Thursday, 10 November 2011

Trying Too Hard To Impress

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.

If you found this post interesting please consider giving it a retweet. Cheers.


Weaver said...

Wow. Good enough. Good enough for what? Good enough to stop getting better?

"All you can really do is get it down on paper, whatever your emotional state, and then brace yourself for the response."

Writing is so subjective, this statement is very true. But there are many things we can do at the most elemental level if we want to be taken seriously. You know, like spelling. Grammar. Good plot and characters don't hurt either.

Anonymous said...

Really great piece! I'm pretty OCD about my writing, I never feel it's good enough. I know it's based on my own innate insecurity, which I struggle with every day in one way or another. Sometimes you crave validation, sometimes you want attention. We should never stop trying to be better, but at the same time, we should also accept how we are. Very zen. Again, great post!

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

Writing and reading flash fiction has taught me how to dig down into the story to figure out what it's actually about. Once I find that kernel, I find it easier to tell the story, find it easier to strip away the things that don't belong or don't matter as much.

Empty Nest Insider said...

This is good advice. It's important to just "get it down on paper, whatever your emotional state, and then brace yourself for the response." This sounds like a perfect way to start. Julie

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I try not to describe the hell out of trees.
I just write. Clean up is later.

Arlee Bird said...

Accolades from peers are encouraging and good reviews from critics are ego-boosting, but money from books sold pays the bills. That's what speaks the loudest in the here and now. I also like to visualize scenes as though I'm watching a movie.

A Faraway View

Karen Jones Gowen said...

Very helpful post, and this part is so right:

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.

dolorah said...

Nothing beats getting published to let you know at least one story was "good enough" :)

This was excellent advice on not over-writing. I go back and forth with it so often; only my crit partners can figure it out . .


Alexis Bass said...

Yes. You are so right. The only answer is to keep writing. :) Great post.

Jennie Bennett said...

I agree that there is a point when a certian piece shouldn't be touched anymore (at least until you've had some space) but I believe in always improving. On the same token, some notes are can be thrown away becasue they interfere with the message you are trying to convey. Great post!

Murees Dupè said...

Excellent post! Everything you said is just so true. We should just keep writing anyway.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

This is good advice Moody, but I'm just going to say that this is easier said (or in this case written) than it is done. In my own writing, I'm always second-guessing things and even though I have a publisher, I don't feel any better about my writing than I did when I didn't have a publisher. I think I have writer image disorder.

mooderino said...

@Donna-I think many aspiring writers are looking for a feeling of being 'good enough' which doesn't really exist.

@jessie-I think that's true whatever level you're at. I wonder if there are any happy, confident writers.

@Madeline-I think figuring out what your story is about is a good idea, but one a lot of people shy away from in case they don't find anything there.

@Empty-being willing to fail is a big part of any artistic endeavour.

mooderino said...

@Alex-some trees really ask for it.

@Lee-I think every writer wants to sell some books, whether they say it's important to them or not.


@Donna-it is hard to see it yourself. Letting other people read your stuff and criticise it is also an important part of overcoming insecurity.

mooderino said...


@JA-writing should be seen as a constant learning experience. You're going to get better as long as you keep writing.

@Murees-I think it's the only way.

@Michael-I agree, it isn't easy. But I think it helps to put emotion aside, or at least not sit there waiting for the perfect moment. Write, fail, write better.

Golden Eagle said...

Great post--I agree definitely with not choosing as the wrong choice.

Frankie said...

For me, I'm a lot more creative while I'm engaged in the physical act of writing--that's when the ideas jump. I overwrite a lot, way too much background, way too much description, way too much explaining.

I don't impose any limits on myself during early drafts. Sometimes my internal censor says, "You need to describe that dude's socks? Really?" But I throw things at it until it shuts up.

All of that writing is of immense value to me while I'm creative "get it down on paper" stage because that's when I really learn who my characters are, why they do the things they do, what their world is like. I don't worry about whether it's necessary to the reader until much later.

mooderino said...

@The Golden Eagle-cheers.

@Frankie-I think using overwriting as part of your process is fine. It's when you aren't aware you're doing it that I think it becomes a problem.

LD Masterson said...

Good thoughts. I read this post a couple times to get the full value.

VPZ said...

Your advice is really helpful to me. Although it feels good to get positive comments, I think an honest critique of your work is what a writer seeks. There's always something that an acute novice write can pick up that the general public does not understand and it helps. And your thoughts on cultivating a story line hold water in them. Interesting tips and many of which I plan to use in my next short story. I've recently written my very first fiction and am happy the way it came out. Would appreciate your feedback if you care to have a read. Its called those 2 extra hours.

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