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.


The Book-Room Challenge

Hey, kids, guess what? I’m not actually dead! It just happens that I’ve been tagged by not one, but two of my favorite bloggers in an already-busy month. But… of all the kinds of busy, this is the bestistest. This week, we’re just going to start with the one, but come back next week because we’ll have some more awesome stuff.

the-book-room-challengeFirst, the one and only Blank Mastermind genius (thank you, writefury!) has tagged me for the Book-Room Challenge, which will be fairly self-explanatory.

We have an order of events tonight. First of all, the rules.

  1. Write 3 of your own books as rooms. They can be finished, works in progress, or even just ideas, but they have to be your own.
  2. Write 1 of your favorite books to read as a room.
  3. Tag 5 other people.

Then the tag. I had a little trouble deciding what approach to take; should I write the rooms as if they were from palaces and villages in fantasy worlds, or should I write more modern rooms with fantastical flavor? I was up for a challenge, so I chose the latter.

Son of Ren

A foyer in an old Victorian house. The floor is marble, with an old Saxon tapestry as a rug. Several mahogany chairs line the blue walls, and several white Hellenic statues line the far wall. One stained glass window is over the door, and overhead hangs a chandelier with lit candles. Smells like winter and history books.

Alen’s War

A boathouse by a river. An old sword from the Civil War hangs above the doorway. Several raincoats hang on pegs and boots sit on the worn pinewood floor. Two floor-to-ceiling windows let in the grey morning light. There are no chairs, but a large wooden table is at the center with some books on it, and the whitewashed walls are covered with old maps, navigation charts, and flags, and at the far end of the room hangs a huge painting of a royal flagship.

Aaaaand…. I didn’t plan to tell everyone about this project quite yet, but now is as good a time as any other. I am writing a speculative/scifi/dystopian novel. Yes, it will probably be finished within the next five years. No, you may not read it yet. Thank you for asking. Its working title is…

Monsters Becoming

A dark, sad living room splashed in golden light. The walls are dark blue-grey and the floor is faded tile, but it’s brightened by yellow lamps, a soft rug, and a warm fireplace that smells like burnt coffee. The walls are decorated with what looks at first like paper chains, but are really metal chains painted bright colors.

Mismatched chairs surround the fire: several metal folding ones with cartoon character blankets, one kitchen chair with a quilt-pattern cushion, and a recliner with a laptop bag sitting beside it. Several important-looking folders are stacked on the table next to a box of crayons.

King Richard III

Because it’s the only Shakespeare play I really enjoyed. (Lately I’m watching The Hollow Crown version and loving it- maybe I’ll talk about that later this month.)

A small office/meeting room. The floor is black carpet with red and white geometric shapes. One wall is covered with a bookshelf with Latin-sounding books; another has a huge whiteboard scribbled over with charts and lists of names. At the center of the room stands an oaken table, and in the middle is an old faded Risk board game.

Now for the tagging of bloggers, which is where I usually break the rules. Not on purpose- I’m just can’t always find people who haven’t already been tagged. This time, though, I might be able to get by…

And there you have it. That’s all for now, so enjoy another October week complete with hot cocoa and rich descriptions. 🙂

When Haters Hate (Which Is Always)

322-1221364961vgdGWhen I first talked to my mom about starting a blog (or two or three), she warned me about comments. I had lots of helpful stuff to share, I was a good writer… all that sweet mom stuff. But she also warned me that I, as a Christian, would be a target. People would immediately try to attack me without hearing me out. That was okay with me- it still is. As my brother so eloquently says it, “Haters gonna hate.”

What I didn’t count on was how many “haters” would actually read my blog.

You would not believe some of the comments and feedback I have received, even if I’m talking about something that has nothing to do with Christianity. People have called me a second-rate storyteller, a hater of women (not even joking), an indoctrinated homeschooler, a tyrant, and- my favorite- Robin Hood with merry men. I have even seen people creating false identities and leaving scathing comments on Son of Ren… without reading the book first.

How can we answer such outrageous claims? Sure, I laugh about them now, but it’s harder to see clearly when hearing such comments for the first time. My mind is blown at some of the things people come up with, but I still have to answer them in a way that reflects God’s grace and truth. So today I’m making a list of things I want to remember when giving an answer for the hope that is within me.

