Writing Excuses Episode 17: This Sucks and I’m a Horrible Writer

The Writing Excuses crew tackles writer’s block again, this time approaching the “This Sucks And I’m A Horrible Writer” mindset. Dan relates his Neil Gaiman anecdote, Brandon explains why he’d written so many books before getting published, and Howard throws down the gauntlet on neverending Chapter One revisions. If you’re stuck because you think your current book sucks, this is the podcast for you.

This week from our sponsor Tor, check out Escapement by Jay Lake.


45 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Episode 17: This Sucks and I’m a Horrible Writer”

  1. I was a “chapter one” guy all through highschool, but now I’ve given myself rules that really help. The first rule is that there are no editing until the first draft is done. The second rule is I have to turn off the show spelling and grammer lines. These two things are all I really needed to help me. Now if I could learn to do re-writes.

  2. Discovered this recently and I love it. I’ve always had a hand for writing (academically at least), but never tried much true creative writing. I might at some point, but regardless, I’m enjoying going through your posts. Very informative and great fun to listen to.

    I’ve got you on an RSS feed and you can be sure I’ll be following future podcasts. Thanks!

  3. Bingo. I think I can only agree with what’s been said – (oh, wait, not quite. Brandon, I assure you that aspiring writers get this too. I mean – what?)

    But yeah, a writer’s group is a *great* way to get some feedback on your writing, particularly when your objectivity is shot. For two reasons, I think – one is that confidence boost that they’ll give you when your writing is actually fine, and the suggestions they’ll give you when its not, and the other is I find that external pressure is very helpful. There’s nothing like realizing that the guy sitting next to you is producing more pages than you are to make you want to write more, even if you think your writing isn’t all that great.

    Other than that… I think that being able to tell when your writing is actually not working and when you’re just not in a great mood is a skill that you just sort of learn as you go along. I don’t think there’s any hard-and-fast rules for learning it – but I agree with what’s been said. If you think your writing’s not working, for god’s sake don’t throw it away. Leave it, come back to it later when you’re less tired, or in a better mood, or whatever it may be.

    I find that it sometimes helps to just take a break from it altogether when that happens (sometimes, sometimes) but I think “keep” writing is a good rule too. If what you wrote before DOES need to be fixed, it’s easier to fix it when you know what it’s leading into, and then you’re not being unproductive in the meantime.

    Hmm. I think there’s a third category of writer, as well, though it’s kind of a sub-category of the Eternal Rewrite: Writer finishes a book, realizes they have to revise – and revises. And revises. And revises. And revises.

    I’m that kind of writer myself (or at least, I have been in the past. Granted, I was, ahem, a little bit younger then). And at some point, you have to be able to turn that reflex off and realize, “okay, I’m done. I’ve done just about everything that’s been done with it, now it’s time to move on.” Having finished your book is great. Making it as good as it can be is great. But ultimately, revising your draft forever and ever and ever isn’t going to get it published, or your next book written.

  4. I wanted to find the Gaiman link and present it here for you, but alas I cannot. Or rather, I probably could, but I’m too lazy to invest that much time into it. I still love you, though, but apparently not that much.

  5. The pod cast reminded me that I’ve been wondering how some of your advice relates to short stories as opposed to novels. After all, if your story is about the same length as a first chapter, you can’t really chuck the whole thing.

  6. Hrm. I don’t think I’ve ever written a short story that was the length of a chapter – for some reason, all my shorts tend to be within the 1000 word realm or less – so maybe this is just something that’s easy for me to say, but if a particular short of mine isn’t working and I can’t figure out what exactly isn’t working and just fix that, I’m okay with just chucking the whole thing and starting over (not that I delete my old manuscripts forever and ever, I’m a pack rat and prefer to keep my old stuff around in case … well… whatever).

