Why We Hate Our Old Writing (and how to stop)

Have you ever noticed that your old writing is really bad?

Like, really bad?

Yeah, so have I. I shudder at the idea of people I know personally reading my books. Whenever I see a new review on Goodreads, I’m afraid of what people will say. What if readers judge me? What if they never read my books again?? What if I was never supposed to publish a book at all??? It’s ridiculous, of course, but from what I’ve seen, most other young authors have the same paralyzing fear. It really needs a name. Lateral Author Syndrome, maybe?

Well, here’s my unfortunate thesis: Your old writing will always seem awful to you, and that’s a sign you’re doing it right. Why? Because it shows you’re growing as an author. You grow as an author because you grow as a person. It’s inevitable! As long as you’re writing honestly, you’ll automatically become a better writer as you experience life.

But that’s a bit vague, isn’t it? We always talk about “writing honestly” and allowing ourselves to “grow as writers,” but what do those #writerslife cliches really mean?

Glad you asked. That’s what we’re talking about today.

A Brief History of a Teen Author

Most teen authors have the same (or similar) story, so let’s take a look at *shudder* my old books.

Son of Ren seems pretty awful to me right now, and that’s probably because I wrote most of it between the ages of 15 and 16, when I was still technically a kid. (Yeah, a kid who can stop a bus with their bare hands, but still a kid.) My characters were adults grappling with adult issues like political change and parent/adult-child conflict, and though I did my best to tackle them, I couldn’t fully identify with those characters. I just hadn’t experienced a whole lot of their world.

Then, at age 17, I wrote Alen’s War, which seems slightly less awful. I’ve never fought a war or led a rebellion. I’ve never so much as been on a pirate ship, let alone set one on fire. But I had wrestled a bit with my own fears and had seen other people fighting theirs, and that provided a bridge for me to identify with my characters and the issues they faced. My real life affected the fictional world I’d created. I learned to empathize with the characters on the page by letting them be real people, and the story was that much better for it.

Now, age 19, I have two main projects that have a lot in common- with each other and with me. They both feature main characters with severe depression, and they both deal with many of the heavy emotional issues I’m trying to deal with in real life. And to be honest, it can be hard to write about things that are so personal to me, but I have to. I know this story needs told because other people are struggling with the same issues. For that reason, the story becomes more and more real.

Same old story, right? Teenage authors almost always grow in their writing at lightning-fast speeds, and their books are here to document those changes. And that is not a bad thing. The fact that you realize that your old work could be better shows that you understand what writing is all about: putting a little bit of life down on a page.

Getting Under Readers’ Skin

This is what it means to “write honestly.” Real life bleeds into the words on a page. Even what seems like escapist fantasy can teach us something about the real world when the author writes honestly. It’s why geeks love utterly ridiculous stories like Captain America or Star Wars; even though the plots are fake, the people are real.

Here’s what I really want you to remember: Don’t be ashamed of your old writing, because it’s better than you think. As I’ve said before, it’s a picture of you when you wrote it. If you don’t believe me, ask the people who are reading them right now; the stories you wrote are still having an impact.

While you are worried that someone is annoyed by your incomplete worldbuilding, a reader is overjoyed that you took a chance to explore the evils of racism and the heroes who fought against it. While you’re over here stressing about your head-hopping in that one scene, a reader can breathe with relief because you gave them hope in their struggle with anxiety. While you’re agonizing over the trees, the readers are refreshed to see the forest. 

Age 16, I didn’t understand monarchical political shifts, but I did understand Elkay’s passion for doing something big, and I knew all too well how arrogance can destroy that big something. Age 17, I’d never grappled with a nationwide revolution, but like Alen, I had fought my own wars with perfectionism and forgiveness. So those are the things I wrote about, and those are the things that readers loved.

