Why My Novels Sucked — And What I Did About It

I had a problem. Readers sometimes enjoyed my short stories, giving high praise for stories I wrote in a day. Unfortunately, the novels I lovingly crafted for a year or more failed to impress anyone.

No matter how I experimented, I couldn’t write a compelling novel, and was getting frustrated over the continuous lack of progress.

If any of this sounds familiar, I want to give you hope. There isn’t a magic trick or a simple fix, but I think the secret is to discover your particular weakness.

The Breakthrough

First, let me say that this wasn’t an overnight discovery. This took me a good year to even begin to understand.

When I get nervous, I create cool scenes. Like how when a conversation turns awkward or quiet, I just start babbling, hoping to hit on something interesting. It almost never works, and neither did the scenes. While critiques revealed that people enjoyed the scenes, they didn’t contribute to the momentum of the story, and didn’t enhance the plot. So I was still not crafting compelling stories. I was writing better than ever, but my stories still sucked.

Things started to make sense when a friend told me what was missing. Structure. A plan. And it made me throw up in my mouth a little, because I hate plotting more than anything in the world.

Plotting a novel feels physically painful. It makes me sweat just thinking about it. I get nervous and panicky. Does that sound familiar? Do you have a particular facet about writing that makes you dread?

If so, that is what you need to work on in order to make your stories compelling.

Varied Weaknesses

What our stories lack will be as varied as who we are as individual writers.

For example, my best friend and I are both writers, but our problems are vastly different. As stated above, I’ve been having a damn awful time with story structure and plotting.

My best friend, on the other hand, has trouble with the interpersonal relationships and emotions of his characters. As a result, his stories sometimes lack internal conflict and emotional resonance. But we’re almost always struggling with the same kind of writerly crises, while our actual problems are on opposite ends of the writing spectrum.

For my stories to be more compelling I need a cohesive plot and stronger motivation for my character, even though she has plenty of emotional baggage and near constant internal conflict. For my friend to increase the effectiveness of his stories, he needs to consider the deeper feelings that people have, even while they’re on an adventure. If only I could ship his characters some emotional baggage and he could send me some plot. Wouldn’t that be awesome?

My Solution

It didn’t matter how much more emotional baggage and internal conflict I heaped upon my character—it wasn’t what was missing. She was already drowning in internal conflict. I was lacking other things desperately—starting with an immediate personal goal for the character to accomplish. It wasn’t that she didn’t have a goal… rather, the problem was that I didn’t take full advantage of its immediacy.

That’s when I recognized that I was cherry-picking the advice I was reading in blogs and how-to books. I thought that I was improving my stories by just adding in more of what I liked. I produced more of what came easily for me, and I ignored the things I struggle with—things like public stakes, antagonists, and linear plot. I could subplot myself into the middle of nowhere, but I couldn’t write a scene-sequel set of events to save my life.

That’s when I realized a fundamental truth of writing: we cannot write better stories by simply using more of our strengths. We must address our weaknesses head-on.

After this realization, I put my novel on hold, and became a full-time student of story structure and plotting.

If you are struggling, consider doing something similar. If there’s something you’ve been avoiding, find help. Read some how-to books or blogs, take a class, attend a workshop. Just don’t ignore the problem.

Turn Flaws Into Strengths

If you have a skill that’s lacking, there’s no time like the present. Find your flaws and turn them into strengths, one at a time. You can begin with the skill you struggle with the most (for me, it’s story structure), or a skill that’s adequate but still needs improvement.

Do an honest assessment of your strengths and weaknesses. Read advice from writers whom you admire. Here are two books that helped me to address my biggest weakness:

The secret to writing a compelling story is simple: make your readers care about what’s happening. That’s it. A story needs a protagonist that readers care about, a conflict that matters, and a concept that gets readers excited.

To reach your potential as a writer, discern which of these elements is lacking, and focus on fixing it.

It almost sounds easy, doesn’t it?

Your Turn

What’s your primary weakness as a writer? What are you doing to address it?

What blogs or books have helped you to overcome your writing woes?

Follow A. Howitt’s journey as a fantasy writer on her Facebook page.

A. Howitt is a fantasy author and a member of the Mythic Scribes article team. When she isn't writing, she enjoys history, fencing and designing period costumes.