    In fact, one of the shorts that I’m sitting right now is something that I plan on doing exactly that with. It’s a concept that I thought (and still think) is really cool, but when I put pencil to paper it just didn’t workt the way I wanted it to. Other than some requisite polishing on the original draft, I haven’t touched it since I wrote it… but in thinking about it lately, I’m pretty sure I’m just going to turf the original and start over again. In part because I want try something different with the narrative technique (pfft, linear writing is SO passé) but mostly because I just don’t think I could fix it by editing the draft I have.

    Ahem. I don’t know if those comments actually ended up being helpful or not – but yeah. For me the first step with a short is to decide what exactly is or isn’t working. If I can’t pin that down, or it’s more than one thing, or it’s a big thing, then I’m perfectly content to just start over.

  7. You have no idea how timely this is! I’m going to be meeting with one of my college friends tomorrow (I teach her martial arts) who has been struggling her writing. She specifically said in an email the other day ” I’m in an ‘Everything Sucks’ phsze which means that no one gets to read it.” Despite being an avid Schlocker (I, uh, addicted her last year . . . I’d no idea it would be so potent!) and visiting the comic every day, she has basically ignored the Writing Excuses updates Howard Tayler puts up every week there isn’t a transformer explosion. Even better, when I pick her up, there’s almost exactly fifteen minutes of travel time to our destination.

    (“Fifteen minutes long because you’re in a hurry and/or have short commutes!”)

    Just a point about shorts — most creative writing courses only focus on short stories. That’s because there’s very little time in a typical college semester to do more than cover the basics. Also, these courses generally cater to those who haven’t much clue what they’re doing, and/or are looking for a quick grade.

    I’ve been writing since I was 13 (only got good recently; I’m now part of a group writing a new teen series), and was mostly self-taught because I couldn’t find anyone who really made sense. I later found out that the reason is because at the time the prevailing idea was that you cut your teeth on short stories, and my ideas were too big for that structure. I took a creative writing course once I reached college, but left it because of irreconcilable differences regarding a teacher and an extreme dislike for what she praised as “great literature.” I normally hate the phrase, but I’m of the opinion that she exemplified “Those who can’t do, teach.”

    I transfered to another college the next year, in time for a published (and much, much better) author to hold an extracurricular workshop. She took the view that what was necessary was to give us a map to what makes stories themselves good — not word tricks or dry themes, but what people really look for. I learned more from her than I got out of any book on writing. (She’s the person in charge of the teen series now, holding the tongue-in-cheek title of “Series Queen.”)

    For me, you guys rank second to her workshop. If you were to actually sit down and plan out a course like she did and were able to take feedback from students as the course went on, you’d probably rival it. She’s going to listen to at least some of these podcasts soon, and I think she’ll be recommending them to several of her students and friends.

    Anyway, back to my point . . . this podcast series is better for novel writing, or at least something very serialized. (Like the Lord Darcy serial from the sixties and seventies, which I kept thinking of in recent weeks due to its highly structured magic system.) That doesn’t mean that the points aren’t applicable; it’s just that there’s a lot less room and the pacing is very different.

    Perhaps a podcast on shorts would be good? I know Mr. Tayler ought to be able to pull some remarks out due to the number of short, self-contained story arcs in Schlock that have little bearing on the larger plot — such as the week of stick-fighting practice last month.

    Okay, that’s enough babbling from me. Keep it up! I love this series.

  8. Michael B.: I think the point of this podcast still applies to short stories as well. The length of the piece is irrelevant if the writer is incapable of completing a whole draft.

    The focus of the podcasts does seem aimed at novels, despite Howard’s non-novel input. But the ‘first chapter’ person might do better to try completing a few short stories first, or a series of related short stories. Then a novella. Then a novel. I can’t imagine trying to write 10 Robert Jordan length novels before getting the first published, but I can see working up to it.

    I know that when I’m not sure what I want to read next I tend to read short stories. This is especially true if I’m not sure I want to start a lengthy book series and I don’t think I could finish them all. I’m okay if I don’t finish an entire book of short stories since I can alway revisit the book later. And short stories are easy to get through quickly. I can see this applying to the writing process as well.

