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.

If You Write, Do You Enjoy Reading Less?

reading

If You Write, Do You Enjoy Reading Less?

I have at least one friend who has accused me of spoiling mystery novels for him. Every change of point of view, forced plot point, or Deus ex Machina moment kicked him out of the story. It spoiled his enjoyment of the whole book. Will this happen to you?

Yes

Unfortunately. At least, when you first start paying attention to your own choice of words and methods. As you perfect your technique, it’s natural to notice when others do it well or poorly.

So you project a future of reading pleasure destroyed just to build up a shaky repertoire of story-telling skills. Hardly seems worth it, does it?

Okay, bad news but the good news is that it is a temporary condition for two reasons: it eventually enhances your enjoyment of reading and there is a way to still enjoy novels short on craft.

Reading augmented

In the by-gone days when you were ‘just’ a reader, there would have been at least some novels of which you said, “I couldn’t get into it” or “It was kind of confusing” or “I didn’t like the main character.”

You put them away unsatisfied. It looked like it would have been a good story. Other books by this author have been. This leaves you with a vaguely uncomfortable feeling. However, since you have a life, you move onto the next novel on your list.

But as a writer, you start to see why the novel didn’t work. There wasn’t enough forward action. All that description slowed down the plot. The biker, the psychologist, and the fashion model all sounded the same (in a mystery novel I actually read).

Won’t make you like the novel any better but it provides you with the satisfaction of solving the puzzle of your reaction.

In fact, a good grasp of writing principles actually heightens your enjoyment of really fine novels. I first realized this when reading No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod. Two parts of my brain were operating simultaneously. One part was crying and being completely with the character and the other was admiring. So that’s how he did it.

You can remark on how skillfully the author included scenes where the hero was a fine but troubled fellow so that your heart aches for him when he causes his own downfall. You can see why the marriage of two minor but charming characters is told rather than shown to allow the romance of the main characters to keep center stage by being shown

So in the end, understanding what makes a good story allows you to enjoy good ones more and identify mistakes in others’ writing which you can avoid in your own.

Getting around this problem

But you don’t want to spend the next however many years hating to read while you build up your writing skills.

I have a simple but effective answer. Pick what you like in the particular novel or author and read for that.

Agatha Christie was a great plotter but her character development (aside from caricature) was practically nil. But I go back to her again and again.

Other authors may write a nail-biting cliff-hanger by having his character do a completely unlikely thing. Enjoy the nail biting, ignore the pushed around heroine. The hero flourishes his hat with the plume of feathers in the novel set in the Victorian era. Ignore the historical anachronism and enjoy the romance.

If you focus on what the author does well, you can still enjoy her work even if she might be wanting on other fronts. After all, you’re not perfect either, are 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.

Prologues in Fiction

prologues

Prologues in Fiction

Prologues are tricky things in fiction and operate quite differently from their role in non-fiction. In non-fiction, they often let you know what’s coming. On the lines of tell them what you’re going to tell them; tell them; and then tell them what you’ve told them. And in non-fiction that often works as the focus is on facts and information. But fiction is about emotion and the unseen.

Non-fiction approach to fiction

I once reviewed a would-be novel using a non-fiction approach. I recreate sort of what it read like:

Prologue: Jason is deeply concerned about the upcoming battle with his brother. He knows that all their history will come to bear and it wouldn’t be just about dividing up Mom’s furniture. It is going to be a knock-down, drag-out.

Story: Jason and his brother fight about who gets what in their mother’s house. Jason wants the blue bowl but so does his brother. His brother accuses him of always trying to grab the best. They fight endlessly.

Last chapter:  Jason is alone in the house. He puts his head in his hands. Just as he feared, things got out of hand.

In short, Jason feared it was going to wrong, it went wrong, and he reflected on the wrongness. I.e. tell ‘em what’s gonna happen, write what happens, and tell ‘em what happened.

