Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Insecure Writer And Not Knowing How To Tell A Story



Today is June's contribution to Alex Cavanaugh's Insecure Writers Support Group.


Update: Last month I was feeling a bit insecure because I wasn’t feeling insecure enough. That’s no longer a problem. I now have a new insecurity, which means I’m a real writer again. Yay! 

So why am I an Insecure Writer this month? 

Because I worry that I’m not a good enough storyteller.

I’ve never considered myself a good writer. I write well enough to publish research papers, but fiction is another animal entirely. Research reports can be, and are often expected to be, rather dry affairs. Nothing but the facts, ma’am, laid down in the proper format. Fiction is different. The choice of words, the subtle use of emotion, the voice; all these things go into the making of a good story, and I’m just not as competent in those areas as other writers I know. I’m not being humble or pessimistic here. It’s a simple fact, and I’ve come to accept it.

Despite this, I always figured if I had a good enough tale to tell, readers might accept my less than stellar writing. But lately I’ve been wondering: what if I really don’t know how to tell a good tale? What if I don’t have the knack for organizing it in order to maximize the tension? What if the parts of the story I find boring (and thus ignore) are the very parts everyone else wants to know? What if I don’t know what I don’t know about storytelling? Hmmm...

Some people know how to tell a story. Others don’t. Am I the former or the latter? Trouble is, I won’t know the answer until my book is finished.

47 comments:

  1. I have no idea, but sometimes it's just a matter of finding the right tool or training to tweak your talent. Blake's Save The Cat beat sheet did that for me. I think I was a natural plotter to begin with, but his outline supercharged it.

    Jami Gold has a whole page dedicated to these type of worksheets for writers. If you haven't tried one, you should check it out. :)

    IWSG #215 until Alex culls the list again.

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    1. I think I'm pretty good at plotting. I use beat sheets all the time. It's the smaller stuff that has me worried.

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  2. I've done a lot of technical writing and agree fiction is so different. Even though I'm published, I still wonder if I've figured out how to do it.

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    1. You at least know you've done it well enough for your books to be successful. that's saying something.

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  3. I don't know, either! But I know you don't have to resign yourself to being a 'bad' storyteller - you can always, and should, take classes. If you are self-aware enough and willing enough (which you totally are) to identify your weaknesses, then you can target them with specific training, and get better :)

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    1. I'm willing to do whatever it takes to learn. Thanks for stopping by.

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  4. I have the same worry, Ken (and I may steal your topic with credit for a future #IWSG). I've published dozens of non-fic tech ed books, but no fiction. My bent is toward delving into the amazing reality that is life and weaving it into my story. I got great advice from an agent who took me on--eagerly, loved my writing--but later wanted me to make my characters more human. I found that surprisingly difficult.

    That's being a storyteller. Maybe, like you, I worry about that too.

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    1. Yeah, sometimes I wonder if my characters are made out of cardboard. I have to depend upon my CPs to let me know.

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  5. I think all writers have this same worry. My advice is to never say "I can't" and to get the first draft written. You can worry about word choice during revisions.

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    1. I'll keep plugging away as if I know I can do it. I just won't know I'm right or not until the end.

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  6. Oh, man... it takes PRACTICE. I publish scientifically, too and a BUNCH of the rules are opposite. No contractions. Passive voice. Dry facts. I wrote my first 6 novel length works of fiction LONGHAND because it was the only way my writing didn't sound dry and clinical. But blogging helped--a lot--helped me find MY voice (as opposed to fuzzing through character voices and not being as consistent as I'd like). You can totally do it, but be open to the idea it might take a couple attempts. And ALSO accept that the first draft is going to probably suck ANYWAY, so don't stress about it not being done well enough. ALL first drafts suck (well, 99% of them)--Just get the story out first. THEN you can worry about whether you told it well enough.

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    1. It was a major culture shock when I first switched over from technical writing to fiction. I'm still learning, but fiction is definitely more fun.

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  7. Probably the more you do it the easier it will become. Get the first story written and then get lots of feedback from others on what works and what needs work. I would also suggest that when reading other fiction you enjoy try and analyse what you like or what you feel works. Since I have been writing seriously I find I read in a different way and I often learn this way.

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    1. I do try to read other fiction in that way, but sometimes I don't always know what I should be looking for. Thanks for the comment.

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  8. I think we can all be storytellers. We tell stories to people all the time, although finding your own voice and your characters' voices can be difficult. Practice helps. Keep writing!

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    1. Yep, but I want to know if I can do it well sooner rather than later.

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  9. No way to tell other than doing it. And it may take a few more goes after that!

    mood
    Moody Writing

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    1. I'm betting you're right about the "few more goes" part.

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  10. I don't think anyone has the answer to that, not really. I used to ask myself that when a short story got published, but another similar one didn't - what was wrong with the 2nd one, etc? Like others have said, practice, and never believe you know the answer, because then you'll stop trying to improve. Good luck :-)

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    1. I'll never stop trying. I just hope that it's possible for me to get there.

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  11. I feel the same. I think the more I learn of the craft the more intimidating it is, and I worry because I know so many things could go wrong, can be missed, don't fit, or I just don't know. The margin for misstep is quite broad.

    The more I learn the deeper the sea, and the larger the sea monsters. My net is practice, and my spear word craft, and I the captain of my pen. Practice, study, doing, and repeat. I think that is the only way to battle the monster not good enough, or don't know how.

    Maybe the fact we ask ourselves that question means we are learning and improving. I know I am always in awe of a well told story.

