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I’m currently working on a novel that I’m remodelling from an old fanfiction novel I wrote around 6 years ago. That was the first thing I’ve ever fully planned, written, edited, and completed. I’ve been writing consistently since then and believe I have improved immensely. I’ve reread that story a couple of times since then, usually skimming and skipping wherever I feel like it. I know there are many problems with it: it’s too long, the prose is often clunky, there’s inner monologue that goes round and round in circles and subplots that never go anywhere at all. But there are also some real gems of dialogue and humour, and the development of the main relationship is pretty strong (something I’m struggling with in the current version).

When starting the new novel, I had decided to go back and read the fanfiction with a more critical eye in order to pick out the good parts, so I can try to emulate them, and the bad parts, so I can avoid the same pitfalls again. I am also interested in simply recording just how much I have improved since then. However, whenever I try to sit down and read it, I am immediately put off because the writing in many places is just plain bad. It was my very first attempt, so that’s to be expected. But I find it so cringey that I struggle to get past the opening chapter.

I’m wondering if there’s any advice out there to desensitise oneself to their own bad writing, in order to review and improve? Especially one’s early writings, which are undeniably bad but have some small gems of goodness hidden in them.

  • Dude. You accept that you are not yet a pro, and you suck it up, and you get better. Boot camp, baby. (Also IRL writer groups.) – DPT Jan 20 '18 at 1:21
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There is an old book, Becoming A Writer, by Dorothea Brande, (still in print which indicates how popular it is) which does address this problem along with a great many others.

Brande was one of the earliest artist/authors to notice that there is a part of the brain which acts as critic which often tries to rip apart writing before the creative self can even get to the good parts.

In many people this type of thing leads to them not even being able to get the words down so you are far ahead of that and that is very good.

Author Provides A Process

In the book, Brande works you through a systematic way of addressing the problem through a series of challenges you provide to yourself to discover what part of the writing process you enjoy.

Separating Two Selves

Many researchers have discovered that the two parts of our brains work as a Team of Rivals to create a better targeting system : targeting in on the bulls-eye of your best writing.

Creative & Critic

In other words, the two parts of your brain, Creative and Critic work together to create your best writing, but there are times when you Critic will wrestle your Creative to the ground and smother her.

There are brain exercises you can do that will help you get into a state where you are more open and more able to quiet the critic so you can do your creative work.

I've gone through this myself and that book has helped quite a bit.

Focus On the Technical

Another thing that can help is understanding the foundations that make writing a challenge.

I believe there are two major challenges to writing:

  1. emotional
  2. technical

Emotional things wrap us up as we question ourselves with things like, "Am I good enough to be a writer? Who am I to think someone will read this? Why am I writing such crap?" etc.

It is at these times we have to literally turn that part of our brain off and only examine a sentence for technical value.

As You Focus On Technical, Emotional Fades Away

Make a list of things you are specifically looking for in each sentence and only examine the writing one sentence at a time. Look for things like:

  1. remove adverbs / use stronger verbs
  2. remove unnecessary adjectives
  3. shorten sentences where appropriate
  4. try to watch the scene play out in your mind and then transcribe it onto the paper.

Add items to the list which you specifically look for. But, during this time only consider these things. Any time your mind attempts to just say, "this is crap" or whatever, insure you mindfully move back to working on the technical.

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For desensitizing yourself, I'd question the wisdom of that. If it's bad writing, it should hurt. Let it hurt if you want to learn from it. I purposefully read bad fiction in order to keep my critical reading skills sharp, but generally I read other people's bad fiction. I pace myself, reading a chapter a day at most. I also keep in mind the purpose for which I'm reading, and as such, I keep a list of things I didn't like and why, and things I did like and why. I usually address the things I didn't like by challenging myself to demonstrate how I'm not making the same mistake in my current WIP. In summary, crap sandwiches are best eaten in small, methodical bites. Be purposeful, and let it hurt because only discomfort inspires change.

As an aside, I'd also question the wisdom of mining for small gems. Anything pulled out of the early work and dropped into another work runs the risk of feeling out-of-place. If it truly will fit in the new work, and it belongs, I think one's subconsciousness can be trusted to dig it up if it truly is worth remembering.

Finally, I can understand the desire to look back at how far you've come, but perhaps the time to do that might be after you've written the new novel and not before. Reading old, awful work before beginning new work is typically an invitation for anxiety. It adds pressure to not suck at a time when anxiety is high and needs to be shed just to get the rough draft hammered out.

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You know your original story. My suggestion is to write a new story influenced just by your memory of the original story.

This way the bad parts of the original story won't break the new story. In addition, the old story was fanfic. I'm assuming that you don't want your new story to be fanfic. By not reading the old story again you can start a new story with new characters. And if you're anything like me, you still have the old plot in your mind.

Currently I'm writing a novel based on characters that I created in high school (45 years ago). Even if I'd wanted to reread the original stories, they have been long lost. To be honest, good riddance. The original stories I wrote during that time of my life were pretty horrible. What I'm writing now is much better.

  • Upvoted. I ran into this with my own story, only I started off rereading the old drafts and editing them/ revising them. Eventually I realized the broad stroke changes I needed to make would require rewriting from "scratch" anyway. I ended up taking the main ideas I like and rewriting those scenes from my head vs, the previous draft. Sometimes rewriting is inevitable. – BugFolk Jan 20 '18 at 4:51
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I am analytical by nature, even as I am writing new stuff.

My recommendation would be to make a copy and actually go analytical, as if it were written by somebody else (and it really was, you are a different writer now than you were then). I say make a copy because the purpose is to edit it and write notes. Do it in boldface or red or whatever, but when you come across something cringe-worthy, identify the problem, add a note or lesson at the beginning, and move on.

If your editor can open more than one file at once, copy the lessons (if they are new) into a separate file, and any passages you really like into a third file (with or without a note to recall the context and what you like about it).

While you're at it, you might extract a summary of the plot points; why you put in each scene. What it was supposed to accomplish (if anything), why you felt it was necessary. So in the end you have something like an English outline of what each scene and chapter in the book was supposed to accomplish.

You might want to accomplish the same purpose with your new work, even if written from scratch. Or rearrange or revise the outline to make better sense.

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I was asked to edit a novel - because they knew I was familiar with the subject, (which is incredibly traumatic and wartorn). Even though the writing style was actually decent, it was still impossible for me to read as intended - because I was a little too emotionally invested.

So. I edited it backwards.

The last paragraph in the last chapter, the last in the previous chapter, ... all the way to the first. Then, the second to last paragraph in the last chapter, etc. etc. Its kind of cheesy - but it got me through it.

Also, I find that if I read "straight" I often don't see the missing "be verbs", "articles", etc. So, reading it backwards also helps me not miss so much.

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