10 Steps for Working Past the "This Stinks" Blues

10 Steps for Working Past the “This Stinks” Blues

make sure your writing doesn't stink`You’ve spent months laboring over your manuscript. Long nights, early mornings, blood, sweat, tears—the whole ball of wax. This story is your darling. The words are more than just words; they’re the outbreathings of your soul. Sounds like a fairy tale—every writer’s dream come true—until one morning you boot up your computer, glance through the manuscript file, and realize This stinks!

Now what do you do?

Step #1: Don’t Panic

Realize every author goes through this on every story, so you’re in good company. Take a deep breath, look around, and maybe wave at Hemingway, Austen, and Shakespeare.

Step #2: Cry on a Sympathetic Shoulder

Give your #1 fan a call, poor out your woes, and let yourself believe every word about how you’re the best writer in the world and it’s simply not possible that you could have written anything that stinky.

Step #3: Give It Some Space

It’s easy to lose perspective on a story that has been with you every single day for months, or even years. Sometimes that loss of perspective means you think a story is better than it is; sometimes you think it’s much worse. Either way, letting a story breathe allows you to come back to it with more perceptive eyesight.

Step #4: Get Some Objective Feedback

Send the manuscript to your most trusted beta reader (who, one hopes, is not the same person you went to in Tip #2). Bite your fingernails for a few days until you can get an honest opinion.

Step #5: Get a Grip

No story is perfect; no author is perfect. This is a sad fact that every writer has to face sooner or later. Face it, accept it, deal with it. Then hitch up your knickers and start prepping that grindstone to receive the tip of your nose.

Step #6: Identify the Weaknesses

What can you strengthen? Where are the plot holes? Which characters are behaving unrealistically? Once you have a battle plan, you can accurately attack the weak spots.

Step #7: Remind Yourself Why You Love This Story

You might be tempted to chuck the whole darn story in the dump. But take a moment to remind yourself why you started writing it in the first place. See if you can recapture that original spark of inspiration.

Step #8: Revisit the Good Parts

Find the bits that sparkle, and allow yourself to swell with pride, just a little bit, if only to remind yourself you can do this.

Step #9: Take a Break

Give yourself a little time off to recover from the blues. Eat at your favorite restaurant, watch a good movie, take a long walk, go skydiving—whatever stokes your motor and leaves your soul at peace.

Step #10: Get Back to Work

And now it’s time to get cracking. Your story isn’t going to get any less stinky the longer you let it sit. The only way to write better is to write more. So roll up your sleeves and dive back into the fray with the assurance you will make this the best story you’ve every written.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Have you encountered the “this stinks” blues on your work-in-progress? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Yes.

    Current WIP 72k. Some stuff I love, and a lot more I think stinks. Flawed, FLAWED storyline. Cardboard characters. Amazingly coincidental meetings. Omniscient conclusions. Stereotypes sprinkled throughout more common than vowels.

    I hate it and yet I love it. I want to tell the story of my protagonist, so I’ll do anything to make the story come alive and breathe.

  2. I read that Harper Lee once flung the manuscript of To Kill A Mockingbird out the window of her New York City apartment…and then fortunately was able to retrieve it once she regained her perspective. That’s very comforting to think about when I’m at the lowest point.

  3. @Stephen: Sounds like you have a very pragmatic mindset. If you’re aware enough of a story’s flaws that you’re able to fix them, and if you love the story enough to go through with it, you’re on a good track to eventual success.

    @Elizabeth: If that’s the case, maybe we should all fling our manuscripts out the window at least once during the writing process!

  4. I just experienced this a few days ago. “How can I fix this?”

    I stepped away for a few days, while solutions worked through my mind. Then I attacked it with new love. Thanks for the solutions to the stinky.

  5. It’s amazing how well our subconscious can work through story problems when we give it a little space to work.

  6. More often than not, I’m not too sad to admit. But it’s the way it is, I know I’ll never be completely satisfied. I just strive for the less crappy draft. haha!

  7. My current WIP is at that place where I am groaning with frustration. Since I am a new writer and still learning, I’m grateful for all the tips I can get! Thanks!

  8. @Hannah: The day we’re satisfied, as writers, is a day on which we’ve probably lost the passion.

    @Elizabeth: Take comfort in the fact that this something even experienced authors go through. Hang in there!

  9. My last NaNo work was so awful. I was never so glad to be done with something in my life…well, until I was done with calculus class…

  10. I have felt that way on my first four books at some time or another. I’m afraid I might feel that way in a few weeks when I start my revisions on number five. Do we ever really LOVE all of it?

  11. @Galadriel: I have to admit I’d take the stinkiest novel in the world over calculus!

