When to Fight the Doubt… and When to Follow It

Any creative endeavor is doomed to come with a heap of doubts. After all, you’re pulling something raw and untested out of your mind—your unique, imperfect, emotional little mind—and putting it out into the world, saying, “Look at this. Judge this. Judge me.”

It’s only natural that your mind would seek to protect itself from this potentially cruel examination, by throwing out doubt after doubt to convince you not to let them see. And it’s tricky, too; it will simultaneously keep up the idea that someday you might create something worthy for them to see… just not this. Not now.

So a lot of writing advice (including my own) is about pushing past these doubts, opening yourself up to judgment so that you can open yourself up to success… and no matter how hard the doubts fight, you have to just keep creating. Right? Right?

Well… not always.

It is absolutely vital as a wannabe creator to learn how to create through doubt, because for most people, there will never be a creative space without it. And it can be done, I promise you, because I have the strongest and most virulent doubts imaginable and I’ve still managed to finish drafts.

But… there are times when the doubts might be worth listening to—and the trick is separating the two.

The key skillset to develop (to fight doubts as well as to grow as a creator) is self-examination, and its use here is in figuring out where the doubt is coming from. Doubts come on several axes, and the trick is to make sure the doubt is coming from the “right place,” from “truth,” before listening to it.

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Showing vs. Telling Character Traits: the Mary Sue Factor

“Show, don’t tell” is one of the tried and true cliches of writing advice (along with “Write what you know”). Both of these tidbits have a basis in sound advice, and both of them can regularly be ignored for the good of the story. Telling is sometimes vitally necessary, for pacing or simplicity or style. And while showing can vastly improve descriptions and dialogue and plot, sometimes it drags things out with diminishing returns.

But there’s one specific aspect of showing vs. telling that I think is rarely talked about but vitally important—and that is the use of showing in character traits and accomplishments.

Certainly, it may be common knowledge that you shouldn’t just say a character is “happy”; you should show it, with a smile or a humming tune or something more original than that. And if you open the story with a bland description of your character’s entire personality—“he was kind and gentle”—it often isn’t as engaging as showing—“he caught butterflies between his palms and fed them with an eyedropper.”

But more than character traits, it’s important to show us the accomplishments and abilities that you claim they have. If the heroine is supposed to be intelligent, but we never see any evidence of this in her dialogue or her choices (or even see her studying or interested in knowledge), then at  best it’s poor storytelling and at worst the reader won’t believe it… and may disengage from the story.

This is where I think a lot of “Mary Sue” accusations come from. The core of the “Mary Sue” is a character (mostly female… though there are many male examples which are ignored) whose traits and accomplishments do not feel earned—they feel like a glorified self-insert of the author living out her girlish fantasies of being loved and adored… without having “earned” that adoration. They are instantly liked by all (except the “mean girls”), they can go from simple nobody to strongest warrior in the world in a paragraph, and everything they attempt from musical instruments to complex equations is easily accomplished.

I maintain that there’s nothing wrong with a bit of “chosen one” idealization and fantasy, especially for young girls (and boys) who want to feel special. There’s something wonderful about wish fulfillment, and stories are a perfect vehicle for that, safe and comforting.

Yet “Mary Sue” stories get so much hate, and I think the reason (beyond sexism, obviously) is that these character accomplishments that make the main character so great are not just “unearned”—they aren’t shown. Want to write about the smartest girl in class? Show her studying, show her answering questions in class, show her discussing extra credit with the teacher—show her actually being smart when problems come up in the plot. Want to write about the strongest warrior? Show her training, show her getting hurt and learning how to block, show her learning different weapons in a more realistic time frame, show her bulking up and focusing, show her fighting and winning in difficult situations where others fail for realistic reasons (and she succeeds for realistic reasons). Want to write about the kind heroine winning over her former enemies with her friendly demeanor? Show her helping them even when they scowl, show her getting to know them through talking, show her impressing them (grudgingly at first) with her mercy and generosity, show them finding things in common, or seeing a bit of her dark side and finding it funny, and so on.