    My favorite author, Roger Zelazny, wrote many short stories and never wrote a novel much above 150 pages. In fact most of his novels are right on the edge of being, or were expanded up from, novellas.

    In my case, I am writing a series of related short screenplays. I decided early on that I was not going to place any length restriction of the stories, and that I would just develope them as they go. Screenplays are roughly gauged at one page per minute, so I tend the think of my scripts in terms of their finished length in minutes. The first story is only 23 pages, or about 23 minutes long. The second about 68, the third only about 50. I skipped writing the fourth chronologically (it should be the next written) so I could get onto the fifth while the ideas were hot. The fifth is a completed first draft at about 66 pages.

    Since my stories are related I don’t need to do any world building just to start a new story. And since they are relatively short, I could get each into a completed form in a reasonable amount of time.

    ‘Nuff said.

  9. Out focus is not so much on novels as it is on long-form storytelling, which is why two novelists and a webcartoonist fit together so well. We do intend to do at least one podcast on short stories, but like Karl said, most of what we say can be applied to short stories in one form or another.

  10. I definitely second (or third, or fourth, or whatever ordinal we’re up to now) the idea of writer’s groups. With one caveat: make sure your group is not afraid to give you constructive criticism. One my group’s members had that problem before she came to us. Everybody said how great her stuff was, but never made any suggestions for improvement. That totally defeats the purpose!

    Hezekiah: I was invited to join my group when it was first formed because my best friend is a writer, and I have several writer friends (it helps to live in a university town…). Do you have any writer friends or coworkers? Do you have any friends or office-mates who may be closet writers? I had no idea that one of my coworkers wrote poetry until I mentioned going to writer’s group, and now she is a valued member of our circle.

    Re our weekly writing prompts, is somebody keeping a list of them? They’re great, but I’m currently so engrossed in BIC-HOKing myself through my novel’s climax that I don’t have time to pursue them. Could you add a list to the website? (That little check-marked “Writing Prompt” link would be a logical place for it, I think).

  11. Great podcast by the way. I’ve been the first chapter (or first scene for short stories) several times. I work very hard now to not edit until I have a first draft. I may have to try Jame’s trick and turn off all the grammar/spell check stuff during first drafts. I’m drawn too strongly to them and my editor hat pops on.

    I don’t have my Ray Bradbury book on me, but he called writing the first draft straight through “stepping on a land mine,” getting the draft done while the story is hot in your blood, and let the cold, reality of editing happen later. I’ll have to look up the quotes when I can and share them here.

  12. Could I request a follow up to this podcast on how to deal with “constructive criticism”?

  13. Guys, I just wanted to say how happy I am to have found your podcast. Within a matter of a few days my T.V. has been turned off, the time spent playing games to fill my summers (I’m a teacher) has diminished, and I’ve begun to write again. You all are entertaining, witty, and just plain fun to listen to. Before I get called for “can of worms” I just wanted to say keep it up and I look forward to #18 and beyond.

  14. Hezekiah, if craigslist.org covers your city then you might find one under the “community” section (most likely listed under “groups”).

  15. I too have not been able to find any local writing groups. Someone plugged http://www.notebored.com last week, and I checked them out and am really impressed. There are a lot of great writers on there and they are very good about critiquing your work. They have sections for shorts, poetry, novels, etc. etc. etc.

    I listen to this podcast all the time. Not only is it incredibly informative and helpful, but it is also very entertaining and oftentimes hilarious!

    Personally, I wouldn’t complain a bit if you all started breaking the 15 minute rule. lol

    I also have been listening to the audiobook “On Writing” by Stephen King. It was recommended to me by notebored. I have learned a lot from that as well. I’ve also been reading “Character and Viewpoint” by Orson Scott Card which I recommend.

    I have suffered from a variation of the one chapter syndrome myself. I have started quite a few stories and haven’t finished them. I tend to run out of steam, and it’s because (like you guys said in the podcast) I didn’t do enough outlining and prewriting.

