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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A Year in the Life

One year ago today, I made a change.

My birthday came and went a few days before, as a feeling of hope overwhelmed my feelings of dejection. And the next time I went into work, on March 20th, I started the wheels in motion of quitting my job.

Now, one year later, I don’t regret that decision… even though I have not, in the last year, become a writing millionaire (or a writing anything, technically).

But it did change my life in miraculous ways. I have written one book, and am about two-thirds finished with another—something that, prior to last year, I had never done despite talking about it since I was six. I have sent out query letters to actual agents… and been rejected, of course, but still—I had never gotten even that far before, despite all my talk. And I have grown, as a person and a creator, into someone who backs up her passion with action.

So how long will this experiment last? I couldn’t say. Right now, I’m writing like crazy, and that’s all I can ask for… at least, until I have to ask for money. Like, um, yesterday. But yay, denial!

I am lucky, I am privileged, I am passionate, I am a writer. That last part I can finally say out loud and proud, and mean it.

And if nothing else comes of this, if the next year brings no other change, I will always cherish that simple fact. I am a writer. I write. I have written. And I will continue to write.

And, as always, hope that the next year brings something more. :)

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My Feminism

I just read this article on the Men’s Rights movement: http://www.gq.com/news-politics/big-issues/201503/mens-rights-activism-the-red-pill?currentPage=1

…and it disturbed me. And the comments, of course. Even if the article were written with bias, even if you stripped away that bias, what lies at the core of the MRA sentiment disturbs me. But I believe in not dismissing people’s opinions out of hand, unlike the appearance of their absolute anti-feminism.

But I wanted to say a few things, just to process my thoughts:

– My feminism includes helping male victims of rape and domestic violence, because women are not powerless or weak and they can hurt men—and men who are victims of sexual or domestic violence are not weak or feminine (not that either of those things are bad)

– My feminism believes in a world where all individuals are free to pursue education and careers of their choosing, and no one is expected to provide for anyone else based on gender or sex; families that choose to have a provider and a homemaker can do so for either gender, without stigmas attached

– My feminism believes that all genders are equally capable of (and interested in) childcare, and the law should reflect that

– My feminism believes that women are equal and thus not requiring protection or chivalry, except that extended to ALL human beings—hold open doors for anyone, or don’t if they don’t wish it (because people are individuals with varying desires and opinions); protect all people from violence or disasters, but perhaps let capable adults of ALL genders stay behind to help if necessary; etc.—we can be kind and polite to everyone, without being patronizing to anyone

– My politics mean I mostly don’t believe in war or drafts of any kind, but my feminism believes that women are just as capable of being soldiers as men, and I suppose any drafts should reflect that

– My politics believe in an economy which supports all people and seeks to help ALL genders rise from homelessness or jobs without proper benefits

– My feminism believes in helping strip toxic masculinity from society so that men are free to express themselves in ways they are currently restricted from, and helps free all of us from expectations and stereotypes of gender, sex, sexuality, appearance, and identity (NOT just ‘flip’ the power structure)

But yes, I will admit:

– I believe that fathers have an equal right to care for their children, but that NO ONE can forcibly use an unwilling human being’s body to stay alive for any reason (even corpses can refuse to donate organs if they did not consent to it)

– I believe that women (and men) should be able to say no to romantic or sexual advances for ANY reason and at ANY time, and that men (and women) should be able to handle this with maturity and respect, not violence and anger

– I believe the key to romantic and sexual encounters is safe, informed consent—and I do not believe children and young teenagers have the capacity to be informed or self-aware enough to consent; I do, however, believe that if they seek help rather than acting on impulses that harm others, sex offenders should be met with some measure of understanding