This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Devising scenarios which can actually show a character’s accomplishments requires a certain level of knowledge and experience in the author (or at least, research), as well as a flexibility in the plot. If your chosen one heroine gets plucked from the farm and has to be leading vast armies with an expert’s understanding of her legendary sword within a week, there’s simply no way to realistically show that… at best, you’d better bring out some magic that accomplished this and show us that (instead of just saying, “yeah, she was just that fast”). If your heroine is supposed to be smart but having her figure out that clue too quickly would wreck the plot, then you have to find a way to adjust—either make the clue harder, or let her figure it out and then find a different obstacle to put in her path.

The basic complaint of the “Mary Sue” is that everyone in the story finds her so impressive—but the reader doesn’t. When the hero tells the heroine he fell in love with her intelligence, but we’ve seen no evidence of that, we roll our eyes and assume the author is just living vicariously through this shallow character. But if the hero tells the heroine he fell in love with her intelligence, and we’ve seen her not just reading or studying but applying her knowledge to the plot, that moment will feel earned and mean so much more to us.

It’s not easy. It takes time, cleverness, research, and being willing to adjust the plot to fit—all of which may take a couple drafts to fully develop. And, unfortunately, it’s much harder with female characters, it just is… Male characters can show up in a cool costume and a smirk and we’ll believe that they’re awesome; female characters can do all sorts of clever and amazing things in the story and they’ll still get hate and be called weak. There’s only so much you can do about that.

But take the time to craft your character, and give her accomplishments real weight and realism and development in the story itself, and you’re that much closer to creating a character people will love and admire—and they’ll believe it when the other characters in the story love and admire her, too.

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Considering Wattpad…

So, almost a year ago, I wrote a book. My first, ever, and I was filled with a glee and joy I’d never known. Until it came time to edit, and I found my baby bookling was not the perfect creation I had imagined. Still, I did my best, murdered the worst of the darlings, and sent it out into the world…

And failed. Not a nibble or a glance, which I accept as simply part of my process as a writer. I moved on to other projects, and put my book in a metaphorical “bottom drawer.”

But a part of me still loves it, flaws and all. I’ve considered waiting until some future project actually makes it out into the world, then trying to pull this first book through with it—a free extra on my website? A self-published… something? Or, once I have an agent, a second chance at traditional publishing with the accompanying edit?

As other projects rise and fall, however, I have moments where I don’t know what my future will look like, and this imperfect little piece of my heart sits alone and unseen for eternity.

So I’m thinking about changing that.

I’ve considered self-publishing, but it’s expensive—and if it fails (meaning: completely ignored by the world), it could negatively impact my future projects. I’ve considered making more extensive edits and trying again, with other agents… but a part of me understands that this project reeks of first-timer flaws in all their glory. There’s just something a little off about it, and while I hope to convince at least some of you to give it a chance, I can’t help but admit that it has some problems.

Wattpad is a site to post writing, for free, for everyone. As such, I’m sure my little book will fall into some unseen corner of the internet never to be seen again, but at least it will be out there. For all its weaknesses, it has a personal connection for me and… I’m proud of it. I shouldn’t be, I know, but I am. It conveys my love for stories with more heart and soul than I knew I had.

This is not about defying the establishment—I greatly and deeply respect the publishing professionals who looked the other way, and I hope to work with them someday with something else. Instead, this is about sharing my work and hopefully getting some feedback, so I can grow as a writer (and one day actually make money doing this).

And if someone finds my silly little book and enjoys it, even for a moment, I could ask for nothing more.

All I ask is that if you have a moment, and you’re curious, go check out the first chapter. I’ll be updating very regularly, after I see how the site works a little, and get a feel for the process. If you have any input on anything—the title, the cover, the summary, the writing, the format, anything—please let me know! Any comment, of any kind or length, good or bad, will be loved and appreciated.