11 Responses to Why My Novels Sucked — And What I Did About It

  1. I confuse my tenses and I tend to color my descriptions too much or go into too much detail with certain things. The last one is a real problem as you need to balance tone and image with speed and tempo. Having an editor to show me these things have really highlighted them and allowed me to focus more. I also read other novels, both in my genre and outside, to get the feel for how they tackle issues of tone and pace. I’ve found that when I write the first draft I don’t focus too much on tempo and more on tone. Mostly for fear of losing that feeling. The second draft is more aimed at fixing the technical stuff and substantive issues.
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  2. Does my own novel suck because I’m telling instead of showing? In all the books and magazine articles I read in which editors and agents give advice I am exhorted to show not tell. But the novels I read tend to tell instead of show. Some have pages or even chapters of telling. There needs to be a balance. I think that showing can interrupt the flow of the narrative. And the reader’s brain has to make the effort of converting the words on the page into mental pictures. Is showing really so important? Are novels rejected out of hand because an editor has spotted a ‘telling’ tag? What do others think?

    • The style matters, and there are ways to tell effectively. But when it comes to emotions, relationships, and the motives of a character, the “guts” of the story, it’s usually much more effective to show it.

    • I din’t cover showing and telling in this article, but it’s not a black and white issue. You cannot SHOW a whole story. You must tell some of the time, a lot of the time, even.

      What people mean by show and tell is a rather complicated matter. And the only thing for it is experience. I had a novel where I needed a young soldier to learn there were undead creatures to the north, so he would have a reason to investigate it. In the first draft, I literally had the character become thirsty, head for a pub, and there he overheard these travelers talk about undead, and then he asked them about it. It was a weak scene, and it was a “tell” because the information was given, handed to the character, and the whole scene sucked.

      I started to think about what could be stronger. My next idea was to have him see the travelers hungry and buy them food in the pub, which began conversation he was part of, making it a more active scene. But I didn’t write it out, because in my mind, it was still a “tell”.It was still the character happening into a situation where he was supposed to sit there and listen to people talk and he would ask them questions–not very strong. Not immediate. Not tense. Not interesting for a reader.

      In the rewritten scene, the character uses his divine pendant to gain entry to a temple, where he begs for food and a bed for the night (showing more about the character, his background as a priest and his need to keep travel costs down…already better). Just s the priests and the character sit down to dinner, a group of travelers burst in the front door of the temple, begging for help, because now they have a woman in their arms who’s suffering from necrosis and looks half dead. When they tell the character that she was infected by some undead creatures, the character can ask them where it happened, and BAM, he learns what I needed him to learn. But the scene is more intense, the reader can SEE the problem and the stakes, and the character has that much more reason to ACT immediately.

      Often when we talk about showing and telling…we’re not literally talking about showing everything that happens, because that slows the story’s pace and makes it suck, too. But we have to make sure that every scene is strong, has an immediacy, a goal, stakes, and builds momentum.

      Going back to why my novels suck, and the scope of this particular article, we can’t have this character learn about the undead things and have this intense reaction…only to show him flirting with a washerwoman in the next scene. We have to stay with the goal. And it’s okay to follow up that scene with some tells, some things like: two days on the road, and Cedrick had found his first clue of the undead creature’s passing…

      Tells aren’t bad, but newer writers use them in all the wrong places, and often those tells come without character perspective or narrator voice, which makes them feel boring and weak.

      It isn’t an all or nothing sort of proposition, though plenty of articles make it sound that way. The best advice I have for someone concerned that they are “telling” too much, is to take a look at how information is given to a reader. If we’re learning things about a character that are unimportant to the immediate circumstances and situation, it’s probably better to cut those things until such a time as they’re necessary or have proper context. The best way to learn how to do that, is to have fellow writers you trust have a look at your stories and get their feedback.

      Having a strong writer voice will help cut most of those weak-ish things and make the surviving ones strong enough that they aren’t jarring or boring. Scenes don’t need to be action-packed to entertain, sometimes it’s just about the details. If details are given in places where they have immediate context, the details aren’t overwhelming, and they help to make a scene feel believable and rich. But as soon as things become unbalanced and pacing is affected…it’s time to stop showing and start telling, and it’s time to go back to the outline of the scene and its goals, so you can make sure you’re staying on track, rather than meandering. Telling is great for keeping things short and sweet, But certain scenes or moments ought to be shown. And unfortunately, only the writer of a story can make that determination. It’s about that writer’s goals, not about any written rule.

