There were some questions in Friday’s post that I felt were really important ones and deserved a post of their own. I’m sure this commenter is not alone in his frustrations, because not only have I been there, I hear other writers echo the same things. Some of the questions have no easy answers, but I’m going to try.
As much as I really want to believe what you and others told me about trusting my instincts, what do you do if your instincts are just wrong?
This question went right to my heart. I wish I had a bulleted list to share here like so many of my tips and tricks. I think the first step is to determine if your instincts really are wrong. (And I’m using the general “you” today, not specifically directed to the commenter) Being unsure about a story or not having the skill to pull off something yet doesn’t mean you have no writer instincts. Making the wrong choice doesn’t mean it either.
If you consistently make the wrong conscious choice, and beta readers call you on it and/or suggest what you didn’t go with, that might indicate your compass is off. But even then, you did think about the right option at the start, so on some level your instincts kicked in with the answer. So is it a matter of being wrong, or just not yet having the skill set to take advantage of those instincts? There might be more self doubt holding you back than bad instincts. Second-guessing yourself and getting in your own way.
I can’t see any writer who’s gotten far enough along their writing path that beta readers are finding good things to say about your work, and are still willing to read your work, having totally wrong instincts. If your instincts were wrong all the time, you probably wouldn’t be able to craft a coherent story at all. You can have untrained instincts, or uncertain instincts, and even newbie instincts, but your gut is allowing you to write a story that gets from point A to point Z.
If you truly feel your instincts are wrong, I’d suggest looking at where you made mistakes and doing everything you can to learn how to correct them. Educate yourself so you can re-train your instincts. Maybe you picked up some bad habits from bad advice, or you don’t yet have the foundation skill set you need to guide you. Just like athletes work on muscle memory to react without thinking, writers can train their writing muscles to react without thinking. You can develop better instincts.
An important thing to remember is that sometimes even the best writers get it wrong. No one is expected to have dead-on instincts all the time. You’ll make mistakes, especially when starting out or when you’re learning something new. You want to trust your instincts and do what you feel is best for the story, not second guess every choice you make.
How can simply "Writing the next book" fix my writing?
It can’t. Writing the next book without doing anything to improve your writing will very likely end in the same result. What will help fix the problem is to study what you’re doing and take steps to improve that in some way, then write the next book and put those new skills into practice.
Writing muscles need to be exercised to grow. Reading about or talking about writing will only get you so far. There’s a reason I work so hard on my examples on this blog to explain things, because seeing it in practice is often the difference between getting it and just kinda getting the point.
Sometimes small steps are the way to go. Trying to take in everything writing has to offer and improve everything at once can be overwhelming. What helped me, was to focus on one thing at a time until I felt I got it (and this sometimes took several tries because I didn’t really get it the first time). I practiced on a short story, or I took a chapter from my novel and reworked that. I got feedback and saw where I improved and where I still needed work and I went back and took another step and tried another technique.
And the part no one likes –it takes time to develop your skills. A lot of time. As frustrating as it is to wait and bang your head against that keyboard, there are no shortcuts. Most writers put in a lot of hours to get it right and spend years working on their craft.
I know paying someone to fix this won't stop the problem and make it better, but if I could, I'd pay whatever it took for someone who's a far better editor than I, to fix where I go wrong.
If all they do is edit your work and hand it back, then yes, that’s a waste of money since you won’t learn anything. But hiring an editor to help teach you where your issues are and how you might fix then is actually a good reason to do it. You certainly don’t have to of course, but there’s nothing wrong with seeking outside help to better your skills.
One downside to critiques is that unless you know the critiquer has the skills to help you, you can’t always be sure if the feedback is worth following. Especially if you’re at a stage where you doubt if you’re doing things right. Bad advice can send you in the wrong direction. Hiring professionals (be they teachers, editors, workshops, etc) to guide you is a legitimate way to improve.
If my book were enough to shine, I'd hear less "I don't get this" or "Why does this matter" or "This is slow and unnecessary" comments and more "This is a real story being told" type of comments when my work is critiqued.
crit group and my editor. There will always be things that readers don’t get, stakes that are unclear, sections that are slow and unnecessary. The whole point of a critique is to find those spots so you can fix them.
You also have to remember that crits by their nature are negative. They’re about finding the rough spots, not heaping praise. Hopefully praise will be given as well, but if it isn’t, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing good about your writing.
If you’re consistently getting the same type of feedback, that’s a great indicator of where to focus your energy on improving. Study how those sections look and feel so you can start spotting them yourself and catching them when you do write them. Because you will write them. I’m much better now at seeing where something might be unclear or what feels slow than I was when I wrote my first novel a decade ago, but I still miss stuff. Everyone does.
Writers, I know it’s frustrating, I know it’s painful, but you are not alone. We all go through this at some point. Publishing is a hard business, and to survive in it, you can’t let the tough parts get you down (or down for long). Everyone moves at their own pace, and while some lucky writers seem to fall into it fast, the vast majority take years or even decades to hone their craft and finally see it in print. And those in print struggle sometimes, too. Writing is a process and a journey and every book has different challenges—no matter who you are or what stage you’re at.
Don’t let the frustration and self doubt wear you down.
Chime in readers, how do you feel about these questions? What advice do you have for those struggling with these? Share your stories and your own frustrations about this crazy business.