Here’s the cover and summary (amateur hour all around, I know, but it’s just for fun):

Cover3

The Illiterati

High school senior Jenna Avery has always known that the best escape is a good story—she just never knew the stories were in danger of escaping themselves. When she discovers the secret society hidden beneath the bookstore where she works, she finds her fellow employees, including the quiet stock boy she’d barely noticed before, traveling into the worlds of stories that have a nasty habit of blending into each other and threatening to collapse. Joining in on their adventures and wandering magical cities, escaping from mad villains, and attending elegant balls brings all her dreams to life—but quickly proves a distraction from the reality of caring for the grandfather who raised her, making time for her friends, and trying not to fail out of high school. Who wants to deal with the real world when the magic of stories turns escapism into a way of life?

Well… here we go. :)

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The Valley of Ideas

Um… I’ve been horrible about updating. I’m so sorry. I don’t really have an excuse, other than that my last post was well-received (thank you!) and I didn’t mind leaving it up as the front of my site, with nothing much new to add. That being said, if I want any slight chance of keeping this blog going, I have to keep updating.

But as far as where I’m at in my writing? Well, much the same.

I did manage to finish a project a few weeks ago, and I’ve been putting off editing it. Why? Well, partly because I think it’s necessary to let the project breathe, at least for a little while. When I go back to it, I want to be prepared to tear it apart, murder my darlings, and put all the work into rebuilding it. And… I still don’t feel ready. Even though the luxury of time is one I’ve long since given up.

In the meantime, I’ve been trying to work on getting another project going… and struggling. This is par for the course, with me—it’s ‘feast or famine.’ Either I’m diving into an idea with an impossible amount of speed and enthusiasm… or I’m wandering in the desert, flickering from idea to idea with none to quench my thirst completely.

The problem isn’t that I don’t have ideas—it’s that I have too many, and possibly none of them are the right ones, because certainly none of them take off… And it’s impossible to know which idea is the ‘right’ one until… it is.

Twice now, I’ve spun and flitted through a multitude of ideas, only for one to finally land and get written. The fact that it has happened twice means it wasn’t a fluke the first time, which is good if I’m going to try and make a career of this… but the fact that I’m back to spinning means that it’s most likely the pattern my creativity is going to take. I don’t love that. But if it grants me, even infrequently and unpredictably, a chance to actually create, then I’ll take it.

Right now, I’m struggling between an idea I’ve worked on for a long time that has a lot of interesting elements, but a few major pitfalls that I keep shying away from… and an ‘idea’ that isn’t really a story at all but just something different from that other idea, that I think I would ‘like’ more. Should liking an idea matter that much—more than what interests you creatively? But what if you just think it interests you… what if it’s just the imagined response to it you want, and not your own? And… so on.

The problem with creative hypotheticals is that there are no subjective answers. No voice to come down from above and tell you that this idea is going to go all the way… or that it won’t. Definitely no way to tell what other people will think. The only process that has ever worked for me is endless trial and error, until something just clicks—and giving myself permission to fail, and be embarrassing, and write whatever I want.

So, for now, I’m going to just keep doing that.

And, oh yeah, editing… Right.

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Why Is It So Hard to Write Badly?

One of the most important tricks to actually start writing—perhaps the key to a finished first draft—is to learn how to write badly. This may seem counterintuitive; after all, isn’t the point of learning to write and wanting to write professionally, you know, being good at it?

But trying to be “good” is the kiss of death for a first draft.

First, there are two kinds of writing. “Style” writing is the surface level: word choice, grammar, sentence structure, humor, dialogue, description. When we think of “bad writing,” it’s probably bad style writing that comes to mind, because it’s the easiest to see. But it’s also easier to fix, with time, and that’s why it’s probably easier to push through bad style writing on a first draft.

“Substance” writing is the foundation: characters, plot, pacing. The challenge here is that “bad” and “good” substance writing is much more subjective, and a lot harder to see. You may know when a character is flat, or the pacing’s off, or the plot is just illogical—but it may take you a while to see it. And, especially in a first draft, it’s particularly hard to be objective about it; everything seems bad in a first draft. Bad substance is a lot harder to fix, because it’s more to fix and sometimes it’s the very foundation of your story.

