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Unwelcome visitor

Recently my old acquaintance Tenebra came to visit. I came across her sitting by the fish pond.

“How come you always show up when I’m three-quarters done with a first draft?”

“It’s the perfect time to visit you,” she said. “If you listen to me, not only will you stop writing this book, but you’ll have wasted the time you already put in on research, plotting and writing.”

“That doesn’t make me more inclined to listen to you.”

“No? Then why are you sitting by this pool, chatting, instead of going indoors and writing?”

“Ohhhh… I don’t kid myself that everything I write is perfect. Maybe I ought to listen to you. You might point out how I can improve the book.”

“Frankly,” Tenebra said, “it’s too late for that. The whole concept behind this book is weak and wildly implausible.”

“Other people have based stories on a similar concept without being laughed out of literate society.”

“Yes, that’s another thing. It’s terribly overdone. But then, you never do come up with original ideas, do you? If you didn’t have better writers to imitate, you wouldn’t be able to write anything at all. Why are you spending your life writing bad stories that nobody will read? You should drop this writing nonsense and do something you’re more suited for. Maybe you could get a job at the post office.”

“Thanks for the advice! But I think I’ll keep writing.”

“Well…” She shrugged. “It’s your life. I’m just trying to help you out of the hole you’ve dug for yourself. How many novels have you written now?”

“Counting the bodice-rippers under pseudonyms? About thirty-five, I think.”

“And you still haven’t learned how to construct and tell a story! Isn’t it time to give up?”

She was getting me down. “Maybe…”

“Take your current book, for example. The clichéd and unbelievable concept is only the beginning of what’s wrong with it. The characters are not even cardboard, they’re construction paper. They all talk alike. Your protagonist is a typical Mary Sue. The prose is awkward—”

“Oh, no, it isn’t!” I’ll swallow a lot of insults, but with this one she’d strayed into territory where I felt completely confident.

“Okay, I’ll concede that you can write reasonable sentences. But that’s not worth much, is it? Look at all the writers out there who are getting 5-star reviews for books full of clunky prose. The only thing you’re actually good at is something nobody cares about any more. Also, you use too many obscure words.”

“I’m writing for literate people, Tenebra!”

“Who will never even find your work among the flood of indie publications on Amazon.”

“See you later, Tenebra.” I stood up. It had been a mistake to listen to her; she has never had anything helpful to say.

“Wait! Where are you going?”

“Indoors. To finish this book.”

“It’s a waste of your time! It’ll be terrible! Just read over that last chapter you wrote before I came to save you from yourself. Do you honestly feel that it’s any good?”

“No, but I never do like my work when you’re reading over my shoulder. I’m just going to finish this book anyway, and then I’ll decide what I think of it.”

“Aaaaaah! It burns! The one thing I can’t stand is a determined writer!” Tenebra slipped into the fish pond and dissolved into a cloud of algae.

With any luck, she won’t be back until I’m three-quarters of the way through the next book.

  1. c4c

    March 22, 2018
  2. Stephen J. #

    “Also, you use too many obscure words.”

    “I’m writing for literate people, Tenebra!”

    You should have said, “I’m writing for literate people, Tenebra,” I said epexegetically.

    March 22, 2018
    • mrsizer #

      And just when I thought I was old enough to stop looking up words. Sigh.

      March 23, 2018
  3. Stephen J. #

    Though it’s a depressing thought to consider that one’s self-doubt still pops up for visits after thirty-five books. I had clung to some faint naive hope that after the first novel or two it might, like the eldritch unnameable thing in the Burnistoun basement, have been permanently punted.

    March 22, 2018
    • Margaret Ball #

      Some of us have an exceptional talent for self-doubt! You may not be as good at it as I am.

      March 22, 2018
    • Draven #

      of course it does… or, it just looms in the background and sigh dejectedly, like mine does

      March 22, 2018
    • BobtheRegisterredFool #

      That recent column of Cedar’s about the company you keep.

      To some extent we can choose or shape our emotions, but to some extent they are shaped by habits formed from prior emotional experience.

      We can learn bravery or to overcome fears by being brave and overcoming fears. Sometimes that is very difficult.

      Now I am doing a nonfiction project that is beyond my experience, that a year ago I would tell you I wouldn’t attempt. Maybe it will be worthwhile for its own sake, maybe it it will help my fiction writing.

      I’m having a lot of trouble with the project, and have had many struggles over the past year. And much growth. My muse Cassandra has been lately appearing as a black dog to urge me. I know my next tasks, tomorrow’s tasks, and I’m eager. If I get nothing more done today, I will get sleep and prepare for tomorrow.

      Courage. I will learn from my mistakes, and improve. Perspective. I do not yet /know/ the quality of what I will produce. Persistence. Defeating my internal obstacles even a little today will help me struggle tomorrow.

      March 22, 2018
  4. Oh yes. “No one wants to read a fantasy based on medieval trade.” “You write so cross-genre that it’s unmarketable.” “You can’t have characters use such formal language. No one will get past the first page.”