Raw, honest bits of life are what impacts readers. Hardly anybody cares about your overuse of speaker tags or your flat secondary characters, especially when they know you were pretty young when you wrote the book. (Usually, if they mention those things in a book review, they’re giving you some pointers for next time.) Readers remember how you impacted their emotions, and if your book makes them feel like they’re on a journey with real people and real problems, you’ve done your job.

So say the readers:

13 Contradictions Only True Book Lovers Understand

Happy Labor Day. And, as we like to say, happy writing.

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Two Reasons I Liked Rogue One

Reminder: Don’t forget about free books!

I feel like this post doesn’t need much of a prelude. Chances are that anyone reading has already seen the newest Star Wars story and doesn’t care about reviews or spoilers, so this is basically a structured rant about a fun adventure/war film. Because I like that sort of thing.

Cinematography…

So yes, I’ve seen Rogue One! I actually watched it about a week before I went to see Doctor Strange (which of course resulted in me wondering why Kaecilius looked so familiar), because although I’m not a Star Wars fan per se, the trailers caught my interest. It didn’t seem like the traditional huge space epic, but more like a smaller and more intricate war movie, which quite honestly appealed to me.

Now you’ve probably heard all the complaining: the pacing was off, the battles were tactless, the characterization was stuffy… and I can definitely agree with most of it. But in spite of all that, I still enjoyed the film. I can’t explain my thoughts precisely in a single sentence, but the closest I can get is this: Despite its mechanical flaws, Rogue One is a genius story idea that taught me two big lessons about writing. And- you guessed it- we’re talking about those two lessons today.

Cue the “blog post proper” theme song…

Reason #1: Most epic use of a plot hole.

Or a ventilation hole, come to think of it.

Anytime I think of plot holes, I think of How it Should Have Ended. Have you heard of it? HISHE is a comedy channel on YouTube that parodies popular movies by asking the question, “Why didn’t they just do X instead of Y?” Thus, they rewrite plots and plot holes and totally change the ending of a movie, to everyone’s amusement. (Note: I didn’t provide a link because HISHE isn’t always clean, and I don’t want to be yelled at for letting little kids watch it. Sorry, kids.)

Now as a moviegoer and fan, I appreciate such parodies and laugh when they humorously point out gaping plot holes. But, as a storyteller, I have a certain fear gnawing at the back of my mind- how does any writer end up with such glaring flaws? Authors’ worst nightmares consist of two things: plot holes, and no book sales. And if we overlook our plot holes, we also get no book sales. Lose-lose.

Well, now let’s talk about the genius of Rogue One.

I imagine that the brainstorming session looked something like this. A bunch of Star Wars fans who also had a thing for storytelling looked at one of the most famous plot holes of all time: why the heck was there a hole in the Death Star that led to the core of the machine? The question had been plaguing fans for years, and these storytellers dared to answer it: The hole was there because the rebels put it there.

For those of you who don’t know, the whole concept of Rogue One is that the guy who designed the Death Star realized too late the destruction it could bring, and he built in a secret weakness with the intent that the rebels could find it and destroy the weapon. Now, the daughter of that engineer and her team of rebels are out to find the plans and bring them to the Resistance.

Thus, what used to be a gaping plot hole becomes an epic heist film.

mind blown

Yeah, that’s how to tell a story.

Lesson learned: seek out and work with the plot holes. They can help you tell a better story.

Reason #2: The bravely creative ending.

Hope.

*spoilers warning spoilers warning spoilers warning*

Let us not mince words.

Everyone dies. 

Seriously, how insane is that? Let’s just leave aside the terrifying awesomeness of Darth Vader- although that, too, was a fantastic scene that no one will ever forget. Think about it; the last twenty or so minutes of the movie is literally a series of death scenes and sequels, which, I think, is quite a fitting end to a war movie about a Resistance team. It’s probably my favorite aspect of the movie: I got to watch a group of regular, courageous people give their lives for what they believed in. It drove the theme home so hard. I get goosebumps thinking about it.

You probably won’t believe this, but at the beginning of the movie, I took a bite of popcorn and thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be great if they all died on this mission so that the rebels could save the galaxy? -But no, that’s crazy. No way would that work.”

