The most solid advice I’ve been able to give on the subject of writing is to keep doing it. That’s annoying advice, because it’s vague and directionless and it doesn’t provide a simple solution (though if you want simple solutions, you should stick to dishwashing or a similar vocation). The fact is that the more you write, the better you become at it. This, of course, comes with the business of putting yourself out there and allowing your ego to be bludgeoned. Because you will be very, very bad for a long, long time, and the only way to get better is to recognize how very bad you are. It takes years of cliched, cringeworthy, half-assed attempts just to create one decent piece of work. Here are a few from my own vault, in chronological order, with commentary [mine] on why they are terrible attempts at writing.
Excerpt from Untitled Fiction Story, ~1997 (Age 11)
“Alex, come to school. Everyone misses you.” Luis said, slightly lying. Everyone really missed Christina, well those people that knew. Brenda and Tina were going to tell the teachers today. “I can’t. I can’t go.” Alex said. He had been crying non-stop and at the moment he was groaning, and whining. “Listen, I miss her too, a lot, and…” Jason started, but he got cut off by Alex and Luis. “Yo man, why do YOU miss Christina so much?” Alex said. Luis continued, “I mean, she was my best friend and Alex’s girlfriend, but you were… so mean to her. What’s the deal, J?” Jason looked at both of his brothers. He didn’t want to tell them the truth, but if he didn’t, they would just make their own assumptions.
This excerpt, taken from a ~40 page handwritten story that I wrote with some friends in sixth grade, is sort of atrocious. To provide some context, the main character, Christina, was stabbed outside of a movie theater (can you tell I grew up in Brooklyn?) Aside from being boring and grammatically horrendous, the characters are all basically the same person and the plot is at once obvious and completely removed from reality. A teenager is murdered and her friends are waiting for the right moment to break the news to her teachers? Oh, okay.
Excerpt from “A Perfect Day,” ~2002 (Age 15)
Todd rested against his locker once he was a safe distance away from Stacy. He pondered the importance of his attendance in his first period class when he saw her. The hallway lightened ten shades, the walls were melting, and the ceiling was dripping but Todd didn’t care. He was drawn to her so naturally, the way a wave is drawn to the shore. She walked towards him with such grace and confidence that Todd felt it must have been a hoax. In his ear she whispered words Todd was sure he wouldn’t hear on this perfect day: “Are you on mushrooms?”
This uh… short story is a prime example of what happens when you replace every word in the sentence with Word’s suggested synonyms. I’m not joking. “Pondered” began as considered or contemplated or maybe even ‘thought about,’ “importance” was “necessity,” or something like that, “hoax” was once “prank” or maybe “dream.” I played with this story for years (it’s about a kid who takes mushrooms before going to school) and instead of using my brain to edit it, I just kept swapping out words with an electronic thesaurus until the story made no goddamn sense. Do not do this. Also of note: “the way a wave is drawn to the shore” is a terrible sentence. If you’ve heard it somewhere before, do not write it. I think idioms probably exist to make your writing 43% worse than it was to begin with.
“A Smile” ~2004 (Age 17?)
It’s a game she didn’t want to play
his hands are cold but they melt her concerns away
she wants to call it off but his smile makes her go
and what she really feels, she’s too afraid to show
she’s heading for destruction, he’s heading for explosion
she has to break away from his grip and from his motions
he thinks that she’s easy, she thinks that she’s weak
she opens her mouth but can’t find the words to speak
he uses her up, worse and worse each time
she can’t say no and it drives her out of her mind
she needs a sign; she needs to hear “I love you”
he has no idea what he makes her go through
her nails rip the sheets right off of the bed
but she wants to tear the hair out of her head
she looks up at him and sees that smile
that used to drive her wild but now drowns her in denial
she doesn’t know where these changes come from
he says “you’re the one” but she could’ve been anyone
and it wouldn’t even matter, as long as he’s finished
leaving her hopes for them to be together broken and diminished
she fights back the tears as he hands her her shirt
he’s satisfied, she feels lower than dirt
the ride home is silent as it usually is
she tells herself it’s right no matter how wrong it is
he reaches over and kisses her one last time
it takes all of her to say, “we should talk sometime”
“what’s wrong?” he asks, insincere but kind
and she chokes on her thoughts and shrugs, “nevermind.”
she looks at the face she won’t see for a while
goes up to her room and cries through a smile.
Any poem directly influenced by “Sic Gloria Transit… Glory Fades” by Brand New is bound to be awful. I wrote a lot of poetry in my teens, most of it unforgivable, but “A Smile” is among the worst. There’s just a whole lot of cliche going on in those couplets. The poem describes something I’d experienced first-hand, so naturally I wrote a bunch of rhymes completely removed from anything resembling real human emotion. “She feels lower than dirt”? That’s a thing that people feel or say NEVER, unless they’re making fun of things like this poem. My thoughts here are that I attempted (or mindlessly) took a personal experience and tailored it to be so very impersonal that it could’ve been penned by a baseball mitt. Bad writing.
Excerpt from “Amelia and Rex,” ~2008 (Age 21)
From then on, Amelia and Rex spent every day of their trip together, exploring every inch of Spain. They even ran with the bulls, though they nearly got trampled when Amelia’s shoe fell off. They skipped classes to go dancing in the afternoon, or to sit by the water, or to sit in the back pews of a wedding or funeral service and soon, the faces of their classmates that were sprinkled in their photographs from the first weeks of the trip faded out one by one from their pictures until there were only entire rolls of Amelia and Rex left in black film tubes.
I would like to confirm that eventually, yes — I did come to realize I am terrible at writing fiction. It hurts me to read now, but I was both emotionally invested and devoted to this story for longer than I care to admit. It’s ~6,000 words long and I had every intention of completing it, but my computer crashed and I lost what I thought was a genius edit. It was a loss that left me too depressed to continue on. (I nearly lost my goddamn mind when that happened, now I like to think it was an act of god.)
As for why this particular excerpt sucks, I use the word “every” twice in the first sentence. I also used “sit” twice in the third. This was not intentional. The structure here is amateurish and clunky: “…the faces of their classmates that were sprinkled in their photographs from the first weeks of the trip faded out one by one from their pictures…” If I hadn’t been responsible for that atrocity, I’d tell whoever wrote it, “No, child. Erase whatever the hell that is and this time, try writing an actual sentence.” To its credit, the roots of my voice can be found in “Amelia and Rex.” “They skipped classes to go dancing in the afternoon, or to sit by the water, or to sit in the back pews of a wedding or funeral service and…” was familiar to me when I reread it, because I still list things this way, five years later (the editor in me wants to scrub the life out of that sentence).
I checked the now-shuttered blog I kept from 2009-2011 to poach more examples of how I’ve abused the written word, but it turns out my greatest foul during that period was gratuitous cursing and employing an excess of snark that makes me want to go back in time and shove nine Valium down my 22-year-old throat. Thing is, the writing wasn’t so bad. And the writing wasn’t so bad because people were finally reading it, and calling me out, and telling me that it’s not “for all intensive purposes but for all intents and purposes, dumb ass.” (Yes, that is an actual thing I got called out for, it was embarrassing, and I’d rather not talk about it.)
The reason writers are reluctant to give specific advice is because there isn’t one magic cure-all; there’s no line that separates writers from typers. Writing is just a process, one that you repeat again and again until it becomes natural or until you die, whichever comes first.