    @Terri: Truthfully, I think we only ever love *all* of it if we’re being less than honest with ourselves.

  12. I’ve actually thought a couple times about trashing my current WIP. I think a lot of times it’s because I have insecurities about myself as a writer – not just problems with the manuscript.

    Right now I’m technically taking a break from it, but I’m reading writing books, still writing down new ideas I get (which is why I say technically) and trying to learn as much as I can so when I go back to it I’ll do a better job.

  13. Without question, some stories will never end up working, no matter how hard we work on them. But, in nine times out of ten, I would always encourage writers to finish their manuscripts, if only because it sets a good precedent for further completions.

  14. On other novels, yes…on my WIP, not quite stinks, but kind of a lingering doubt like eh? will people really want to read this?? And then I have to remind myself that it’s ONLY THE ROUGH DRAFT, and hopefully I can improve it when I’m done.

  15. Great advice! It’s funny. I was just thinking this about the one I’m revising right now… Love this post! Thanks ;o)

  16. @Carol: Even on stories I *love*, that lingering doubt always remains until I get my first good review back from a beta reader.

    @Erica: Glad it was encouraging!

  17. Oh, yes! On every novel I’ve written. LOL. After several revisions I’m so sick of all the separate pieces that I begin to despise the whole thing. The uncertainty lingers until I lose myself in writing the next one. Now that I’m looking at one with querying in mind, I’m struggling with whether it’s even possible for me to make an unbiased decision about its worth. ::sigh::

  18. I’m never able to gain real objectivity about a project until finishing the next story.

  19. So glad I have company in the “My WIP stinks club.”

    I once read that if the writer loves every word he writes and thinks he’s brilliant, the reader will think it’s awful. If the reverse is true, then maybe it’s a good thing to think our work stinks. 😉

  20. Good advice. I have Manuscripts unfinished that I’ve not touched in months. Got discouraged with them. And the short story I’ve rewritten in my head a dozen times… And some people think writers have it easy… 🙂

  21. This was perfect timing for me. I’m editing my current WIP and I’ve been having a heck of a time. I was comforted the other day by one of my favorite writers saying that they’re having just as much difficulty doing a rewrite on their newest WIP.
    The worst for me is the beginning. There are endless ways to start the story. And right now I’m fine-tuning the beginning and I can’t decide if I like the way it starts or not.

    Thanks for always posting such great advice!

  22. @Lorna: Yep, none so deluded as those who believe their every word is hallowed.

    @Mom: It’s amazing how a little time and a lot of hard work can turn stinky into shiny.

    @Siddy: I’m always slightly amused by how much writers (myself definitely included) find comfort in their colleagues’ agony.

  23. I say “This stinks” far too often!!!

    But that’s very good advice, Katie. I think I’ve done all of your talking points at one point or another.

    I do need to bookmark this blog entry for the next time I have one of these moments. 🙂

  24. In general, I think it’s probably better for writers to err on the side of thinking their stories are stinkier than they really are, rather than believing they’re better than they really are. Believing a story can be better forces us to make it better.

  25. Lots of good thoughts/laughs as I read through the comments to this post, reminds me of Bill Murray in, “Groundhog Day,” when he says, me, me, me, I’m very close,” or something along those lines. Every comment reminds me of what I am thinking about my own stinking WIP. I am at 82K, 60K, and two over 30. They are not bad, in places, but I revise, revise and rewrite over and over and am never satisfied.

    My biggest problem #4—not sure I can take the criticism, except, of course, my own. I have published nonfiction historical material for years, newspapers, magazines, travel/promotional stuff. But fiction, scared to death.

    Many thanks to Stephen Matlock for giving me hope-I am not the only one.
    Love your site—good stuff.

    “A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.” – Gilbert K. Chesterton

  26. The good news about criticism is that it *does* get easier to bear with time. Those first few critiques feel like bamboo splinters under your fingernails, but the pain lessens. You begin to realize that opinions are just opinions – and not judgments against you personally. Criticism will always sting, but you grow to appreciate the bits that are constructive and ignore the bits that have no basis.

  27. don’t we all go through some form of this stinks blues… for me, the more time I spend with it, the more it bothers me. :/
    I’ve given you an award over on my blog, hope you come by to pick it up.
    http://jessie-harrell.blogspot.com/

  28. Time away from a story always helps me see it in perspective – and usually it isn’t nearly as bad I thought. Thanks so much for the award!

  29. I had a moment like that, where I thought everything I wrote was the worst thing ever written. I had to pamper myself, relax and not look at my writing then after a good night’s sleep, the MS looked fine again and I was back to loving it. Sometimes we just have bad days.

