Thursday, September 1, 2011

You know what's wrong with your story.

Let me change that to, You probably know what's wrong with your story.

I hate to make generalizations, but I've never met one person who was in therapy and didn't know why they were in therapy. Sure, there are plenty of us who don't know how to get out of therapy, how to "cure" ourselves, but we sure know there's something wrong in our lives, and we have more than an inkling about what that something is.

Writing is like that. Just as therapy junkies can talk to psychologists using their own lingo, a writer who's been around the writerly blogosphere a few times can usually spot the main problem with her own work, and often give it a name: pacing, dialogue, detail, realism, characterization, story arc.

When I worked with "troubled teens" in a wilderness therapy program in southern Utah, one of my more experienced co-workers said to me, "Physician, heal thyself." See, when you live in the woods for a week or two at a time, Nature has a way of kicking you in the butt and bringing things to the surface you thought you'd already dealt with. That's why it's so effective as therapy. Add to the mix 6-8 teens with their own inner demons and you wind up with a whole lot of bumbling, blistering self-healing going on. Yeah, the kids had real therapists to hash out their issues, but most of the real work happened between therapist visits, during the long, hot hikes wearing a heavy pack, digging in almost frozen ground so we could have a fire and a latrine, or dealing with in-fighting among the group. It was easy for me to see their issues (just like with your critique partners and their writing). In the wilderness, you wear your heart on your sleeve.

It was harder for me to see and deal with my own.

You can only depend on an outside observer to a limited extent. Real therapy happens inside you. And that's how writing is, too. Your critique partners can't write your book for you. They can point out where you seem to be struggling, like good friends do. But they can't go to therapy for you.

The good news is the title of this blog post: You know what's wrong with your story.

Just like you know your Aunt Bertha's mustache is the reason you avoid dating mustached men. You read healthy, published books and you see where your own work falls a little short. The key is noticing that feeling, embracing it, and remembering it. Because as soon as you realize you fall short somewhere, the human tendency is to forget. It protects us to live in denial. But it doesn't make us better people, and it's never made me a better writer.

So my goal in the future as I'm reading healthy books is to recognize that feeling when I see something that just works, and to write down the thing I struggle with before my protective self tries to hide it from me.

I can read a thousand Harry-Potter-quality novels, but I'll never get any better until I own what's holding me back from writing one. Writing therapy is hard, messy work. It's like climbing a mountain to cut words from your manuscript or rearrange scenes and then (my least favorite part) try to make them all flow together again with segues that don't read like segues.

One day out in the woods, my group had to get to a zone for food drop (a once a week rationing thing) and there was a massive, steep hill standing in our way. It was a quarter mile of straight uphill! Without packs, it would have been formidable, but with our "baggage" it was even harder. When we got to the top, we took pictures. They were the most genuine smiles I saw out there in the entire year I worked there, counting Christmastime! And when we parked ourselves at the bottom, made camp, and started our fireside chat, the personal epiphanies poured out.

The hill had changed us all.

The moral of the story? Take your pick:

1) Hard things are worth it in the end
2) You can do amazing things you might think are impossible
3) The mountain is your friend

So, my fellow writing therapy junkies... Physician, heal thyself. Climb that mountain. Do the hard thing you're afraid of.

p.s. If you don't know what's wrong with your story, keep reading and submitting your work to critique partners. If you do know what's wrong, you can join me in my quest to work through my writing issues, one at a time. I think this is going to be a hell of a long hike.

P.S. Kristine Asselin has written a glowing Afterglow Review on Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes. If you're like me and always looking for great middle grade find, check it out!

P.P.S. EPIC 500 FOLLOWERS APPRECIATION CONTEST at OPERATION AWESOME! Going on all week. Don't miss these prize packs, including books, swag, critiques, and a beautiful piece of jewelry.


  1. What a great post. Very true and now I'm feeling sheepish. I do know.

  2. Thanks, Kelly! And don't feel sheepish. I know, too. It's the hard work part that holds me back. LOL. We'll get there! I'm lucky in my CP's. :)

  3. SO TRUE. This was definitely something I needed to read today. I'm at a point in my writing where I'm trying to take a good, hard look at my own issues, too.

  4. Great piece! Don't we wish others could make it all better sometimes? But you're right . . . it comes down to hard work. And that feeling you get at the end makes it all worth it!

  5. Great post! I think I'm going to take a whole novel course because I've had so many critiques from editors and agents on the first 10 pages of my novels, I feel like I know how to start a story pretty well. Now I need to know how to fix the rest of it. I have a critique group, and they help a lot, but now I think I'm ready for professional help in order to bring my writing up to a new level.

    P.S. I've been out of the blogosphere for the summer and I think you made some changes to your blog. I like the look. Very sharp!


  6. Love everything about this post. Well said, the whole of it.

  7. I agree! I've got a novel on the shelf right now. I wrote it with a huge plot problem, figuring it wouldn't be a big deal, even though I should have known better. Which is why it's now sitting on the shelf :)

  8. I was finally able to figure out my issues with my WIP. The mountain is my bitch! Lol!

  9. @Becky, Good luck! I know you're doing a major overhaul and can't wait to see your story on the other side of the hill!

    @Janet, Yes! I wish all the time somebody else could just revise my story for me! But I do feel so accomplished when I do it myself.

    @Christy Evers, That is an awesome idea! I hope you take copious notes on your class and blog it! I wonder sometimes if paying a little money for a professional to look at my work wouldn't make a big difference. (and thanks for the blog compliment!)

    @The East Coaster, Thank you!!

    @Jemi Fraser, I do that all the time! You're totally right, we should know better. *shakes head at self* It's buckle-down time for me. I've got two MSs to revise now. And I won't let myself start another until these have been polished and queried.

    @The Las Vegas Writer, LOL!! LOVE your attitude!

    Thanks for the comments, guys! Happy Labor Day weekend. See you on the flip side.

  10. This is so great! It's so true, the hard work is so worth it and it feels great at the end, whereas ignoring or avoiding it doesn't. Thanks for this post. :)


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