Monday 6 February 2012

Writing and the Ugly Duck Syndrome

When somebody tells you what you’ve written doesn’t work (for whatever reason), that doesn’t mean you should rip it up and throw it away. It can be easier to think of writing as an all or nothing process, since the horrendous idea of having to rewrite everything is often a really good way to convince yourself to do nothing.

But something that doesn’t work doesn’t have to be removed or recreated from scratch, it just has to be improved. That goes for any kind of writing, whether it’s central to the plot, or a minor subplot, or backstory, or exposition. 

Things that may seem vital to the integrity of your idea, key to the development of the narrative, or the very reason you wrote the story in the first place, never are. Nothing in your story can’t be reworked in a way that does whatever you want it to do, and does it better.

Let’s say you have a scene where a boy is being spoken to by his grandfather, and the boy is bored. That’s the point of the scene, since later when the pair are trapped in a fantasy land and being attacked by dragon-unicorns (dragonicornTM), the boy learns his gramps is anything but boring when it comes to things that count. Or something.

Anyway, this scene establishes the relationship between them at the start. Problem is, it’s boring. But when the reader tells the writer, the response is, “Well of course it’s boring, it’s supposed to be. What do you want? Grampa should talk like Oscar Wilde?”

And soon sarcasm leads to fisticuffs, someone pulls a knife, and then where are you?

The point is even something as counterintuitive as making a scene about boredom more interesting is fairly straightforward, if you go in thinking about how to do it, not whether it's possible or not.

So, you could establish the boy is already annoyed about something else (having to stay with Gramps and miss out on seeing his friends, for example) and even though what he’s being told is interesting, he acts surly.

Or the boy has heard this story before and keeps interjecting to finish or even correct parts of the story. Having heard a story before is enough to make it boring, even one that was  interesting first time round. Although it’ll be the first time for the reader, so they can still find it interesting.

Or have the boy doing something at the same time as having to listen to gramps. What someone’s saying doesn’t have to correspond with what they’re doing.

Or use humour. Grampa could be funny. The kid’s reactions could be funny. The conversation the kids is having with his friends via text could be funny.

In each of these variations the key idea of the boy finding his grandfather boring is still there. But that doesn’t mean the reader has to be bored.

Similarly, however committed you are to the way you’ve written a scene, you can write it to be better while still fulfilling its function.

The function (whatever you decide that should be) is not tied to one particular way of writing. You have control over what a scene means, and that meaning can be transmitted whether the scene is funny, sad, or whatever.

This is true of everything you write. You may not be able to see how it will end up from what you have at the beginning, but you have to believe it has the potential to turn into something better. Because you can rest assured when you read something beautiful, it most likely started out pretty ugly.
 If you found this post interesting please give it a retweet. Cheers.

Thursday's post will be on how to exploit the order of information in story. See you then.


Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

This is so true - "Because you can rest assured when you read something beautiful, it most likely started out pretty ugly." I think a lot of wannabe writers and all those people who assume it's so easy don't understand or appreciate this. It's a loooong journey from draft to polished, published book.

Kyra Lennon said...

Good advice! I stopped writing because I thought I couldn't fix what I'd done wrong, but I am back on it now, and it is finally starting to come together!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

There's always a way to do it better. And anything is better than boring!

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I love the picture you included from one of the Dungeons and Dragons books of the mage transforming a unicorn into something else.

mooderino said...

@Madeline-it's why I think you should always be open to change, chances are you didn't get it right first time.

@Kyra-I often feel like that too. Experience has taught me I'm always wrong.

@Alex-just requires hard work.

@Michael-all that Skyrim I've been playing.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

What a great comparison but that little duck is cute.

Rena J. Traxel said...

This is so true! I find having a critique group helps to move past the ugly duck phase.

Julie Farrar said...

When I was teaching freshman composition at my university many students would assume that because I commented on something that they had failed. It was an ongoing process of getting them to understand that they hadn't done anything wrong. They just hadn't yet succeeded in communicating clearly with the reader. Comments meant that they just needed to go back and play with it some more.

Golden Eagle said...

I like your point about function--a scene has to serve a purpose, but that doesn't mean it's tied to any one style.

Christine Rains said...

Great post! I agree with you about scenes. And darn, you trademarked the dragonicorn!

dolorah said...

This is one reason I don't like my crit partners to read a story during the drafting phases. Even just one or three chapters at a time; as they are stating "this doesn't work for me" I may be thinking "ok, that's pretty much the response I wanted", as long as they weren't put off enough to put the book down.

But yeah; if it really doesn't work, then tweaking usually solves the problem. I haven't totally scrapped anything I've written. Sometimes I've revised enough certain scenes were unnecessary, but the "function" of the scene is there.

Eee gad; hopefully the critiquing session doesn't come to knives - unless its a demonstration :)


Beverly Diehl said...

My first, "under the bed" manuscript I wanted to make people understand how the MC was depressed and feeling trapped, like her life was going no where.

Problem was, I made any reader feel the same way.

mooderino said...

@Susan-...and very delicious.


@Julie-Everything looks so perfect when you look at finished work, I think people forget the work that went in to producing that.

@Golden-Often the first style that comes to mind is the wrong one, since it's usually obvius and predictable.

@Christine-I believe uniragon is still available.

@Donna-knives should only come out during editing.

@Beverly-it's tricky because first novels very often are about a character who isn't happy.

Lydia Kang said...

I will make sure I don't make any Dragonicorn items since you've got the TM on it. Shoot. Maybe I'll have to make a Alligaticorn.

Great post, though. I hardly ever disagree with you!

mooderino said...

@Lydia-I'm pretty sure that's how trademarks work. You just put TM on it and you own in it in perpetuity. Right?

Ellie Garratt said...

Very apt for me right now! Great post.

Margo Berendsen said...

Reminds me of the opening scene of the Princess Bride (NOT a chick flick!!! Cult classic!!!) where the boy is so bored with his Grandpa's story. It works because Grandpa is sarcastic.

mooderino said...


@Margo-An excellent example (definitely not a chick flick).

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