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Tools to overcome a block from: "My words are bad"

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It's said that writers improve through writing.

Maybe true, but I've discovered the first draft of any new piece I write is still really, really bad. The characters are flat, the descriptions lacking, the motivations unclear, and so on.

I'm curious what tools (or ideas, mantras, tricks--interpret as you like) exist to help a writer simply get through these bad words. I'm particularly curious to learn tools that get a writer not only through these bad words, but also to a nice final draft more efficiently.

Here are a few thoughts to get the ball rolling:

  1. Accept that the first draft will be bad.
  2. A blank page can not be edited. Get something--anything--onto the page. it can be edited.
  3. Rest assured that every iteration will likely be better than the one before it--all progress is essentially forward.

What are some other ideas and tools along these lines?

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6 answers

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I've never subscribed to this notion that you should just start writing. Sure, depending on your level of skill and experience, some number of things about your first draft will probably be bad. A novel is an incredibly complex piece of art with severe constraints on its form. It is hard to get everything right in one go.

But at the same time, I think there ought to be one thing good about the first draft. Maybe some of the characters are flat, but at least one should show some definite shape. Maybe not all the motivations are clear, but at least one should be.

A story starts with an idea, some juxtaposition of forces or desires that occurs because some particular character finds themselves in some particular situation. That may not be all fleshed out when you start writing, but at least the basic lines of the character or the situation should be there, otherwise, you are not writing a story, you are just writing stuff.

Editing a story will turn it into a better, more complete, more exciting, more engrossing, more convincing story. Editing just stuff will not turn it into a story, except by accident.

My advice would be, don't start writing until you have a story. It may not take much to create the seeds of a story, but you'll know if you have one, because if you have one, something, at least, maybe just one small thing, will not suck about the first draft.

And it is okay not to have a story. Lots of great writers had long gaps between books, either waiting for a story to come to them or going out and searching for one. But however hard or easy they come, whether they come and lay down at your door or you have to go out into the wilds to hunt one down, wait till you have a story, the germ of a story at least, before you start writing.

Otherwise you will just frustrate and disappoint yourself and spend your effort in the wrong place. We write stories. Until you have a story, it is too soon to start writing.

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I'll offer a frame challenge here. Personally, I embrace the rewrite, and the deletion. I recently finished a long novel, a year-long project, and by my count, I read the whole thing twenty times. Some parts, like the opening and climax scenes, I probably read fifty times.

A story about Hemingway (I don't know if its true), he was writing in a hotel, made a friend at the bar, and one day the friend asks him, how much did you get done today? Hemingway said, "It took all day, but I added a comma to a sentence."

The next day, same question: How much did you get done today? Hemingway said, "I deleted that comma from yesterday."

That's me. I can write ten pages in a day, and never change them, or I can write a half page of dialogue and tweak it twenty times. Some scenes are tough for me.

I do keep daily, time-stamped backups of everything I write, even though I seldom consult them. But because of that, I have deleted a dozen pages of a scene because it was just a waste of time, I wrote it, I went through it five times, then deleted it, because I decided it was a stall, I needed to move on to some actual conflict.

I have little interest in being efficient, or to be accurate, I think the efficient thing to do is write something your characters would actually do next (because you know them), and if that isn't going anywhere then delete it and think of something else, figure out what might advance the story. If it advances the story, great, flesh it out, with details. Fix it, better imagine the visuals of the scene, the character positions and actions during the scene, don't forget to add color, add scent if applicable, find spots for humor if you can, add thoughts and reactions, body language, facial expressions, sounds and irritants and touch and taste, or at least consider them.

I don't do that all at once, often when I don't know what to write next, I go back 2 or 3 chapters and start reading, and correcting flaws, but reading to get an idea of what naturally happens next.

I know I am done with a scene when I've been away from it for awhile, and then read it, and don't notice a thing that irritates me.

I am creating a work of art, I don't need to do that efficiently. I do have a system for getting it done and finishing novels, but I reject ideas like "three edits and you're done." I'm done when I know I'm done.

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I'd have to read one of your first drafts – and probably get to know you a lot better – to understand what is wrong with the draft and how this happened to be able to answer your question in manner that would be helpful to you personally.

I have read manuscripts by persons who quite frankly simply didn't have the verbal intelligence necessary to write meaningful sentences. If that is your problem, no amount of advice or practice will turn you into a good writers.

If that isn't your problem, then maybe some of these suggestions might help:

  • Write the next text.

Writing is a skill like any other. It has a learning curve that you can't skip. You'll have to write a couple of failed works to learn how to write well, in the same way that you have to begin as a beginner and won't create a masterpiece at the first attempt in any other field either.

I found that the quality of my writing began to reach publishable quality about ten years after I began writing fiction. There is a study that shows that on average writers need to write three failed novels before their first publication. Some publish their first attempt, and others need twenty.

  • Don't be lazy, or the result will be sloppy.

When you want to build a house or play a song in a band or treat a broken leg, you don't usually just jump in and muddle about. You analyse the problem, make a plan, and then execute it.

In writing, when you are a pantser, your first draft will be a mess. If you want your first draft to be close to publishable, you need to create an outline first.

Yes, there are very experienced (or naturally talented) writers who sit down and write a bestseller without an outline, but those are few and far between. It is much more likely that – if you find that your first drafts are not good – you are not one of these.

I found that once I began doing outlines, my first drafts were finished and publishable except for a bit of copy-editing.

  • Accept.

