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On Being Bad

Post six in the discussion from Richard Bausch’s “Letter to a Young Writer.”

My students always want to get things right the first time and get frustrated when they can’t. My go-to answer is inspired by a quote from Thomas Edison. I often tell them, “Congratulations!  You’ve just found one of the ways that won’t work. Now, go find another way.”

Writing can have the same effect. You pour sweat, blood, and tears into trying to paint a picture and it comes out all wrong. Someone critiques it and rips it into shreds. Unfortunately, that’s part of the process.

I cannot stress this enough. THE ONLY WAY TO BECOME GREAT IS TO FAIL!!!

Bausch’s next piece of advice is simple to understand and hard to do. 

Be willing. Accepting failure is a part of your destiny _ learning to be willing to fail, to take the chances that often lead to failure in the hope that one of them might lead to something good. Be open for business all the time. You must try to be that person on whom nothing is lost. This does not mean that you are taking notes while people around you suffer. You are not that kind of observer. It means in the workroom you are willing to follow whatever you are dreaming presents you with – openly, without judgment or attitude or even opinion. 


As in any life venture, nothing is gained if no effort is made. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve  met who want to write but are afraid to do so because they think they can’t write anything worth reading.

So, here are a few things a beginner needs to accept.

1. At first, everything you write will be bad. Not just a little bit. All of it. And it will be very, very bad. That’s okay, though, because the more mistakes you make, the more opportunities you will have to learn. The only way to get better is to keep trying.

2. Someone, perhaps many people will reject your work in the early stages. Don’t be surprised if you get that same reaction you gave Aunt Lula when she handed you that ugly Christmas sweater last year. “Oh. That’s… nice.”

3. Every time you start to think you’re good enough to finish in one draft, someone will point out how bad you still are. You know who writes successful books? I’m convinced it’s really the editors. The author has a fabulous idea in their heads that they get down on paper, and the editor shows them how to reign it in and shape it up into something publishable. Even the greats, I’ve been told, rely heavily on their editors. That old advice you were given in school is always going to be true. You will never reach a point in your life where your writing does not need revision and reflection. That’s why I’m currently reading Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. Best-case scenario is that you learn how to be that editor for yourself.

4. There is nothing so bad that it can’t be revised into something great. Professionals might disagree with me on this one, and that’s fine. I’m far from what I’d consider a proficient writer, but through critique groups, I’ve worked with many novice writers, and seen some terrible work. Some of them, I’ve helped the writer revise six or seven times before the piece has been shaped into anything resembling a story, but still, it gets better every time. 

5. There are some things that just need to be discarded. Even though every bad piece of work you’ve ever written CAN be fixed, that doesn’t mean it should. Sometimes you have to just get rid of those “ugly babies” that are tainting your work and rewrite from a fresh angle. Don’t be afraid to let go of anything you’ve written, even if that means starting the story completely over from the first word of chapter one.

I love Bausch’s line that we must try to be the person on whom nothing is lost. It’s okay to be bad. We all were at first. Some of us still are. But as long as we are embracing every opportunity to learn and add something to our writer’s toolbox, it’s worth every drop of sweat, blood, and tears that we pour into it.

When you get bad feedback, don’t crawl up into a hole or whine about it to anyone who will listen. Just push up your sleeves and give it another go!


Can I Call Myself a Writer?

I’d like to dedicate this post to the online communities who have taken me in and taught me how to write. I’m still learning some of the finer points of plot construction and comma usage, but my writing has improved exponentially since I started.

Writing forums have some disadvantages for a Christian writer, the most obvious being that you’re going to be exposed to content that you’d rather not see. From fornication at drunken parties to brutal murders in the park, sometimes anything goes. I’ve found, though, that most sites are sensitive to protecting younger members from such content and have instituted a labeling system to help them avoid it.

