To tell a compelling story…

This sucks!

Posted on: June 11, 2010

I’ve noticed how so many of my fellow tweeters (twitterers) tweeple? ? in the writing community mention that the scenes they wrote earlier seem like garbage in the harsh light of day, like a one night stand, whose name you can’t remember, now drooling all over your pillow…   ewww.

Why does this happen, how do we get better, how do we overcome it? That got me thinking… have I gotten better? I’m unpublished, unagented, so how can I tell?

I ran my earlier work past my harshest critic. Me. Little-known trivia fact about Patty – I am a HUGE X-Files fan. Back in the day, I wrote a few fan fiction pieces. The first was called Truthworthy and was about a woman that tempts Mulder into abandoning his quest for the truth and settling down to a normal life. In the second called Retrogressions, Scully has a crisis of faith when the agents investigate a series of crimes apparently committed by the devil himself.

I blew the dust off the stories and was appalled to see how often I relied on gerund phrases to indicate simultaneous actions… “Walking backward, I scanned the lot for trouble.” “Picking up the phone, I checked the caller ID.” 

I don’t think I started a single sentence without a gerund.  Ick. Passive voice, all show, no tell. I had to show every single muscle movement. Mulder didn’t just draw his gun… he first had to stand up, reach for it, move his hand… ZZZZZZZ.

Sorry. Dozed off there.

I was just as bad with emotion. I had this one scene where Mulder realizes he’s been duped by government conspirators. Again. One of my sentences just ran through a shopping list of emotions – “denial, shame, disgust, fury, rage…” At no point did I even attempt to show what he was feeling. There were no dropped jaws, raised eyebrows, wide eyes, not even a cliched gasp or two. *shakes head*

“Show, don’t tell” has proven to be the single greatest piece of writing advice ever… um, written. And, also the one that most challenges me. When I compared these early stories to my recent projects like “Border Lines,” I was amazed and proud to see dramatic improvement in my writing. As soon as life stands still for a few minutes, I’d like to revise one of my X Files, as a writing exercise. Could be fun but more importantly, it won’t be hard because the story is committed to paper, the characters well-established (of course, they’re not mine) and the plot tight.

Now imagine how this exercise might go if I’d never written a word of these stories.

Ah ha… did the light bulb go off?

I follow a group of writers on Twitter, each in a different phase of the writer’s career trajectory – some are published, others are agented, still more have just finished a manuscript. The talent, the wisdom, the experiences in this group of incredible people are impossible to quantify and just as impossible to deny. You need only to read their blogs for proof. And yet, almost all of them have lamented a scene here, a chapter there. When I see these tweets, I want to clasp my hands together, fall to my knees and sing an Hallelujah chorus or two because this means I am on the right track. If even the best writers have moments of self-doubt and push through them, than what’s stopping me or you?

I’m hip deep in “Send” right now. This is its second life. I’d finished the manuscript, did it wrong and am now rewriting it. But this effort is not flowing. It’s been a slow torturous ordeal for me where some days, I manage no more than a paragraph of new writing. It’s not great. It’s not even my best work. But once it’s out of my head and onto the page (or screen), I know I’ll be able to fix it because my tweeps have taught me the intense doubt, the urge to burn my MS and never again pick up a pen or put fingers to a keyboard… it’s all perfectly normal and part of the process.

I challenge you; examine your earlier writing and see if you haven’t improved.

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7 Responses to "This sucks!"

For me, the stories alwasy, ALWAYS play out in my head first. They are so clear. I see what, who, when, where and even how. Not to mention feeling all of those, well…feelings.

But sometimes when I sit down to do the translation from thought to paper the circuit between my head and my hands goes haywire and shorts out.

So yes, I understand exactly where you are and I feel exactly the same way you do regarding the twiends I have made on Twitter. The best part is you don’t have to write the same genre to understand and commiserate with one another.

All you have to do is write. That’s the part I never lose sight of because even when it’s bad, it’s still writing, and knowing the difference between the good and the bad, well thats a reward all by itself.

Thanks for your comment, Kelly. You’re right – knowing this is THE reward.

What a fantastic idea. Sometimes you hear the same things again and again, so it’s easy to dismiss them, but what a solid way to check the evidence for yourself!

Also, I firmly believe fanfiction is an awesome writing exercise, and everyone should try it at some point.

Hi, Elizabeth… thank you for your comment. Would you hate me if I admitted to a fondness for Twilight fan fiction, too ? Yes, Taylor Lautner is my son’s age (I’m Team Edward, anyway) and I can take the cougar jokes.

I think fan fiction is a great starting point. The characters are done for you. Their motives, their back stories – all yours to mold to fit your plot. It really is a great exercise. Over at the Twilighted.net site, I read a fantastic story called Master of the Universe. The thing is – aside from the characters’ names – the story bore absolutely no resemblance to Twilight. It was so good, I wrote to the author and begged her to change all their names, find an agent and publish it on its own merit.

Patty, you have no idea how much this post helps me. Since I’m working on my first novel all of these issues pop up for me. I fight to show, not tell. I fight against adding in useless words. I fight and fight and I’m SURE that I’m still doing a lot wrong.

But, without writing and without making all these mistakes, I can’t learn.

I hold tight to the face that even if my first novel ends up unpublishable, I will have learned so, so, so much. Thanks!

Thanks, Michelle! In my day job as a software technical writer, I used to write the training materials for education classes so you’d think this lesson would be an easy one for me – we can’t learn unless we make mistakes and we can’t make mistakes unless we WRITE. Also, thanks for the blog mention!

[…] She has an awesome post up today and since my schedule is all whacked out I’ll save my next post for this weekend. […]

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Hi! Welcome to my blog. I’m Patty.

I'm a writer represented by Denise Little, The Ethan Ellenberg Agency. I love to tell stories, to boast about my sons, to indulge in a serious chocolate obsession. (I often combine these passions.)

During the day, I write software user guides, but at night, I let my hair down... and write whatever I want. (I know. You expected something else. Sorry.) I'm currently working on a YA story about sexting gone horribly bad called SEND. I use this blog to explore my passions.

Contact me at pattyblount3 at gmail dot com.

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