Writers, You Are Not Your Bad Novels

“How old were you when you wrote your first bad novel?”

I had this question lobbed at me during a job interview. No one had ever asked me this question, much less at an interview.

I didn’t have to think on it. My first legit completed novel was a V.C. Andrews and Stephen King amalgam of sordid family secrets, dead relatives, adoption, young love, and murder. My heroine was a burgeoning Nancy Drew forced to live under the same roof as her parents’ murderer. It was wonderful and absolutely terrible.

“Fourteen,” I answered.

“Good.” My previous boss nodded, clearly pleased. (I got the job. Not because I wrote a bad novel in high school.)

He went on to say that a lot of writers he knew had that experimental phase young, this period where we’re flexing our writing muscles to see what works, develop our own style, discover preferences, and become better with time and experience and skill. Perhaps it meant that I purged all the bad writing out of my system before I got my driver’s license, although I suspect he meant that an early start gives you more time to make mistakes and grow from them.

But what if it feels like you’ve never left that phase? Or that it came too late? That for every stunningly beautiful paragraph you craft, there are pages of uninspired, listless writing you wouldn’t foist on your worst enemy? There is no shining city of better writing on the hill for you; just some mediocre mounds of dead grass and a ghost town, because somebody already beat you to it, did it better, and left nothing behind but scraps. Your ideas are not new, they have already been executed better, and your writing isn’t fit for human consumption.

In the Forests of the Night cover 177x300 - Writers, You Are Not Your Bad Novels
Back when YA was still shelved in the children’s section of B&N.

I mentally stayed in the “bad novel” phase for ten years. And it began when I found out a teenager my age had become a published author.

My little writing heart sank down to my feet when I discovered Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, writing the kind of fiction I wanted to write. Instead of letting it bolster me, challenge me to keep writing and improving and practicing, I let it deflate me. Like she had beat me to it, so there was no point in even trying, and if I couldn’t be a published teen author, then there was no point at all.

What total garbage.

Teenage me was also a quivering ball of anxiety, so there was that, but the point is this: Everyone develops as a writer and as a human being at their own pace. If your “bad novel” happened three years ago instead of fifteen, that does not mean you have fifty hills to climb until you produce something worth reading, so why even bother. Our writing styles and capabilities are affected by what we read, what we experience, and our mindset. I convinced myself that, because I wasn’t published, I was a sham of a writer and none of what I produced should see the light of day. I convinced myself that because other authors wrote similar stories to the ones I wanted to tell, there was no point in trying to put my own spin on something.

Take it from Mark Twain: There are no original ideas. Only original retellings through the kaleidoscope of your mind.

There is no set “age” where all your poor writing habits and occasional steaming pile of garbage pages of script should be a thing of the past (don’t be so hard on them, they’re trying). Bad writing days, whole chunks of uninspired messes, will continue to happen, and that does not mean you’re a poor writer. You’re a writer who was exhausted, blocked, hadn’t read anything inspiring in weeks, had kids and work and obligations distracting you. And then, naturally, one of your favorite authors publishes the thirteenth book in her series, and she has six kids and a farm and does book tours, so what’s your excuse?

Cut that out. The competition game with other published writers, and where you are in life and where they are—don’t play that game. Your trajectory as a writer is not hers, is not his, is not theirs. It is yours. And as long as you are writing, and honing, and trying to have more shining city on the hill days than dead mounds of grass days, than you are a writer, published or not. If you have a will to improve, to seek out and learn from feedback, to adapt and not stagnate, and it brings you joy, then you have some pretty hefty tools in your toolbox. And if writing is your prime directive in life, you must create the thing and put it into words and not just think about it, worrying whether you’re still not good enough or someone else did it better.

Someone else already has.

But they didn’t tell it your way.

Leave a Reply