It’s always difficult to know if you’re good enough as a writer. You may have had some encouragement at school, some positive comments from people you know, maybe even support from other aspiring writer on the Internet. But until you have a genuine response from people who are willing to take a risk on you, whether it be agents, or publishers, or paying customers, there’s always going to be some doubt in your mind (unless you’re a sociopath, of course).
Obviously, you write better when you have confidence in what you’re doing. Even if the story doesn’t end up working, at least you enjoy the process. But how do you keep going those days everything you write seems like long-winded drivel and utter nonsense?
Encouraging words can help, but most people soon recognise them for what they are, well meaning but of little real substance, especially when you see people at all levels getting the same over the top platitudes. Mind you, if you can convince yourself the kind words are true, that can still work to your advantage. A placebo that you thinks works, actually does.
There’s no simple fix other than to keep writing. A writer improves not through having large numbers of people reading his work, but by producing large amounts of work, whether anyone reads it or not. It’s not necessarily the fastest way to get good, but it is undoubtedly an effective one. Keep writing, keep getting better.
The problems encountered with writing when you're uncertain of every single word you put on the page, come in all shapes and sizes. You start second guessing yourself and before you know it everything gets expanded ad infinitum in an effort to give the reader every chance to ‘get it.’
Whether it’s explaining a set-up, or describing an object, or just repeating the same thing from different angles to give a better view, the result is to signal your lack of confidence in what you’re saying. The problem is not only that it’s tedious to be told something after you’ve already been told it, it also kills the pace and any momentum that might have been building up. And waffling on and on makes you look like don’t know what you’re talking about, even when you do.
So how do you tell when you’ve got it just right?
Firstly, put emotion aside and consider the relationship of what you’re explaining to the overall story. Is it a minor detail? Information of background interest? Something you will be returning to often? Key information that has to be understood?
The greater the importance to the story, the more space and time you should give it. Once you decide you should only spend a short paragraph on something, what you should or shouldn’t say becomes much more obvious. If it’s worth a page or two, you have to go beyond getting the info across and start considering it as a mini-story, with a beginning, middle, and end of its own.
Assigning an arbitrary length to something before you’ve even written it may seem un-artistic, or limiting, but it’s something you will eventually do automatically. You will naturally know how much space a subject deserves. But until then, being pragmatic will help guide your hand.
Next, consider what else is happening in the scene. If you are focused on getting one thing across to the reader, whether it’s describing the hell out of a tree, or explaining how a computer system works, or remembering a childhood picnic, it’s going to feel one-note. It’s easy to get caught up in the idea of getting one thing across as well as you can, but storytelling is not about perception of the singular. We are used to taking in and assessing information and putting it together quickly to form a conclusion. The end point might be a single idea, but how you get there shouldn’t.
Also, who else is in the scene or even in the vicinity of the scene. What are they doing? What else is happening? If a man is alone and undisturbed in a room while you go over stuff for the reader, chances are you’re not choosing that set up because it suits your story, you’re probably trying to simplify everything so it doesn’t feel confusing. Reducing everything to its simplest form is an avoidance technique. Even if you’ve convinced yourself it is what the character would do, that doesn’t mean they couldn’t do it elsewhere. Isolation is hard to make engaging.
I also like to run through the scene in my head like a movie. See the events unfold. Does it look interesting? A man staring out of a window for a long time is going to become tedious, no matter how profound his thoughts. Static images are very difficult to use (although not impossible) in a dramatic way.
The other thing to bear in mind is when you have come up with, say, three really great ways to make your point, and you can’t choose which is the best, using all three is not three times as good as using one. Not making a choice is a way of abdicating responsibility born of the idea that if you don’t choose, you can’t make the wrong choice. But not choosing is always the wrong choice.
In the end it doesn’t really matter whether you think you know what you’re doing or not. People will end up liking things you thought were throwaway lines, and hating your most beloved characters. All you can really do is get it down on paper, whatever your emotional state, and then brace yourself for the response. If you can put aside the idea of being worthy, and just write anyway (no one can stop you) then even the harshest criticism can be enlightening and helpful to telling your story, which in the end is the only reason to be writer.
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