Everything I Write Is 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.

How Do You Know When You’re Finished?


How Do You Know When You’re Finished?

Might seem like a dumb question. You’re finished when you write the last scene. But no, then there’s the editing, rewriting, even reimagining. Okay, so then you’re finished, right?  Well…

Are you really finished?

The problem is, there’s always more to do. One more copy edit would undoubtedly cut out more words which, as I have discussed before, George Orwell thought well of. And maybe I should add more suspense before the climax. Have I really portrayed the hero as fully as is needed?

It can be exhausting and frustrating. To the point that you just want to get it over with.

I get it. Winston Churchill put it well:

Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a joy and an amusement and then it becomes a mistress and then it becomes a tyrant and that last phase is, that just as  you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster.

It’s not uncommon to vacillate between urges to kill the monster and pursuing perfection like an actress addicted to plastic surgery.

Limits of technique and imagination

I’m not sure that this answer fits everyone but it is a rule of thumb that I have found works for me.

I decide I have finished when I reach the limit of my technique and imagination. Which sometimes feel like the same thing.

Let me give you an example.

I was writing a story of a mother (okay, mine) and a daughter (yes) and their fractious relationship. I was trying to present both characters as striving at cross purposes in order to create a situation of fictional conflict rather than just a series of running battles of the no-you-can’t-yes-I-can variety. To do that, I wanted to make both characters, if not sympathetic, then as nuanced as I could.

I tried and tried with the mother and every once in a while, I thought I had her captured. Then she would slip away. To the point that I didn’t actually know if I had achieved my objective. And moreover, I couldn’t think of any more ways to tackle the problem. Perhaps because I hadn’t mastered the craft enough to make it happen. Perhaps because my imagination had been exhausted.

At that point, I decided I had to let it go because I had reached the limit of what I was capable at that time. Even if I wasn’t satisfied and didn’t know if I had achieved what I had hoped for.

Do I have to go to these lengths?

No, of course you don’t have to. It’s your writing after all. But I have found that if I know I have gone to the limit of my abilities in everything I finish, then I can look back on this work from the Olympian heights of The Future and give myself a pass for the clumsy word, the plot hole, or the feeble technique revealed on a later pass. If I haven’t, the rereading is more likely to prompt regret or even embarrassment.  I knew I could have done better and I didn’t.

You may have your own way to know if you’ve finished, but this is how I recognize when to kill the monster.

Avoiding Predictability


Avoiding Predictability

In the last post, I said that I hated Downton Abbey because of its predictability. I want to spend this post on how to keep your stories fresh.

But isn’t all fiction about predictability?

So here is where it gets complicated. Kurt Vonnegut, author of many iconoclastic, often sci-fi, novels like Cat’s Cradle and Slaughter House Five, maintained there were only six basic plots. Boy Meets Girl, Cinderella, etc. So readers, however unconsciously, are looking for your novel to fall into one of these formats.

If you buy this idea, and perhaps surprisingly, I tend to, then you’ve gotta think that it’s one for predictability and zero for freshness.

However, I don’t think that’s true. As Vonnegut also points out in A Man Without a Country, it is the unique perspective you bring to the writing which makes the work exceptional and worth reading.

So my writing should be unpredictable

Not that either.

Not if it means that your calm, cool and collected protagonist suddenly grabs a kitchen knife and stabs her calm, cool and collected husband. Because one of the annoying things about readers is that they also have unconscious rules for your characters. And one of them certainly is that what they do has to make sense in the context of the personalities you have already established for them.

Otherwise, the reader will find the action puzzling, erratic, and even unbelievable. And if so, you kick them out of the continuous dream you’re trying to create.

Creating surprising/fresh stories

Now, I’m not trying to suggest that your characters can’t or shouldn’t do surprising things. Not at all. But they can’t come out of the blue. One of the most convincing ways to do that, I find, is to imbed clues in your narrative which might not be noticeable to the reader. Then when the character does something startling, the reader should be able to remember those non-obvious moments so that you can retain the element of surprise while still making it consistent with the traits established thus far.

I know that’s a bit wordy but here’s an example.

The spouse of an abusive husband seems to just take it and even, in that sickening but common tendency, does all she can to please him. A friend comes over when she is doing the dishes. The friend urges her to leave him but she maintains she loves him. Right about then, she drops a plate which breaks. You might have the wife be terrified of her husband’s reaction to mask this clue.

Later, the wife notices that her husband’s suit jacket is split at the back. She widens it. He makes an important presentation without realizing the problem. He returns, boasting of how well it went. That evening, she quietly repairs the jacket and rehangs it.

So, if she eventually stabs her husband, while it might be surprising, it doesn’t come out of the blue nor would it seem unbelievable.

A unique perspective which keeps your writing fresh doesn’t mean erratic.

A final note

The problem with writing is that there are almost always exceptions to prove the rule. While generally, readers expect continuity in the story, techniques such as stream of consciousness have worked, James Joyce’s Ulysses being an oft-cited example. The movie Moulin Rouge starring Nicole Kidman is another example where a coherent story is lacking and it totally works. That’s writing for you.

