Monday, June 14, 2010

Bad, Bad, and Worse

Beginning #1
Naomi couldn’t remember how she had been kidnapped. She didn’t know why two men were keeping her in a motel room, untied, free to move around, but threatened with her life if she tried to escape. She didn’t know why the man named Eric was tall and handsome, angrier than a roiled hornet’s nest, or why the younger man, Jesse, spent most of his time lying on the opposite bed from hers reading novels and collections of poetry.

Beginning #2
She wanted to get her mother’s attention. A desperate need, something she had been feeling the entire sixteen years of her life, throbbed beneath her skin. She pushed the gas harder and glanced at her mother in the passenger seat.

Beginning #3
Naomi vanished during one of these foggy mornings. Nobody saw her except two men. They were breathing heavily, standing in the moist darkness of an empty parking lot, the heat from their mouths drifting through the air in thin, filmy wisps before it dissipated into the surrounding fog. They stared down at the young teenage girl clothed in jeans and a faded brown jacket. She was blond and delicate, like a pale flower thrown onto the pavement, her legs and arms bent at awkward angles, her face almost translucent in the soft red glow from the taillights of an idling car a few feet away.

Beginning #4
Naomi gripped the tan leather-wrapped steering wheel of her mother’s Mercedes and pressed on the gas as hard as she could. It was the first time she had ever felt any sort of rebellion flow through her, and she liked it as the pearl-white sedan zipped along the gentle curves of the California coastline. The sky was a clean azure blue, like thick paint or the underbelly of some exotic sea creature. It made the ocean outside her window look sullen and gray.

Beginning #5
There was an unusual amount of fog the spring Naomi disappeared. Each evening near the end of February, it rolled heavily from the ocean to the coastline, gradually spreading itself over the city until the warmer hours of morning chased it away. It was unsettling how everything appeared and dissolved within seconds, like some elaborate magic act.

Beginning #6
Naomi knew the man could kill her.

“My name’s Jesse,” he stated softly. Kindly.

She held still, immobilized from the pain in her head. She had been awake for several hours, but everything was blurry and dark, until now.

“Where am I?” she asked with a voice drier than cotton. “Who are you?” A sudden urge to cry washed over her. Throbs of pain spread like wildfire through her body, and she gasped. Pain everywhere! As if she’d been beaten with a baseball bat.

Beginning #7
A book of poetry. Naomi didn’t know why the man looking down at her was pressing a thin volume of poetry to his chest, but it was the first thing that fueled her hope of staying alive.

“My name’s Jesse,” he said in a hushed voice. He pulled the book from his chest and bent his knees, reaching down to touch her arm. “How are you feeling?”

That was embarrassing.

I have a trainer novel. It's the first novel I ever wrote, and it's a complete and utter mess. I've had it for 14 years now. It comes back to me whenever I take on a new project and wonder if I should be working on the trainer novel instead. This novel has bad prose and a structure that looks like a labyrinth. I thought I was being clever. As you can see from above, I've rewritten this book a bazillion times. Nothing seems to work for the dang thing.

I thought I was being clever every time I wrote this book. I finally participated in NanoWrimo to get this trainer novel out of my head. Now I have another book that I've been working on for 2 years and I can't seem to get anything to work for it, either. I thought I was being clever when I wrote it, too.


We all think we're pretty clever, don't we? Then many of us hand our clever little stories to a reader who is honest and thumps us over the head with reality. "Your prose needs work. Your characters are flat. Your themes are mixed. Your structure is a nightmare. Your dialogue sucks." And what hurts is when more than one person says these things. Or an agent says them. Or someone we admire.

I have a feeling my NaNoWrimo book, which has evolved greatly, is still only a trainer novel. It seems to have the same deep flaws as the other one. So I wrote another novel, a novella, that I'm currently in love with. I think it's clever.

See the pattern here?

My point today is that as writers, we follow patterns we unconsciously set for ourselves. We tend to keep the same deep flaws in our writing, and you know what? I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing over the long run. I'm beta reading a novel right now for a good friend of mine, and I'm impressed with many things and unimpressed by others, just as I am with any piece of writing I pick up. Many people enjoyed my first novel. Nobody has read my 2nd novel. Many people have enjoyed my third novel. Many people will enjoy my fourth one. Perfection isn't attainable and we all have to pick and choose the things we improve upon in our writing. We can only perfect what makes sense to us as the writer.

I'll repeat that.

We can only perfect what makes sense to us as the writer.

All those beginnings you see up there are the result of too many opinions and my feeble attempts at trying to please everyone. Imagine the time - the years(!) I've spent with those attempts. See, I'll bet that most of you like some of those beginnings and dislike others. I'll bet some of you don't like any of them - probably because I never got around to writing the book just for you.

