Friday, 28 February 2014

I've Been A Terrible Writer - Which Is Good To Know

At some point in their life - many, many points, if I'm to speak from my own experience - all writers worry that they're maybe, actually... rubbish at this writing lark.

They look at the Stephen Kings, the J.K.Rowlings, the George R.R. Martins and cry "I am not any of them, therefore I must suck!" They look at their current work-in-progress, stalled halfway through that awkward middle zone, and fret that it's not so much Writers' Block as 'writer is a blockhead.' Or they get yet another rejection from a publisher/agent, and imagine them cackling and emailing snippets of the submission to colleagues for them take the piss out of it, before struggling to type out their 'thanks but no thanks' with a straight face.

This week, I discovered that reading your old stuff is a great antidote to those 'I will never become a good writer' blues.

Sounds like a no-brainer, I know. But the reasons it can work so well are twofold. First, it lets you know you were definitely more rubbish in the past. And second, you can see exactly where and how you were rubbish. Both of which means you are now less rubbish - so if you keep on doing it, you can only get less and less rubbish until you are - pretty darn good at this writing malarkey. There's hope! It's not impossible - you just might make it someday!

Reading through the half-dozen or so novels I started but never finished, still languishing in their WIP Folder of Death on my hard drive, it was very clear I made the same mistakes with them, over and over again. That was why they never got finished. These were classic writing flaws; the kind that make successful authors and writing gurus do that face like they've just had lemon juice rubbed in a paper cut. I wouldn't have seen those glaring errors back then. I probably thought I was doing great. But now I'm doing the same lemon-in-the-paper-cut face - which is no easy feat when you're trying to bang your head on your desk at the same time. How could I have thought this was the right way to do it? What an utter plank!

In order to elaborate - and hey, maybe give you a laugh and help you feel better about your own insecurities - let me give you some idea of my cringiest sins. Don't worry, I'll spare you the actual text itself, in favour of brief summaries that could be applied quite universally to just about all of my early attempts:


Main Character Info-Dump!
 "Chapter One, first paragraph - right then, here's my main character. I'm now going to tell you everything about him; what he looks like, what he does for a living, a nice big chunk of background info about his childhood - ooh, and all his issues and insecurities as well. Hell, can't forget THAT! Hey wait - where are you going? No, come back - you NEED to know all this stuff before I can start telling you the actual story..!"
 I did this Every. Single. Time. In every half-finished novel from my past. You'd literally only just met my main character and there I was, giving you not so much an introduction as a case study from his psychotherapist. Readers don't want that. It feels like they've met the literary equivalent of The Nutter On The Bus (you know - that complete stranger who comes and sits next to you and within five minutes they've told you their entire life story, including that bit about their operation that meant they couldn't sit down properly for six weeks afterwards...) Most importantly - and it clearly took me a while to realise this - they don't need to know it all upfront. Get on with the bloody story, and drip the background stuff in quietly as events unfold.

I'm Going To Tell You Exactly How She Really, REALLY FEELS!
"She's upset! Really REALLY upset! I need you to be in no doubt about just how upset she is - how can I convey this? Goddamn it, I don't think there are enough adverbs in the English language to fully convey the depths of her upset-ness -  I've already run out, and I haven't even finished the paragraph!"
Ermmm... yeah. When it came to Big Emotional Scenes, I had this tendency to go huge. If you'd turned any of my early efforts into a movie, they'd probably look like one of those early talkies from the 'thirties, where the heroine would clasp her hand to her forehead and fling herself face-down on the bed to show she was unhappy - in case the audience didn't quite get it from her wailing "Aaarrrggghh, Rodrigo NOOOOOO!!" and bursting into tears. Lesson learned: you really can have too many adverbs. Way too many. In fact, you don't need them at all more often than you think.

How It Works 101
"Okay, if you're going to believe in this funky new techie thing I've invented for the purpose of this novel, you need to know EXACTLY how it works... Whaddya mean, 'you don't care?' This is SCIENCE FICTION, you Luddite! Now pay attention..."
A variation on the Main Character Info-Dump, this was a side-effect of working as a software technician for four years. In that line of work, if you came up with some new snippet of coding, software program or Way of Doing Stuff, you had to justify the hell out of it if you didn't want to endure the ridicule and scorn of your peers and superiors (especially if you were one of that rare and peculiar species, a Female.) And, for a long time, I got into a habit of thinking I had to do that for the pretend techie stuff in my novels as well. You don't - at least, not to that extent. You still need to do enough research to be sure what you've invented is at least plausible - because if you don't, there are certainly people out there who'll pick holes in it if it isn't (I've worked with some of them.) But you don't need to include the instruction manual in your novel.

Green Screen, Green Screen, Blah Blah Blah...
"Where are they? Well... it's a ROOM, isn't it? What kind of room? A - a ROOMY room! Aw jeez, bored now - can I do dialogue instead, please?"
For all my Baz Luhrmann-esque enthusiasm when it came to conveying character emotions, when it came to setting the scenes I barely even bothered to phone it in. Obviously you can go over-the-top when it comes to painting your scenic visuals - but it's fair to say I was under-the-bottom. It seemed to me like an unnecessary chore to offer any description of the venue in which my characters were acting their little socks off; I'd already said they were on a street, and everyone knows what a street looks like, don't they? Y'know.. roads, pavements, stuff...
Maybe I forgot that readers didn't have an admission ticket to the inside of my head, to watch the same brain-movie I was watching. As it was, all they were getting were the blank green-screens, while I was taking my full-on, writer's-privilege-CGI-experience completely for granted. I still find writing descriptions of my settings a bit of a chore. But now I take the time to do it anyway, because if I'm always the one getting the best view of the movie, it's only fair.

Thunderbirds Are Go!
"Okay... so now we're on the Adverb Diet, how else can I make my characters convey emotion? Nodding heads - yeah, that's a good one, especially when the character's about to answer a question with a 'yes.' Ooh - and head-shaking for 'no' - GENIUS!  And don't forget arm-waving and shrugging - whoops, I mean shrugging HIS SHOULDERS... and - oh look, if I pull this string his leg goes up and that makes him look anxious..!"
Yep - that was my compensatory strategy after identifying and attempting to cure my Adverb Overload Disorder. Hey, why make them sound bloody ridiculous when I can make them look bloody ridiculous instead? From thirties pulp movie to sixties puppet show; there's progress for you. I had a whole bunch of 'stock gestures' I would roll out for each specific emotion - over and over and over again.... In one of my novels, I used the phrase "he raked his hand through his hair" so many times I began to wonder if this was actually a story about mullet gardeners. It's not a bad phrase for describing character action - but after bingeing on it so indiscriminately in that one project it'll probably be a cold day in hell before I ever use it again. And if I'm honest... this is an affliction I'm still battling. I'm aware of it now, which is a good thing - but I'm still very much in the process of trying to cure myself. One day at a time, and all that.


Betcha glad you never read any of my early works now, eh? (I know I am.)

I've still got a long way to go before I'd be comfortable actually saying, out loud, the words "I am a good writer." But after today, I'm totally happy to say "I'm not as rubbish a writer as I used to be." I have grown. I have improved. I haven't reached my destination yet - but at least I know it's worth carrying on up that highway.

I might go back to some of those old novels one day; with my new perspective, the basic ideas behind them could still work if I took the time to write the actual stories properly. I'm glad I looked at them again, and I'm glad I don't do those things I used to do anymore (or at least that I'm better at catching myself when I do.)

But most of all, I'm really glad I don't still believe those early works stood a chance of being published - as I'm pretty sure I must have done back then. Now that would be embarrassing....

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