Monday, August 08, 2011

Arrggghhh!!!: Writer Frustrations, and Hopefully, a Few Answers

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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 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.

Not necessarily. No matter what your skill level, 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.


  1. Re: What if my instincts are wrong?

    I don't think "writer instincts" exist. Or rather, I think they're "story instincts" turned on their head.

    When you read a book or watch a movie, your "story instincts" kick in. You instinctively know how the story should flow, where the highs and lows should be, and how the story should end. Not necessarily the specifics, but certainly the ebb and flow of conflict, and an understanding of what makes for a satisfying ending.

    The "writer instincts" that people talk about are really the same thing, from the perspective of the writer rather than the reader.

    If you're struggling to trust your instincts, my suggestion is to take a step back from your own work for an hour, a day, a week, however long you need. Spend some time letting your innate "story instincts" out by immersing yourself in movies and books. Think about what makes the stories in those movies and books work, and pay attention to how well you anticipate the highs and lows.

    Then turn those instincts loose on your own work. And remember that even the best writers need to take a break between writing and editing. (So that they can approach their own work like a reader rather than a writer.)

    This is all opinion, mind you, and you're welcome to disagree with me. Feel free to tell me so.

  2. What an excellent idea for a post! This is great!

    My thoughts sort of cover all the questions you addressed.

    I think writing is a process. We hear it all the time, but don't often stop to think about what that means exactly. To me, it means that you're honing your instincts while you're honing your other writing skills. You write a book, analyze what's not working, where you seem to be lacking based off of your instincts, beta feedback, and editors, and then you work on that for your next book.

    It's easier to work on one or two things at a time, and it feels less impossible. I also think it's a matter of priorities. If you're still really awful with characters, that should be your main focus over something slightly less dire, like say writing a good prologue.

    And you're right, it's a long process that often takes years. Even after you get published this process doesn't stop. You have to continue to learn your craft and improve with each book or your career will stagnate.

    On one hand, that sounds depressing. You're never going to say "Okay I am done. I am a master at writing." Even the greats like Hemingway and Dickens were constantly tearing apart their prose trying to find ways to get it better.

    But really, this is a good thing. A healthy thing. You're always going to be learning, and if you can embrace it as a fun and natural part of the process, you won't feel as depressed when you realize you need to seriously work on some aspect.

    Thanks again for the great post, Janice.

  3. A lot of this felt really familiar. I used to get very frustrated editing, until I found a good writer's group. And often my instincts/worried were off. That chapter I gnawed my fingernails over, thinking it was dead slow? People thought it raised the tension and gave clear, exciting direction to the plot. And scenes I thought were perfect fell on their face.

    I do think writing the next book can help. Practice is practice. I set aside a novel once, wrote a couple more, and when I came back to look at it, it was painfully obvious what needed to be fixed. Time and experience gave me a new set of eyes.

    The other thing I think can really help hone skills/instincts/whatever is critiquing. I used to read buckets of slush, and it gave me some clear ideas of what not to do. I'm going to assume that you don't have a magazine to go read slush at nearby, but if you sign up for, you can critique a lot of stories and simulate the experience. I've also found the people at Critters to be helpful critiques as well. As you often get a fistful of critiques when you send a story through, it's easier to pick out what's not working and the occasional comment that falls in personal opinion. If I'm not mistaken, Janice met one of her now-critique partners on Critters, so it can also be a good place to meet writers whose opinions you can rely on.

    Sorry for the long response! I've felt a lot of those frustrations before.

  4. A good writing teacher is a better choice than a paid editor for a vast majority of newer writers, particularly those who don't go "oh, I understand" when the editor says do this or that.

    Instinct is over-rated. Learning how to spot errors is more important, and those errors have to be understood to spot.

    At certain points in my learning curve, I would look at a work and decide that it was as perfect as I could make it.

    When I was further along on that learning curve, I could see the massive amount of errors and mistakes I'd made when I'd reached "perfect."

    Only when the learned aspects of craft are second nature can you begin to trust your instincts and even then, a cold analysis of craft is more important.