Davin wanted me to put a note here today that lets you all know he won't be around this week. He's at a conference on the East Coast and although he thought he would have internet access there, it turns out he doesn't. He'll be back next Monday. Scott and I will attempt to hold down this fort in his absence...


  1. Ya know what they say about too many cooks in the kitchen . . . Ha!

    Rachelle Gardner asked the question last week: Do you love writing or do you love the idea of being published (or something to that effect)? My response: I love writing!

    Now, we can love our writing all we want, but we do need outside opinions. We just need to figure out how to balance the myriad opinions with our own instinct and love for our writing. In the end, it doesn't matter if beta readers love or hate our work, it matters whether an agent loves or hates ouar work . . . if we're going the traditional publishing route.

    I've read too much published work lately that I personally think is sub-par based on my standards. Yeah, who am I to judge? I know, I know! Still, if works with gaping plot holes, dropped plots, adjectives galore, etc. are being published . . .

    The perfect beginning doesn't exist. You know that. I know that. We all should know that. The semi-perfect beginning does exist. I recently moved Chapter 8 to Chapter 1 position. A new beginning (ha), so to speak. It works . . . for me, but maybe not for potential beta readers or agents.

    My rambling, very long winded point is: you have to love your beginning. If you don't, how can you expect some else to love your beginning? If you're willing to change your beginning every time a beta reader doesn't love your beginning, then you're probably not in love with your beginning.

    Writing is a process. We don't write the perfect novel the first time we sit down to write. We write a rough draft that we hone over time - sometimes months, sometimes years. A diamond begins as a lump of coal. A semi-perfect novel begins as an idea transformed into words on multiple pages . . . over time. A beginning is just that, a beginning, that can change as the writer grows and realizes that Chapter 1 is sub-par, and Chapter 8 is above par!


  2. Storytelling is an art, and as such it can never be perfected.

    We are always in training. I've read recent works from popular/established authors, and thought they pales in comparison to earlier novels. I've read other authors that seemed to have found a magic formula with one book, only to find that the author uses that same formula every time.

    Just gotta keep moving forward...

  3. Many times I think I'm being clever, but when I go back, I see that it's complete and utter bollocks.

    And you hit the nail on the head w/ the deep-seeded patterns... sometimes I wonder if I've improved any after X number of years of doing this (hey, at least I don't use 'aver' as a dialogue tag anymore :)

  4. When I think I'm being clever, it usually just makes a mess. I love your idea about perfection. We all have our own unique visions and voices for our writing. Too much input from others and those things can get lost. Implementing critique advice and retaining your own unique voice, etc. is a fine line.

  5. Thanks for sharing these and for your great insights.

    Maybe we spend too much time trying to attain perfection in individual portions of our writing. Maybe perfection (or any measure of greatness) is only possible when we consider the sum of all the parts. Maybe this is why we can always find bland or even terrible pages in great books, yet they are still great.

  6. Well, the setup certainly is interesting. I'd be interested in seeing where it leads. Also, I'm lobbying for a new post header: "Bad, Badder, and Badderest."

  7. Scott: Thank you for your comment. Yes, too many cooks in the kitchen. You always end with something mediocre.

    I think there will always be sub-par things published - because of the old "one man's junk is another man's treasure." I'm surprised how much friends of mine like particular published books and how much I hate them. The thing is that publishers know their market pretty well, and even if something is sub-par to me doesn't mean that it won't sell.

    Rick: Yes, you're right about storytelling being an art. Art, to me, is fluid and susceptible to so many forces. We can't possibly expect it to fit into perfect little boxes. :)

    Bane: I'll bet you've improved. I think the important thing is that we're improving against ourselves, not what other people expect of us, if that makes sense.

    Lois: Yeah, cleverness can make a huge mess, I agree! I just hope my recent cleverness in Cinders isn't a mess. Right now, though, it feels more like a deliberate mess instead of heading at it blindly.

    Mayowa: That is an interesting standpoint! I like that a lot. Just as any of us as humans aren't perfect, there are definitely great things about us as a whole.

    Loren: Yes, the story I wrote is quite interesting and unique, but the way I tell it isn't working, sadly. Fun for a new post header! I'll change it if I get a few more votes. :)

  8. Yes! Well said, Glam. The most important thing we can listen to (in writing and in life) is that inner voice. When we step back, force ourselves to be objective, and listen for that tiny voice....

    then we get closer to the truth of our work. It's tough, I'm learning. Very tough.

  9. oh, and btw, those passages have some beautiful pieces to them. just so you know.

