Welcome to Coach’s Corner, where I offer some thoughts on the creative process and breaking through moments of self-doubt.
One of the most common complaints I hear from writers is that after a few years of developing their skills, they’ve lost the ability to sit down and enjoy a book. It is an inevitable consequence of growing in the craft, and today I would like to talk to you about how to manage this.
The greatest tendency for writers is to pick up a book from their favorite author, who has probably been publishing for a dozen years or more, and compare their current work in progress with the book they are currently reading. Such comparisons cause an exaggeration of the writer’s insecurities of their own work and feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness of ever making it.
The second easiest tendency for writers is to read the latest bestseller and pick out all it’s flaws — all the copy-edits not corrected, the plot holes, the character flaws — and wonder how it could have possibly gotten published because it is so bad. They wonder why their own manuscripts keep getting rejected when such bad writing sells. This too leads to feelings of hopelessness of ever making it.
Instead of viewing this new way of reading as a “loss of enjoyment,” see it as having leveled up. And what happens with leveling up in a game? New challenges are presented. New challenges means new ways to grow as a writer. Every book, television show, or movie has something to teach.
What is it about your favorite author’s writing that you like so much? Marian Keyes is one of my favorite authors. I love how she writes about serious topics such as abuse, depression, and addiction, and yet has such humorous characters. Though I write in a different genre than she does, it is still a method I try to incorporate when it fits.
How do the master authors in your genre craft their description, or characters, or plot? When I’m struggling with a certain aspect of my writing, which is usually description or action, I read books by authors who are known for those exact elements and study how they do it. There are several techniques to use, and I can pick and choose from them for what works best for me.
How do your favorite television shows craft suspense and tension? Do all the twists and turns make sense within the world they’ve created? Most dramas these days end up having some kind of twist to heighten the tension. Sometimes this means bringing characters back we thought were dead, sometimes it means killing off main characters, and sometimes it means adding a secret history to the characters. Do these twists work? Should they have been foreshadowed a little more? Do these twists change the world we came to expect every time we tuned in?
How do the writers of the books you’re reading or shows you’re watching break their own rules? Does it work? If not, how can you avoid doing the same? I’ve been watching Once Upon a Time on Netflix the last several weeks. I’m all caught up, and am now watching season 6. No spoilers, from me or any comments, I promise! The world of Storybooke and the fairy tale characters that live there has the constant push and pull of heroes and villains, good magic and dark magic. It’s a fun show with carefully constructed rules to the character’s behaviors and use of magic. I keep expecting that the writers have erred, gone too far, brought someone back to life when it shouldn’t have been possible by their rules of magic. Though there may be one or two exceptions, as far as I can tell, the writers have yet to contradict those rules.
There are plenty of books out there that sell millions of copies and when writers gather, they love to rag on the terrible writing of those books. Maybe the writing really is that bad, but the publisher saw something of valuable in it. What did the publisher see? What element made this book so marketable? What made Twilight so popular? It wasn’t just the cute boys in a love triangle. It tapped into the idea that obsessive love is romantic love. It isn’t simply saying “I will die for you.” Bella said, “I will give up my soul for you.” What made The DaVinci Code so popular? It wasn’t just that it was a series of puzzles to be put together. The heart of it was the controversial idea that Jesus had a child, which means there are descendants of the Son of God walking the Earth today.
We can always learn something from what we read or watch.
It is our job as writers to grow in our craft. So instead of feeling hopelessness by comparing our writing to what is published, or upset by not having the same innocence we once had when approaching a book, cherish this more mature enjoyment of your new level.