    March 22, 2018
    • Re: #1, the obvious counterexample is the manga/anime Spice and Wolf. So successful that the author is now funding a Japanese medievalist academic journal named Spicilegium.

      March 23, 2018
  5. TRX #

    > too many obscure words

    That never bothered me; if the meaning wasn’t apparent from context I’d just keep going until I could figure it out in retrospect.

    I’ve been reading some of the pre-WWII sword-and-sorcery fantasy magazines on The vocabulary… some of the words have fallen out of common usage, others are obscure enough I’ve had to rely on inference, being too lazy to go online and look them up while in the middle of a story…

    We’re not talking “literature” here; this was lowbrow pulp fiction that educated readers would sneer at.

    March 22, 2018
    • Stephen J. #

      That actually doesn’t surprise me. Bear in mind that one of the most significant, if not *the* most significant, influences on American literary fiction was Hemingway’s deliberate minimalist prose. Having checked out some quotes from Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath just for comparison, I didn’t see anything there that would have been outside a high school reading level, either (at least, what would have been expected when *I* was in high school).

      One of the core characteristics of pulp is delight in the extraordinary for its own sake, both in prose and in subject matter; it’s the “literary realism” of the 20th century which insists that you can only use ordinary components in the effort to produce extraordinary art, that somehow it’s “cheating” to start with words, ideas, or images that are extraordinary in their own right.

      March 22, 2018
    • Dorothy Grant #

      Jack Vance? His vocabulary humbles me!

      March 22, 2018
  6. Christopher M. Chupik #


    In other words, hello Darkness my old friend? 😉

    March 22, 2018
  7. This self doubt happens to me periodically. But luckily it is easily remedied, mainly because I write humor/adventure.

    Basically I have self doubt, I think everything I’ve done lately has sucked and I don’t know why I suck so bad, everything is clunky, I’m stupid, the book is stupid, the comic is stupid. It all sucks.

    Then I read over either the last month or so of my comic, or the last twenty or so pages of the book I’m working on and I’m no longer the creator; I’m the audience. Now, one of my advantages might be the way I write in that I try to create the humor in the moment of finalizing the work. Essentially improvisation even though I worked hard to get the initial structure/set-up correct. Which means I don’t always remember what I wrote or the jokes I told and thus can read it without foreknowledge and be surprised by the joke. And since laughter often comes from surprise I laugh. And because I laugh fairly frequently I know the humor came through. And since the purpose of most of my stuff is to get laughs I know it’s succeeded. At least for someone with a sense of humor like mine.

    The thing is jokes are obvious, no matter how clever and obscure the words are, the joke is obvious because it has to elicit a specific reaction; laughter. Someone wanted to cut a line from a play I wrote and I said no, because it got a huge laugh at a time in the play we needed a laugh, but then she asked a telling question; “Why is it funny?” and I answered without pause with a bald truth; “Because people laughed.” Now, I could have gone through the wording and the timing and the setup and the delivery and all that stuff so as to explain why it was funny but in the end the proof the question was unnecessary was in the laughter. Why is it funny? Because it is.

    The question then becomes how do you know a scene/book/play/comic/whatever is working? And I think the same answer applies as with humor but in a different way because you have to ask a deeper question. The purpose of a joke? Laughter. Simple. The purpose of your scene? That’s different because I’m not sure authors think about that on the surface level. Do you want the audience to be scared? Adrenalized? Shocked? In love? Horny? Whichever one of those feelings you’re aiming at is the purpose of the scene you’re working on (hopefully a book will have multiple things at different points but generally speaking whipsawing between wildly different objectives in a single scene can irritate readers unless you as the writer can synthesize two disparate emotions and make them both your objective) and when you read it try to put yourself in the head of the reader and feel those emotions. Adrenaline? Are you excited. Pulse-pounding. Horny? Are you… um, not gonna go there. Should be pretty obvious for either gender.

    Find the purpose in the scene, read as if you’re the reader, see if you experience the feeling you want the reader to experience.

    When I do this my self doubts melt away and my creativity can flow again. Even if I’ve failed to deliver the feeling I was clearly aiming at. Framing the question helps me identify the problem and spurs my mind to come up with a solution which excites my creative juices once more.

    Not saying anyone has to do the same thing, just sharing what I’ve found that helps me.


    March 22, 2018
  8. Next time just boot her into the fish pond at the first criticism!

    March 22, 2018
    • API Pondcare Algaefix. $18.63 at chewy dot com.

      I believe in permanent solutions – even for imaginary annoyances that insist on becoming manifest.

      March 22, 2018
  9. PM #

    oglaf (most emphatically NOT suitable for work or minors) had something to say about this: Follow the link at your own risk.

    March 23, 2018
    • Margaret Ball #

      Snarf! I particularly like the dedication page.

      March 23, 2018
  10. You have a Muse of Darkness?

    March 28, 2018

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