What do you do when you’ve lost confidence in your own fiction writing? What if somebody has told you that what you write is “crap” — and you believed them? How do you pick yourself up and get going again?
Duncan posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
A few years ago ,a colleague saw the following opening for a piece of fiction I had scribbled in my note book.
When i asked him why he was reading my notebook, he retorted sharply:
“Wish I’d not exposed myself to such a crap.”
And sure a crap i became. Since then every time i set out to write fiction I find it very difficult to compose more than a few sentences before i see a crap of sentences staring me.
Question:How can i gather enough courage to write?
Randy sez: Sooner or later, every fiction writer faces this question. It’s a common saying among novelists that ninety percent of a first draft is crap. The trick is to figure out which is the golden ten percent and then to have the guts to fix the other ninety percent.
There isn’t any easy answer for this. Maybe the best thing to do is to realize that all authors everywhere get told that their stuff is crap.
Go visit the Amazon page that lists the top 20 bestsellers. This page is updated hourly, so it’s never going to be the same for long. Pick any book on this page and read the 1-star reviews. (I can almost guarantee that any Amazon bestseller has a pile of 1-star reviews.) There is always going to be somebody with a load of bile in their brain who hates your book and isn’t shy about telling you that it’s full of crap.
Now check out agent Steve Laube’s blog for today, which includes some memorable rejection lines, such as, “I’m sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.” Steve includes a sentence he wrote (when he was an editor some years ago) telling a certain wannabe writer that he was a good writer, but his characters weren’t really memorable enough. That wannabe writer was Ted Dekker, now a New York Times bestselling author whose books have sold millions of copies.
Duncan, if writing fiction is in your blood, then write fiction. Maybe it really is crap and maybe it isn’t, but write it anyway and get it out there and let the professionals figure out if it’s got merit. If it does, then you’re gold. If it doesn’t, then work on your writing to make it better, and get it out there again.
After all, when Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream came out, one reviewer wrote: “September 29: The most insipid, ridiculous play that I ever saw in my life.”
If that can happy to Billy, it can happen to you. That’s the nature of the beast.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.
Richard Mabry says
Randy, I had almost begun to believe the good reviews of my books on Amazon until I garnered some of those one star reviews you describe. Yes, they come, even after you’re published. And they may mean the writing was crappy, but then again, they may be–as you say–from someone with an overabundance of bile.
Duncan, every writer sometimes looks at his/her own work and thinks it’s crap. But Randy has given you the clue. Look for the best part and build on it.
Thanks, Randy, for good advice and encouragement.
Angel Ortega says
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is indeed the most insipid, ridiculous play that I saw in my life. Some things just happen to drive people mad and you cannot understand why the heck.
It’s a part of the life of a writer (or, at least, of a specific kind of writers like me) to be absolutely perplex about what people like and what not. We are not able to understand why some texts are so obvious crap to us and regardless of that become published and, on the other hand, our work gets rejected and rejected without further explanations (reject letters do not usually point to what is failing, they are just polite excuses like “you text does not match our editorial line”, so you do not know where to start).
Perhaps in some cases our fiction is just crap. It just happens that we cannot see it.
Carrie Neuman says
Let’s be honest, when you start your stuff is going to be pretty bad. Just keep writing and don’t show it to anyone until you get better.
I remember the first time I wrote something halfway decent. I could feel the difference. I wanted to show it to everyone. Don’t do that. There’s something inside us that turns us all into evil critics. Even if you tell people you just want a cheerleader, they can’t help themselves.
Keep going, Duncan!
Judith Robl says
I just read a novel from an aspiring writer. The writing is pedestrian and mundane, but the premise, plot and characters show great promise and imagination.
My critique to the writer said that there was the gem of a story there, but it needed much work and a great deal of polishing.
Gave the author the link to this blog and to John Olson’s Writing in the Shadows. If the writer takes this to heart, I have no doubt that this manuscript will be published, along with the two sequels and the prequel the author has planned.
And if the author studies the craft well, the first draft of the sequels will be much better than the first draft I just read.
Duncan, find someone who can help you make a determination about your writing – a critique partner who can tell you honestly, and gently, what you need to know.
The author returned a note to me saying, “that was what I needed to know. Craft, I can fix. I can’t fix a lack of imagination and creativity.”
Ken Marable says
For one thing, yeah ignore the colleague. Saying it’s crap isn’t constructive enough to bother thinking twice about.
However, for recognizing your own work as… needing improvement, that’s a very important, but extremely discouraging phase in developing as a writer. It’s also the phase I’m going through now.
See, when you start off building any creative skill, typically you are bad at both creating and critiquing. So you are bad but have no idea how bad you are. As you progress and hopefully reading plenty as well, not just for enjoyment but also to learn the craft you hit the bad phase. That’s when your critiquing skill improves faster than your creating skill. So you aren’t very good yet but you recognize just how bad you are.
It’s painful and can make you feel like you will never be a good writer. However, it is very important to remind yourself that this is a transitional phase. Keep at it! As your critiquing skill improves, you won’t just recognize that your writing is bad, but what parts are bad. It is then that your creating skill can really start to take off.
So don’t get discouraged (especially by what others say if they aren’t critiquing in a way that can help you improve). Try to use your critical eye as a tool to home your craft, not a hammer to beat yourself up with. Good luck!
Andra M. says
Ditto to all those above me. It’s always difficult to take criticism, both constructive and destructive. We, after all, put our soul on that piece of paper. When someone tears it apart, we can’t help but take it personally.
So, yea, ignore the colleague and find other writers/readers who will be more constructive in their critiques.
