In honor of the 2018 Winter Olympics, Young Writers Society held the YWS Writing Olympics – as it does whenever the Olympics are going on in real life. This is the first year I’ve participated as a moderator – I co-hosted the first event, which was a reviewing contest.
For purposes of the contest, I sacrificed five of my old works (never before seen!) to the reviewing gods. This was partly to increase interest in the contest – my writing does pretty well on the site, so I thought people would get a kick out of seeing some of my old, incredibly shitty writing. Because when I say old, I mean two of these literary works were written before the youngest site members were born.
I also chose older writings because no one on the site had seen or reviewed them before, so everyone would start the contest on more or less even footing.
The works I chose as my sacrificial victims were
- one of the less embarrassing poems from 2003
- a scene from probably the third draft of my second “novel,” circa 2005 (the first draft was only 33 pages, handwritten on wide-rule paper)
- a scene from my first and last foray into script-writing back in 2012 (the last year of Script Frenzy), which is mostly embarrassing because it’s about vampires
- a short story that’s not terrible and that I’d actually like to refine, from 2013
- a recent but hastily written and unrevised article I threw together specifically for the contest
The contestants brought their A-game. YWS is built on reviews, and the system used is pretty good – it costs 200 points to post a literary work, and you earn points by reviewing. Unfortunately, it’s not perfect. Most of the incentives in place to get people to write more reviews – challenges, badges, honors, clubs – are just that: incentives to write more reviews. It’s harder to encourage people to write helpful reviews, especially since “helpful” is a largely subjective term.
It got me thinking about what constitutes a helpful critique – or beta read, what have you – but more on that another time.
It also got me thinking about how my writing has improved in the last 15 years.
One of the things my reviewers like about the Chosen Grandma story so far is the characters. They especially love the antagonist and his right-hand man, which is a first for me. I’ve always sucked at antagonists.
I know what my issue is, too. I always start off with a character who becomes the protagonist. Then I realize I need some Big Bad for them to go up against, and the antagonist arises from that rather than actually having, you know, any actual motivation of any kind.
So it’s nice to have written antagonists that for once have a to-do list that doesn’t look like this.
- stop the protagonist from stopping me (whatever I’m doing)
I still feel like I suck at plot, which to be fair mostly stems from my issues with antagonists. If the antagonists are just there to stop the protagonist from stopping the antagonist from stopping the protagonist from stopping the antagonist…
You see the dilemma.
Then there’s the fact that, for the sake of first drafts, I’m definitely a pantser and more or less always have been. Even when I was writing novels set in entirely fantastical worlds – when I drew endless maps and family trees and wrote detailed histories of fantasy nations – I still didn’t outline the story before the first draft.
Which was usually the only draft anyway.
Finishing a goddamn draft
On that note, I couldn’t finish a draft. Well, actually, that’s not quite true. I do have the only (but complete) draft of my first novel
which will never see the light of day again and at some point I did have a completed first draft of my second novel (the one that was 33 handwritten pages).
After those two, I had trouble completing a first draft of anything. Once the stories became longer and more complex – and as I became older and learned more about writing – I got stuck a lot. I think it was mostly a bad case of perfectionism. I would agonize for hours over a single word. If I had writer’s block and didn’t know where the story was going next, I would go back over what I’d already written and make minor edits. You know, the kind of edit you shouldn’t waste energy on until nearing a final draft.
Luckily, NaNoWriMo cured me of that. But that’s a story for another time.
Whether or not my ideas are actually original, they’re at least more original than they were when I was in middle school.
(Shocking, I know.)
The two main characters in my first novel were named Will and Elizabeth. Three guesses which movie I was super-obsessed with at the time. Oddly enough, this novel had nothing to do with pirates and was set on the moors of Scotland, which I still know nothing about.
My two fantasy worlds were clearly based on Narnia and Middle Earth, respectively. Sure, they had original elements – all the characters were my own and there were no hobbits or Christ-like lions in sight – but it was obvious which stories and authors influenced me. I’m sure there are still clear (albeit different) influences in my writing, but at this point I hope I’ve developed my voice, style, and ideas enough that it’s not as horribly, horribly obvious.
My old writings are your typical all-white, all-straight, mostly male cast. Or at most there might be one person of color, or maybe – à la the Chronicles of Narnia – a single nation made up exclusively of people of color who of course are not to be found in any other nation. Tokenism was rampant, and while I don’t remember the details of my oldest characters, I’m guessing problematic tropes were, too.
I didn’t consider issues of diversity, inclusion, and anti-racism, and my stories reflected that. I was the kind of person, as a middle-schooler, who would have said things like “I don’t ~see~ color” and not at all understood why that was problematic.
I even had trouble writing white women, which is weird because, well, *gestures at self.* The few women I did write were generally one of two types: the almost-but-not-quite manic pixie dream girl who was always a love interest there to teach my Brooding Male Lead how to be happy again, or the stoic woman who was a font of wisdom but had the personality of a cereal box. Not Trix or Lucky Charms, but the kind of cereal box with the sort of cereal in it that was made for adults who are concerned about their cholesterol.
I’m still learning. I know that, as a cis, mostly straight person, and especially as a white person, I’ll still make mistakes with representation. But now I work to make sure I’m writing about people beyond straight white men. I try to be aware of my biases and racism. I pay attention to discourses online, especially on Twitter, and I try to take what I learn and apply it both to my writing and my greater life.
This is one of those weird areas in which I both have improved and still need to improve. Once upon a time, I rarely bothered about description – except of characters, who I described in painstaking detail or in badly-worded tidbits sprinkled throughout the scene. Consider, for example, this gem.
Reevu shook his light brown hair.
Just his hair, I guess. Not his head.
Nowadays…I have my moments. In my last WIP people complimented the description so much that I thought, “Aha! At last I have discovered the secret. Never again will I struggle with description! I AM THE QUEEN OF DESCRIPTION.”
Then I started writing the Chosen Grandma story, and my reviewers went, “Wow, this is really fun, but, like, where even are they right now?”
There are scenes in the Chosen Grandma where the description shines, but they’re few and far between. When I do remember to describe my settings, I focus exclusively on the visuals
which is a laugh because my eyesight is actually terrible. The last chapter was full of flowers because of the presence of a half-fae girl, and I didn’t describe the smell at all. Even though I love smelly flowers.
On the plus side, I’ve moved away from boring list descriptions. I’ve learned to play around with simile and have characters interact with a setting as a way of describing it. I’ve got a ways to go, but it’s a definite improvement.
As writers we tend to focus on the aspects of writing that we’re bad at. Which is good. If we don’t know what our weaknesses are, how can we improve? But sometimes it’s nice to look back at the old stuff and see how far you’ve come.
Anyway, it’s just as important to know what you’re doing well as it is to know what you’re doing poorly. Hopefully – my struggle with description notwithstanding – if you know what you’re doing well, you can repeat it in the future and keep improving.
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