Three Things To Do When You Worry That Your Short Story Is “Badly Written”

At the time of writing, I’m in the middle of a longer short story project (that I probably won’t post here) that is a hell of a lot of fun to write. However, I’ve found myself racked with worries that it is badly-written in all sorts of ways.

Whether it is worries about repetitive descriptions, about whether the satire in the story is too heavy-handed or about whether the balance between several genres is right, it is one of those stories that seems to have provoked a lot of worries about quality.

Of course, I’m probably not the first person to experience something like this. So, I thought that I’d offer a few quick tips about what to do if you worry that your short story is “badly written”.

1) Finish the story: When you’re actually writing a story, the most important thing is to actually finish it. If you still feel inspired or enthusiastic about the story, then put all of that enthusiasm into finishing the story. Remember, you can always edit or improve it later.

In other words, a finished badly-written story is better than an unfinished masterpiece. Once you’ve finished a story, you can go back and rewrite, trim and just generally improve what you have written. But, if your story is unfinished, then you won’t be able to do this.

The important thing here is not to let worries about quality stop you from finishing your first draft. First drafts can often be slightly badly-written and this is just part of the creative process. So, don’t worry if your first draft isn’t perfect. The important thing is to actually finish it.

2) Remember, there is worse fiction out there: No matter how “badly written” your short story may or may not be, it is always important to remember that there is worse fiction out there. Some of it even gets published and becomes quite popular.

So, even though you should look at your story from the perspective of a potential reader and try to improve it based on this, don’t let worries about negative reactions to your story put you off from actually finishing the first draft.

The thing to remember here is that readers are a rather varied bunch, with a wide range of opinons. If you need proof of this, just look at the “reviews” segment of a popular online bookshop for reviews of novels that you’ve read. You’ll usually find people who really love and people who really hate exactly the same book. These reviews will often seem like descriptions of totally different books. So, remember, whilst you may not please all of your readers, there will probably be people who will enjoy your story.

3) Remember, you’re a better writer than you think: Simply put, if you are worrying about whether your story is “badly-written”, then you are a better writer than you might think. In short, truly terrible writers usually don’t know that their fiction is badly-written.

So, if you have the self-awareness to worry about whether your readers will think that your story is badly-written, you are a better writer than you think. After all, you’ve probably read enough fiction to be able to think about things from a reader’s perspective and you’ve practiced and studied writing enough to spot potential issues with your story.

Yes, you will probably still need to edit or improve your story after you have finished it but the fact that you’ve actually noticed that some people might think your story is badly-written means that you are a better writer than you think.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Why “Badly-Written” Things Can Still Be Genuinely Enjoyable (In A Non-Ironic Way)

Well, a day or two before I wrote this article, I had a couple of strange experiences with really enjoying “badly-written” things (and not in a “it’s so bad that it’s good” way).

The first was when I happened to watch the first episode of the amazing early 2000s TV mini series adaptation of Frank Herbert’s “Dune”. Although it was extremely compelling, visually-beautiful and filled with personal nostalgia (of reading “Dune” when I was seventeen), on a snootily technical level, it was probably slightly “badly-written”.

In short, the “good” and “evil” characters seem to be poles apart, there’s a bit of a stock “the chosen one” plot, there’s a lot of clunky and/or expositional dialogue and the first episode probably won’t make sense if you haven’t read the book. Yet, I absolutely loved it.

A while later, I ended up reading the preview extracts of a couple of modern romance novels on Amazon (don’t ask). Even though these stories were written in a highly informal way that made them seem like they were written ultra-quickly, even though there were a couple of typos in one of them, even though they all seemed to use rotating perspective characters, even though the character dynamics seemed very cheesy (eg: naive nervous protagonist and handsome, muscular noble barbarian love interest), even though many of the fictional location names seemed a little corny etc… I actually found these extracts to be surprisingly compelling. If I had an e-book reader, I’d probably actually read the rest of these books.

These two experiences made me think of other times that I’ve really enjoyed “badly-written” things. For example, there’s a thriller novel called “Seven Ancient Wonders” by Matthew Reilly that I read about a decade or so ago. On an objective level, this novel is badly-written (corny characters, annoying mid-sentence “cliffhangers” etc..). Yet, after you’ve read the first hundred pages or so, you not only can’t put the damn thing down but you’ll probably end up buying the sequels too.

Likewise, as I’ve mentioned a couple of times before, I’ve been playing an old computer game called “Enclave” recently. Even though this game has clunky combat, console-centric design, at least one ultra-difficult level etc… I’m still eagerly trying to squeeze in at least one session with it every day because I’m having so much fun with it.

So, why are all of these things so incredibly enjoyable, despite being “badly-written”?

In short, they all have some underlying emotional “payoff” that is more important than the quality of the writing.

Whether it’s vicariously visiting an intriguing futuristic world, whether it’s vicariously meeting a handsome noble barbarian love interest, whether it’s vicariously going on a thrilling adventure in lots of ancient temples, or whether it’s vicariously being some kind of badass heavy metal warrior (who gets to experience things similar to all of the cool parts of the “Lord Of The Rings” films), these things have a strong emotional payoff.

They’re kind of like the house spirits in a good dingy pub. The ones in gigantic bottles, with suspiciously generic brand names that you haven’t even seen in the grubbiest off-licences. If you were ever a university student who enjoyed wild drunken nights out, you’ve probably drunk these at least once. And you probably don’t have entirely bad memories of it since, although they’re clearly not meant to be drunk for their flavour, they do their job.