– And while I believe that it is wrong to accuse anyone falsely and that suffering the stigma of a false accusation can be difficult, I will never believe that dealing with a false accusation is equal to RAPE—so I cannot condone a society or culture which prizes the prevention of false accusations over the prevention of actual violence—and if the prevention of false accusations is truly the goal, then we should be teaching young MEN to not drink too much, or go home with someone they do not know, or attend wild parties—not place the burden on young women (I do want to be clear that I personally believe the rate of false accusations is highly exaggerated and that dealing with the epidemic of rape by addressing rape culture is important; I am simply trying to address the logic of MRA with some understanding)

– And I believe that expressing my opinions on feminism or politics—and just my opinions, with no calls for censorship or penalties of any kind to those whose opinions I oppose—should NOT result in threats or insults or being told to shut up

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In the Trenches: Tips for a First Draft

So I’m writing again, which is… awesome. Scary, always, but awesome.

But, as always, it means I’m in my head too much, constantly analyzing and worrying and working to psych myself up. I won’t say that writing is more of a mind game than any other creative endeavor, since I simply don’t know, but it’s definitely up there. From a skills perspective, it’s just being able to sit and type or move a pen… All that’s left is the thoughts.

Beyond the raw ability to create characters and settings and plots, which is a whole other topic, the ability to draft is all about the mental process.

And with this, my second major project, I’ve figured out a few tips and tricks that can help… and how much things will always be difficult.

Continue reading

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Choosing a Kind Target Audience

As I write, even a first draft, I am constantly thinking about two things: quality and reception. These are absolutely the WRONG things to be thinking about while drafting, for all sorts of reasons, but they happen beyond my control. The best I can do is just continually dismiss them, moment after moment.

Issues of quality are most easily dismissed by thinking about revision. The length of that scene, the quality of that dialogue, the cliche in that description–when revision rolls around, all of that can be gone. For now, it’s just about staring into the face of your inferiority and screaming, “I don’t care! I’m writing anyway!”

Issues of reception–audience reaction–are the most ridiculous thing to think about early on in a draft. Whether people you know will like it, whether the main character is likable, what publishers and reviewers might think of it… They are so far from the reality of what you’re writing now that it’s like worrying about how you’ll afford hover-fuel to get to your space job.

But, again, sometimes these thoughts pop into your head no matter how hard you try to avoid them, and the skillset worth learning is not how to block them from your mind (impossible) but how to deal with them once they are there.

And one trick to consider with issues of reception is to choose the right target audience.

I am blessed enough to have lots of people around me who are supportive and excited to read my work… except that none of them read the kind of books I most want to write (especially the exact subgenre I’m aiming for). That means that no matter how good my work is (and no matter how much they love me), they can never LOVE my work with the same passion that someone who enjoys the genre can. They won’t get the in-jokes or comparisons; they won’t find certain things fun or entertaining; and they’ll be holding up the work to completely different genres with different expectations and parameters. Especially for non-fantasy fans, dealing with worldbuilding and made-up crap can be like forcing someone to watch an opera in another language–if it’s just not their thing, they’re not going to enjoy it, no matter how well done.

There’s nothing wrong with different people liking different things, and there’s nothing wrong with not having anyone I know in mind who will like (let alone love) exactly what I’m doing–or aiming to do, once revision has its chance. But I find myself thinking about these real-life readers as I write, and possibly making adjustments for them. Downplaying certain elements, over-explaining, avoiding the more embarrassing factors that I view as fun, worrying about tone or character… I can usually stop myself, but that doesn’t mean the doubts aren’t there–and doubt is like a disease in drafting.

So I’m going to make an effort to create an imaginary target audience who loves my genre and could possibly love my work. Some writers suggest writing for yourself; others recommend crafting one specific imaginary reader; others may picture a particular demographic. Whatever works for you, try thinking of potential readers as the kindest and most embracing audience for your specific kind of work–and don’t worry about the rest.

Once the work is actually out there, you never know who might like it or what might happen. But it has to be written before it can ever be out there, and you have to fight through the doubts before you can start writing.

And the people who love you? They’ll still love you–even if they don’t love what you write. :)

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