Think Your Writing Sucks? That’s a Good Thing

Vivienne Raper is working on a science fiction novel with the help of the Kingston MFA.

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It takes ten thousand hours of deliberate practice to become an expert. Spend 1,040 of an estimated 6,685 leisure hours each year to actively improve your fiction writing, and you’ll be a successful writer in 10 years. That’s according to Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success, which aims to debunk the myth that some people are born geniuses.

The Beatles, Bill Gates and many other exceptional people, he argues, became brilliant through deliberate practice… Practice… And more deliberate practice. They set out purposefully to improve and stretch themselves. They taught others, surrounded themselves with like-minded people, sought feedback, worked on their weak spots and evaluated their progress.

The idea of natural talent is a myth common to many areas of life. Creative writing is no exception. There are serious discussions about whether fiction writing can be taught. Some authors believe literature emerges by spontaneous genius and teaching will make students emulate others at the expense of their own voice.

No one can give someone a voice if they have nothing to say. But, more typically, beginning writers struggle because they don’t know basic technique. Story construction. Scene construction. Sentence construction. Paragraph construction. How to construct convincing dialogue (tip: take a tape recorder on the bus). They also don’t know the idiosyncrasies of their chosen genre, whether it be literary fiction, women’s fiction or romance. They discover through brutal trial-and-error, familiarity and socialisation what editors and competition judges will accept, and what readers want to read.

Ten thousand hours of practice is a lot of books and stories read. Many short stories and novels written and rejected. Long evenings spent in workshops and critique groups hearing how to make work suck less.  Thousands of hours spent alone in front of a keyboard. Writing. Editing. Tearing up the thing you just wrote. Rewriting it again.

Does that sound harsh? Maybe. Perhaps you’re reading this thinking “I don’t need to do that. My friends think my work’s great. My first novel is a work of misunderstood genius”. If that’s the case, you’re on the starting blocks my friend. Ahead is one of the biggest causes of writer’s block out there. It’s called the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is named after two social psychologists who discovered in 1999 an interesting fact about human behaviour. As shown in the graph below, people’s assessment of their own skill doesn’t rise in line with increasing experience. Geniuses know they’re geniuses. Partially-trained people can tell they suck.

Unskilled people don’t know they suck. They’re too incompetent to accurately judge their own performance. Say you woke this morning and thought “Hmmmm, I want to be a best-selling novelist like Dan Brown. Or maybe I want to write the Great American Novel” and hadn’t written a work of fiction longer than your last tax self-assessment. According to the Dunning-Kruger Effect, you can’t know your novel is rubbish because you don’t know enough about novel writing. In fact, you’re likely to think you’re the next J.K. Rowling or James Joyce, and publishers are ignoramuses.

We all know the stereotype of the unpublished novelist who believes their diabolical work is amazing and won’t listen to criticism. The real trouble comes when a humble unskilled writer embarks on ten thousand hours of deliberate practice. They march along the Dunning-Kruger curve, improving their performance. Hopeful. Joyful. Certain of imminent publication. Oblivious of the length of the road ahead. At some point or another, they realise “I suck. Everything I’ve written sucks. And I didn’t know.” Instant writer’s block. How do you continue writing when you know you suck? What’s the point? You’re only going to delete it anyway. Trouble is, you must practise writing rubbish so you can eventually rise swan-like from the bottom of the Dunning-Kruger curve.

Lesson learned? Embrace your knowledge that your writing sucks.  It means that you’re learning something. Carry on practising, improving, working on your weak points, putting your work out there. Learn from informed criticism and rejection. Suck. Fail. Learn. Suck less. Fail better.

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Conquering Writer’s Block

Dorin Rufer is in her second year of her Creative Writing MFA. She is an avid reader, writer, movie-goer and tea drinker. She is part of a podcast/blog adaptationpodcast.com about film adaptations and the original formats they are based on. She is also starting up her own blog: dogaru20.wordpress.com. Check her and her Chai Latte addiction out.

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There has been a long debate about whether or not writers block exists. The thing is, that it doesn’t matter. If you feel creatively blocked, what can you do?

