About Writers

Your Whole Book Sucks


A couple of years ago, staying with friends on the Scottish border, we took the opportunity to visit Abbotsford, home of Sir Walter Scott. As you can see, it’s a pretty impressive place, but Scott could well afford it – he was the most successful writer of his day, his novels enjoying a popularity unheard of until then. Scott can reasonably be considered as the world’s first literary star, ranked during his lifetime as one the three greatest writers in history alongside Goethe and Shakespeare. And who reads Scott today? No one.

‘Which do you think is best?’ I said to my wife as we left. ‘Success during your lifetime and ignored two centuries later or the opposite?’ Obligingly – but not quite convincingly – she said, ‘I’m sure you’ll have both, my dear. Success in your lifetime and in two hundred years.’ Sweet as this reply was, it did nothing to conceal what we both knew: that it’s far more likely I’ll have neither.

As the example of Scott shows, success is a fickle creature. In some ways, that’s a comforting thought – what does it matter if I’m successful or not, since in any case it’s fleeting and overrated and ultimately unsatisfying? Well, yes, but to someone who’s never had it, that rings hollow, like telling developing countries that material wealth is a goal not worth pursuing. As Tennyson wrote of a different topic entirely, ’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

So lauded was Scott when alive that perhaps he was convinced that he was an excellent writer. But on the whole, successful writers are not exempt from self-doubt:

I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people. John Steinbeck.

The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something, and that any moment now, they will discover you. Neil Gaiman.

I have spent a good many years—too many, I think—being ashamed about what I write. Steven King

I’m very deeply inculcated with a sense of failure. Joyce Carol Oates.

The list could go on. But what to do about it? How do you tackle a problem that never goes away? You could join the Insecure Writers’ Support Group which now has many activities but was first set up to ‘act as a form of therapy, letting writers post about situations where they need encouragement, or to offer words of encouragement to others if they have experience.’

Personally, I haven’t joined. Not that it isn’t a fine initiative but ultimately, the encouragement I must find is within myself, and that can only come by continuing to write. On the face of it, that’s paradoxical because writing is what creates the doubt in the first place, so all that’s needed for the doubt to vanish is to stop. But in that case, of course, the doubt has won. No way am I going to let that happen. By continuing to write, I may be keeping it alive, but I’m also telling it to stay in its proper place – in a little cage in a corner of the room, every so often sneering through the bars, ‘That sentence you’ve just written really sucks. In fact, you know what? Your whole book sucks!’ Whereupon I turn to it and say, ‘Thank you. Because do you know what? If you weren’t there, I wouldn’t even try to make it better.’

Writing is finally about one thing: going into a room alone and doing it. Putting words on paper that have never been there in quite that way before. And although you are physically by yourself, the haunting Demon never leaves you, that Demon being the knowledge of your own terrible limitations, your hopeless inadequacy, the impossibility of ever getting it right. No matter how diamond-bright your ideas are dancing in your brain, on paper they are earthbound. William Goldman.


35 thoughts on “Your Whole Book Sucks

  1. Luckily for me, I’m too old to care. I write mainly to be satisfied with what I write. Rejections are just proof that I actually wrote something. (I framed my first rejection letter, from DAWS, & gleefully hung it above my desk.)

    Liked by 9 people

  2. I agree with GD. I write because I love writing. I can’t control what happens in 200 years. I suspect sci fi will have a shorter shelf life than “great literature.”
    But I enjoy reading my own books. I smile and giggle and sometimes tear up when my heroine is confessing her weaknesses.
    What I need is more readers that agree with me right now.

    Liked by 8 people

  3. themargret says:

    I keep being told that rejections are mostly subjective, and I agree for the most part. What I find most frustrating is when I’m rejected from a market and there’s little evidence that the slushpool readers did anything more than a cursory skim of the story because of whatever bias they hold.

    As a slush reader, I try to hold to a higher standard and actually read everything put before me. Even, especially, if it’s a genre or voice that rubs me the wrong way. I’ve accepted pieces I’ve hated, because frankly they were excellent.

    That being said and my whining complete, I don’t expect anything I write to be around in two-hundred years. If anything is preserved, it will be buried under the copious piles of vampire, mommy-porn and Mary Sue stories out there and go unnoticed. So yeah give me instant gratification.

