings), what is worrying me, what I can do about it, what I can’t…I’m sure you get the picture.

Although I don’t consider it writing with a capital W, I still find it very useful, mostly in a mental health way. It allows me to vent my spleen on annoying people thereby avoiding doing so in person. It helps me work through a problem in my life, slowing down enough to be able to consider options rather than react in a knee-jerk manner. It calms me.

But I don’t consider this weekly dump as writing in the fiction sense.

Leading to fiction

You may journal or want to as a road to writing fiction. If that is your intent, then you may use a different approach. Rather than recording your life as it evolves, you may elaborate on big thoughts that you want to capture in words. New ideas for a fiction piece might come out of this.

It can also be fertile ground for speculations on how the story you are working on might develop, or thinking through a niggle you have about it. Snatches of dialogue or description that might be useful might also occur.

It seems some people seem to be able to combine my kind of journaling with falling into fiction. I haven’t been able to do it, but if you can, all to the good.

But don’t be lulled into thinking you are WRITING if you just do my kind of journaling, no matter how frequently. The only thing it is likely to give you is better typing and an ease with words (the latter not to be sneezed at).

As avoidance

In fact, I have found that journaling can be an excellent way to avoid writing fiction. Either by satisfying the need to play with words or, in my case, wasting time which I had intended to devote to fiction. In fact, at some writing retreats, I have written pages and pages (current record: 10) of anything but fiction. I’ve written about writing, about how much I would like to be writing at this moment, speculating why I am not writing, torturing myself on my inadequacies as a writer. Interspersed with charming word pictures of the gopher under the cottage or the ducks on the lake. Or any other topic which will assure that I don’t focus on fiction writing.

So, if you are journaling now, I encourage you to continue. But unless you are among the lucky few whose journaling turns into fiction, don’t confuse the two. Set aside time for journaling for your mental health by all means. But also time for creating magic.

Every Hero needs a Dr. Watson

WatsonEvery Hero needs a Dr. Watson

I had the revelation that I needed a Dr. Watson when I was writing my first novel. Which will never see the light of day but from which I nevertheless learned a lot. I realized that my heroine/detective was puzzling out the mystery almost entirely in her head. Lots of thinking, not so much action.  I suppose I could have had her discuss her conundrums with her cat, but as you know, cats don’t do supportive or empathetic. And certainly not second fiddle.

Then the revelation. That’s why Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes novels, wrote in the character of Dr. Watson, faithfully following Holmes everywhere. Yes, the conceit is that Watson is recording the stories for posterity, but in fact, it is a way to allow the protagonist to work through the issues of the novel in a more dynamic way.

Not to say that talking to someone is an adequate substitute for action which moves the plot forward, but it does have the advantage of being slightly more active than inner dialogue. It also introduces the possibility of conflict or debate if/when Watson disagrees with Holmes’ analysis. Which rarely happens with the omniscient Holmes, but you get what I mean.

 (Almost) every novel needs a Dr. Watson

I think most novels need a Dr. Watson. Can be a best friend, a colleague at work, even a stranger on the subway.

Look at your draft to see if you have a Watson-like character that not only can get the protagonist’s thoughts out of his head and into speech but also potentially challenge the logic, wisdom or even morality of the hero’s intentions. Or elaborate and refine his plans.

This Watson character can, in and of himself, add a dimension to the story by having a definite view which conflicts, or at least must be reconciled, with the hero’s. Action-oriented versus cautious; retiring or larger than life; pragmatic/principled; empathetic/hard-nosed. You get the picture.

You don’t need to go crazy either in the number of contrasts or extent of the difference. Otherwise, you risk falling into caricature or stereotype. But a strong secondary character can not only enhance the story but your reader’s interest in it.

When you don’t need one

Naturally, if your hero is primarily caught up in personal angst, a secondary character providing a listening ear and even objections, might not be appropriate. When the protagonist’s raison d’être is introspection and tangling himself in the weeds of his thoughts, then allowing the story to flow as intended may be the right answer.

But if you have a worry in the back of your mind that your hero is doing too much thinking and not enough action, Dr. Watson may be your ticket. The discussions don’t in and of themselves constitute action but they seem to promote it. Give it a try.

