Don’t Do Stupid Sh*t

In many of my writing journals, I have the sentence “Don’t do stupid sh*t” written above my notes for WIPs.

It’s admittedly self-deprecating, but I often mean it with humor. The thing is, even when you’ve been writing for years, it’s still tempting to take shortcuts or ignore the rules, thinking you can Make It Work through craft magic.

Well, sometimes you can. And sometimes you’ve just tricked yourself into thinking you can.

Here’s a list of stupid mistakes I periodically remind myself not to make:

(1) not cutting when I suspect some scene is too long;

(2) creating selfish, unreflective protagonists who don’t really grow (outside of comedies);

(3) not reworking a piece that I suspect is really two separate stories.

Unfortunately, I still share my work when I know parts of it need to be tightened. And then, lo and behold, I’m told it’s too long, or drags here, or — who knows — maybe I’m getting rejected by a literary manager because there’s slackness in scenes that I hoped they’d love anyway.

When you’re submitting to theatre workshops, it’s damnably hard to know how finished the piece ought to be. They want you to come in and work on the piece, yet you need to show them a piece that’s already well shaped. (!) When in doubt, cut. Cut if you feel your work-in-progress should be cut. Don’t wait for someone else to tell you it should be cut. That’s a rookie mistake.

On selfish, unreflective protagonists who don’t really grow…

Yes, there are many beloved examples of these in literature, especially when humor gets involved. But if you, as the writer, while you’re still writing your rough draft, sense that your audience may be put off by your MC, that they may not want to eagerly follow them because they’re shallow or wracked by hate or remorseless about doing harm… Well, do something about that preemptively. It’s not that every main character should be likeable or sympathetic. I don’t think that’s the case. It’s obviously not the case. But you do want your audience to eagerly follow the character. And there are lots of ways to make characters engaging, if not exactly sympathetic. In general, I’d say sympathy derives from narrative intimacy, self-awareness, humor, weakness, vulnerability, failing, “saving the cat” (which can be heroism large or small, i.e. protecting those weaker than them). Garnering sympathy is also about giving MCs traits and goals we admire, and endorsements from their friends. You make a character engaging in the same way, but also by adding surprise (in their reactions), adding secrets, and contradictions. A character can be engaging through novelty and unpredictability. A devout Christian who won’t set foot in a church. A drag queen who goes to church every Sunday, and whom no one suspects is a drag queen. A character can be engaging by bucking stereotypes or expectations. Examples: the charming engineer, the shy actor, the feminist against abortion.

On not reworking a piece that I suspect is really two separate stories…

This doesn’t happen all that often. But, of course, I’ve written plays or fiction and have thought, “Hmm. This part of the story would be interesting on its own.” And I’ve had respondents say, “Who is this play really about? This character or that character?”

In one case, thankfully, I went through a couple page-one rewrites and came up with a good play by refocusing on the most interesting character (scrapping everyone else). It was painful but worth it. A few times my WIPs have stalled out, because starting over and simplifying seemed too hard.

It is possible to know if you’ve got two stories in the idea phase. If you’ve got a brew of characters you like and ideas you like, but the whole shebang isn’t gelling — and you can’t see the whole plot at once, however sketch-like you’re seeing it — that’s a clue.

Granted, there’s nothing wrong with complex plots, or ensembles, or stories with B plots. Not everything has to be simple. But if you suspect there’s really two stories in your WIP, and you sometimes feel as if you’re waiting to get back to the other, really interesting plot, then… Maybe you should cut your losses and start over, putting all your energy into the really interesting plot. Don’t try to fool yourself, when you feel that something’s off. If it feels off to you, it’ll probably feel off to someone else. Don’t be tempted into thinking you can smooth it all out with craft magic later. Listen to your gut.

Sure, it’s possible to be wrong about your own work, to be undeservedly self-critical. If you pay attention, though, there’s a tonal difference between the inner critic, bashing anything you do, and your gut (or the craft section of your brain) trying to tell you that something is a little off.

No doubt you can think of your own pitfalls (please do, and email me with them), but these are the ones I’ve been focusing on in my (re)new(ed) quest to stop doing stupid sh*t.


Photo by Alexas Fotos, from Unsplash