If you find that your first drafts are horrible but that after a few rewrites they get published, then maybe that is who you are and how you work. People are more complex and varied than a simple dichotomy between pantsers and outliners. Every writer writes differently, and maybe writing a terrible first draft is what you need to do to eventually create a publishable text.

If you don't want to accept that,

  • Experiment.

1 comment

Nice to see a variety of answers. Thanks for chiming in. DPT 7 months ago

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In the eternal battle between pantsers and planners, I'm a very hard planner. I don't feel comfortable writing the first page of a story until I know the overall structure and the main characters, and I often won't write even an individual scene without first outlining what's going to happen in it.

I've found that whenever I get stuck, stepping back and thinking about what I want to do next gets me unblocked. When I have a mental list of what I want to accomplish in the next couple of scenes and why those things matter to the story, I have a much easier time sitting down and cranking out those pages. It also gives me a great deal of confidence that my words don't completely suck. I can explain as I'm writing them why they correctly and meaningfully portray the characters, deepen the conflict, advance the plot, and contribute to the themes. I know what I'm foreshadowing, what mysteries I'm hinting at but avoiding explaining, and how I'm setting myself up for strong context in the future.

To be sure, my first drafts still have serious problems and need to be thoroughly edited. I'm not saying I produce the correct story on the first try. I'm saying that I find all of this up-front planning is what gives me the emotional confidence to feel productive as I write the first draft.

I know the process of writing is different for everyone. But if you haven't tried outlining, it can't really hurt.

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I'll also answer the question.

There's a common human experience of waiting til the last minute to tackle a job. Students are notorious for waiting until the last minute to turn in term papers, but this habit is shared by plenty of adults.

Grant applications, tenure packages, articles for special journal issues, peer reviews, etc--these often get pushed to the last minute (by professional people!), and then it's a mad dash to finalize the thing and submit it.

It's possible (even advisable) to discipline oneself to finish a project even when one does not wish to. It could even be the a mark of a successful writer.

Use that idea. Use the knowledge that discipline will get you there. Your effort may be 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, but given the scope of human accomplishment, that proportion has decent company to keep.

A second thought is the idea of fun. Have fun. Just have fun. How? Well, in fiction, there's the 'cool' factor. Use it! If the wheels are dragging on a draft, add 'cool.' Add a superpower if it's allowed, or a romantic twist, or a neat athletic or other ability for your protagonist. Toss in something fun. Toss in an untimely death if that's your jam, or a ridiculous argument. Have a character do something outrageous--to get you past this block. Have a character streak through town, or develop a gambling habit out of the blue. Why not? The other characters might have things to say about it, and before you know it things are moving again. And character is developing. And some of that bizarre passage you wrote might even unlock some new ideas and impact the final draft.

A third thought, more craft-oriented, is to continually ask oneself the purpose of the scene at hand. What is the main character pursuing and what stands in their way? It occurs to me that focusing too heavily on this idea may impede the 'cool' factor of idea #2, because the job becomes very task-oriented instead of fun. So perhaps the idea of balance will play into any final answer to the question.

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There are different kinds of progress that you can make as you write.

You can produce text that makes it into a specific draft. You obviously need to do this eventually, and perhaps you even do it from the start. But, I think, it's not the only kind of progress you want to be aware of.

You can develop the prose style that you will use for the piece you're writing, your "voice", the atmosphere and tone and attitude of the piece. Perhaps you throw away some specific block of prose, but if, in writing that prose, you moved towards figuring out a compelling style in which to tell your story, then you have made valuable progress, and the next prose you write will be better.

You can improvise or improve the structure of the story. Of course, you may or may not have already worked on an outline. In any case, by starting to actually write prose you will develop your understanding of the story's structure. Even if you throw away any amount of prose, this improved understanding will help you do better in the next attempt--and, of course, it is by no means necessary that you do throw everything away.

You can discover who your characters are and where they are going by writing about them. Keep or reject the actual prose--as above.

As you make progress in each of these areas, you will get a better idea of what you want to do in the others. This may mean re-writing or editing prose that previously seemed good, or figuring out how to write decent prose when previously all you felt you could produce was, as you put it, "bad words".

It is quite reasonable that, if you do not have good characters, an effective narrative structure, a compelling voice for this story, anything you start writing is likely to sound like "bad words". If the process of writing "bad words" helps you make progress in any of these areas, you will be in a much better position to write something good afterwards.

Nevertheless, I do also recommend that you consider outlining or otherwise planning before you start writing. Different people prefer different strategies and this is a very large discussion, but it's worth pointing out that you at least have a variety of options that are worth trying so as to see what works for you.

An altogether different issue that you might face is that, perhaps, you are doing exactly the storytelling you want to be doing--you're putting the desired characters, plot, etc. on the page just as you want to--but the quality of the prose itself is bad. In this case, it makes good sense to get the entire story written down, so that you have a complete draft to work with. Then, you can edit to your heart's content, until the prose itself is well-done.

EDIT: By the way, all this is relevant to some other common writing advice that I think needs some extra context: "don't re-write". Yes, if you keep re-writing your first chapter forever, you will never complete a story. Yes, if you keep re-writing a block of text in order to improve it in a single area, e.g. trying to get the perfect hook and atmosphere in your first chapter, you will make slow progress in other areas of your story, or none at all. But I think it's OK to re-write after making progress of the kind I've described above. If you have developed a better understanding of your story overall--its characters, structure, plot, etc.--and you now see that some already-written prose does not fit your new understanding, well, then, fine, re-write that material if you want to...

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