In Praise of Bad Writing

I’ve finally managed to drag my muse out from under the bed where she’s been hiding ever since I got Geoff and Lia’s story back from the beta reader.

Here are three facts about the feedback:

  • The beta reader did a great job. Her feedback pinpointed the areas in the story that felt weak.
  • Her feedback was balanced between good and bad elements of my writing.
  • When I read her feedback, my belief in my ability to write went away and hid for a while.

Funhouse Mirror in the City - panoramioI knew I was being foolish to overreact like that. I did it anyway. I’ve decided that this reaction is part of the process and I’ll just have to accept it. Plus, I need to recognize that this reaction has very little to do with what the beta reader actually said. I apparently have a hearing problem; criticism of my writing is going to be distorted into something monstrous.

What the beta reader actually said: You need to work on areas A, B, and C.

What I heard: You are the worst writer in the history of the planet.

Picswiss SZ-23-15Something inside my head took the perfectly fair, dispassionate, balanced advice that I was offered and turned it upside down and inside out until it was almost unrecognizable.

Maybe it’s a reverse form of egotism. If I can’t be a good writer, then I’m going to immediately rank myself at the opposite end of the spectrum and be the Worst Writer Ever.

All right. Let’s imagine that’s true. In that case, there’s room for improvement. I will aim to be the Second Worst Writer Ever. Move one step up the ladder.

I have finally got myself back to work by ignoble means. Bribery. The only way I am going to let myself start working on the Shiny New Story waiting in the wings is to finish smoothing out Sam and Neil’s story and then revising Geoff and Lia’s story.

I have a confession to make: I am the sort of person who reads other people’s diaries. But I only read them if it’s the author is dead and the diary is published. I’ve read Virginia Woolf’s diaries. She used to note down how she felt at different stages of writing a novel and then come back later and compare it to how she felt about the story later. So I’m going to note here that at this moment I think that Samantha and Neil’s story is the worst thing I’ve ever written. When I started writing it, this story was all glitter and stardust. I want to check back in six months or so and see what I think about it then.

It’s hard to finish a story when you think it’s the worst thing you’ve ever done. I don’t want to submit a horrible story to my editor. But considering how my feelings about a story are going to change, I don’t think I’m the best judge of whether my stories are any good or not.

It’s not my job to reject this story. That’s the editor’s job, and she’s very good at it. I’m going to write it as best I can and then let her do her job. My job is to write it and then go on.

Bad writing can lead to good writing.

I really do believe that it’s only through writing The Worst Book Ever that I am going to get better. If I keep writing–and finishing–novels, and if I make it a point to analyze where I’ve gone wrong with each story, then I will get better at this.

You are the only you… There are better writers than me, there are smarter writers than me, there are people who can plot better, but nobody can write a Neil Gaiman story like I can.

-Neil Gaiman

Revisions, Nietzsche, and Positive Thinking

That which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.-Nietsche

Feedback. What’s not to like?

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
—Elmore Leonard, Newsweek, 1985

Seriously. It’s good. I like feedback. Well, most of it. Good criticism falls into the ‘hurts so good’ category, because once I make the fix I will have a Much Stronger Book.

Revisions are my friend. Revisions make the story stronger. I like need revisions.I confess that it is disheartening to see the gap between what I intended to say and how it came across to the reader. But that’s not the reader’s problem.

If I didn’t hit the mark, I need to improve my aim.  I was trying to write a story that relied a lot more on showing emotion through the characters’ body language, rather than explicitly stating what they were feeling, but I need to work on that some more.

Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.
— Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, On the Art of Writing, 1916

Now I have to figure out when to schedule the revisions that I need to do on Geoff and Lia’s story. I want to finish the first smooth draft of the story I’m working on before I go back to rewriting this one.

I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.
— Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory, 1966

Each story I write is going to make me a better writer because I am going to go through the revision notes and improve my writing as a result.

The Joy of Revision

Having finished the first draft of my new story, I’m ready to relax and take it easy. Put my feet up.

Alas, there are no magical story elves waiting in the wings to turn my story into a polished manuscript. (I really wish there were story elves.)

One word after another.

That’s the only way that novels get written and, short of elves coming in the night and turning your jumbled notes into Chapter Nine, it’s the only way to do it. –Neil Gaiman

Strawberry shortcake with whipcream

Yes, please.