In essence, “badly-written” things can be genuinely enjoyable because they do their job and they do it well enough that you don’t care about whether the characters are nuanced enough, whether the writing is technically perfect etc…

And this isn’t a bad thing! Why? Simply put, it reminds us of why we read novels, watch films, play games etc… Despite pretensions to the contrary, we enjoy fiction because of the emotions it evokes in us. We enjoy it because we love being gripped by a story. We enjoy it because we love to daydream.

Enjoyable “badly-written” things tap into the very essence of what makes fiction enjoyable and they have a strange kind of purity to them because of this. They aren’t trying to win awards or impress critics, they’re there to be enjoyed. They’re there to evoke emotions. And, they do this well.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Why Your Terrible First Attempt At Writing A “Novel” Is Important (Plus, An Extract From Mine)

Originally, I had planned to post a joke review today. This was because I’d just learnt about an infamous novella from the 1970s called “The Eye Of Argon” by Jim Theis. It is a story that is so badly-written that there’s apparently a party game where people read it aloud and try to see how long they can go without laughing.

Having failed to keep a straight face whilst reading it (the funniest line has to be “By the surly beard of Mrifk, Grignr kneels to no man!”), I had planned to write a silly review (in the style of my “3D Pinball Space Cadet” review). But, then, I happened to read a bit more about the history of the story.

In particular, the fact that the author wrote and self-published it at about the age of sixteen. Looking at it from this perspective, the story just looked like “the kind of thing that every writer has written when they were a teenager” and I suddenly found that I couldn’t bring myself to ridicule it mercilessly in the way I’d planned.

After all, over-descriptive prose, gratuitously gruesome melodrama, two-dimensional characters, unintentional humour, terrible continuity etc… were all things that had turned up in my own attempts at writing fiction when I was younger. And, yes, I’ll include an example of this at the end of the article.

So, instead, I thought that I’d write about the terrible (but usually unpublished) first “novel” that pretty much all writers (practicing or non-practicing) have written during their teenage years.

This is pretty much a rite of passage for anyone who considers, or has considered, themselves to be a writer. It is a moment when a person tells themselves that they’re going to write a novel and actually follows through on that statement (even if it usually ends up being far shorter than the 50,000 words widely considered to be the minimum length for a novel).

These novels are, just like “The Eye Of Argon”, almost always hilariously terrible. But, they’re important for several reasons. The first is simply that they usually get written because someone has read a lot at a young age and wants to follow in the footsteps of their favourite authors. It is a testament to the power that creative works have to inspire people.

The second is that, without writing a terrible first novel, no-one can write a “slightly better short story” or a “slightly less terrible second novel“. In other words, as well as being valuable practice, actually finishing the terrible first novel gives novice writers the confidence to keep writing. It is the thing that tells people that they can write novels.

Thirdly, in the traditional fashion, these novels are usually original stories. If you grew up in the age before fan fiction was a well-known thing, then your terrible first novel will probably be an original story that has been inspired by things that you think are “cool”. In other words, it is good practice at taking inspiration properly and experiencing the joy that comes from creating your own stories. These are all things that are essential to any creative person.

Finally, reading one of these stories can be a great exercise for the imagination. Kind of like how the pixellated graphics of old computer games forced players to use their imaginations more, deciphering terribly-written prose forces you to do a lot more imaginative work. It forces you to try to reconstruct the good story that the inexperienced author was imagining during their clumsy early attempts at writing. This can, ironically, make a badly-written early story seem more “epic” than a well-written story.

Anyway, as promised, here’s an extract from my own terrible first “novel”. It was a handwritten sci-fi/horror/thriller story called “Galacticon” that I wrote during my early teenage years. It was a story about three spacefaring warriors (Anna, Dale and Jim) who end up shipwrecked on an abandoned space station filled with zombies and monsters.

My main inspirations were probably various computer games, S.D.Perry’s “Resident Evil” novelisations, whatever second-hand splatterpunk novels I could find in charity shops at the time and probably a novel based on the “Alien” films. It took up 104 A5-size pages and I even made a cover for the notebook that I wrote it in:

Yes, THIS was my first “novel”.

And, without any further ado, here’s the extract (with as many of the original punctuation errors as I could stand to include). I just hope that Garth Marenghi doesn’t get too jealous…

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“Galacticon” (circa. 2001-2) By C. A. Brown – An extract:

The egg turned green, then the creature leapt out, it was a minature smaller version of the “serpent” they had seen.

Anna grasped the grenade launcher, the others stepped forwards.

“Leave it to me, snakes are my speciality!” Joked Anna, as she stepped towards the menacing creature.

It let out a quiet hissing sound before lunging for Anna. Anna darted to the side and squeezed the trigger, the grenade flew into the snake, there was an explosion. The serpent screamed in pain.

Anna aimed at the creature’s mouth and fired, hoping that the same thing that crippled the other serpent would do the same.

The serpent’s tongue lashed out and knocked the grenade shell to the side, it exploded, throwing shards of glass (from the tube which it came from) at the serpent, blue blood oozed out of the creature’s chest, yet it was still alive!

Suddenly, the snake’s belly was expanding, a hole popped in the side of it’s belly a small flow of slithering vipers, it’s stomach was still expanding.

“RUN!” Shouted Anna, they all charged away.

Splat!

Entrails splattered the walls. Jim looked behind them, there was a huge green tide of snakes following them.

They charged forwards, then they stopped, there was a huge metal door in front of them.

“Oh shit! It’s locked” shouted Dale as the green hissing torrent of snakes got closer….

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting, or amusing, or both 🙂