    Liked by 7 people

  4. Perry Palin says:

    Curtis, love your post.

    Another old man reporting here. I write because I like to do it. I have had modest success as a writer, as have I as a beekeeper, horse trainer, labor negotiator, and trout fisherman. Modest is good enough for me. I have had local small town recognition in each.

    Does my whole book suck? Well, I like it.

    I write for myself. My mantra is the first 600 or so words of a story I wrote fifteen years ago, which I love and which I can recite for calming and centering purposes when I am being stung by bees or pushed around by a horse or lied to by a union business agent. (Actually the business agents don’t lie; they just look at the same world from another angle.)

    Trout fishing doesn’t need a mantra. Trout fishing is calming and centering. I have stopped counting the fish I catch, stopped measuring them for size, and stopped counting the number of days I go out in a year, and I am happier for it.

    I have made some friends from my stories, and the friends are more valuable than the modest money I have been paid for them.

    Two hundred years from now, even much less, the world will be a different place and few would recognize the places and people I write about. My best stories will be forgotten. I am sure of it.

    Liked by 7 people

    • Thanks, Perry. Yes, I’m sure the difference between 2220 and 2020 will be much bigger than between 2020 and 1820. Will there be books to be read? Or even more uncertain, people to read them. In the meantime, let’s cherish whatever satisfaction we can, as you do.

      Liked by 3 people

  5. Terrific post, Curtis. You lay bare the darkest effects of doubt, but you have wisely learned to defy it.

    I believe doubt is part of every creative person’s life, but If we accept doubt’s often cynical, seemingly mean-spirited judgement, it will stop us dead in our tracks. It can be the harshest attack on our desire to produce something we hope at least some other people will appreciate as much as we do — something that might even contain a kernel of importance. Something that might, in our most daring dreams, leave a lasting impact on the world — which most of us seem to agree we would prefer to have happen during our lifetime.

    How do you respond to effusive praise? Sure, its first stroke feels good, maybe even really good, but do you believe it? If you’re looking for beta reader opinions, is it helpful? No. So you stick it in a folder you may occasionally peek into, and cross that name off your beta reader list. That kind of critique won’t make you a better writer.

    So I’ve decided doubt is just an internally-generated, unhelpful opinion. It offers no constructive critique. It won’t make me a better writer. It deserves to be shunted to the same dark corner as hyperbolic praise. But in its own folder with no peeking.

    Liked by 7 people

    • Thanks, Sue. When doubt moves from what we’ve done to our own self-worth as a person, it’s destructive – it’s the sort of doubt that destroyed Sylvia Plath. But I see a doubt that restricts itself to what we’ve written as constructive. Certainly at the level of a sentence, less so when it attacks the whole book – it’s then that I sometimes have to plough on regardless till the doubt retreats muttering to its corner.

      Liked by 3 people

  6. If I just can’t seem to get a story (or novel) right after much trying, I’ve gotten to the place where I say, I’m not ready to write about this, or I’m not ready to write about this idea in this form–and write something else until the time comes when I am ready to write it. I’ve had enough people understand my work and be moved by it that I consider it successful. As for money and fame, surely you jest.

    Liked by 4 people

  7. With new titles, a pair of haiku I wrote a few years ago is pertinent.

            *Writing for the Ages #1*
                    Is failure an option?
                    No, it is a given.
                    But we will still try.

            *Writing for the Ages #2*
                    Seek ends of rainbows.
                    You will not find them? Okay.
                    The quest is enough.

    Liked by 5 people

  8. mimispeike says:

    “. . . the impossibility of ever getting it right.” This sums it up as well as anything I’ve ever heard.

    Everything I’ve written has problems. The bright side of this is, my critics think my stuff has a lot more problems than I do. I dismiss a lot of that. Things others may see as problems, I see as assets.

    I do have a few issues that I can’t figure how to deal with. Differentiation of voices is the biggie. Ya, my people sound alike, because they’re all hustlers, all pretending to be something they’re not, and all frantic to make their lives work out. Just like me. There’s a lot of me in every one of them.