And it’s okay to write crap. I do it all the time. The nice thing about writing is that it can always be fixed later.
James Thayer says
Don’t put too much trust in others’ comments. The Chicago Tribune called one of my novels “the best thriller of the year.” The New York Times called that very same novel “fast food hamburger writing.” I wonder if they were reading the same novel. Here is John Grisham, talking about reviewers, but he might also be talking about anyone who comments on our work: “There’s a lot of jealousy, because [reviewers] think they can write a good novel or a best-seller and get frustrated when they can’t. As a group, I’ve learned to despise them.” And here is Thomas Harris, author of Silence of the Lambs: “The worm that destroys you is the temptation to agree with our critics, to get their approval.” The best way to get better is to study the craft, not give much regard to lay people’s comments.
I needed to hear that just now. Thanks.
Paulette Harris says
What a great way to start the New Year! One person’s crap is gold to someone else. I ignore a lot of negative viewpoints of other people because when it come to my reviews and influencing, I try hard to find something good about the stories. For one thing,I know how hard it was for the author to get to the point of being published. Someone along the line thought there was enough merit to put the piece into print and out into the world. I think that a lot of this stuff is pure jealousy and not worth stumbling over. Some are just bah-hum bug people. Some are genuinely helping but you know who they are.
What in the world was the person snooping for in the first place, it doesn’t sound like he was invited to take a look and critique an idea or first draft?
As far as a humble spirit and improving…artists of all genres are constantly re-working and learning to improve their crafts.It comes with the territory and any author worth their salt is going to take constructive criticism and learn to apply it to make their work better.
I think if we are serious about our writing, we have all run into this and isn’t vindication by our Lord SWEET! 🙂
Happy New Year Everyone and may each of you be blessed above and beyond your wildest dreams in 2011! 🙂
Tammy Bowers says
Thank you for this. I was just feeling defeated and like I was wasting my time. This helps to persevere. I read a statistic recently about the ratio of positive to negative comments. Some experts say for every 1 negative comment, a person needs to hear 5 positive ones in order to maintain a healthy balance.
Can I quote you on the part above where you said, “It’s a common saying among novelists that ninety percent of a first draft is crap. The trick is to figure out which is the golden ten percent and then to have the guts to fix the other ninety percent.” That is good stuff, Randy!
Phil Tate says
There’s a story about Gustav Mahler, one of the most famous and influential German Symphonists in music history (and my personal favorite; sorry Beethoven), that when he showed the sketches his first symphony to a popular conductor friend at the time the response was something like (forgive me i can’t find the reference, but its stuck with me for a long time):
“If this is the future of music I want nothing to do with it,” then promptly threw the score over the piano.
Even the greats had their colleagues to fling the crap of doubt upon their work.
“Success seems to be connected with action. Successful people keep moving. They make mistakes but they don’t quit.” -Conrad Hilton
It’s important to take criticism with a grain of salt. Really, you should be laughing at anyone who says “your writing’s crap,” because it’s essentially absurd to have such an opinion anyway.
What I mean is that, writing is a very personal thing and no one can say your ideas and your perspective on the world are CRAP. Sure, your depiction of those ideas might be confusing, but that’s just a matter of practice, repetition, and learning.
I really have to laugh at anyone that labors such an extreme opinion; it’s obviously just an attempt to belittle. As far as I’m concerned, the most harsh criticism you should accept is “your grammar and spelling need a lot of work.” If you have trouble in this domain, you need to do a lot of work on your craft, but honestly this is so much more useful to you than someone saying your writing is crap.
As far as content criticism (such as; your characters are weak or your story has no clear conflict driving the action), the bottom line is that this is ultimately a matter of opinion. If someone says your characters are “crap” and fails to define exactly what they mean, you should probably cut off contact with them, or at least ignore their criticism. Take criticism only from people that are constructive, and people that have been around long enough to have a worthwhile opinion.
Also…I’d like to say that there is a fine line between writing from your creative mind (which is full of untested and often unfit (to others) ideas) and your rational mind (which is able to filter through the creativity and find the best stuff and keep it. Often this line is also the line between staying “true” to your own ideas, and bending to the ideas of others on how writing “should” be.
It’s difficult to walk this line and only you can decide how far to walk on each side. From this vantage point, it seems like the further you walk, the clearer you can see the best way to go. However, I would put my money on sticking to your creative ideas as much as possible.
Also…I like everyone’s comments on this article. It’s nice to hear that people are on the right track (at least in my opinion). The best thing you can do in the world is remain optimistic about your own position in life. There are people out there that will drain you with the guise of trying to help you. Again, these people should be ignored and left in the past. You are the only one that matters in your world.
“Some experts say for every 1 negative comment, a person needs to hear 5 positive ones in order to maintain a healthy balance.” – This can be true Tammy, I think we’ve all been there. But the best thing is that we can move beyond being affected by negativity. When someone says you’re writing is crap the first time, you might be upset. After hearing it two or three times however, you should come to the realization that this person’s opinion is not useful and most likely unsubstantial.
As with anything, if people don’t like your work, keep chugging away and eventually someday you will grow and become better and develop fans. That’s essentially inevitable. In the big scheme of things, there are no bad writers, only lack of dedication.
Donna Williams says
I agree with all the advice given, It might have been “Crap” to him, but to you it was something. Don’t let the self doubt and discouragement get you down. It will eventually stop you from writing and you cant let that happen. There are some people who just like to be mean. Please don’t let that stop you from doing something from your heart.
Sally Ferguson says
We all need encouragers, and we all need to be encouragers. The power of a positive word can carry someone for life!