    I am just amazed how often I’m listening to this podcast and I have to laugh out loud because I’m thinking “That’s me!” lol

  16. As usual, an extremely helpful and relevant episode. The draft I’m currently working on is the first one in years where I *haven’t* fallen into the eternal chapter one trap, and I’ve been finding it difficult lately to keep pushing through to the end. When it feels like your writing is terrible, it’s hard to find the energy to continue. One important thing I’m learning as I venture outside the realm of chapter one, though, is that I won’t really know what needs to be fixed until I get through a whole draft. I’m already keeping a list of areas I’ll need to deal with differently when I come back and revise, and I’m sure it’s only going to grow and change as the story keeps evolving and I get closer to the end. It’s a real effort not to go back and fix those problems as soon as I see them, but I know that unless I reach the end and develop a clear plan for how they need to be solved, I won’t be satisfied with any revision I do, and I’ll probably become trapped in endless editing again. So, with great effort, I am ignoring the voice in my head that tells me how awful my story is, and I am continuing to write it anyway. After all, it might not be good now, but who knows what it could turn into if I can just get myself to finish the first draft?

  17. So, what’s up with the writing prompt? I didn’t see a FAQ about it immediately. Is it alright to put it in the comments?

    I love this show, it is so inspiring…. Here, before I go to bed let me try out that mumbling Barry; stream some consciousness. I guess this would be one of those many starts you were talking about in the episode!

    Barry knew his mumbling was going to get him killed some day. The nuns always told him so. He had taken care of that problem, permanently. Streams of sweat reminded him of the effort of digging six graves, and refilling them. It was a lot of work to kill someone.

    He could see quite a distance to the horizon. The U shaped valley offered protection from the elements and a commanding view of the visitors, For once in his life, his jaw was still, his brow was unfurled, and the voices in his head were silent. He had acted on those voices, if they could have only read his lips for all those years, they would have know how threatened they really were. They wouldn’t have beaten him. Nobody had known what to do with the retard kid who mumbled so many cursed things, so they dumped him with the nuns. The nuns, miserable in their own existence, were perfectly happy to have someone to remove sin from.

    That’s when Barry knew that his mumbling was going to get some people killed some day, hopefully every day.

  18. This morning I opened up my newest copy of Locus, to the Daniel Abraham interview, and found this quote: Writers are a basically insecure bunch. We are convinced that everything we do sucks all the time. It’s something you have to fight.”

  19. I eternally revise. My only escape from it has been to ask myself, “At what point will this story be over?” And then, “Now, how do I get there?” And then I have to make it happen. Sometimes the words come out fine, and the story toddles along like a three year old headed for something he’s not supposed to touch. Other times, I end up playing parent, hauling him back with a, “But you have to do it this way!” Sometimes the words come out all in a great rush – kid playing tag – and I just have to shove past and put them on paper so my irritating editor’s voice can be silenced by the start of a new revision afterward.

    Mostly, I just try to separate the voices so they quit fighting. Writer Voice, you sit over here, and Editor Voice, shut up, he’s got the keyboard right now. I find that if I don’t give in to the Editor Voice at least a little, though, I start to hate the story. I guess it’s a balancing act – whatever works, even if “works” is “stick one leg this way and the arms that way and who cares if you look like a clumsy oaf, at least you’re not falling”.

    Those aren’t the only two voices, though. There’s also Worldbuilder Voice, who won’t shut his damn trap with repetitions of, “But imagine the implications of that!” and “But wait, what’s /that/?” Then there’s Nerves, the one which realizes Mom will someday be reading this. Then there’s the rest of the world, and who needs voices when you have /that/ pestering you?

    I’m not a writer yet. I think I’ll qualify as one when I finish scribbling and manage to actually tell a coherent story, from start to finish, and show it to someone without wasting their time. Then, even if it’s not published, I’m a writer. In my head, to be a writer, you’ve got to have something worth reading. In a way, that’s depressing, but in another way, it’s freeing. It’s a hobby for me, after all – not like I’m on a deadline here. (You lucky authors, you!) So I try to keep it fun, and suffer being a reviser, for now. It’s not so bad, but it sure ain’t very productive. Like you guys said, though: there’re a million practice words and you might as well get ’em out.