But you have to be able to keep writing anyway. That character is inconsistent and uninteresting? Keep writing him anyway. That plot point makes no sense, but it’s the only one you can think of right now? Keep writing anyway—you can rewrite the whole plotline later if you have to. Just. Keep. WRITING.

The way I look at it is this: the first draft is a safe space. Anything goes. Anything. The same goes for ideas, for me, because I think we’ve reached a point where we’re too afraid of criticism to go for the most ridiculous or cringeworthy or unoriginal ideas… But, for me at least, my actual productivity has come just when I gave myself permission to write ideas that might not be good. And even if they are, in fact, no good and never get published, I’m actually writing—to me, that’s worth everything.

Even with this mantra, though, it’s still really hard to write badly. I mean, of course, it’s not hard to write badly; just show me a blank page. But it’s emotionally and mentally hard to push through that feeling of “wait, this isn’t right, you suck and you have to stop.” That last part is what kills first drafts—but why?

This is what I think. When you sense you’re writing badly, for whatever reason, and you try to push through it and keep writing anyway—you’re not eliminating the judgment of others, you’re postponing it. Which, when you trust in revision, is the best thing to do. But whether you’ve never gotten to the revision stage before, or you have and it wasn’t as easy as you thought, you might know that revision is not a magical cure-all. So that judgment still lingers there, waiting…

And, on top of that, right now the only thing you have to judge your own work by is what’s right in front of you: the crap. So you can’t be entirely sure that you’re capable of anything better; after all, you are trying to be good right now… What if this is the best you can do? And so you imagine being judged on the shitty first draft in front of you, and it pains you, and you start to tense up and want to fix it now—which eventually becomes starting all over or moving on to something else, something “good.” Until it starts all over again.

Is there a simple fix for this? Not really. You just have to write badly, and keep writing, and finish and not look back (until revision, which you should give some time after before diving into).

Here’s the thing: you simply cannot be objective while you’re in the thick of it, no matter how cool and unemotional you think you are. There’s just something about creating that makes you a bit tender about it, which can work in two seemingly opposite ways—being far too hard on it, and being unwilling to kill your darlings. That’s why you need the distance from a finished draft; maybe it was better than you thought, or maybe you really do need to rip into it but now you can.

Revision is not magic, and your work will never be perfect. Judging by some bad writing that’s out there published and even beloved, that’s not a dealbreaker. But it can make bad writing better, and that’s what you have to trust while you’re in the trenches.

Because right now? You just have to write. Badly.

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Another Weak(ly) Update :)

To say my attention to this blog has been weak is a massive understatement, and I apologize at my complete lack of material here.

I could blame–truthfully–the fact that I’ve actually been writing like crazy lately, and it has been the entirety of my focus for the last few weeks–and will be, for the foreseeable future. And that while pseudo-knowledgeable writing advice is a bit of a hobby, writing fiction with intent to publish is my ultimate goal… so I can’t really abandon the latter for the former. On top of everything, I simply haven’t been thinking about writing in the abstract as much since I’ve been focused pretty heavily on the immediate and specific; and because I don’t like to blog about my projects in detail, that means I don’t have too much to say that I haven’t already said.

You have to be able to write badly; you have to trust in revision; and so on, and so on. I have written a number of posts on these topics already.

The truth is that this website will be much more important if (when!) I somehow manage to be published… and while I would love to build a readership before that, I don’t have the engaging personal style or accomplished experience to deserve that.

That being said, I am not going to stop posting altogether; I will not abandon this blog, or whoever stumbles across it and blesses me with their readership, however temporary. I truly appreciate each and every page view, and I don’t want to let this blog fall away to nothing until some magical future moment when I get to share my writing in full. At the same time, I only want to post quality material and not bog this blog down in repetitive, vague advice that I’ve already written.

So it will be whatever comes to me, whatever I feel like sharing, and I will try to keep to every Friday but I won’t promise it. If you’re stopping by randomly, please give my archives a glance–everything should be tagged and categorized accordingly, though I know there’s a lot there, and not a lot of diamonds in the rough. :)

But check out the media category for stuff on politics, feminism, pop culture, and… the romance genre? Or the worldbuilding category for fun charts! (Because who doesn’t love a good chart!)