It is something that I, personally have had to deal with for quite a few months. Whether stress, other obligations, personal troubles, or other are the cause of it doesn’t matter. Everyday distractions won’t go away. I used to say, “Oh, let me just do x, y, and z and then I will sit down and write” but another A-Z set of tasks was always right behind it.

Once I fell out of the habit of writing, it just seemed that I could not put the habit back in. The problem was, at least for me, that I was thinking too hard about it. I forced myself to sit in front of a notebook or computer and expected myself to write gold right away.

Now, I have allowed myself a regiment of journal pages. I write about three pages a day on anything. Mostly, at first, it was mostly venting about recent events, but more and more the subjects have become more profound and thoughtful. The date or something that just happened may put me in a state of memory or daydreaming, and I write it down.

This has inspired many short stories, bits of novels I have started, and even made me consider a memoir! It has built my confidence back up, and reminded me just to put one word in front of the other. Now, I probably still have a long road ahead before I feel the dam will break and I feel more free to sit down and write exactly what I want to, but I also consider myself a severe case of creative block. Because I am seeking to publish my work people always seem to ask me what market it is for? Who will read my book? Is it marketable? It feeds the little nay-saying voice in my head and makes it say “why bother?” like I am not good enough and no matter what I write it will be seen as junk and I am a failure.

I always just need to remind myself that my writing is valuable because I am the only one who can write it – told to me by author and tutor Rachel Cusk, and that all the things the others say or ask, including that horrible little voice in my head, are things to worry about later! I cannot let my fears about things to come allow the voice in my head to automatically be right, nor can I let all that stop my real voice from being heard! If you are like me, I hope you can do the same.

Now, I cannot exactly take credit for these journal pages, because they were set upon me through a book, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, which was recommended to me by a good friend. I can say, however, that this is my testimony that writing, no matter what kind, is still writing and puts the brain in the right mode to continue. So, my advice is, to myself and others, don’t worry about what you write, just write!

New Year: No procrastinating please (But if only I had the perfect desk….)

Catherine Gladstone is in her first year of her Creative Writing MFA. When she’s not at lectures, she’s spends most of her time running around after her 18 month old daughter. She also works part time & runs her own little PR agency – Candid Communications (www.candid-communications.co.uk).
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I’ve always wanted a writers bureau. So, I made it my job over the space of a few weeks to find one.
 
I took a tape measure and measured the space in my tiny loft room. I checked my measurements via a desk I’d seen on the Internet. We’ll call this procrastination part one.
 
Next up, procrastination part two, I spent my evenings tapping ‘writers bureau’ into eBay. I emailed sellers and discussed delivery charges with courier companies. I asked my husband “What you think?”
 
After a week or so, I moved on to procrastination part three: Dragging my toddler around second hand shops, trying to keep her flailing limbs straight-jacketed inside her pushchair. I finally found a desk and took it home.  
 
Now, I was ready to start writing my next novel. But NOT before, I had arranged my books about writing on it, along with a strategically placed candle, some notepapers and some hand cream.
 
HAND CREAM! Seriously?
 
I’m supposed to be writing a book, not arranging candles and hand cream, and of course it doesn’t matter where I write, only that I do.
 
It’s a new year and that means no more dawdling, pottering, pootling or staring out of the window for me. Unless I decide to write a Karl Knausgaard style novel about the banality of everyday life, then, surely that counts as research?
 
If you have a similar new years resolution you are struggling to keep, here are some quotes that might help:
 
Writers on ‘writers block’
 
“As for my next book, I am going to hold myself from writing it till I have it impending in me: grown heavy in my mind like a ripe pear; pendant, gravid, asking to be cut or it will fall.” Virginia Woolf
 
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Ernest Hemingway
 
Writers on ‘procrastination’ 
 
“I love deadlines – I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” Douglas Adams
 
“The scariest moment is always just before you start.” Stephen King
 
Writers on ‘how to get over writers block’
 
“The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”  Mark Twain
 
Writers on the experience of ‘writing’
 
“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.  One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.“  George Orwell

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