  30. I’m always talking about the subjectivity of art, usually in respect to other people’s opinions of our writing. But the essence of subjectivity holds just as true for our *own* opinions of our work. Sometimes a bad mood is all it takes to make our every word look horrible.

  31. I’ve found that I’m my own worst critic. I end up deleting everything I write. That’s why I started my blog. Writing about writing seems to be more palatable to my inner critic than just plain writing. 🙂

  32. I love #5. Very few things come out perfectly the first time. It is obvious when a writer puts a ton of effort in her book because it’s good!

    I’ve encountered “this stinks” many times. I wish the stink weren’t so hard to get out!

  33. I’ve made it a personal policy never to delete anything. When I feel I need to cut material from a story, I copy/paste it into a separate file. You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve salvaged important information from my delete folder!

  34. @Faith: Writing is kind of like laundry. Sometimes it takes lots of loads/drafts to get the stinkiness to come out.

  35. Are you kidding? Every novel I’ve ever written has one of those ‘get up from the computer, stare into space, wring my hands and cry’ saying “I have absolutely NO IDEA what I”m doing!”
    One of the main things that keeps me going is making my publisher’s deadlines!! PLUS ALL OF TIPS YOU’VE POSTED HERE LOL! They are great and it really REALLY is nice to know others freak out too!
    P.I.

  36. I’ve been wallowing in the blues for a while now, and I’m just beginning to emerge. This post is just what I needed to hear as I begin yet another round of revisions. (More like re-writes.)

  37. @P.I.: I’ve written eight novels, and I’ve had a meltdown on every single one. But it does get easier to overcome the blues with each story, if only because we have the weight of our previous completed novels to convince us we probably *can* do this one more time.

    @V.V.: We all deserve a little wallowing time occasionally. But I’m glad to hear you’re pulling out of it. Writing really is more fun than wallowing. 😉

  38. I’m with Lawrence Olivier on this, it’s the good reviews that kill you. The bad reviews tend only to wound, and perhaps make you stronger. What W. S. tells us in his bleakest play, King Lear is: Flattery can bring down your kingdom, and when you’re besieged by flatterers, those who truly love you will be the most honest. For writers, what’s critical is that you are being honest with yourself.

    Inside almost every writer’s head is a bevy of flatterers and harsh critics, all vying for attention. You need those folks. What happens, however, is when the sycophantic faction gains the upper hand your head fills with dancing sugar-plum fairies, your writing is buoyed on a swell of bon-ami, and your writing is crud. Then, the truth begins to seep in, and the critics escape the crypt where you tried to bury them. The nae-sayers storm your hideout like a swat team. They vanquish your false friends but your legs are cut from under you. First you’re swamped by self-loathing, then you begin to drown in ennui. You have contracted Writer Fatigue Syndrome. Your creative neurons crawl into bed wheezing with flu-like symptoms.

    Here is the apparent dilemma: There are many ways for a writer to lose his or her equilibrium, yet no writer can succeed without the voices in his head urging him onward and upward, or reminding her that she is a pretentious fool, who is fooling herself when she thinks that she is meant for anything better than shining shoes. For every muse there will be a counter-muse. One predicts the other, like night predicts day, or angels, demons. It’s a process, a kind of creative navigation system without which you will veer off course, and never reach safe harbor.

    Many artists soar one day and sink the next; or even within a day, are elated one moment, and depressed the next. There is a theory that what amounts to a bipolar syndrome is key to the hyper-creativity of history’s great geniuses. Faulkner was a drunk. Van Gough shot himself in the stomach, of all places. Why? Because they were great artists. The tellers of such fables equate mental disorder with creativity. and some people then put the horse before the cart and adopt the character of an artist before the deeds. Most of them are doomed to remain posers. The truth is that, although one author drinks or another is subject to deep depression, no one writes well in either state. Faulkner had to be sober to be fruitful just as Van Gough was not in the dumps when he was painting sunflowers.

    If we accept the premise that creative people have their angels and their demons, and that creative people spend some of the lives riding an emotional roller coaster, it comes down to the trick of regaining equilibrium. You will be tossed upon a stormy sea, probably not that infrequently, and whether you survive creatively or not, depends mostly on how you deal with the situation. If you attempt to control the sea like old King Canute, you will lose. Learn to sail your ship and you will probably get to the destination.

    I would think that what tends to distinguish those who become good writers from those who fail is:

    1. Having something worth writing.
    2. Accepting the risk of failure,
    3. Finishing what you start, a
    4. Learning to manage your creative personality.