I Hate Downton Abbey


I Hate Downton Abbey

I know I lay myself open for a lot of hate mail by declaring my dislike of Downton Abby. But you can’t accuse me of just watching one program and writing it off. Nope, I watched every season.


Self-defence. Invariably, someone would ask, “Did you see Downton Abbey last night?” If I said ‘no’, I invariably got a retelling of the whole program in excruciating detail. So I watched and developed my stock answer: Yes, wonderful setting. Yes, great costumes. Good acting, too.

All of which was true. But I still hated it.

Why do I hate Downton Abbey?

Let me give you an example from the first season. So the heir to the estate shows up. The oldest girl of the family resists falling in love with him, but eventually succumbs. There is a scene of them dancing together to establish it. One wrinkle—the heir is already engaged to someone else and she sees them waltzing.

Right at that moment, I knew the fiancée was toast. And sure enough, she conveniently dies of influenza shortly thereafter, paving the way for True Love.

The whole series had that quality. When a character stood in the way of the advancement of the story, a convenient accident or death whisked him or her out of the way. It was like watching a train barrelling across a prairie towards you and then being asked to be surprised when you had to jump out of the way.

In short, Downton Abbey was predictable.

Isn’t predictability good?

Okay, I’m not saying that predictability is totally and invariably unacceptable. Take mystery novels. As I’ve pointed out in a previous post, they have a well-accepted format which readers expect and enjoy. Murder, suspect, detective, resolution. Same for Harlequin romances. Poor but worthy girl falls for virile but flawed male after series of tribulations.

And I don’t wish to imply that some authors aren’t very inventive in sticking to the expected while still weaving an enjoyable story around it. (Okay, maybe I’m just talking about mysteries.)

But where there is not a well-established path, where you aren’t supposed to know where the story is going—i.e., the rest of fiction—too much predictability is boring.

What should we be aiming for?

Fighting predictability is a constant battle. It’s not that you are aiming for it, but it is often the easy way out of a writing predicament. If your characters have become stock, then when the villain makes a choice, it takes little effort to have him act more evil than possibly explore some other option.

Even when you are striving for more nuanced characters, it is so alluring to have them act in predictable ways. The concerned mother, the feckless teenager, the embittered old man. These tropes aren’t bad in and of themselves, but good fiction aims to help the reader see the world in way he hadn’t before. Not with alien landscapes necessarily, but more with a perspective or insight which is new.

It’s harder to do that if you are using tried and true actions, feelings, or values from tried and true characters. Next post: Avoiding Predictability.

The Difficult Middle


The Difficult Middle

Rosabeth Moss Kanter is a famous Harvard management guru. She wrote:

A basic truth of management—if not of life—is that nearly everything looks like a failure in the middle…persistent, consistent execution is unglamourous, time-consuming and sometimes boring.

In my last post, I’m Stuck, I recommended getting out of being stuck by creating a list of tasks (less description, more tragic heroine, more atmosphere, etc.) to fix the problems with your novel. It is probably a daunting catalogue. Like the swimmer in the picture, it doesn’t look as if you will ever reach land.

That’s where Rosabeth comes in.

Recognizing the difficult middle

It will be worth it when you succeed. Take that as your mantra. Having said that, it is also true that the road to nirvana will have some tough patches. This is one. You are far enough in to know the outline of the story but not far enough along to identify its true shape. You have already invested an enormous amount of time and effort and you’re not sure whether it’s worth it. But instead of doing the artist thing of throwing your hands up and the manuscript out the door, just accept that this is the difficult middle. It’s not a comment on the quality of your writing. It is just the difficult middle that all worthwhile projects have to go through. You have reached yours.

Getting through

What I am going to suggest is pretty mechanical but it can get you home.

Step 1. Elaborate on your list.

  • For each of the items, flesh it out a bit. How could you do it? What scene would illustrate it? Could I stick a bit in an earlier scene to accomplish this? Any main points that I want to make sure I include?
  • If at any point in doing this, you get excited about the possibilities and have to urge to write the scene, do it. No need to finish your broccoli before you get dessert.
  • But do eventually eat your broccoli and finish the list—again stopping to write if/whenever the spirit moves.
  • If you don’t have the skill/knowledge to accomplish a particular item, identify who to ask for help. Skill/knowledge is not the same as talent. You can have oodles of the latter and still need to learn the tricks of the trade.

Step 2. Prioritize

  • With your annotated list, re-order it. Not in order of what is most important for the novel or the hardest, but with the ones you are most interested in.
  • Work through from the most motivating to the least.

Step 3. Dump

  • Sometime as you are working your way out of the difficult middle, stop to ask yourself, do I really need this scene?
  • Often, especially near the end of the list but it can happen at any time, you realize that the passage is unnecessary because:
    • You’ve made the point elsewhere
    • You can tweak an already written piece to include what you want
    • The reader already knows this
    • You can just stop the last scene and open on the new one. You don’t need the transition scene. Like getting the protagonist from home to downtown.
  • Dump these. Not only will it give you a thrill but it will get you home that much faster.

Accepting that there is a middle, that it is difficult, and that has nothing to do with your talent or creativity will help you get through to The Promised Land.