Instead of prologues

Now, truthfully, if you wanted to use a prologue as I set out in the example, I suppose you could do it if it were short enough—a fleeting thought as Jason enters the house, for example. But then of course, that’s not a prologue.

Generally, I think you need to ask yourself why you need prologues at all.

I can think of some reasons which I then will go on to brilliantly refute.

I want to give readers the back story.

Why? Why do they need to know what happened before the story starts? How come you don’t start with this back story stuff as the beginning of the plot if it’s so important? Back story is usually most useful at the point readers need it to inform the story. Use a flashback or other device to impart the important bit of history rather than piling it all up front.

 I want to let them know how to approach the story

Doesn’t this sound suspiciously like telling the reader what conclusions they should come to or feelings they should have while reading? As I’ve mentioned, you heighten the reader’s pleasure when you Let the Reader Participate in the Story by allowing her to come to her own decisions. If deep down, this is the reason, for your prologue, I’d dump it completely. Trust that you can get the message across in the story and trust your readers to find it.

I can’t find another place to stick this stuff that I want them to know

I know—during research for the book, you found many riveting facts. But you can’t shoehorn them all into the plot, so why not whet the readers’ appetite in the prologue with all these cool things?

But news—unlike you, they’re not fascinated by your research. Instead, they want to be fascinated by the saga you tell, using the insights you gleaned from the facts.

So bite the bullet and drop all the information which doesn’t in some way further your plot. Save it for boring dinner guests.

Author Choices

author

Author Choices

Readers don’t necessarily realize that all along, an author is making choices. The story seems immutable and inevitable and actually speaks well of the writer’s ability to keep the reader in the continuous dream.

But I find that writers can unknowingly believe the same thing. When you’re in the throes of creation or know your characters so well that they take on a life of their own, there can be a sense of the foreordained.

But your choices have an impact that may not be immediately obvious. I want to use the British and Belgian Professor Ts, discussed in the last post, as an example.

Author, actor, director choices

First off, I know that the writer does not reign supreme in TV or films, wrong though that is. The final performance is shaped by the actor, director, etc. But for our purposes, let’s pretend that the writer is in complete control.

The Belgian Professor T has almost no facial expressions, except for a fixed slight grimace/grin like a clown before make-up. His movements are rigid and intonation flat. He makes no eye contact. He seems to have quite a severe case of OCD and/or Asperger’s syndrome.

I think that the British series decided to portray Professor T as less impaired. He has a wider, although still limited, range of emotion. He makes eye contact. His movements, while not fluid, are more a man with extremely controlled feelings rather than one unaware he has a body.

Why this makes a difference

These seem like relatively minor differences but they impact the show and, in my opinion, may even contribute to why the British series is not as fascinating as the Belgian one.

Because Brit Professor T is more connected to his colleagues (eye contact and more emotion), the supporting characters seem to have greater expectations of him for change. They pull him aside to urge him to be less awkward and more tactful.

But in the Belgian version, his coworkers have pretty much accepted him as is. He is so far out of the norm that they make little or no effort to ‘reform’ him. He is the outside observer.

I think the Belgian professor is therefore a more cohesive, if odd, character than the Brit who has one foot in the normal world and one in his own.  The Brit’s duality causes uneasiness in the viewer as you’re not quite sure what or who he is.

So, even a fairly benign choice in a character can affect its effectiveness.

An easier example

The example I just used is so subtle I’m afraid I haven’t been able to make the point. So for my sake, let’s have a more obvious one. The hero betrays his best friend on ethical grounds. The author can go any number of ways from here. The friend can see the error of his ways. Or try to get revenge. The hero might realize he’s been too judgmental. The friend might have a fatal accident as a result of the hero’s decision. Any of these choices take the novel down a unique and mutually exclusive path.

So, sometimes it can produce a better novel if you play with the idea of taking a pivotal moment in the plot and considering a different track. A huge pain in the neck but you may be surprised at how often this results in a better story.