      Hope that helps a little!

      • Thanks, Anita. It certainly does help. And thank you for your time and effort you have kindly put into this.

  3. Very insightful article, Anita. You might as well have been writing about me. I keep trying to exploit my strengths, but have been ignoring my weaknesses. It’s time for me to give them some attention.

    • I realized a few weeks ago that I couldn’t write my way out of my problems. I had worked on some tricky skills that I wasn’t awesome at like dialogue, scene cohesion, focused character goals, describing things in an impactful way…just EVERYTHING. I was hearing good things about how that was going (better than I deserved, I’m sure). I just couldn’t understand why when I’m doing my best writing ever…I still can’t get a story really rolling.

      It was my critique group that brought all this to my attention. We’re all good writers who are seriously tackling those really fundamental skills…the ones that lead to home runs. But we’re re-learning them as much more advanced writers than when we originally learned those skills in our earlier years. What we’re realizing is that when you have an imbalance in your game, when one of those crucial skills is weak (even when everything else is really strong), it still means you’re not hitting home runs.

      I had to face my weakness for plotting. And it sucks. And I’ll let you all know when the pain ends. 😉 I play Assassin’s Creed and watch movies when I need a break from studying story structure. Except I’m ruined now! Just yesterday, I was contemplating how Ezio’s effort in Revelations isn’t nearly as engaging as his adventure in Brotherhood, and I now laugh at inappropriate times in movies…when I play my own secret game of “spot the plot” in which I try to identify the parts of a story. I look for midpoint twists, inciting incidents, bad guys closing in, and all hope is lost moments. I also read blurbs on Amazon Prime for about half an hour each day, just letting log lines sink into my brain, hoping they will one day form their on their own, but for the meantime, judging their impact on me and weighing their overall strength.

      I realized there’s no point in going back to writing a novel (or editing any of the drafts) until I learn how to really tell a riveting story. That’s why my short stories are so much easier. I start with a simple concept, a singular goal, and let the words fall where they want to, and I call it done. MY voice, NO thought, simple, simple, simple. But with novels, there’s all this STUFF to do. I’m like a kid at Disney World for the first time. I don’t know what to do first…so I end up running around, having all kinds of FUN….but not actually writing a cohesive story. And while the quality of the writing is better than ever…it isn’t a complete story, but a chaotic jaunt through whatever amused me that day.

      And the best part of me taking this time to study? That K.M. Weiland describes a very similar thing happening to her, and just recently, when I was on C.S. Lakin’s blog….I found the EXACT same analogy I use to describe my directional chaos. Like other people have had this problem too…

      😉 Best wishes! Go tackle those weaknesses!

  4. Oh man, what an awesome article!

    The more I learn the less I find I know 🙁 It is a vicious cycle of reading blogs, which direct me to books, which direct me to other books, which direct me to research writing topics I didn’t even know existed. There is such so much to learn and it seems like an impossible task to try to “do it all”.

    However, the more I focus on learning the more I find it starts to click (like for you).

    My biggest weakness is still getting my prose to that “professional” level. I’m still working on identifying voice and how to use compelling voice to choose the right details to show in a scene. I open books by professional authors and it seems so easy! But when I try to do it (show a scene through a POV) it is still clunky and stilted and just generally amateurish. So this is still my weakness and something I’m constantly working on.

    Thanks for this great article Anita 🙂

    • There’s so many moving parts to a good story! It’s like as soon as you get good and confident at one thing, you see all the things you still suck at! Maybe that’s the game? Always getting better? But by the time you’ve done a full circuit and improved all around…you start seeing that the oldest skills (or the ones you shoved to the background) are so far below the things you just improved…well, it’s discouraging.

      Yeah, cherry-picking was my problem. I didn’t want to revisit the things I thought I could do without, the things I knew I didn’t like to do and didn’t do well. But the problem was, it didn’t matter how much weight I tried to put on the other skills…the ones I had more fun with.

      Wait…writing isn’t supposed to be fun all the time?

      I think that’s why I keep checking out Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird” on audiobook from the library. Her humor and raw honesty about how un-fun writing can be gives my broken spirit a little funny kick up the backside when I start to feel too hopeless.


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