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.

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!

Me, My Voice and I

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 was having a drink with a friend a while back when the subject of my blog came up. I’m always surprised to discover that someone has willingly read my online ramblings, but it prompted an entirely unexpected conversation that got me thinking about voice.

Although complimentary about the blog itself my friend said ‘It made me think I didn’t know you.’ There was a hint of sadness in the way she said it, as if we had somehow drifted so far apart that the person she was reading bore no resemblance to the person she thought she knew.

It’s natural that people glide in and out of your life, especially as you get older – life has a nasty habit of getting in the way. What threw me was that this is someone I speak to every week and while we don’t see each other as much we would like, we do manage to get together at least once a month.

I couldn’t get her comment out of my head. Was I so different now? Had I kept more of myself back than she realised? How had I not noticed this happening?

Meanwhile, a few days before, my sister had been on Facebook and posted the following:  ‘Who says you can’t learn something new about someone you have known 34years… an end of book dance?!? I never knew Lisa Davison did that!’

I repeated this to my friend as a way of saying ‘See! Even my own family hasn’t a clue!’

But as we sat chatting, it struck me – the person she and my sister are reading isn’t precisely me. It not that I’m lying when I write – I’m afraid I did indeed do an end-of-book dance as a child – it’s just that I’m choosing to highlight certain aspects of my personality in order to create a role.

And the more I considered this, the more I realised how much of my time is spent creating these roles through voice. The me on Facebook is not the same as the me on Twitter. The professional corporate journalist me is not the same as the fiction writer me who is busy trying to get in the head of a 20-something man living through the Second World War as a conscientious objector. None of these voices are ‘me’ and yet cannot help but contain elements of me-ness since I created all of them.

So, with all these voices in my head, I was particularly interested to watch the latest series of the BBC arts show Imagine, which interviews artists, writers, musicians about their creative processes. I love any programme that peels back a little bit of the mystery around how other writers write, and so the interview with crime fiction writer Ian Rankin was of particular interest. What fascinated me most was his relationship with his fictional detective Rebus. He has Rebus grow up on the same street as him and locates his detective in an Edinburgh that clearly Rankin knows very well, and yet he told Imagine presenter Alan Yentob that if the two men ever met, they would not get on. They could chat about music and beer for a few minutes, he said, but ultimately, Rebus would want to pick a fight with him. Rebus both is and isn’t Ian Rankin.

Because in the end, we’re all multiple voices. It’s what makes us interesting and complicated as human beings. The trick for any writer is, of course, to blend just the right mixture of those voices in order to create truly three-dimensional characters that readers care about as if they were real.

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