Fear of the Wrong Thing

This past week, I was asked a couple of thoughtful questions on my Facebook page.  I’m answering them here, where I have the leisure to provide more than a “sound bite” response.

Me, Brenda Drake, and Gabi Stevens

First though a bit of news!

To celebrate the release of Asphodel, I took part in Marshal Zeringue’s Campaign for the American Reader.  In the Page 69 Test, we dive inside Asphodel to answer the question: “If you were in a bookstore and randomly opened to page sixty-nine, would you be hooked?”  For Writer’s Read, I talk about some of what I’ve been reading.  Even if you regularly read my Friday Fragments, you’ll find something new here.

The Page 69 Test: Asphodel

Writers Read: Jane Lindskold

Now to those questions (which I tightened up a bit here):

Tish Kemper asked: “How do you move past the fear of writing the wrong thing? I have this story inside me, and I can’t really start to write because each time I try the fear of ‘the wrong thing’ keeps me going back and dismantling everything.”

Jen Keats added: “I always worry what I write isn’t going to be ‘good enough.’ I see all these authors making intricate worlds and characters…  Does that all happen the first time around or is there a ton of editing and research etc. Does one have to use a thesaurus/dictionary to get it that good, or is it just that I’m not a very good writer?”

The simple answer, which someone actually was kind enough to post to my Facebook page by way of encouragement, boils down to: “Just write.  You can polish later.”

I agree with that, but I’d like to go into some of the issues more deeply.

Tish says “I have this story inside me.”  That’s good.  That’s great.  The first question to ask yourself is “Who is my intended audience for this story?”

This past weekend, when I did a book event at Page One Books, one of the questions we were asked was “Why did you start writing?”  Both Gabi Stevens and I had the same answer.  We started writing to create the stories we wanted to read, but couldn’t quite find.  For both of us, then, our first audience is always ourselves.  This is one reason I write my first draft rough and without worrying too much about the finer points.  I’m finding out what the story is.

If, on one level, you’re just writing the story because it’s inside you and you’d like to see it, then there is no way you can tell it wrong.  Writing is always communication, but maybe this story is you talking to yourself, telling that fairy tale you always wanted to read or putting into firmer shape some of your best daydreams.  Or maybe you’re looking for a way through some personal issue.

If you’re looking to share that story with a larger audience, then you’ve set yourself a tougher challenge.  Remember, writing is communication.    Let’s say you’ve written that rough first draft just for you.  Now you think it’s a story you might want to share with other people.  At this point, your task is to make sure the language says what you want it to say.

Here’s where Jen’s question fits in.  She asked: “Does that all happen the first time around or is there a ton of editing and research etc. Does one have to use a thesaurus/dictionary to get it that good, or is it just that I’m not a very good writer?”

My answer is: No.  It doesn’t happen the first time around.  It doesn’t even happen the first book around.  Most writers have a bunch of short stories or a novel or two that they wrote as they were learning their craft.  Sometimes they come back and use what they learned along the way to make that early effort better.  That’s what I did with my novel The Pipes of Orpheus.  So don’t despair if your first effort isn’t as good as you want it to be.   Put it aside and come back later.

And, no, you don’t need to use a thesaurus or dictionary.  In fact, if you are repeatedly using either of these tools, you’re just being artificial.

Does this mean you don’t need a wide vocabulary or knowledge of grammar?  Absolutely not!  You need both.  But as far as I can tell, writing is the only craft where people think they can skip the basics and move right onto professional quality work.  Sorry, but just as if you wanted to be a painter, you’d need to learn something about brush strokes and blending colors and perspective, so if you want to write professionally, you’re going to need to learn the skills.

There’s no quick way around this.

Because writing is communication, at some point in the process, you’re going to need to share the story with someone else.  Some people join writers’ groups.  Some people have “beta readers.”  (The assumption is that the writer is the “alpha” reader.)  When I wrote Asphodel, I not only asked my usual “beta readers” to take a look at it, I deliberately asked some people who I wasn’t sure would get into the story to take a look.  The fact that a widely varied set of readers found something to like in Asphodel gave me confidence that I had communicated my vision.

This Wandering is getting long, so let me add that my book Wanderings on Writing contains a bunch of essays about writing.  These range from basics, such as narrative hooks and research strategies, up to and including more global themes such as heroes and antiheroes or world-building.  The essays were adapted from my Wednesday Wanderings.  If you poke around the site archive, you can find some of the same material.

I hope these answers will help not only Tish and Jen, but other would-be writers as well.  Any other questions?

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6 Responses to “Fear of the Wrong Thing”

  1. futurespastsite Says:

    The nice thing about writing on a computer, compared with writing on a typewriter as we (or at least I) once did, is the ease of getting into the prose and (hopefully) improving that initial effort.

    • janelindskold Says:

      The problem for many people who write on a computer — especially those newer to the craft — is that the computer makes it look so professional from the start. So they don’t redraft as much as they should! That’s one reason why I always interact at some point with a printed copy.

  2. Louis Robinson Says:

    errr… Yes, but not actually about writing:

    Was the final comment on the Page 69 Test post you or the host? Can’t tell from the formatting.

  3. CBI Says:

    I had planned to have the book and be at the PageOne event, but my wife’s car troubles and retroubles ended that. The Page 69 Test link confirmed that it is a book I will read.

    My own reactions to reading page 69 were a bit different: I was reminded of “The Lady of Shalott”, which is a favorite. Upon reflection (!), the connection to a lady in a tower looking out is a bit odd, but that’s what popped into mind.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Asphodel has lots of little things woven into it…. I’m certainly familiar with the “Lady of Shalott.”

      Sorry you couldn’t be there. It was a nice event. Hope your wife’s car is okay.

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