What if I feel mediocre?

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So, guevaragem left this very interesting question in the comments on my last entry:

‘What do you do when you struggle to write? When you feel as if everything you write is mediocre? How do you overcome these feelings?’

That’s a pretty big question, and I felt it deserved a longer answer than I could give in the comments, so I’m doing a post in the hope that it’ll help anyone else who has these feelings (which I think is most people, at some point or another). I’ve certainly had these moments, and this feeling – so here are my thoughts, while I’m feeling pretty good about things, so we all have a reminder for next time we don’t.

Firstly, even if everything you wrote was mediocre, or even worse than that, it’s not a problem. No, hear me out. Every author you have ever idolised started off writing boring, cliché, or otherwise flawed stories. And every book you’ve ever loved, no matter how experienced its author was when they started it, began life as a shadow of its former self. That’s why we write and rewrite things, to polish them, to learn from each story we write and each variation of those stories. If you feel like your writing is mediocre, maybe you’re just not quite there yet. It’s not your final draft. That’s OK – editing is really not as bad as it can seem at the start.

Don’t forget, too, that you are your own worst critic. Especially if you’ve been working on something for a while, or you know the story inside out, or it’s something immeasurably precious to you, you’re the single person in the world most likely to find fault with your writing. This is even more true if you sometimes have difficulty accepting and acknowledging your own strengths. Ignore that inner critic. It’s judging writing that’s not even finished yet – so what does it know, really? Keep going. Prove it wrong. Prove yourself wrong.

Of course, that’s all very well, but when you’re staring at a page of uninspiring words and wondering why you bother, reassuring words are not as helpful as you might hope. So here are some tricks I use when I feel like everything I write or ever have written is awful:

  • If you’re having trouble with a particular piece of writing – a poem, a novel, a short story – drop it for a while and write something else. Pick a prompt at random (I’ve found some good ones here, for example) and write something short with it. It’s important to keep it relatively short at this point so that you don’t end up with a string of unfinished works, but if the idea grabs you, of course you can come back and revisit it when you have time. The key here is to write something that you have no expectations for, with no pressure. You’re not trying to get this published, you’re not trying to make it perfect – you’re just writing. Of course, put your best effort in, but relax and enjoy the change of scene – just focus on getting in a beginning, middle and end. When it’s done and you’ve reread it, you may find it easier to go back to your other story. If not…
  • Take a break. This can be used in conjunction with the previous point (by writing something new and then leaving your writing session on that positive note), or alone. It may be that you’ve just been staring at the words too long, overtaxing your brain. So step away from your pens and your keyboard for a while. It’s up to you whether you use that break time to think about developments in your story and do a little planning on the fly, or whether you ignore your writing altogether and have a water balloon fight with the nearest irresponsible adult. The key is to walk away and, at some point, you’ll probably feel that itch to write. That’s when you’re ready to come back. When you do, reread no more than the last few paragraphs and maybe take a glance at any notes you have… then just write. You can fix any problems with it later.
  • “Wing it. Write a plot with holes and fix it later. You’ve got a plot then, and I don’t know anyone who finds it easier to knit a pair of tights than to darn one with a few holes in them.” ~cartinellie on Tumblr.
    Ignoring the fact that I can neither knit nor darn, this is a good way to remember that things can be fixed. You don’t have to come out with your perfect masterpiece straight away. Even if you have no idea how you’re getting your plot from A to C, you can always write with a gaping plot hole and knit it together once you have a clearer idea of your ending. The same goes for continuity areas, naff dialogue, or anything else you feel is wrong with your work. Power through and get it finished; worry about making it good later.
  • If you’re really not getting along with the plot of your story, or if you’re worried about flat, 2D characters, pull one of your characters – whether main or secondary – aside for a quick chat and a thorough investigation (don’t worry, it won’t hurt them too much). Grill this character, or just let them talk about themselves in your mind, whatever works for you. Find out all the silly little things about them that will probably never come up in your story.
    Did they have a pet growing up? Are they a cat person or a dog person? How tall are they, exactly? What are their fears? Do they like children? What was their first job? What do they picture themselves doing ten years from now? Do they play a musical instrument? What’s their weirdest hobby or talent? What did they name their first cuddly toy, and do they still sleep with one now?  What’s their favourite colour, and why – what does it remind them of? What’s their fondest memory? None of these things might come up in your writing, but they’ll help you round out the character, and they might even spark future plot ideas. And, of course, you can add any of your own questions – plot-relevant or not – as you go.

Those are the main ones I can think of right now, but I just want to end by reminding all of you who write that you’re doing something magical. You’re creating, just as surely as the people who paint and the people who sculpt and the people who build houses or cook. You create whole worlds, whole people with whole lives. Nobody could do that perfectly from the word go, and even experienced authors will still make mistakes or write passages they just hate. The key is not to give up. You are more amazing than you think you are!

Thanks to guevaragem for the excellent question! Now, because I’m boring and predictable, my word counts for today (I finished the first draft of that Caladria story and got a fair bit done on the Bowler Hat novel)…

Total written today: 1816 words.

May total so far: 5590 words.

2015 total so far: 85124 words.

Talk to you tomorrow (and if any of you have any more questions, I’m happy to answer as best I can)!

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