In the world we will have trouble.

God said so, therefore it’s going to happen. That’s the thing about God’s predictions; they always come true. Jesus explained in Matthew 10:16 and John 15:18 that if people hated Him, they will most certainly hate us who represent Him. No way around it.

Persecution is a blessing.

Another one of God’s predictions is that persecution grows us. It’s the funniest thing about nonbelievers; even when they think they’re doing great, mocking and persecuting and killing us for being representatives of Christ, the true church ends up growing all the more stronger. (China is a good example.) Why does this happen? Because, under persecution, Christians have to think about what we believe and decide what is really worth fighting for.

Maybe the person is right about some things.

I always say to my siblings when teaching them about logic, “The first step to winning an argument is to be right.” When I receive a comment that presents a claim, no matter how rude or illogical, I want to look for the truth in it. Of course I am not a legalistic do-good-er who hits people with Bibles, but could it be that my theological terms are confusing or offensive to the unchurched reader? Looking for the nuggets of truth can make me a better storyteller, debater, or even friend.

Ask the right questions.

Honestly, when someone flames me, it’s usually not because they think my storytelling is going to melt children’s brains, or because they believe that Tauriel’s love story contributed to The Hobbit trilogy in some way. Meanness is significant of a deeper problem. The troll who calls me a second-rate storyteller might have been horrified at a Christian twaddle book years ago and now thinks that all Christian writers are artless idiots. The Tauriel-fan may be angry at Christians because her grade-school teacher told her that the Bible condemns women.

Now, of course those things don’t make a whit of sense, but people are not entirely rational creatures- least of all without God’s truth. Satan’s traps run deep. There is always an underlying problem, and I can find out what it is by asking the right questions. What do they mean by such extraordinary claims? Can they explain why they think that? What if there was a different answer?

It’s an opportunity to represent Christ.

This one is hard. When God wanted Him to stay silent, Christ did not open His mouth to defend Himself. It didn’t matter that the people were bringing false accusations; Christ would only say that He is the Son of God, and no more.

Maybe it’s time to try a different tack. People come and demand that I explain why I hate Muslims or am homophobic or don’t take responsibility for my own actions. We could easily explain that these claims are wrong, but most of the time, the people who ask these questions have already heard all the answers. They’re spoiling for a fight. When I meet people who are only interested in listening to themselves talk, I won’t be the one to knock the chip off their shoulder. My actions (or books or blog posts) can speak for themselves, and through us people will see something- or Someone- better.

Even the worst troll can change.

This one really blows my mind, but I’ve actually met commenters who were very rude and attacked me personally, but when I replied graciously with the truth, they came back and apologized. Since then, we’ve come to a few agreements and realized just how many ideas we have in common.

Imagine that the zealous, Christ-hating Saul lived in our day and could interact with Christians online. What do you think he’d be like? Open-minded, polite, and conversational? More like rude, obscene, and illogical! And yet God changed Saul’s heart, turning him into the world-changing Apostle Paul.

You see, Saul was not unlike many “trolls” and “haters” today; he believed what he believed, and he was willing to do anything to make sure no one disagreed with him. That didn’t stop God from using honest Christians like Ananias to show Saul the truth. I want to be Ananias- the one who fears God, who can change the heart. I want to be the one God uses to show Himself to unbelievers.

Haters gonna hate, so of course God is going to use it for good, and I want Him to use me in His plan.

Playing by the Rules with Description

Narrative is tricky stuff.

Writing teachers throw all kinds of rules at us. Show, don’t tell. Vary the length of your sentences. Show, don’t tell. Adverbs are taboo. Show, don’t tell. Oh, did I mention showing and not telling?

Fantasy writers have the hardest job of all, it seems. When it comes to description, not only are we not allowed to tell rather than show (or use double-negatives), we also are forbidden from using certain narrative tools that help us get the job done. Why? Because some of those descriptions have no place in our fantasy worlds.

“Then Ramilon parked his Corvette by the Waterfall Gate.” (credit)

Let me show you. (Ha, look who’s following the rules!) Say I am writing a scene that takes place just after a battle. Elkay is collapsed beneath a tree, worn out and quite discouraged, when his wife Ivora comes to find him and bring him back to safety. Elkay sees her coming and is overjoyed that someone still cares about him. She looks just like an angel-

HOLD IT! screams the internal editor. No angels! You’re writing in deep POV, which means that you have to step into Elkay’s leathery, mud-covered sabatons and write according to his rules. Elkay has never even heard of the concept of angels; how could he compare Ivora to one?