And I will still be here. Appreciating every one of you… :D

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The Growth Mentality

I finished another book!! I am so excited, most of all because this means the first one wasn’t a fluke. This is something I can actually do. I have written books.

I know someone out there might be thinking: well, good for you, you found the secret key, let me just keep struggling over here on my own, listening to you brag.

First of all, I would say that if anyone is proof that you can turn around from endless procrastinator and talker (not walker) to finishing drafts of novels, it would be me. I spent years upon years talking about writing, trying to write, not even getting past an outline, constantly saying this was all I wanted to do—but not doing it! And even after I finished my first project, I fell into another slump for six months of notes and barely started outlines and big dreams but no reality.

And then I found my way into a story, allowed myself to be whatever I wanted (but most especially bad, on every level, from premise to plot to dialogue), found a strategy that worked for me (breaking the story into smaller chunks so I could build up some pages behind me before diving into the meat of the plot), and… did it. If I can, anyone can.

But there was another element this time around that really helped me, and maybe it could help you, too.

When you’re writing with the goal of being published, sometimes all you can think about is what people will inevitably think of your work. And, of course, being human and wanting not only to be able to eat but also to be praised, it’s fun to imagine your work being successful. However, as soon as you do that, you have given your work a (somewhat arbitrary) standard to match up to, depending on what sort of success you’re imagining and what similar works you’re looking at.

That standard is a trick—not only can your individual work never quite match up with anything, because it will be its own thing, but it’s also impossible to evaluate the quality or even basic reality of your final product at the stage you’re at now. You don’t know what the plot will be like, or the characters, until you’ve gone through revision, possibly several times. And even if you could imagine clearly what your final product will be, you can’t know how people will react to it… The wide variety of opinions surrounding phenomenal bestsellers should show you that people have wildly differing opinions and tastes that can’t be predicted. If someone told you ten years ago that the publishing phenomenon of the early teens—the book your mom and her book club picked and your grandma who’s reading it because she saw it on the Today Show—would be a BDSM erotica based on a fanfic of a YA vampire romance… Well, if you would have guessed that was possible, you should be playing the lottery.

Anyway, the point is that you can’t think about the eventual quality and reception of a work while you’re in the early stages of creating it—and even if you do, it’s OKAY TO BE BAD.

Here’s the tip: Look at your writing, your creativity as a whole, as a work in progress. Realize that you will learn and grow as a creator with everything you make, and what’s in front of you now may never be your best work—because your best work is yet to come. You will grow, and continue to learn and improve, and even if you end up putting out work that’s embarrassing in ten years, by that time you’ll be creating things you love even more…

This mentality is called the “Growth Mindset.” I first read about it in motivational books, though I kind of stumbled into it in this arena on my own. It refers to the mindsets of students—“fixed” vs. “growth.” A fixed mindset student believes their intelligence is a static quality, and they are either smart or they aren’t, and their work reflects that. A growth mindset student believes that intelligence can be earned and grown, and they can become smart if they work at it, and so they generally bounce back better from failure and try things and can work their way to the top. (Here’s more info on this and the book by Carol Dweck: x)

Having a growth mindset in writing takes two forms: one is applying the mindset to the drafting process, that what you’re writing now will grow into something better through revision and effort later on. Two is that even if the final product is not the image of perfection that you’ve always dreamed of, you will still learn and grow from the process and can begin to build a career.

The second one is a little odd to think when you’re still trying to publish—the idea that you would purposefully publish something that isn’t the ‘best thing ever.’ But anyone who reads widely knows that a lot of bad books get published, and sometimes they’re even successful. And that everyone’s idea of “bad” differs.

The point here is that if you’re waiting for your ideas and your plots and your writing to be perfect—or even just “great”… or “good”—you may be waiting forever. Instead, embrace being awful, dive right in and start GROWING!

The only way to get to “great” (because “perfect” is impossible) is to start with “bad”…

Just like the only way to grow a tree is to start in the dirt.

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