  10. This sums up my trainer novels, too. All three of them. The first was a series (of 2, so not really a series), and I workshopped it online as I was writing. Bad idea. I tried to please everyone, like you did.

    It made for an unoriginal voice and labored plot. I recommend writing the book you want to write, THEN showing it to people.

    I really appreciated your honesty and your points about perfection. Thanks for sharing your work as an example!

  11. Tess: Yes, it's tough. I think it's the hardest thing about being a writer, actually! It's something I'll constantly have to work at.

    Thanks. I'm happy with some of the writing in those excerpts, but none of them feel like the right start to the story. I have a feeling that the "right" start is nothing I've considered yet.

    Katrina: Yes, I've done the online workshop thing before. It didn't work out very well. It was hard to put these excerpts up, so thanks. I'm always so self conscious about old stuff that never worked!

  12. Ptooey. It's not embarrassing at all, unless you're you and you know how the whole novel goes. There's nothing particularly dreadful about the prose in any of those excerpts, although some are better than others IMO.

    I rolled my eyes within three paragraphs of beginning Dan Brown's Angels and Demons, right around the point where he used an adverb as a single sentence. It might have been a single paragraph, but I forget. I kept reading, though, and despite the book being an overwrought, breakneck caper, I kind of enjoyed the ride. Sure, his prose is somewhat less than elegant (*cough*), but the story is what sells his work, not his prose.

    Is Brown's writing deeply flawed? In my opinion, yes. Do his books sell like hotcakes? Yes. Can they then be said to be "deeply flawed?" Do the results speak for themselves?

    Flaws, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder, no?

  13. Michelle: This is why I only let a small handful of people read my novels before I send them out into the world. Too many cooks indeed. The version of "The Stars Are Fire" I wrote just before I decided to rewrite the entire novel? I hate that version; it was written as an attempt to satisfy certain market forces, or at least that's what I thought at the time.

    Just today, during lunch, I wrote four (4) different versions of the opening paragraph to Chapter Ten. I ended up striking all of them out. Some days I can't even please myself.

  14. Simon: Thanks. Yeah, that's why it's embarrassing - that I've had to do the beginning so many times. There's more beginnings than that, too. Yikes!

    Dan Brown can make me roll my eyes, too, but I'll admit once I get into one of his books I can't stop reading. There's something there, deeply flawed or not. Sometimes those things just don't matter.

    Scott: Yeah, I've learned a lot since then and now only let a small handful of people read my work. Is the version you're talking about the version I read? In that case I really do hope I get to read this new version if it's one you like. The other one was engaging, that's for sure.

  15. Linked Davin in a post .. just fyi. He inspired my first Summer of Service activity :D

  16. You know, you guys here at the Lab are rocketing up my list of heroes at warp speed...

    This post helped so much, Michelle, thank you. Your comments, Scott, helped so much. Again, thank you.

    I have to add to that list a post written by Davin last year- which also helped more than I can say. It was called I am the Work in Progress.

    It made me weep, literally, with gratitude. That's because when I found it the other night, I was in the process of coming to many of the same conclusions he wrote about in it.

    To stop this comment from getting ridiculously long I'll just tell you that I am at the moment typing up an entire blog post about it.

    I cannot tell you how much you all, and what you've done for other writers here at The Literary Lab, is appreciated.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.


  17. Tess: That's awesome! And I think your idea is a fantastic one. :)

    Bru: Wow! I'm really pleased to hear that we're helpful! Sometimes it seems there's not much interest here, and sometimes there seems to be a lot. Just depends, I suppose. It's nice to know that we have a handful of loyal readers who constantly let us feel appreciated. We appreciate them, including you, too! I'm going to see if your post is up. :)

  18. I started the post- but I am really sick right now and so I had to put a mention in and link to the post Davin wrote and then tomorrow hopefully I'll be able to finish it. If I keep going tonight it's not going to turn out as well as I want it to and I want it to truly speak to how grateful I truly am to you all for what you do here. It's been like discovering real shelter from the storm.

    After eight months spent using just about all my available eyesight on researching the industry- I can honestly say that finding The Literary Lab is the very best thing to come out of it all for me. Thank you again. That post will be up soon as I can manage it.

  19. Bru: No worries! Put it up when you're ready. :)

  20. Thank you for sharing, Michelle. I feel a lot better about the struggle with my openings now. Most of my revisions were done to please others. I've even asked my critique group for a vote! But in the end, you have to go with your own choices. It's getting to the place where you trust yourself that's hard.

  21. Linda: That's great that this helped! I agree with you that we just have to trust ourselves. The longer I write and the more I deal with the whole feedback thing, the more I'm getting to the point that I can rely on myself. It's a good feeling.


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