As much as I hate it, the internal editor is right for once. Elkay doesn’t know what an angel is, nor a demon, nor any such being from the real world. For crying out loud, he doesn’t even know what fantastical creatures like svartalfar would be. When writing a fantasy, I suddenly cannot use the familiar expressions that I use every day without thinking about it. And do you know what? That’s a good thing.

Why? Because when we can’t use all of the common expressions, similes, and other narrative tricks that we love so much, we are forced to come up with our own, and it makes our stories that much more original. If I may steal someone else’s originality to explain, C.S. Lewis puts it best:

Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please, will you do my job for me?”

Some (most) of these familiar expressions have lost their meaning through overuse. The first time a person uses an expression, his or her friends appreciate the wit and begin incorporating these new figures of speech into their own vocabulary. Then the friends of those friends pick up on it, and then their friends, and so on, until the expression is nothing but trite. It’s just another meaningless phrase among the portmanteaus and colloquialisms of the English language.

Admit it- a few moments ago, when I was talking about my imaginary scene, you expected me to say that I had to step into Elkay’s shoes, didn’t you? But, while you knew what expression I was using, you didn’t even think about what the expression really meant- not until I used an archaic word like sabatons that forced you to look twice.

Meh… who would want to come up with original words to describe this, anyway? (credit)

I’m not saying we should look to startle our readers with our word choice; too often startling them will take them right out of the story. However, I am saying that we should be glad that all these expressions are now off-limits for us. Other writers, like authors of contemporary romance novels or general fiction, have to work harder to eliminate trite expressions from their stories; fantasy writers automatically must come up with their own.

And what if you don’t write fantasy? You can still learn a lesson: eliminate those overused words and expressions from your work anyway. Be original! You may have to look harder, but any writer worth two cents can come up with new ways to tell his or her story.

Yes, sometimes it takes a little bit of brainpower. I did indeed sigh over the lack of the term “angel,” and I did have to describe instead how Ivora looked. I had to show her dark hair over her white dress, her soft round face, her sad smile that made Elkay feel less lonely. But as Lewis would say, when the readers finished reading that description, they could only say, “Ah, Elkay’s guardian angel!”

You know, I think it’s fun to use my imagination instead of asking my readers to please do my jobs for me.

What expressions and words are off-limits in your stories? Have you ever invented your own? 

Why I Wrote an Encyclopaedia (and Maybe You Should, Too)

Okay. I promise we will have a real post in a few seconds, but first things first. I have gotten this question way too many times, and now I have to clear it up:

Yes, Elkay and Kylo have the same surname. No, that was not intentional on my part. I don’t know about J.J. Abrams.

Get it? Got it? Good. Now on to this week’s real topic.

Let’s be honest again, my writing friends: sometimes we overlook the bloopers in our work. Of course, we don’t realize it until we are happily reading an official paperback copy of our newly-published book. Then we see the blooper, and we panic. It’s too late to contact CreateSpace! Everyone will see this terrible continuity error or plot hole, and they will discredit our work forever! Our books will never be read!

Of course this is all hyperbole, but we writers are very good at exaggerating things. It would seem that we’re also very good at writing bloopers. Wouldn’t it be easier to skip these painful experiences altogether? Wouldn’t it be wonderful never to make any stupid mistakes like that? Ah, wishful thinking.

Or is it?

I have to keep track of a lot of little details that fit together to give my stories a sense of realism. For example, we’re coming up on Ivora’s birthday on 24 May (and Elkay had better not forget this year). The cannon was invented in Lord Vien’s city in 1218, but didn’t catch on in Agran for another hundred or so years because it was so expensive to make. The infamous Farran’s last name was Fenden, and he was an INTJ like me, albeit a more romantic one.

None of those details ever turned up in Son of Ren, but as the author, I needed to know them for myself. But I can’t possibly memorize all of those things or scribble them on misplaceable note-cards as I go. How in the world can I remember all of this random but important information? Because I have an Encyclopaedia. Always, always spelled with a capital “E” and the archaic “ae.”

