It’s not like you can help but suck. Whenever you start something new, you’re bound to because you really don’t know what you’re doing.
The same is true for writers.
I’ve been writing for more than 20 years and, during that time, I’ve made some really big mistakes. I’m not talking about the occasional spelling or grammatical error. Those can be corrected in a matter of moments or, if you missed it yourself, all you need is an editor or proofreader to slap you on the wrist and you can go about your business.
When I talk about how I’ve sucked as a writer over the years, I’m talking about mistakes that cost months or years before I realized one day–either through simple growth or maturity, or because someone finally had the heart to bring it to my attention–that I needed to improve my writing in some pretty significant ways.
To help other writers avoid suffering the same fate, I list below four areas where I have truly sucked. Number 3, as promised in the title of this post, represents the epic “suck”. Keep reading to find out what not to do.
Wrote before I knew my protagonist’s history
This was a problem for my first two novels. I started writing them before I really knew my protagonist. I had this vague (and correct) idea that I needed to get him into some kind of trouble and I did fine on that front.
The only problem was I didn’t know my character’s history well enough to know how he had been shaped as an individual by past events (i.e. back story) which, in turn, would have influenced his response to the trouble I eventually got him into. I had no idea what demons he faced, what goals he wished to achieve, why he wanted to achieve them or a whole lot else about his value system.
My protagonist, in other words, lacked the kind of substance that makes readers care.
Back in college, I took some acting classes. My acting instructor told us once that some actors, as they’re studying their characters, will learn all they can about their personal histories even if those elements never make it onto the screen or the stage, and even if the audience never learns ANY of that information through other means.
As a writer, your protagonist’s depth and ability to respond appropriately and consistently to problems comes exactly from this area of development. If you don’t know who you’re throwing to the dogs in your novel, the stakes and the tension are bound to be diluted when conflict does occur. You won’t be able to write with the full power you need to keep readers flipping the pages and, while you may be able to create conflict or problem within the story, it will lack depth and have no meaning to the protagonist’s well-being. Without a complex character to care for, your reader won’t care for your story either.
Gave my protagonist no character arc
Did your protagonist change throughout the novel? Or, did your character face an opportunity to change but fail tragically?
One fundamental underpinning of fiction is the belief in personal freedom. We as writers and as readers all believe we can change our circumstances based on our behavior. This belief we have about our lives represents why we invest hope in fictional characters. We don’t believe they’re victims. We believe that if they just behave appropriately then things will work out.
The character arc in a novel takes into account that ability of the protagonist to improve his/her situation through proactive behavior. And it’s not even just the process of going through this process–it’s how characters are fundamentally changed. Humans grow, develop, mature and gather wisdom by experience. Your protagonist’s ability to face and be transformed by challenges creates a bond that readers recognize.
Without some kind of character arc–some learning and result that occurs as a result of experience–your readers will likely be bored with your story. So don’t do this sucky thing.
Of all the sucky things…this is the epic “suck”
So now I’m switching gears from speaking about my protagonist to talking about me, the writer. And yes, as promised in the title of this post, I’m going to explain that while I as a writer have done many sucky things over the years, this represents the epic “suck”.
Are you ready? I did not take care of myself.
Let me say that again. While writing, I ignored parts of my life I should have cared for during my quest for greatness. This primarily occurred when I was in my mid-20s though, I suppose, in some ways, it’s lasted even longer than that.
I started my first novel, Journeying Away, when I was 26 years old. I already knew the age at which John Irving, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe had published their first novels–all were in their mid- to late-20s. In my quest for greatness, I am afraid that I ignored parts of my life that I should have attended to.
I had a job, so at least I was making some money. But I isolated myself from people and missed opportunities to make new friendships and date women who expressed interest in me. In fact, those few occasions when I did date were rarely followed by second dates. I had my novel in mind; it was all I thought about and I spent a lot of time alone. I did, fortuitously, fall in with a bunch of artistic friends with whom I spent a few amazing years. Read this post to find out more about what those crazy years were like. But equally, there were areas of self-development and intimacy that I ignored, much to my detriment.
When I finally finished Journeying Away, a 900+ page monster, after a two-and-a-half year, I fell hard. I had to come to terms with areas of my personal development that I had ignored, had to face fears I had long ignored, face ugly truths about self-doubt in my personal life and deal with the significant anxiety that resulted.
I did come out of it. And in hindsight, whether you’re a writer or not, one’s 20s are rough for everyone by representing that crucial bridge between childhood and adulthood. It’s the time when you first find your sea legs as an independent person who becomes concerned about finances, housing, emotional maturity and employment. It certainly doesn’t help, however, when you hide yourself in your writing.
Ultimately, after several bad months through 2002, I re-emerged somewhat stronger. I took up biking and then martial arts in the fall; but it was a painful process getting there.
In 2003, I started my second novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot. A few months in, I broke up with my girlfriend. Clearly, I hadn’t learned my lesson.
Writers need to take care of themselves. A balanced life includes writing and living: one hears stories of artists destroying themselves with drinking and drugs. I never went down that path; but the compulsions that cause one to withdraw from normal societal relations to write are not unfamiliar to me.
Didn’t rigorously develop my craft
In 1991, I took a creative writing class with Ed Falco at Virginia Tech where I was an undergraduate. Professor Falco was the known novelist on a campus renowned more for its architectural and engineering programs than for its English studies. He had just published Winter in Florida, which got some good play in the local papers. And so every aspiring writer on campus–of which there were more than in hindsight seems rational at a technical school–wanted to take his course. I was one of the lucky ones to get in.
After I wrote two short stories, View Through a Broken Window and Throwing Stones, Professor Falco told me that if I kept writing, I would be successful. Bad move on his part? I wonder how many people pursue a course in life because someone once encouraged them to pursue something they clearly enjoyed. Am I successful right now? From an economic perspective, absolutely not.
I am not unhappy with my professional life; I enjoy my job in accounting marketing quite a bit. My point though, is that I received some advice which I may have focused on too much over the years. As a result, out of a sense of predestination for success in writing, I likely avoided some learning I could have attained from a rigorous program in creative writing. Yes, I’ve had my subscriptions to Writer’s Digest and, yes, I’ve taken writers workshops with nonprofits such as The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD and the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, Colorado.
I learned a lot from those experiences. But I also learned a lot through hard experience, which is spending hours and days and weeks and months and years writing without consideration critical elements of fiction that writers must consider–such as the above-mentioned failures not to develop my protagonist’s back story or develop a character arc.
As I recently mentioned on a post on Anne Allen’s blog, some of the worst advice a writer can receive is about their success potential. If you want to support a writer in their quest for success, don’t pat them on the head and say, you will succeed. Grab them by the shoulders and tell them to work, work, work and to develop their craft.
The best kind of success a writer–or any professional–can achieve is the one they barely notice because they’re working so hard. That doesn’t mean writers shouldn’t stop, take a deep breath and enjoy what they’ve accomplished once they get there. But providing any commentary that might be perceived as the inevitability of success is a dangerous thing. In hindsight, given the way I held on dearly to Professor Falco’s comment, I wish I had rigorously studied my craft at an earlier age without visions of success dancing through my head.
Those are the four sucky things I have done as a writer, and which you will hopefully avoid. But what about you? What sucky things have you done that held you back or delayed your eventual success?