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!

Pure Time? Pure Nonsense

Lisa Davison is an editor by day and fiction writer/Kingston MA student by spare time. She is currently writing her first novel and was published in the 2012 edition of Kingston’s student anthology, Ripple. She blogs at www.thegreatepuzzle.co.uk and tweets as @LisaJaneDavison. She loves cats and paper.

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I have a confession. My name is Lisa Davison and I am leading a double life. By day, I am a mild-mannered (sort-of) professional copywriter and editor who meets deadlines, turns up for meetings on time and generally manages to sift through the ‘to do’ list in a sensible fashion. By night (and early mornings and weekends), though, I turn into THE PROCRASTINATOR.

My weakness? TIME MANAGEMENT.

Because it turns out the only superpower this title bestows upon me is an extraordinary ability to do the washing when I should be developing character, building plot, or – I don’t know – writing. I have a few theories on why I spend so much time avoiding the thing I love but I’ll save that for the therapist.

The thing is, I don’t know anyone who feels that they have enough time in their life to sit and write, and let’s face it the mild-mannered (sort of) copywriter/editor is paying the bills right now. I also realise I’m not the only one with pressures and deadlines; in many ways I have fewer than most friends since I don’t have kids. I know they’re capable of being distracted – I can see you on Facebook and Twitter so don’t pretend – but they appear to have mastered the art of balance. Or at least, they don’t moan about it as much as I do. I, on the other hand, appear to have created a whole series of convoluted, deeply-held beliefs about the way I should manage my time.

Example: I have a free Sunday coming up with hour upon glorious hour of free time with which to sit and write. Perfect. Because I have told myself I need hour upon glorious hour in order to be creative. The procrastinator likes to call it ‘pure’ time. Only, when Sunday arrives I quite unexpectedly discover I need to tidy my desk first, put the washing on first, hoover first (it’s pathetic how little has changed since I was last at university – although a lot more alcopops were involved) and once all that’s done I’m left with only one hour. And I can’t possibly sit down for an hour to write because the procrastinator has declared I’m out of pure time.

I’ve also wasted a lot energy asking other writers how they manage their minutes and hours, as if there is some Holy Grail of time management that I don’t yet know about. The answer is often terribly dull: planning helps, sitting down at your desk and doing it helps more.

So, as I enter the thirty-seventh year of my life I’ve decided 2013 will be the year of GETTING ON WITH IT. Like any problem, identification is half the battle. Now that I’ve spotted my insane pure time theory I can go about dismantling it. Already, I have spent a weekend away with writing friends doing nothing but story plan and character development. As it turns out, planning really does help. I’ve also started to identify – and more importantly use – the odd hour here, the spare fifteen minutes there to just put something, anything, down on paper. Award-winning it ain’t, but then that’s not the point. As Philip Pullman said in an interview with The Guardian in 2011: “if you only write when you want to, or when you feel like it, or when it’s easy, you’ll always be an amateur.”

Why Write?

Sebastian works full time and part-time as a freelance journalist. He wrote for five years the Secret Agent column in the Financial Times (www.ft.com/secretagent) and currently writes a monthly column for both Country Life and the London Magazine and a weekly blog for Spears. He’s working on a novel with the help of the Kingston MFA. Today he considers why we bother to write at all.
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As I sit at my kitchen table, hot water and lemon beside me, light emerging through the remnants of the night-time sky, my lap-top faces me.  It’s 7am and I try and bring my mind to focus willing the words onto the screen.  Recently risen from bed I let reverie remain and there my fingers seamlessly flow across the keyboard and surprise me with their astute brilliance.  It’s not so.  Inevitably my gaze is distracted; I scan the room, Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ holds what seems like a prominent position on my bookshelf, as if to censure me.  His rigid discipline an example not easily followed.
 
There are times when one feels like writing and times when it feels like work.  And when you have a day job and struggle to achieve the zen-like nirvana of ‘balance’ it becomes about priorities.  If your writing is informed by observation and social commentary it’s important to be part of the world I tell myself; and this means socialising, eating out, going to see ‘Argo’ in order to comment reliably on Ben Affleck’s Iran hostage film.
 
It’s so much harder if relying on the imagination – to inhabit a parallel world of science fiction adventure, Cromwellian London or anywhere that takes us away from the here and now.  Or so I believe – but this could be that like many things different, in that vaguely self-flagellating manner we have, it’s because we’re incapable of accomplishing them that we admire them.  I remember my godmother some summers ago taking issue with me as I marched through an Italian city ticking off the tourist list – a Brunelleschi church, Piero della Francesca fresco, Donatello sculpture and some celebrated gardens.  ‘Why do you rush like this?’  She questioned while I wanted to ask what she’d achieved as she’d sat consuming a diet of espressos and Marlboro cigarettes for the last three hours.  My question was implied as she continued, ‘I’m a student of anthropology, I like to sit and observe, that’s how I learn.’  And I’ve come to understand the importance of that.
 
Observing is one thing but translating that into the written form is something else.  Why do we do this?  To share experience; to make a living; to educate; to entertain; to exorcise; to challenge; for personal development; as a creative outlet and so the list continues, morphing to the out-reaches of reason, need and desire.  I admire those who can write just for themselves – who don’t need the validation of acknowledgement – because it feels fraudulent to me as if the value of my words are somewhat diminished.  It’s wrong and a guilty truth but the needy in me requires affirmation.  So as I sit, I wonder why and what’s the point, in these busy lives we lead.  All of us who are endeavouring to try have our own reasons.  I return to E.M. Forster’s epitaph in Howards End ‘Only Connect’.  The universal emotions that hold us together and make us human; the sentence we read that expresses something in a way we’d never thought of before but which we implicitly understand.  The feelings and thoughts that bind us as human beings, that broaden our minds, speak of our differences and our similarities.  And so I tap on in the hope of achieving the smallest iota of connection.

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