The Encyclopaedia is basically like the internet. It is a slave that reminds me of random useless things and keeps track of all the details that I would otherwise forget. What should I do with this epic battle scene that didn’t make the cut? Encyclopaedia. Where did I record the laws of succession for Agran? Encyclopaedia. How much older was Sardar than Elkay? Encyclopaedia.

My Encyclopaedia is just another Google Document with a table of contents. I have a timeline of years, historical summaries for each kingdom, a collection of legal codes, a list of character names and etymological origins, the rules of my magic system, and of course an index of deleted scenes. In the past I even had a calendar of holidays that were unique to my world.

Now I might sound super-organized and nerdy. Well, I am not super-organized, not when it comes to writing. However, making this kind of system is really quite achievable, even for a busy college student like me who has to keep up with a lot of other responsibilities and hobbies. And I didn’t write all of it in a week; I created the document in 2013 and have been expanding it ever since as I write my books. You have no excuse: if you have time to write books and stories, you certainly have time to record little details like this as they come up.

As for the nerdiness… let’s face it: writers are nerds.

How do you keep track of all the details? Have you ever forgotten a detail and written a terrible blooper? Share in the comments!

MBTI: How It Can Help Your MC

Note: If you are unfamiliar with MBTI – the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator – or missed Part 1 of this series, click here. Once you’ve read that, this post will make much more sense!

Once upon a time, there was a young author named Hannah who never had any struggles with characterization. She had in her head a wide array of staggeringly diverse characters, each with their own imagination, goals, and personal history, and even a few annoying habits to make them stand out. You see, she was one of those obsessive plotters who writes a biography for every one of them.

No individuality- just like the whole Star Wars hero-quest cliche, come to think of it.

Yet when Hannah sat down at her desk, armed with a laptop and her favorite peppermint coffee, and wrote the story for real, all the characters’ individuality was gone! They fell flat. She couldn’t put her finger on the reason, but her characters lacked that all-important sense of realness. No matter how much she rewrote and edited, they all just felt the same. So Hannah finished her peppermint coffee and buried her head in her hands, thinking, “I am a horrible writer.”

The end.

Now if this has never happened to you, mazel tov. You no longer need to read this post. If, however, you are the kind of writer who struggles with characterization, I’d like to encourage you that it’s a normal problem. The problem isn’t a lack of imagination. The problem is the writer’s own personality filter. Every time you sign up to write a character with a different personality from your own, you are agreeing to take on a whole new set of traits, values, and thought processes. And most writers don’t even realize it.

Here’s an example for all of you Sensing types. I plotted one of my protagonists, Elkay, as an ESTJ: a tough, steely leader with a sense of duty. However, by the time I finished the story, Elkay had morphed into an INTP: an objective puzzle-solver with big dreams. What facilitated such a change? It was myself; the ESTJ in my imagination had to go through me before he reached the paper, and I rubbed off many of my own traits to make him an INTP. Slightly different…

How on earth do we avoid this? I have a few suggestions:

Get familiar with various kinds of personalities. The truth is that you can’t write a different kind of person accurately until you get to know that kind of person. So spy on people. Talk to people. Analyze people. Be it an official temperament test like Myers-Briggs or simply an informal people-watching experiment, you must find some way of understanding how other people work. Read 16personalities.com and learn how people think, and then get to work applying this new knowledge.

Decide on an inspiration for your character. It’s permissible to have some sort of real-life basis to which you can refer as you write. Is your protagonist like Abe Lincoln? Read a book about him and get that character into your head. Find out his personality type. Is a villain like your sister? Take your sister’s personality and just transfer it to the villain (but be tactful about that one, my friend).

Write one scene over and over until you know what your character is really like. Try writing one scene multiple times, giving a different voice, worldview, goal, etc. to your character each time. It need not even be a scene that you will use in the final draft. Just play with the character, tweaking, rearranging, flipping him on his head until you find the essence of the character.

Rethink and rewrite. Sometimes a certain personality just doesn’t work for a character. Looking back, I realize that making Elkay an ESTJ would not work well at all with my plot, and it was for the best that he changed. Be flexible. You have to write more than one draft anyway; you might as well experiment with different personalities while you’re editing.

Has MBTI helped you write “real” characters? Let me know in the comments.