Bad Writing Days are Worth the Effort

We’ve all had days, at least if you’re a writer, where you stare at a blank screen and try to push an idea out of your brain that just won’t come. It gets blown into a huge confidence crisis. You question whether you’re cut out for it, or if it’s even worth the effort. You might feel like giving up, or at least taking the day off.

I’ve learned its worth the effort even when it sucks.

I’m not saying you have to write every day, or sit in front of that blank screen and beat your brain in. Maybe you do need a break – get a snack, have a bath, take a walk – to get the creative juices flowing. But if you’ve done all that and it’s still not helping, I’ve found sitting down and trying to engage with what you’re working on is often the best solution, even if it’s only taking five minutes to outline.

The writing may suck that day and make you feel horrible, but what you’re doing is priming your subconscious to work on it in the background. Since I started planning what I want to write tomorrow before going to bed, I’ve been having more good writing days than bad ones.

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The Power of Habit is Real

We’ve all heard this advice a million different ways: bum in seat, don’t wait for the muse, don’t worry about how bad it is – just get the words down. It’s been six weeks since I vowed to write for an hour every day, and I can tell you one thing: it works. It’s not as simple as writing gurus say it is though, which is of course why people find it so hard to follow (guilty). Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

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When Details Matter

Last week I talked about how excessive detail can bury the purpose or meaning of a work, and also waste your and your audience’s time. But there’s a time and a place for heavy detail work, and becoming a better artist is learning to recognize when it’s appropriate and when it’s not. If you do it right, you awe people when they realize how much care you put into the project. There are also times when people will only notice on a subliminal level, praising work for its realism even when they can’t put their finger on exactly how it achieves it.

About not showing your homework when it comes to world building – people don’t appreciate a massive info dump in the middle of a narrative, but that doesn’t mean don’t do your homework at all. You can end up with a hundred thousand words of notes, especially if you’re working on a large series, that never make it into the story directly, but influence its outcome behind the scenes. The key to managing the amount of work you put into your “story bible,” verses how much actual narrative you get on the page, is learning to recognize when your bible mechanics matter.

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Sense is More Important Than Accuracy

Accuracy is overrated when it comes to portraying something in a way that makes sense to most people. Outside a research paper or an architectural drawing, you’re more often looking for verisimilitude. Verisimilitude captures the essence, or appearance, of a thing. Today that means distilling it down to pertinent details rather than describing every boat in the harbor and their moorings (during the frickin climax, Dickens, wth). I’ve run across the distillation principle again and again in different contexts, so I have plenty of examples:

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Sudden Comprehension of Writing Failure

I once again find myself struggling to get my weekly blog post up in time. The one I had planned is still a mess. I spent way too long trying to rewrite it from scratch, only to delete every single word. My head is also a mess, partly due to me having a sick day. I was going to take that as an excuse, but after putting off working on this post for the past two days, all I’ve done is set myself up to fail on the day the work is due.

I’ve engineered my own failure simply by falling out of the daily habit. My post/week schedule has often led to me only writing once a week, which is not enough if I’m going to write something weekly worth a damn. A weekly blog post has been a good tangible goal. It’s at least kept me honest, as I’ve not completely failed to deliver so far – even if I’ve got a few in a day late.

However, I’m past the point where just getting it done is good enough. I insist what I post be more than merely passable, which means putting in enough time to not just do a first and final draft, but get a second draft in as well. My first drafts are hot garbage, and cobbling them into something reasonable takes more than one edit – always – and too often I let myself forget this and post something sub-par.

Today’s post is an example of sub-par shit. All I’m doing is berating myself, and posting it in public to hammer it into my head with shame. So, in the interest of writing something useful, here is what I must do to avoid this dilemma in the future (apologies for having to break my one-fuck-per-article rule, but this needs to be said in exactly this way):

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On Collaboration: Equal Does Not Equal Same

Collaborating with others is a learned skill. One most people don’t learn properly in school because most teachers just throw a bunch of students together and hope for the best. The students almost always divide the work the same way: so everyone gets a smaller piece of the same job. This is not how projects work in real life because shit actually needs to get done, and it’s the worst way to go about it.

For example, in university I was once saddled with a group who thought sharing the workload meant everyone had to write a report and recite it in front of the class – independently. It could hardly be called a “group” at all. I tried to work for better cohesion: playing MC, tying people’s ideas together, and trying to engage the audience. I even tried to teach the rest of the group to memorize their shit so they wouldn’t stand there mumbling with their noses in their notes, but guess what they did come presentation time. Each was in their own little world, boring the shit out of everyone else.

One girl didn’t present at all, which I didn’t think was a problem because she’d dutifully taken on all the boring logistical problems the group had: taking responsibility for research materials, organizing people’s notes, getting the AV equipment. She’d done more work than anyone, but those immature assholes didn’t recognize it because it wasn’t the exact same work they were doing. When they started bitching at teacher that she shouldn’t get the same grade, I told them all to STFU and listed every contribution she’d made.

When you put people together and force them all to drudge through the same tasks, everyone’s performance is dragged down. What you end up with is an idiot group: one where the output matches the lowest performer involved. The only way to solve this is to find different tasks that fit each person’s skill-set and interests. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. A smart group delegates jobs based on people’s individual strengths and covers their weaknesses.

If everyone was as good as everyone else at the same things there would be no need to collaborate in the first place. The whole point of forming a group is to cover all necessary aspects of a project that can’t be done alone. The best collaborations I’ve had were with people who slotted well into all the gaps that needed filling, where people loved doing jobs others hated. Everyone at once could think, “I’m so glad I’m doing X and not Y,” and be confident that someone else was getting Y done because it’s a job the other person enjoys.

People do their best work when they love it (and continue to love it even when it’s frustrating). If you truly hate some aspect of the work you need done, farm it out. That’s what smart people do, because they realize their time is best spent on things they enjoy.

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Advice That Makes You Go Duh: Summing Up a Story

If you can’t sum up your story in one sentence, you don’t have a story so much as a bunch of shit that happened. It could be a long sentence, but you only get so many “ands” before people stop listening. If you can’t make someone interested in your idea within that framework, it’s time to take a step back and figure your shit out. It’s a lesson I learn fresh every time I start new story.

Often people start with a situation, but not knowing their character’s drives, they fail to turn that situation into something that moves the reader to give a damn. I’ve found summing up your story in as few words as possible is a great way to reveal this fundamental flaw.

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One of Many Steps Towards Becoming a Writer Worth a Damn

This post may become a series on revelations of craft that struck me in the gob like the shmuck I was before I knew any better. This week: how I learned to put a fresh spin on an old hat (how’s that for a mixed metaphor?) and how originality arises naturally from having an interesting character who doesn’t see the word the same way as everyone else. Basically: the whole point of literature. I mean hell, if you’re not doing that you might as well program your ebook compiler to replace all your words with fart noises, because that’s the only way you’ll entertain anyone.

So what kind of idiot was I before I figured out that writing a scene meant writing something new? It started with a wedding, and how much I hate them. My first novel required a wedding scene and I dreading writing it. In my head flashed all the weddings I’d seen in the movies: the costumes I’d have to describe, the happy faces, the spoken vows. The picture in my head was a wreck of smashed together cliches, and I had no idea I didn’t have to write it that way.

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