  5. Great post, Janice! I have a question, although it is digressing...

    I've read all of these advice on first chapters, hooking readers, etc. But my first chapter is my prologue, and it acts at first as a backstory, but it also influences a major plot twist later on in the book. I want to keep it (for the twist, a sort of foreshadowing) but since the actual chapter one doesn't really relate with the prologue except for the setting, would it be better if I just tweak in the foreshadowing some other way and get rid of the prologue in general?


  6. I think Jo's advice about stepping back is really good. Sometimes a person is too close to a story.

    If a person is frustrated they can be too tense to edit. I know I have to be relaxed to do a good job of working out the tangles in a story. Otherwise I'll get so discouraged I just want to toss the story on a firepit somewhere and watch it shrivel into marshmallow toasting fule.

  7. Yes, I agree. Stepping back from the writing does wonders. When we get all tangled in our story or book, we sometimes can't moved forward or do anything to untangle the scenes from each other. Yes, take a break, work on something else.


  8. I knew you guys would have great tips to add.

    Jo, love the story instincts vs writer instincts. Same concept, just a different way of looking at it, and we all that often does the trick when something is stumping you. Great idea about diving into stories.

    MK, I agree with critiquing to get a feel for what works and what doesn't. It's a handy skill to develop.

    Julianna, in most cases it's better to get rid of the prologue. Since you said "it acts at first as backstory" is a red flag that it's not starting the story off with a protag with a problem. It's setting up the story. However, there are times when a prologue works, especially in certain genres like thrillers or mysteries. I've done a few posts that might help (too much to go into here)

    They go into a lot more detail about how to analyze your prologue and decide if its helping or hurting your opening.

  9. Marilynn, you said-

    "Instinct is over-rated. Learning how to spot errors is more important, and those errors have to be understood to spot."

    Spotting errors is only half the battle, you still have to know how to fix them, and that's the part of the equation I rarely seem to get write, even after redoing it over and over for months.

    That said, I don't think instincts are over-rated, sometimes that's all you've got, and if it lets you finish a draft of something, no matter how rough it is, you'll be thankful you have it to whatever extent.

    Plus, this will vary greatly depending what you have to jettison errors from.

    For me, query letters and synopses are the banes of my writer existence, but seeing why they're bad isn't enough, if I can't fix them, nothing will change, and that's something I think too many writers don't understand.

    Elizabeth: I really get what you're saying, but this "process" is only fun when you know what you're doing wrong, why it's wrong, and have some idea how you can fix it. Sometimes it's not great to be in the dark about certain things.

    Janice, I'm glad my questions sparked such diverse and positive discussion.

    Until I read your reply to my last comment, I was worried I was sounding like a jerk, and I don't want to do anything that gives other writers a bad rep, so thanks for seeing past the angst and anger, to the sincere concerns I'm dealing with right now.

    Once again, I'm using your blog post as a springboard on a topic you understand as well as I do, and hopefully, this can start me writing regularly blog posts again.

    Please keep up the good work with your blog, because writers who need the info you provide and hunt for, and you deliver it in way that's honest without writing off the feelings of anger or self-doubt we all get sometimes.

    Seriously, if an easy to cry basket case like me isn't finding the way you approach your blog adding to my shame and sadness of not getting certain things about writing, it will help countless others who are tougher in this regard than me as I am now.

    Take Care,

    P.S. About what Marilynn said about finding teachers to work with you instead of hiring editors to fix things for you, that costs even more money than getting your work cleaned up, and that's still not cheap for most of us.

    The only reason I mentioned that in my comment last week was simply that I did all I could on my own to make my last novel shine, and it was never enough based on the feedback I got, and a long line of form letters of the agents I tried.

    If I had the thousands of dollars, I'd do it at least once in awhile, I still want to hone my craft and all, I don't believe in running away from that, but despite past doubts, I would gladly do it because I believe in my stories that much that getting it the best it can be is worth it.

    Since I can't afford outside help, I continue to fumble through self-study and countless trial and error.