And then it happened! Intentionally or not, the story set up a wild idea in my mind and then fulfilled it beyond all expectations.

sherlock benedict cumberbatch sherlock approves

But I have to stop and ask myself, how did that production meeting go? We writers know how it is when we kill just one character; what about a whole cast? There’s always that one lady who despises watching characters die- death is heartwrenching! There’s the money guy who’s still holding out for a sequel- no sequels unless you have characters! And then the focus groups analyst who says that killing characters makes people angry- look what happened to The Walking Dead!

Yet, despite all the craziness surrounding it, the production team went for it. And am I ever glad they did.

It’s the bravest endings that stick with us. Resolutions needn’t always be bleak, nor even tragic, but they should always be a fitting close to the tale we’re telling. And sometimes that means asking questions that sound insane:

What if the Greeks built a giant wooden horse?

What if Romeo and Juliet actually kill themselves?

What if the whole team dies on the planet?

Lesson learned: Ask the crazy questions; go for the extreme endings. They may turn out to be the most memorable stories. 

Well, here we are. No matter if you liked Rogue One or not, I think we can all take a lesson or two from the imaginations behind it, as well as learn from its failures. That’s the thing about movies- there has never been a film that can’t teach us something about writing. And now, thanks to one particular Star Wars Story, I’m inspired to be a braver writer than before.

Three Storytellers No One Even Thinks About

You all probably know by now that I overthink and philosophize about things. Some weeks ago I was in the car feeling bored, and I started thinking about a few examples of good storytelling that are all around us, even though we don’t recognize them as such. And I can tell you, it was an interesting list- such that I had to write a post.

Here we go: three examples of good storytelling that no one even thinks about.

3storytellers

The Geico Fast-Forward Ads

If you have ever watched a video on YouTube, you may have seen one of these. For example:

Uh-huh. Now you have to click on that link and find out what happened, don’t you? This is the genius of Geico. If they had played the whole ad (which, let’s face it, is pretty stupid), you would just be annoyed that Geico would dare to come between you and your Blimey Cow. But, by fast-forwarding to a bewildering end shot, Geico reels you in. What happened in between? You have to know, so you watch the full ad (and hopefully switch to save 15% on insurance).

Likewise, writers only have six different plots or so, and we need to give readers a reason to care about a “predictable” story. People know that the young farm boy will save the princess from the dark lord, or that the band will slay the dragon and get the gold, or that the hero will make a huge sacrifice to defeat the villain. What they don’t know is what happens to the characters along the way. That’s where we come in: we make people curious about the whole journey, not just the happy (or tragic) ending.

What If Cartoons Got Saved? by Chris Rice

Chris Rice as a songwriter is a genius. Each one of his songs captures a facet of the Christian life in beautiful color and mind-blowing perspectives. Seriously, even secular songwriters can learn from his music: for example, his moving Christmas song and “Go Light Your World.”

But, ages a few years ago, Chris Rice wrote a lively song with a comical premise: what if cartoon characters became Christians?

Now that we’ve had our chuckle for the day… what can we learn from Chris Rice? In each of his songs, particularly this one, he chooses a counter-intuitive way to make his point. He uses a downright strange idea to teach a good lesson: it’s our job to praise God, and there’s a good reason for that. Worship is a theme which songwriters have emphasized for centuries, from the Doxology to “Oh Praise Him,” but Chris Rice engaged an old audience in a new way, making them laugh even as they look at worship from a different angle.

Likewise, writers need to use their crazy ideas. Let’s face it… our brains are not normal, and our imaginations are frighteningly overactive. Most of what we invent is insanity that never makes it to the page. But why not use some of that insanity? Look for the potential in even the craziest of ideas, and who knows? You might end up using Smurfs to bring glory to God.