    Juneta at Writer's Gambit

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    Juneta at Writer's Gambit

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    1. Every time I learn something new, I'm surprised to find there's still lots more to learn. I don't think it will ever stop.

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  12. Hard to top that as an insecurity. I'd have to ask you what your gut reaction is while you read over your stuff. What's your ear telling you? If you write fiction anything like you write nonfiction, stop worrying. If you have insecurities and obviously you do, then you must be a writer. It's like selling your house. If you don't have a buyer, then are you really a seller? If you can't write, then why do I keep coming back to read what you've written?

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    1. My ear tells me it sounds good, but as far as I know, I'm a tone deaf person trying to judge a good piece of music. I'll find out eventually.

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  13. As some others have said, you won't know until you do it. Just write. This same insecurity chews at me sometimes, but I push onward. It's the only way to beat it.

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    1. Thanks for the words of support. I'll just have to be patient.

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  14. "I now have a new insecurity, which means I’m a real writer again. Yay!"

    That cracked me up! You are not alone in how you feel. I've felt the same way. But you know what changed my mind about that? James Scott Bell's book Plot & Structure. If you haven't read it yet, DO IT! He tells about the Big Lie, that being a good writer and/or good storyteller is something we have to be born with. I'm a doctor giving you a prescription: read that book if you haven't read it yet <3

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    1. Oh I love that book. It's one of the first writing craft books I bought and I find it invaluable. Only time will tell if I understand it as much as I think I do.

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  15. I think everyone is a storyteller. We are just born that way because story is how we communicate with one another. It's how the past communicates with the present and how the present communicates with the future. Even my autistic nephew tells stories in his own way, and his brain is very garbled. We teach with story, we learn from story. If we weren't storytellers by nature, we wouldn't be human.

    Are some humans better at this than others? Why, yes. Same goes for every other skill. Every skill can be learned, honed, refined, defined, and storytelling is no different. If you have the drive to keep learning how to improve, then you always will. Practice makes perfect, my friend. :D

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    1. I just hope I can find a group of readers who enjoy listening to my stories told my way. Thanks for stopping by.

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  16. I already know the answer. You can tell a story. You have the imagination. You can connect the dots to make a good story structure. At first, you needed more focus, to connect the dots with tight enough tension, but now you've got the muscle and/or leverage it takes. I want to read your chapter, but I also want to make it through 12 IWSG posts for once, and I need to do my editing. Your chapter will be my reward for that.

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  17. It's good that you're concerned about story structure. It's one of the hardest things to do well. It's not something taught in school. There are a number of books out that focus on plot and structure. I worry about the same thing.

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    1. Structure I think I have a pretty good handle on. It makes sense in a scientific kind of way. It's the more subtle things I have a problem with. Thanks for the comment.

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  18. I totally get what you mean about the writing not being stellar, because as scientists we've been taught to be as dry and passive in our writing as possible. You have to completely re-learn how to write as an author, and it takes a LOOOOOONG time.

    As for telling a good story, with a good plot and characters and structure, that's also something you can learn. My favorite resource for it is Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. It saved NAMELESS for me :)

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  19. Your insecurities sound fairly common for many writers. I think that's a good sign that you'll turn out something pretty decent because you are aware of potential weakness and care about the final product. Questioning oneself is probably better than just pompously proceeding with overconfidence and not seeing through ones own perceived grandeur.

    Lee
    A Faraway View

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    1. I have so many insecurities, I should be a great writer. :)

      My biggest worry is that I don't know what I don't know.

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  20. It is true, you won't know until the story is finished and in readers' hands. But if you give up then you just prove that you'll never be a good story teller. Keep at it and you'll become better at it.

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    1. Oh I'm not going to give up. I just worry that I may be spending a lot of time doing something that ultimately I'm not very good at. We'll see.

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  21. You'll never be perfect. I'm not perfect. No writer is perfect. Play to your strengths, learn what you're slim on and work to improve it. I would consider emotion my biggest glitch in storytelling. I have to consiously add it in and i fear it's never enough.

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    1. I think I have a problem with emotion too. My CPs seem to ask me what my character is thinking. Obviously not enough internal thoughts. Thanks for stopping by.

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  22. Don't let the what ifs stop you. Like you said, you won't know until you've finished. Of course, the real question is, when is a book finished? Because we're always learning, always improving.

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  23. I haven't done much technical writing (unless you count computer programming), but I'm going to second many of the other comments. Once you give it a try, you'll figure out your strength and weaknesses, and then you can improve on both!

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  24. I write non-fiction and always worry if my storytelling is boring. Beta readers are so good for early feedback:)

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  25. I think that if you are a reader or movie-lover, you probably know how to write a story. I know that may sound simplistic, but if you write something similar to what you enjoy in stories I think it's going to be good. I agree with Doreen about Beta readers and CPs - they can really help. It's scary sending someone your writing, and you can always just send a partial, but it can help.
    Best wishes with your writing!

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  26. "I now have a new insecurity, which means I’m a real writer again. Yay!" I burst out laughing!
    I also wonder if I can actually tell the story properly.
    I have the ideas. Well, some ideas...
    I also worry about structure.

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  27. Hi, Ken,
    Whether you're a great storyteller now or not, I believe it is a skill that can be learned, but it does take time. I note what you said about the boring parts and think it's safe to say that the parts in your writing you find boring, readers will likely find them boring too.

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  28. You seem to be asking the right questions. All of us want to improve something. It could be hair color, weight,or learning a sport. The point is identify what you want to change, then investigate how. With me it was grammar, plotting, then characterization. I could go on. :-)

    Anna from Shout with Emaginette

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