    What I would like to see from you guys is a discussion of my personal bane: making something /happen/. Characters I can do. I can write ’em all day long. (Got my start in RPGs, see.) Telling a story, though, I’m only just starting to grasp. I’ve heard the theory, I’ve read examples, I’ve tried my hand at an experiment or two, but I’ve never managed to pull it off. You have a start, then a middle, then an end. Presumably you should have some idea on your end when you do your start, but not always. The middle is just “stuff got in the way”. What makes that stuff interesting?

    A film guy blogged something about that here – http://kfmonkey.blogspot.com/2005/12/writing-action-scenes.html – which made sense to me: let there be consequences. Chances for failure. I’ve been taking that advice to heart. It helps me write scenes, but not figure out plots, and right now, I need plots. So, if you guys are willing, feel free to take that as a request. How do you choose (or create) a plot?

  20. You know, having fun can be its own way of breaking writer’s block, particularly this kind of writer’s block. Who cares if it sucks – if I have fun doing it, then it’s its own reward. (Of course, it kind of stops being fun when hit the point where you think you’re horrible and everything you’ve written is horrible. Hmm.)

    As for generating plot… Plot for me seems to be a function of character, at least most of the time. I know who this character is, maybe know who one or two of her friends are, start exploring more about them and – bam – I have a story. It’s not a full-fledged plot, but hey, it’s bare bones.

    That’s how I actually got started on my current novel; I wrote a short story on a concept I was interested in exploring, one of the characters in it was one who seemed interesting but wasn’t initially very well defined, so I started writing a little bit about her, with no intention of and suddenly had the beginnings of an outline for a full-length work in my hands. I’ve added some stuff since but that’s how it got started.

    On the other hand, sometimes I’ll start with a theme or a concept. I’ve only really used this approach for one long work so far (’cause I have so many “long” works under my belt so far, ha ha ha). But yeah – I’m working on a near-completed novella (novelette?) that started out as a theme/concept, and then came the way that I wanted to frame the story, which gave me a very basic idea for plot, which gave me the two main characters, which gave me more plot.

    Bah, sorry for rambling. I know describing plot creation like some organic thing is kind of limited as far as actually being useful, but for me, that’s mostly how the process works: Exploration of something or someone that I find interesting generates the bare bones of a story.

    Some of the time I can fill out those bare bones simply by writing the story, but there’s definitely a point at which the process becomes less organic, and I have to start thinking pretty seriously about it. What characters X, Y, and Z will do next, what are the ramifications of what’s already happened and how will that affect what comes next. A lot of times I have to decide logically -why- something will or will not happen in order to make my plot make sense. And finally, what do I NEED to have happen in order to reach a particular end – the end of a story arc or the story entire, a revelation for a particular character or for the reader, and so forth. At that point, it’s pretty much puzzle pieces and making them all fit together.

    Well, that was a lotta hot air. Hopefully it was at least -somewhat- helpful.

  21. Thats all fine guys…but what do you do when you get writers block from having TOO many ideas striking at the same time?

  22. I would say you pick a few ideas that work well together, and make a story. Hide the other ones away somewhere for future use.

  23. @ Thanos: That used to happen to me all the time. To get anything done, I had to whittle away things that were cool concepts, but weren’t going to work for the novel-length scope I was looking for. A few years ago I had it narrowed down to two main story ideas that I worked on, and then I hit NaNoWriMo (Google that if you don’t know what it is). In order to do NaNoWriMo with any hope of even hitting the halfway point, I had to chose only one. I flipped a coin. That got me focused on that one story, and I ended up finishing it (a few months after NaNoWriMo). After that, I came back to the story idea I abandoned before. Now I feel better about writing my current project, and I’m capable of experimenting with things like style, perspective, and tense, because I have a better handle on plot.