    Managing any personality has a lot to do with the ‘executive’ part of the brain called the right prefrontal lobe. This is behind your right eye. That is also where it seems attention deficit order originates. There are those who learn to perform by self-mediacting and those who learn to mature so that they write on more of an even keel. There are artists who become great but remain unhappy. There is small percentage in becoming one of them. Some artists succeed at producing good work and are happy people. Mostly, that is a victory well earned. Learn the strategies you need personally be both a good writer and a fulfilled person. Discard the notion that the sane artist is necessarily the one who is bland and uninspired.

    drscreenplay.com

  39. As you say, “equilibrium” is the key. As a primarily phlegmatic personality, this is probably something that comes more naturally for me than other artists – something for which I’m very grateful. However, I will also agree with you that “learning to manage our creative personalities” is key no matter our personality proclivities or our chosen art forms. We can’t write in a vacuum because we can’t live in a vacuum, and so we have to learn to juggle the demands of the outside world (including their reviews, both good and bad) so that we can appropriately juggle our inner worlds.

  40. I think my novel sucks about every time I send it out to an agent… I love it until right up to that point and then the icky doubt sets in!

  41. It is funny (and slightly ironic) how sending our stories out to be read by other eyes suddenly makes *us* see them differently – and usually not in a more flattering light!

  42. Anonymous says

    I read that Stephen King’s wife had to rescue the manuscript of “Carrie” out of the trash. Stephen King thought that the novel stunk. His wife Tabby read the novel and helped him rewrite it. Too think such a great story would have been lost!

  43. Anonymous says

    I read my manuscript and I think it stinks so bad I can’t finish reading it. I put it away or log off the computer in frustration! I can’t even bear to edit it. Reading this has helped me a lot. I think I do need to take a break.

  44. Carrie is a great example. If even the likes of Stephen King thinks his work stinks, there’s hope for the rest of us!

  45. andre harris says

    I’m currently at 70,000 words with my very stinky novel. I reckon about 30,000 words of it is back-story- or is it? and if not how do I weave the thing together. Some of it admittedly quite imaginative. The writing is mostly awful – but that doesn’t trouble me because I am comfortable with the idea of doing shitty fast writing and then rewriting it. It is trying to solve plot problems that really defeats me. I’ve decided to treat it as if I have just finished writing the first draft. I know a lot more about my story now than I did, so I’ve decided to rewrite my outline from scratch with a focus on dilemmas and crises. I’m also going to have a big think about the backstory and see if there is a way of making it work. Once I have my new outline I’ll be able to see which new scenes I’ll need and I’ll start rewriting some of the others. I know they say you should just keep writing, but bury your head in the sand too long and the problems will probably just get worse. I think at this stage in the novel I’ve run out of scenes I can write until I know where my story is going. Does that sound like a sensible plan?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There definitely comes a point where we have to stop creating and start fixing. I think your outlook seems very sensible. I tend to think of my outlines (which are huge and sprawling) as my first drafts. From there, I have to sally forth and create something cohesive. For a non-outliner, a messy first draft works just the same. It’s your dry-erase board, where you’re figuring out the story. Once you’ve finished, then you basically have to rewrite it into something tighter and more cogent.

  46. andre harris says

    Just curious, but I feel bad about taking a time out to brainstorm the plot, when I’m not actually producing anything measurable (i.e. a daily word total) how do you handle this?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Guilt can be a nasty bugbear for writers. We all have to squash it mercilessly. Write because you love it. Write because you enjoy where you’re at right now. Appreciable word counts can only come if we’re actually writing. And we can’t write without brainstorming. It’s all part of the process.

  47. My best beta reader said what I had was good, what I didn’t have was better. I stopped writing for a week, with plans to take up pottery, but then we sat together and made a list of what it needed. I’m recovering…

  48. I am more in love with my third novel than the first and second. I’ve even contracted a professional to create the book cover instead of making it myself. I am certain that I’ve grown quite a bit as a writer from the last two books, but when I searched through my finished manuscript to find a compelling excerpt for my cover creator, I found several compelling parts but none that I thought to add up to just two paragraphs (which is how many she needed). The compelling excerpts were a little more than two paragraphs and now I’m having doubts with the complete story. I’m on my third beta-reader waiting for her input and the book is due June 1st. I’m literally freaking out!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      No story is perfect. If you’re getting good reports from beta readers, then that’s always a good sign!

  49. Does a painter ever feel he has finished a painting?
    Does a writer ever think he cannot write another word to make his manuscript better?
    A true artist will keep striving to do better. It’s his/her readers who are the arbiters.

  50. Tom Ontis says

    I had been working on a manuscript for a number of years. I had the basic story down, but something was still missing. It occurred to me one night that it didn’t have the proper voice: I was all over the place telling the story. When I finally gave it a first person voice, it just flowed out of me. I practically re-wrote the thing in just a few days.

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