Wednesday, August 7, 2013

IWSG: Let Yourself Be Terrible

1st Wednesday of the month is Insecure Writers Support Group. Wherein I post about the difficulties and joys of writing.

This is an embarrassing post.

I was a very smart kid. I had a high IQ and they put me in the gifted program in school. I never had to work hard to be smarter than other kids, so I didn't bother working hard. I was a mental sloth. But a time came when I wasn't precocious anymore and by then, most of my peers had bypassed me because they had been paying attention and working hard and I had been coasting along with a big vocabulary and a poor work ethic.

It turned out that you can absolutely get by in this world with very little knowledge of things like grammar, punctuation, science and algebra. I have been to plenty of job interviews and never once have I had to solve a quadratic equation to get hired.Take that, seventh grade math teacher!

What I lacked in knowledge, I made up for by trying to be charming. Charm does a pretty good job of masking ignorance at a job interview or a party, but on the written page, charm is useless. My ignorance gave me away every time.

When I wrote the first draft of my work-in-progress in 2009, it was awful. Despite being an avid reader, I knew next to nothing about writing dialogue. All my previous stories were first person and in the head of the main character with no dialogue at all. I didn't know when to use commas, what an adjective was or even basic things like when to make a paragraph break. I'm actually still not sure when to use a semi-colon. My manuscripts tenses shifted with the wind and my main character drifted from first person to third with startling frequency. It was largely unreadable.

But I was proud of my ugly baby and too ignorant to know how bad it was. I gave the first couple of chapters to my friend and fellow blogger Jeannie. A week later, she brought it back to me with a wild look in her eyes and said, "I can't read this, it's making me nuts. You have to put paragraph breaks in it."

I knew so little about the craft of writing that I couldn't figure out where the breaks should go, so I went into the file and chose random places to hit enter. Yup. I had always been a very good report writer but I couldn't put together the concept of paragraph breaks in a story being the same as it is in an essay. When I got back my next draft from Jeannie, she was as patient as one could be when dealing with someone with so little basic knowledge.

Four years, several grammar books and one awesome writing group later, I am a much better writer then I was. I still struggle with adverb-itis and misuse of semi-colons but I can write dialogue like it's no ones business and I'm learning to edit myself in a constructive way.

 Last week, I wrote a new chapter and I shared it with my hubs. After reading it, he told me that it was the by far, the best thing I've written and that it's amazing how much I've improved. It was the best compliment ever. I am still warm and glow-y from it.

Why did I tell you all this? To tell you that it's okay to be a dumb-ass artistically. It's okay to not know how to do it and to do it anyway. Because the thing that will make you less of a dumb-ass, is practice. It's persistence. And it's a good friend who will patiently explain what the difference between tense and perspective. Thanks for that Jeannie.

We all want to be perfect writers and we want to sell novels and be validated. But you won't get good if you wait until you know it all. You won't miraculously become a Hemingay or an Austen by sitting on your ass. You've got to work. You've got to let yourself suck. Make bad choices, poor plot structure, one dimensional characters, boring sex scenes. Do it all. Be brave and foolish. Name a character something ludicrous. Change your tense halfway through the story. Have muddy themes. Don't be afraid to be terrible, because if you let yourself be terrible, while striving to be better, someday someone will tell you how awesome you have become.

Go write the best shit you know how to write. And then learn to write better. Perfection is unattainable. Learning to be less terrible is a lot closer to your grasp. 


  1. What a lovely comment for your husband to make :) I finished my first novella last winter and I'm still waiting for my husband to even read the first page!
    Suzanne @ Suzannes-Tribe

  2. Mencara, you have improved your craft so much in the past year! It's a good thing you're such a smartypants, because most people can't catch up that fast on things they ignored through more than a decade of school. ;) And you have always had that spark of great storytelling. Now that you can do paragraph breaks and snappy dialogue, your writing shines.

    P.S. Thanks so much, once again, for starting our writing group. I feel like it is truly nurturing to all of our amateur (but obviously genius!) talents, which of course are useless without the hard work that we encourage each other to put in.

  3. Oh, absolutely! We all started out with knowledge gaps. I cringe when I go back and read an early sample of my writing.

    Good for you for sticking with it. ;)
    August co-host and IWSG #110

  4. Oh man, adverb-itis is a serious problem. Highly contagious and with difficult, prolonged treatment. I'm a sufferer, clearLY ;)

    I also love anything that starts with "This is an embarrassing..."

    This was awesome :)

  5. "Learning to be less terrible" is a line I might use someday! Great post.

  6. This is a great post with a lot of truth. I learn how to be a better writer everyday and it is hard. Way to go for making all that progress. You really did work hard and it paid off. Thank you so much for your kind words on my blog.

  7. You learned and persevered and that's all that matters at the end of the day.

  8. I'm 61 - written since I was a teen. Still do not get commas. The rest I've got! I hire a comma helper. Oh do I get what you're saying. No luck but with a p in front of it and you got it lady!

  9. It definitely takes a lot of practice and patience. Get a copy of Elements of Style. All the rules are there. :)

  10. I'm with you 100%. There's nothing wrong with being a bad writer, as long as you're willing to learn and improve before imposing your bad writing on the masses. ;-P

  11. Give yourself permission to write the worst crap in the world. This is one of my favorite writing quotes, though I don't remember where I read it. Anyway, it's a great philosophy to write by. I'd never get anything done if I tried to make every word I wrote perfect.

    Great post -- and even in the year or so I've been reading your work, you've improved. I'm so proud! *tear*

  12. I love this post so much!

    I am huge believer in the fake-it-until you make it philosophy; sometimes it really does pay off ;o)

    Thanks so much for visiting my blog.


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