It happens to all of us. You boot up your laptop, open up your manuscript file and think, “I hate this entire manuscript. I’m a hack. Why am I even doing this?”
So what do you do when you start to feel down about your writing?
Step 1: Take a few days off.
You might just be having a bad day. Stress at work, not sleeping well, or just plain old crankiness might be a big factor.
Another possibility: burnout. How hard have you been hitting writing lately? What’s the rest of your schedule been like? If you’re feeling strung out and overworked, that could also be a reason for the downturn.
So go do some other stuff for a few days. Just relax for a bit, participate in another hobby, or get caught up on reading.
If a few days or a week pass and you still hate your writing, then it’s time to…
Step 2: Identify what’s bothering you.
This is the tricky part. Time to play book mechanic and run a diagnostic. In order to fix the problem, first you have to figure out what it is.
So make a pros and cons list. Sit down and scribble the things you love and hate about this manuscript. Yes, it’s important to list both the positives and the negatives. You’ll find out why a little later.
When I started feeling frumpy about revising an early draft of We Are Monstrous (my gothic horror fairytale), I made the following lists:
- Atmosphere is conveyed well
- One of the two main characters (MCs) has a distinct voice and personality that I love writing
- I’m kinda proud of my spicy scenes
- The horror scenes are appropriately unsettling
- The prose flows well
- The second MC is poorly-developed, wishy-washy, and flat
- Backstory and current timeline need to be woven together better
- Some of the plot details have inconsistencies in logic (magical rules, terms of the “curse” in the story, etc)
Once I sat down and wrote them out, I realized there were more pros than cons, and I had a good to-do list of things to correct.
What if I don’t have any “pros”?
Then I have to ask… why are you writing this story? You’re going to spend a good chunk of your time writing and revising and rereading this book, so you need to love something about it. That passion is the torch that will light the way through all those difficult fixes and edits.
If you’re not passionate about some part of this project (your characters, your unique premise, your lovely prose), it might be time to shelve it and move on to a project you love more.
I’ve even had projects that contained a few pros, but more cons than the pros were worth. And that’s ok. I just chalked it up to a learning experience and put that manuscript away to start something else.
Ok, so I have some pros. But what if my cons list is less specific than your example?
Maybe your list has “I hate my main character.” Or “the writing is clunky.” It could just be “I’m bored.”
If the problem feels too big or broad, go deeper. Why do you hate your main character? Are they cruel, or whiny, or just plain unlikeable? Maybe they’re dull or uninteresting?
If your writing feels clunky but you don’t know why, get an alpha reader to check out a sample. Find a fellow writer who is willing to read your first handful of pages and give you an honest opinion about your prose. Chances are, a second set of eyes will pick out the issue. Maybe it’s repetitive sentence structure, or infodumping, or flip-flopping verb tenses.
Yes, this means you’re going to get feedback, and it probably won’t be glowing. But you already had concerns; you knew something wasn’t working. You don’t visit a doctor and then get upset when they tell you that you have a sinus infection. You sought their help in both diagnosing and treating the problem.
Alphas and betas are your book’s doctors. Let them identify the issues to help you fix them.
If you don’t have any close writing friends you can ask, try putting out a call on social media. Just try to pick a fellow writer who knows their craft.
Which brings me to my next point…
What if my writing just generally feels… bad, but I don’t know why?
I have some tough news for you. If you’re unhappy with the quality of your writing and you are really serious about improving, it’s time to get serious about studying craft.
By reading (or listening) up on craft, you’ll build the knowledge base that will help you identify specific weaknesses and give you the tools to improve them. That’s how I was able to quickly pinpoint my main character’s key flaw.
The best thing to do is study craft, then go back and critically analyze a book you love. Take notes on how that author utilizes those skills to their advantage.
If you think your writing is bad, you’ll need to be proactive to improve. Keep writing, keep practicing, study craft, and you will get better. But your skill isn’t going to grow on its own. It will take work and time and dedication, but trust me, it’s worth it.
Once you have the skill set you need, then it’s time to…
Step 3: Fix the problem.
Now that you’ve identified the issues, make a step-by-step plan.
My biggest issue with We Are Monstrous was my dull MC. She needed a personality, and stat. So I did some character-building exercises. A quick Google search for “character building worksheet” will give you some questionnaires to get you started. A friend also gave me the worksheet she uses. Filling those out helped me dive deep into my character and sort her out.
The other two things on my cons list (integrating backstory better and plot inconsistencies) were just a matter of finessing some transitions, rearranging and trimming some infodumps, plus some general problem-solving to figure out the logical paradoxes of my magical system.
By outlining the things you hate, you can dig down to the core of the issue and correct it. I know once I’ve tackled a problem, I always feel better. I’ve made my story stronger, and it inspires me to keep going and keep improving.
Hopefully this diagnostic process will help you as much as it helps me.