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.

The Problem with English Lit Courses

lit

The Problem with English Lit Courses

Off the top, I differentiate between English Lit and Creative Writing courses. The latter is more closely aligned with this blog. English Lit courses focus primarily on reading the Great Literature of The English Language and talking about why it’s so great.

Great not being synonymous with ripping stories, by the way.   A friend and I once decided that to spend one lunch-time a week reading the Great Literature we’d missed. Unfortunately, we started with Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Fifty pages a week was our goal. To reach it, I had to sit in a hard-backed chair to keep awake.  That I had been unsuccessful was evident when my friend asked, “What did you think of the ship sinking at the end?”

“The ship sank?”

So concluded that pursuit.

English Lit is reductionist

My beef with English Lit for aspiring writers is that the novels are studied by parsing them to death. The devices and metaphors used; how they contribute to the major theme; the effect of the time period and context on the novel’s shape, etc.

Which, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. Certainly you need to be able to recognize the component parts of a novel and the effect of authorial choices on the shape of the story to inform how you create your own.

But because you’ve gotten adept at identifying devices, doesn’t mean you can use them in your own writing. It doesn’t teach you how to create them or when to use them and sometimes even more importantly, when not to.

And gives the impression of fait accompli

The other objection is that a published novel is of course a finished product which doesn’t, if it works, show all the doubt, re-writing, reshaping, and struggle that had gone into it.

I find it prompts one of two reactions to aspiring writers, both bad. The first is okay, I got it. Now I can do it. These writers are unprepared for the mastery of technique they must achieve nor the amount of sloughing. They can be put off and abandon their aspirations.

Even worse are would-be authors who read a novel which has been cut, recut, and polished into the jewel it is and think I could never do this. There’s no point in trying. They don’t realize that the author started off with the same unprepossessing lump of rock that they presently have. They compare their unfinished product to the finished one and despair.

No room for magic

However, my real objection is that English Lit courses leave no room for magic which is the real reward of writing. Oh, the magic of the finished novel might be acknowledged. But not the magic of creation which is the joy of writing. It’s not magic all the time, unfortunately, and you don’t control when it visits, but when it does, it reminds me that this is what I was meant to do.

Okay, I may have set up English Lit courses as a bit of a straw horse. Their objective, to be fair, is not to make you a great writer but to study those who are. You still need to work at technique, and write, write, write. And thereby make room for magic.

Developing a Theme

theme

Developing a Theme

Most great novels have a theme, whether intended by the author or deduced by admiring readers is sometimes hard to tell. Theming your novel can enhance its appeal to your readers.

What is a theme?

There is of course the literary definition and the on-line Masterclass is an excellent source on that aspect. But, for me, a theme in a novel works when it gives me a feeling that I have learned something about myself or the world which is deep and true.  It might follow the typical literary themes of courage, death, friendship, revenge, or love but more important than the label is the visceral understanding I experience. In fact, I have finished novels where I know I have been changed even though I have trouble putting into words what I’ve learned.

Examples

Naturally, and reasonably, you want to know when I have experienced it to see if you agree with my analysis. I’ll do a short list with a note on how they moved/informed me. But I really want to focus on how to do it.

1984 by George Orwell. Even if it’s hopeless, you can stand up for what you believe.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. Faith requires sacrifice and discipline.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. A blinkered view can distort your life.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. How my life should be (turned out to be completely false but hey, I was ten at the time).

Macbeth by William Shakespeare. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow—enough said

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. I can counterfeit the gold and then believe it true.

A theme can’t be force-fed

A novel with a theme can have a powerful and even lasting effect on your reader so of course you want to have one.

But as I have mentioned before, I don’t think it works to decide a priori the path the novel will take. Doing so can, and often does, produce a stilted, forced result which hits the reader over the head with this is the theme, get it?, rather than allowing her to gradually come to understand.

This is where magic comes in

To create a theme, I first think you have to open yourself to the magic lurking in your story.

Writing the first draft. In the original writing, look for the moments where you’re getting the sense of I think there’s something here. But don’t stop to try to figure out what it is, just keep writing. Write and write. Every once and a while, you’ll probably get that same feeling but just note it and keep writing.

It’s important to keep everything at the feeling stage. Don’t try to name it or the theme. Just write as much as you can from that emotion.

Editing the manuscript.  Once the first draft is completed, read it over to identify where that unnamed feeling occurs. Spend some time figuring out what these passages have in common—this is likely where your theme lies.

Strengthening the theme. Now that you understand what the novel means to you, go back over the manuscript to see where you can add or tweak scenes to reinforce the theme in a non-hit-over-the-head way.

So, in short, don’t look for your theme—let it find you.

Quality Versus Quantity

quality

Quality Versus Quantity

Vey broadly, writers seem to fall into two categories in the initial creative process. Ones who emphasize quality in their first drafts and others quantity. Writers who aim for quality agonize over every word so it is perfect before they can write the next.

But me, I’m a quantity gal. Get a lot down as fast as you can and then fix it up later.

I’d like to discuss both approaches. However, since I am firmly in the quantity camp, you need to take my opinions with a grain of salt when required.

Quality first?

I think of writers who linger over every word to create are often focused on the beauty of the language or the completely apt word or phrase to capture the moment. Plot and even characters might take secondary place.

Not surprisingly, their output can be quite limited. But can work. A great example is Alistair MacLeod who wrote only one novel in his lifetime, No Great Mischief, and a series of very well-regarded long short stories. All of which were highly acclaimed.

I suppose another good thing is that you cut down on editing of the final draft. It is a jewel at the end rather that a hodgepodge of potential.

But I have to say, I find this approach (OPINION) a little constipating. I can imagine getting discouraged by the slow progress which can be plagued with disheartening doubts. And being thrown off by the lack of the right word so that advancement is impossible.

Quantity first

A quantity first approach can be useful for stories which are primarily plot or character driven. That is, you write what’s been burgeoning in your head—scenes, characters, bits of action—whatever comes up. If the right word doesn’t occur immediately, then stick in a synonym and search for the perfect one in the editing. If you have a sneaking suspicion that you’ve changed a key character’s name half-way through, ignore and continue writing.

I much prefer this approach as I think it frees up your mind to take you to unimagined nooks and crannies that might never have occurred with a more measured approach.

The downside is the editing phase can be as lengthy as the initial creation. It will require a lot of rewriting, rejiggering, remolding of plot lines or characters. And most importantly, you need to be able to toss a lot of the original work because a piece no longer works for the story, makes a duplicate point, or takes a twist that seems to move the novel in the wrong direction.

Not one or the other

Like all dichotomies, it’s not either/or. It is just a tendency you’ve developed. Mostly, however, I’d encourage you to try to lean your propensity to serve the type of novel you’re writing. A plot or character driven story written flawless word by flawless word is likely to lack the energy of one written as fast as it comes to you. A novel focused primarily on language probably isn’t going to be served by whatever—it’s the wrong word—but just keep going.

Whatever is in service of the novel.

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.