I joined LegendFire in June of 2012, and began posting material for critique. They have a policy that you have to critique to receive critiques,  like most sites, so I researched how to write critiques, pushed up my sleeves, and dove in. I think I’ve learned more from critiquing than anything else.  The admin, Raveneye, a.k.a. Court Ellyn, author of the Falcons Saga  is tough, but fair, and works hard to enforce her high expectations to provide users a quality experience.

Sometime in the spring of 2013, I decided to join a second site, Scribophile. It’s a little different setup that LegendFire in that they have a karma system to track critiques. You can’t just post a hundred pieces without critiquing and dominate the forum.  Their setup is a little more novel-friendly, although the turnaround time for critiques can be a little slow if you don’t get in there and actively start posting on the work of others.

I’ve joined a few others, but these are the ones I’ve enjoyed the most.

Here’s what I gained from both sites:

1. The confidence to call myself a writer. It’s apparently common to be reluctant to take on that title. A lot of writers don’t feel like they’ve earned it. I’ve come across this quote several times on the Internet, attributed to many people, writing instructors, authors, etc.  so I’m not sure who  gets the official credit: If you write, you’re a writer. Period.

Khaled Hosseini, who wrote my favorite book, A Thousand Splendid Suns, discussed this in an interview with David Henry Sterry from the Huffington Post.  He says he was even reluctant to call himself a writer after publishing The Kite Runner.

I felt the same way. I haven’t published even one book, let alone two. The truth is, though, that writing is so ingrained in my heart and soul that I couldn’t stop doing it if I wanted to. I write in my head anytime there’s a lull. My characters take over my showers and daily drives. If I didn’t put their lives on paper, they’d completely take over mine.  I am a writer.  And if you write, you are, too.

2. The belief that there’s hope. When I started, my writing was embarrassing.  Completely passive, no emotion or detail, flat characters, bland plot, and no sense of organization or direction. Through the guidance of helpful critiquers, I was able to chip away at those mistakes a couple at a time. I’m still making a lot of mistakes, but not near as many, and every time I start a new story, it’s thousands of times better than that first one.

That’s not to say that some of the critiques didn’t tear down my spirit a bit. It’s hard to hear how bad you are. But, most of the time, the critiquers said things like, “This isn’t working, but if you do A, B, and C, it might.”

So, off I went to research A, B, and C, with renewed hope.

Now, more than hope, I have a goal. Hopefully, by December 2020, a copy of my debut novel will be on the shelves of the local Barnes and Noble.

3. A network of friends who “get” me, and will be blatantly honest with me. It’s been my experience that people who don’t write have a hard time understanding those of us who do. It doesn’t make sense for me to set my alarm for 5 a.m. when I’m exhausted and force myself to dredge out 500 words. Even this blog doesn’t make sense–why keep a journal and make it public?

I can list about 40 people from LegendFire, Scribophile, and real life writer friends who offer continual support and constructive encouragement. Other friends do, but they sometimes just give me positive feedback and gloss over the uglies. It’s that friend who is willing to say, “This isn’t really working,” who helps me the most in moving forward in the process.

4. The motivation to keep writing. The cool thing with forums is you build connections with people who follow your work, and you can follow theirs back. So, I’m always waiting on a friend to post that next chapter, and they’re waiting on mine. Sometimes, these friends send me messages with a gentle nudge if I haven’t posted in a while, and I push up my sleeves and start writing again.

5. Password protected, online documentation for my work. Okay, I know what you’re thinking. Stop being paranoid. No one is going to steal your sub-par work. Trust me. It’s not that good. Plus, the thread is going to disappear behind all the other new posts in a few weeks. It’s awesome, though, to go back to a post from six months ago and see how much the writing has improved. I have dates and times for all the revisions, and I can go back and reread the comments that led to those changes.

So, if you’re thinking of writing and feeling that self-doubt, go join a couple of forums and participate in the communities. You won’t be sorry!

‘Til next time, for another glimpse inside the Mind of Mynk