    So my advice somewhat echoes Hezekiah’s: narrow the field to the ideas that are the most fleshed out, or the ideas that show the most promise of becoming fleshed out, and then bite the bullet and choose one. It doesn’t matter how you choose. Pick the main character you most relate to, the world that is most interesting, the plot with the coolest twists, or throw up your hands in despair and flip a penny. Once you’ve made your choice, stick to it. It’s a matter of self-control. Consider it a type of writing diet. Instead of eating little bits of everything you like, gorge yourself on one thing you adore. Any other ideas get funneled away to that happy place where they await your attention. They aren’t going anywhere.

  24. @Thanos: I agree with Conyngham. I have the same problem of late. I have a spreadsheet that lists my story ideas, and categorizes if I have a full outline, etc. I’ve been thrashing back and forth among three or four stories making incremental progress. Last week I decided on one, and am determined to work only on it until I have a second, polished draft to submit to my crit group on liberty hall.

    When an idea hits, I outline it if I have a full story arc. I just need to resist starting it until I have the current work done.

  25. I like the spreadsheet idea. Related: have a notebook or something where you can have ideas written down. Always have it with you, because if you’re like me the place where things most occur are in the bathroom, driving, or as I am lying in bed trying to go to sleep. If it’s not there, with a pen, I forget it by the time I get out of the bathroom, wake up, or get home (not a bad idea to pull over to write it down if possible). Honestly it is surprising to me how many good ideas come in the bathroom. It’s almost obscene.

    That said, I have found that as I am writing a large project, I can usually incorporate a lot of the new ideas into the long project, because many of the ideas are small and could be used with this character or that one, in this scene or that one. If I can’t use it immediately, it’s tucked away in the notebook (or spreadsheet).

  26. Yeah. I always write my ideas down, on whatever surface is available at the moment – then I move them all to a word document that sits on my computer. Whenever I get a new idea, or one that expands on an old idea, it goes in there. Otherwise, to echo what everyone else has said, I WILL forget them.

    Some people have more than one project going on. As a first-time(ish) novelist, I’m kind of afraid to have more than one long project on the go at once, but I ended up doing so this last semester anyway. My novel took a hiatus while I wrote out a novella (novelette?) which is pretty much finished, except for a few relatively minor edits. A much more manageable project than a novel, but it’s finished – and now that it is I’m starting to get ideas not only for another novel based on those characters, but I find myself thinking about my current novel a lot more, and without the reluctance that was starting to creep in before.

    I still don’t think I’d want to work on more than one novel at once. But yeah, just having those ideas on file is a huge help for me. It lets me get the initial ideas out on paper without getting so wrapped up in them that I lose sight of what I’m doing right now.

  27. Did you guys talk about this for me? I think that you are all psychics, have the Fortelling, are Seers…whatever genre you prefer…because I think that you are talking to me and it’s a bit creepy. But, I love you guys. You’re awesome.

  28. This was actually very helpful. I just finished revising my first draft of my first book and was feeling depressed and was literally thinking, “This sucks and I’m a horrible writer” I remembered seeing this and planning on listening to it, and now I’m feeling much better. Thank you =]=]=]

  29. The best book for writers who can’t seem to finish a book is The 90-Day Novel by Alan Watt. It teaches you how to turn off your editor and write from your creative side. It helped me incredibly, I highly recommend it.

    I had the eternal first chapter problem for years. I found that the key to fixing this problem was to come up with my ending first, then to write with my right brain and write it quickly. The logic side of my brain was taking over my characters and that always makes for terrible writing, apart from Spock characters aren’t logical beings. I had always been afraid that if I wrote a book quickly it would suck. I had to learn to allow myself to suck, I could turn my editor brain on later when I was revising.

    After I had discovered my characters, their internal conflicts, and my ending I found that my characters wrote the story themselves, plot twists and all. I recently found a novel I had written long ago and forgotten about. It was the only novel I completed in my youth and I did it in something like 2 weeks. And honestly apart from the ending, which I know how to fix, it is so much better than my other writing at the time which was all first chapters of course.

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