Is it neurotic if I’m partly right?

I’ve been worrying about my writing not being good enough.

On the one hand, there’s physical proof backing me up on this: I don’t have books on the shelves in a bookstore yet. Not there = not good enough yet. On the other hand, I just started submitting novels this year, so even if I had written a book good enough to win the Pulitzer, Hugo, and Nebula (I haven’t), it still wouldn’t be on the shelves yet. So we’ll discount that and just get back to my worrying.

Specific worry #1: People in my novels are always meeting for coffee, sipping tea, grabbing a bite to eat. Yes, normal people eat and drink, but the generally accepted view is that these scenes do not move a novel. In the Harry Potter books, for example, whenever there was eating, something else was going on — Harry was getting blamed for a floating pudding, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts Teacher was being announced, howlers were being sent to students — tension mounted, the plot moved, characters reacted. If, on the other hand, I have my main character and her best friend sitting down to Saturday brunch and talking about their upcoming college reunion, it doesn’t matter how much subtext I’ve layered in that will come to fruition at the climax of the book because no one’s going to read that far.

Response: I have a friend reading the first few chapters to tell me if my urban fantasy is as bad in this regard as I fear. The current plan is to continue the edit pass I’m working through to make sure I’ve added in all the world-building and scene-setting that I left out in my first pass. Then, I need to go back through it again and add more action and tension, deleting (or revising) the ho-hum scenes so that readers will want to keep reading. I even have one idea for something to add. Yes, this means it will take longer to reach a final draft — probably until next year sometime. It’s worth it, if it’s jaw-droppingly good when it lands on an editor’s desk.

Specific worry #2: I’m concerned that my characters, though believable, are not compelling. This worry started when I asked a question on the NaNoWriMo forums (which of your characters would you like to spend a day with?) and realized that most of my characters have rather prosaic lives, interrupted by action or murders to solve. Most of the time, hanging out with them wouldn’t be any different from hanging out with my other friends.

Response: Actually, I’ve been told before that characterization is one of my strong suits. One of my beta readers once applauded a couple of my larger-than-life characters. It’s possible that the only reason I think my characters aren’t compelling is because I live with them in my head. It’s like thinking about somebody dating your brother — what could anyone see in him? (Yes, I’ve asked that of women my brothers have dated. What else are sisters for?) This one may actually be a neurotic worry — I have to worry about something, and this looks like a good choice!

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  1. I’m with you completely on this. I worry that my characters are boring and that there’s not enough tension in my novels. And my other worry is that when I do create tension I make it melodramatic and out of place.

    Practice, practice, practice. At least it’s something we think about and therefore can work on! 😉

    • I think it was last year at Boskone I heard someone say there’s no such thing as melodrama in fiction. It doesn’t matter how over-the-top you think you are, readers are going to accept it. I wish I could say that’s freed me to go wild in my fiction, to allow myself to be outrageous. At least it’s told me that the possibility is there.

      You’re totally right — if we’ve identified it as a place to focus, we can improve.

  2. Heh. Yeah, I think there’s a great deal of truth about your observation about familiarity. I feel like that about my brother’s wife. “She’s such a nice person. Why is she with him???? She could do so much better!” This though they’re deeply in love and clearly perfect for each other.

    I also feel like that about Joey. People seem to find him pretty interesting, and I’m like, “Really? He’s not just another twentysomething brat?”

  3. I think all of us unpublished writers – at least, the ones aware of how stiff the competition is – worry that our writing is “not quite there yet”. Beta readers help, but how can we have a truly objective view of the standard of our work until someone has paid good money for it?

    And as with much writing advice, it’s intended to steer beginners away from the trickier bits of the craft rather than being a blanket rule. E.g. Holly Lisle has a bugbear about not basing scenes around a character learning a skill, but IMHO provided it’s done well (and preferably has a secondary purpose such as character development) it’s a perfectly valid option. I think the same applies to your “talking scenes” – they can be done badly but that’s not a reason to avoid them altogether.

    I think all you can do is get some good beta readers to help you iron out the worst bumps, and then send it out there. If it doesn’t sell then yeah, maybe you do need to fix it…

    • I think the “talking scenes” wouldn’t bother me in my work so much if a) they weren’t such a high proportion of what’s going on, and b) if other things were happening that the reader understood at the time, rather than just in retrospect. At least it’s giving me a goal as I plan NaNo this year — no scenes with coffee and tea being the focus unless someone keels over from poison.

  4. Umm, I am a published novelist and I still think I suck. I think my publisher had a lapse in judgement for contracting them, and when strangers give me glowing reviews – somewhere in the back of my head I think, “Yeah, (s)he’s just saying that to be polite.” Or I start questioning the sanity and taste of my readers. Especially the people who pick up the first in the series and then actually buy the second. So I hate to say it, but I don’t know if it gets better unless you suddenly develop a huge ego or something. LOL! Of course I don’t have a publishing contract with one of the big publishers either, so maybe that’s my problem. 🙂

    • Wait — this feeling never goes away? Oh, noes! Actually, I think I knew that, given the responses I had on my post on Impostor Syndrome over on LJ. Alma Alexander (The Secrets of Jin-Shei, the Worldweavers series, The Hidden Queen) said she still feels like a fraud. In the end, I used that as encouragement to launch this site — if I’m never going to feel good enough, even after publishing, I might as well go ahead and give it my all anyway.

      Which is where those specific points came in, or at least the first one. That’s an area I need to focus on so I can be certain I am giving it my all. I need to make sure there’s a reason for the scene besides setting up something to happen later. If my characters are strong, great — but I can still make them stronger — however, the scenes have to be worth reading. Improve both strengths and weaknesses . . . and maybe don’t worry about whether I’m good enough.

      Thanks for commenting!

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