The trouble with sprinting through the first draft is that now I’m back in Revision mode. I’m like a child who rushed through the strawberry shortcake and is now facing a plate full of broccoli. I do not love broccoli.

Yes, I know broccoli is good for me. I can even appreciate that you can take cool pictures of broccoli that illustrate how fractals can be found outside of a mathematics textbook. That’s all well and good. But it doesn’t make me appreciate a plateful of the stuff.

Romanesco broccoli fractals

Ugh.

But if vegetables are inevitable, then it behooves me to find a way to enjoy them.

(Can I get bonus points for using ‘behooves’ in a sentence? Especially this early in the morning?)

Die Hängematte

My inner editor, during my 55k sprint

Turning a rough draft into a smooth draft involves a lot of clean-up. I went through the first draft in a rush. I did not stop and ask “does this work?” The inner editor was off in the Bahamas, lying in a hammock and sipping drinks from a glass with an umbrella stuck in it.

Now I’ve got a plot with several characters who all serve a purpose for the couple of scenes they’re in, but then spend the rest of the story standing around in the background. I’m paying these characters. If nothing else, I’m paying attention to them. So if they’re underutilized, I’m going through the story and combining them, making one character serve two or more functions.

I want to adopt this writer’s positive attitude toward revisions. Broccoli is good for me. So are revisions. If I search long enough, I’ll find something to like about the process.

Like the finished manuscript that awaits at the end.

Great Opening Lines

Henrik Nordenberg Blick aus dem Entrée

“Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley.” – Uprooted, Naomi Novik

“Sabrina had never picked a lock in her life, but it was done every day in books.” – Tryst, Elswyth Thane

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” – The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien

Random thoughts of a problem I’m trying to work out for myself: how to start the story. This isn’t something I worry about when I start writing. The idea is on fire and off I go. But when editing, I come back and look at what I wrote. That’s when I start to question everything.

I love the feeling I get when I open a book and read a great opening line. I want to find a secluded corner and settle in for a good read. The stories don’t always live up to their opening lines, but the promise is there. The promise of a wonderful adventure.

What makes an opening line work? I love the above samples because of their promise. They intrigued me into reading more, which is the basic goal of an opening line.

It’s so simple when someone else does it! It’s harder when I try to do it.

I like to start by grabbing the reader and that doesn’t work for everyone. Some people love a leisurely opening and feel disoriented when they get thrown in the deep end. Plus, there is the plain truth that no matter how shiny and promising the idea starts out in my mind, the actual words on the page are going to look flat in comparison.

The opening of His Forgotten Fiancée:

“Who am I?”

Liza Fitzpatrick dropped the cleaning rag onto the counter of the dry goods store and spun around. A man stood in the doorway, his rough, workingman clothes soaked to the skin. He stared at her as if she were the first woman he’d ever seen.

The opening of Geoff and Lia’s story, tentatively titled A Gentleman of Leisure:

Geoff heard the click of a gun from the bushes behind him, and then a woman’s voice, deadly calm: “Stand up — slowly, now — and keep your hands where I can see ‘em.”

I like to start out in the middle of the action, in medias res, but even so the reader needs some basic orientation. I remember one contest entry that I read. All I knew was that the heroine was near the seashore looking at a ship. I didn’t know if she were sitting or standing or floating sideways. I didn’t know if she were on a dock or standing on a beach or looking out of a window of a house on the shore. I was trying to picture the scene and I was missing fundamental elements, which threw me out of the story at the start.

I want to start with something happening, but while it is happening I have to slip in some crucial details. Just enough for the reader to feel grounded, not enough for them to feel swamped. Argh!

What’s your favorite opening line for a book? Why does it work for you? Do you get disoriented if an author starts out too abruptly?

It’s tricky, achieving that balance between hooking the reader’s attention and throwing too much at them all at once. It’s frustrating, trying to convey an idea from one mind to another through the medium of words on a page. It’s amazing, to look at a whole book and think, “I did that. I want to do it again.”

POV errors, or How often do you think about your own eye color?

My Wife and My Mother-in-Law

Is this a picture of a young woman or an old one?

What I see when I look at you is different from what you see when you look at me. Sounds obvious, no? But it’s very easy to slip up on this one.