Calvin and Hobbes comic strip by Bill Watterson

Calvin and Hobbes has been popular with our family lately, even more so than The Peanuts, and it’s easy to see why. Meet Calvin, a six-year-old INTP with a curious perspective on the world, and his tiger-friend Hobbes (did you get the reference?). They invent transmogrifiers and build monstrous snowmen just to mess with Dad’s head. Through the antics of these two companions, Watterson blurts out realities of life, asks tough questions, gets people to be honest about their doubts, and even pokes fun at Marxist philosophy.

The thing writers can learn from Calvin and Watterson alike is to look at the world through a child’s eyes. Isn’t this the very essence of storytelling? It’s our job to tell things as they are, but with a spin or some new lesson that makes readers think differently about the world we live in. Rarely do people ever stop and ask, “Why is this the way it is? What if it was different?” Asking the important questions is not only the job of the child or the genius, but also the writer. So let’s do our job.

Happy writing.

The Humor of Walter Mitty

Two notes. One: Spoilers for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty will follow, and this is one movie that you don’t want spoiled. Two: When you watch the film, know that I’ve only seen it on VidAngel (similar to ClearPlay), and from what I’ve heard, I don’t recommend watching this one without filters. Go watch it on VidAngel, and then come back so we can chat!

I admit it- our family did not watch this movie until a few months ago. Honestly, I had zero interest in watching a remake of anything without Danny Kaye- even though I hadn’t even seen the original. Thanks to the debaucherous nature of too many modern films, I had no interest in a movie about a “Secret” anything. That is, until I found out that it was a rejuvenated family movie about a guy whose overactive imagination takes him on an unforgettable journey. Well. That sounded like a writer-friendly concept, so I watched the movie.

And it was indeed spectacular, yet not in the way you would expect. While I found the plot, development, and cinematography to be exemplary, none of these basic components of storytelling truly stood out. What stood out to me was the masterful use of humor.

That particular week, I had been informally studying the rules of good comic relief. I forget the names of the various sources I read, but from them I gleaned one crucial principle:

Humor, like any other component of a story, should tie into the larger picture.

It’s the same general idea as with romance or any other subplot. Putting something into a story just because the audience might like it is simply glorified mob rule, not storytelling. Subplots have to be relevant- sometimes even indispensable- to the main plot, and funny subplots are no exception.

Back to Walter Mitty. The story’s primary source of humor is a secondary character named Todd Maher, a support techie from eHarmony who faithfully works to fix up Walter’s page and find him a date. During Walter’s outrageous journeys throughout the world, Todd continually calls Walter with commonplace updates and questions about his webpage. Walter might just have come through the craziest of ordeals: sailing on a ship on icy seas with only a few grumpy Norsemen for companions, or maybe riding with a drunken pilot on a helicopter in a storm, to name a few. It doesn’t matter to the faithful Todd. Nor to the audience; we can’t help laughing with some relief when the phone rings and Walter hears “Hello! It’s Todd, from eHarmony!”

But irony and catharsis aren’t the only roles Todd fills. This seemingly meaningless humor device comes into play in the main plot near the end of the movie. (Mild spoilers.) After so much time out of the States in an ungoverned country, Walter cannot legally enter Los Angeles unless somebody who knows him personally can tell the police that he is the real Walter Mitty. But- guess who had mentioned that he lives in LA? Right. Todd from eHarmony. Even as the audience laughs at this ironic work of fate, we are saying to ourselves, “Ah. So that’s why Todd and eHarmony are in this story.”

It’s a seemingly simple thing, but the more you think about it, the more you realize just how artfully the writers wove this plot. Yes, they made people laugh, but they also added a little playfulness to lighten the intense scenes. They fixed a logical problem without resorting to deus ex machina. And besides all this, they wove one more lesson into the theme: everyone has a purpose and a part to play, and everyone you meet has the potential to be a valuable friend. Even Todd from eHarmony.

Yep. That’s how we do humor, folks.

Have you seen this brilliant film? What tips have you learned for successfully working humor into a story?