Ideas Turn to Dross

drossIdeas Turn to Dross

Dross. At one point, I read Les Belles Images by Simone de Beauvoir, writer, philosopher, seeker of truth. I wrote:

I want to be Simone de Beauvoir—well except the dead part and Jean-Paul Satre didn’t sound like a picnic. But a de Beauvoir in training. An apprentice de Beauvoir. A de Beauvoir groupie even although this last seems difficult to pull off when the subject isn’t expelling her fair share of carbon dioxide. Although think Marilyn Monroe. Or Elvis.  Thirties, no? Cigarette holder, art deco revival, possibly turban. Need to grow about six inches, lose fifty pounds and have that laser eye surgery.

It wasn’t that I admired her lifestyle, but her ability to think great thoughts and more importantly, to get them on paper. 

Turning to Dross

Instead, I often feel like what I have in my head goes through a funnel of the sharpest angle and narrowest spout so that what eventually gets down on paper was only the suggestion of photocopy of a mimeograph. I struggle with what I had in mind and the shadow that actually appears on the page. In fact, the recording of the thoughts seems to be the mechanism by which they turn to dross. Maybe they weren’t gold to begin with but they seemed more valuable before being written down.

I wish I could be like Simone who seemed to have been able to hold onto more of what she wanted to say than I can.

I think (I hope) I’m not alone is this—that things are always better, brighter, more exciting, more lyrical in my head.

Is there an answer?

Of course not. Or at least not an easy one. I think it is a struggle we all are engaged it.

So I have thought about it and these are the tentative conclusions I have come to:

 I realize, for me, that I tend to try to make things simple and clear—a hangover, I am sure from the business writing. Taking complex concepts and explaining them concisely and clearly.

Exactly the wrong approach, I think, for fiction. Linear is bad, clarity is suspect, brevity is overrated. Instead, perhaps the opposite. Capturing the world in a phrase, life in a gesture, philosophy in a sigh—this is the nirvana of fiction writing. For all the complexities to be as one, without the need to tease out the threads and lay them out so they don’t tangle. That part of the joy is the tangled. The accidental touching, the knots that make themselves. Because I think we understand at some deep level this complexity and rejoice in it even if we cannot trace all the threads or see all the connections.

Which still doesn’t help me think bigger thoughts on paper.

Ah well, I’m like Dorothy Parker, the 1930s member of the Algonquin Round Table and cutting humorist, who said: I hate writing, I love having written.

Conflict

conflictConflict

Conflict. Has a bad rep. because fighting, struggle and harsh words can be nasty in our real lives. But they are the lifeblood of fiction.

Definition

However, the definition is broader than used in every day conversation. Conflict occurs when your protagonist is stymied by people who don’t share his goals or by events/things which throw him off course. Doesn’t have to be ugly although it certainly can be if your plot calls for it.

Your main character might be thwarted by others who are sympathetic to his goals but, for their own objectives, need to prevent his from being achieved. A father wants to protect his daughter from getting involved in the murder, so he lies to the detective about her whereabouts.

Or a catastrophic, unforeseen, but nevertheless credible bolt out of the blue derails his plans. No Deus ex Machina, please, but sometimes Things Happen. A blizzard prevents the hero from seeing the cliff edge; the critical key falls down a sewer grate; a traffic accident throws off the precise timing of a heist.

How to write conflict into your stories

If your plot is working, then you probably have incorporated conflict into it. But just as a double check, review these points. Sometimes, it’s worth expanding on one or more of these points in your novel to strengthen it.

Response to a threat

Again, doesn’t have to be big. A student fears failing an exam which will prevent him from getting into a good university. What does he do in response? The threat usually occurs fairly early on in the story. Leaving it too late leaves the reader wondering what the novel is about.

Fight for the goal

Good fiction characters are fighters. They know what they want. When they run into trouble or are foiled, they take action.

So, this precludes writing passive characters. That is, a main character who mainly stands on the sidelines and wrings his hands about the antics or misdeeds of those around him. A narrator telling the story (see Stories in a Frame) qualifies as passive but is not usually the main character. The protagonist is usually found within the framed story. And if he is a good one, he’s in there swinging.

Conflict, not bad luck or adversity.

Bad luck, like falling out of a tree, or adversity, like being born poor, do not, in and of themselves constitute conflict. We’re looking for a fight between opposing goals. Bad luck or adversity can be complicating factors on the hero’s way to her goal but need to play a supporting role rather than been the star and center of the plot.

As I say, if your plot is working, this is probably more of a chance to see if any parts of your story need beefing up. But if you are just starting out, these are good things to keep in mind.