    I don’t doubt my ability. I doubt some of my methods, some of my choices. Doubt is ever with me. But at least I’m in good company.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I understand the differentiation of voices issue. My dialogues get into a groove which I like, so I tend to use the same from one character to the next. It’s generally the last thing I deal with in the final draft. Kind of.

      Liked by 3 people

  9. Peter Thomson says:

    I have a scientist friend who buys lottery tickets when the prize pool is big. She knows her chance of winning is infinitesimal, but says the pleasure she has imagining what she would do with the money is well worth the cost.

    Same with my writing. I day-dream that my books might catch on, make the occasional stab at marketing, but the writing is pleasure enough. At least, that’s what I tell myself…

    Liked by 6 people

  10. One advantage of having done freelance journalism (back in the old days before the internet killed it) is that you are as good as the last piece you wrote. When the cheque came in I could poke the haunting demon with a pointed stick, point to the cheque and say “Swivel on this, chum.”
    Now if it says anything, I merely look it in the eye and say “I’ve still got the stick.”

    Liked by 4 people

  11. Peter Thomson says:

    I don’t know if it’s an actual reason to write, but one’s writing can reveal one to oneself – which the Greeks thought the goal of wisdom (nosce te ipsum..). In my case I realised in this time of semi-isolation that my stories embody the view that the world hinges on innumerable small decisions, not really aggregatable. In our world Yakov Pavlov seizes a house and holds it for 60 days against the Wehrmacht, or Roberto from Milan visits his girlfriend in New York even though he does not feel too well. In my world Izuli the lawyer risks a journey through the Wild in an effort to take up her new position (and thereby falls into the clutches of a tax-averse robber baron) or Chrysanthemum the graduate magician can’t decide on a career so goes for a Walk in the Wild….

    Comes from too much study of history, I think.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. mimispeike says:

    When I’m down, a small victory picks me up.

    I’m down right now. I’m working on my series on Sly’s childhood, written in verse. I call them my children’s books although, of course, they’re not. My intricate verse will find few takers. I know it. Why do I push on? Small victories sustain me. Sometime it’s an especially nice turn of verse, taking a step forward plot-wise in an unusual, original way.

    I’m having no luck with that at present. I’ve covered Sly, Ferd (a frog), Herk Hedgehog, explaining them and their zany peccadillos in depth. My damselfly has a story also. I can’t get it going. Sly has christened her Pearl, the Pirate-Queen of the Ocean-Sea.

    I’m trying to gang together my perfect damselfly, and get a cutlass into her arms in a solid, believable way. I’ve collected an assortment of old, pointy, wavy, rusted nails, such as Sly might have stumbled across in his farmyard.

    I’ll give the story a rest, try to get a nail/cutlass into Pearl’s grip. That accomplished, my mood of hopelessness may pass, for a while. How do we get through this damnable business? Jump one bump in the road at a time. Enjoy our small victories. Through the abundant pain and discouragement, keep at it. What else can we do? Besides give up?

    Sly won’t let me give up. He wants his story told. He wants her story told. She has her own heart-breaking tale. I need to do her justice as well.

    Liked by 3 people

  13. mimispeike says:

    I have to share this. I’m chuckling my head off.

    Robbie Robertson of The Band, discussing how he came up with his lyrics: “I’m not too good at explaining song lyrics . . . but basically, it was all I could think of at the time.”

    Well, I have the opening line for my damselfly’s story: “She was an imp, all right.” (Sly speaking) “Those dimples when she smiled just drove me wild.” (Ferd speaking)

    Damsels don’t live more than a few weeks. Pearl has died. Sly is giving Ferd the sad news. They’re talking about what they loved about her.

    I tried ‘imp‘, liked it . . . what rhymes with imp? Primp. Skimp . . .

    Dimp! Dimples! I am studying super close-ups of damselfly heads to see if they’ve got anything that might be construed as dimples. Lots of times my story grows out of what I can get to rhyme. Damsels have hairy chins. Both my guys are going to be mad for her adorable hairy chiny-chin-chin. Goatee, there’s a word I haven’t used yet. What rhymes with goatee? Plenty of stuff.

    I’m on my way. I’ve got my direction, and it’s going to be a blast.

    Liked by 2 people

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