I’m going through a manuscript and verifying there are no egregious errors. That gets more tricky because as part of the revisions I had to re-write some scenes from a different character’s point of view (POV). I’m doing a pass now specifically looking for moments when I slipped up and had a character start thinking about something they would never stop to consider. I think I’ve got most of them out, but I keep finding internals or visuals that are still from the original character’s POV.

 

“I hate thinking about point of view,” the heroic Handsomas thought as his chestnut locks flowed down over his manly shoulders to his rippling biceps. He looked the heroine up and down, his sapphire-blue eyes gleaming like the ripples on the lake near the cottage where he grew up, poor but smug.

It’s no comfort that I even see versions of this error in published books. Speaking as a human being, I rarely think of my bright blue eyes and flowing brown hair, let alone the fact that I grew up poor but smug.

Whether you write in first person, third person or shudder second person all depends on the effect you’re trying to achieve. But whichever you chose, be sure to stay in that POV while you’re in the scene.

Writing a scene that stays completely in the point of view of the character who has the most to lose can immerse the reader within a story. Breaking POV can throw a reader out of the story so fast that they stop reading and don’t come back.

Writer’s Digest has 6 tips on choosing the right POV for a scene.

Donald Maas wrote a post about Immersive POV.

Indulging my inner drama queen

Arthur Rackham 1909 Undine (14 of 15)One good thing about entering writing contests is that I got really good at receiving criticism about my writing. I didn’t always agree with the criticism. Sometimes it was infuriating, especially when someone corrected my grammar but didn’t know what they were talking about.

But I found that in one respect, it didn’t matter. Unless the critic was unreservedly enthusiastic, a little part of me felt miffed. I call that part my Inner Diva. Its ego knows no limits, and even the slightest breath of criticism causes the same reaction:

How dare they not SWOON at the mere PRIVILEGE of being in the presence of a work of such INCREDIBLE genius???

(Inner Diva is rather fond of multiple punctuation marks.)

So I’ve learned to allow for that reaction. Whenever I get feedback, I read it, write a thank you (the critic is trying to help me, after all) and then I set it aside and get on with something else. If the criticism was especially harsh, I have to clean something or go outside and pull weeds. Something that involves setting the world to rights.

Then I go back after a couple days and re-read the feedback. Often, on a second reading, the words on the page have magically rearranged themselves so that the critic is much less harsh and much more balanced and reasonable. Sometimes I have to go out on and pull a few more weeds, but usually I can take in their comments and move on with writing.

Feedback is helpful. Feedback is your friend. Feedback is not always right — it’s your story, not theirs — but it really can improve your story.

Just pat your Inner Diva on the head and get on with it.

Here are some Do’s and Don’ts about Rejection. Rejection is a form of feedback, even a ‘Not for us’ note.

Do you have any special tips for dealing with feedback?

What makes a good heroine?

Arthur Rackham 1909 Undine (11 of 15)

Not a rhetorical question. I really do want to know what makes a good heroine.

In theory, it’s simple. She has to have agency, not be a doormat.

In practice, my heroines tend to annoy the bejabbers out of me.

I love my heroes. Geoff, for instance, leaps into action the moment a crisis appears.

But my heroines? They whine. They pout. I haven’t had one stamp her foot yet thankfully. (I won’t be held responsible for my actions if one tries that.) They Are Annoying.

For the moment, the only thing I can think of is to go through the story, line by line. Every time my heroine sighs, or thinks “there’s nothing I can do” I am replacing her feeble words with strong ones. If she has to be stymied, she can at least be doing something while she’s stuck. And that does not include sighing.

Lia sighed. “I don’t know how to get another dress in that time. Or even if I had more time, I don’t have the money. I’ll have to find a place to stay where I can try to clean this dress somehow…”

Lia stood up. “I have to find a place to stay before I can clean this dress. Do you know where I can find Mrs. Whitlow’s laundry?”

Does that work better? I think perhaps it does.

Have you ever read a story where you just wanted to shake the heroine? Or a story where you loved the heroine? Maybe revising this story would be easier if I looked at how other writers handled their characters. But maybe that would send me down a rabbit hole of distraction. I’ll try finishing this revision first and then go read some good books while the draft “sets” a while.

If you have any books with great heroines to recommend, please let me know!