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IWSG: How do you know when it sucks?

I have the world’s worst critic.

No matter how hard I try to please them, they’re never satisfied.

“God, talk talk talk. That’s all your characters do. Where’s the action? Where’s the drama? When are they going to do something?”

“This is so boring. I hate this book.”

“None of these characters are developed. Who cares if they die?”

“You call that an ending?”

That’s a small sample of the things my critic has said to me. You might suggest I stop reading this person’s reviews, or ban her from my Facebook page, but there’s a problem…

She’s in my head.

I had a terrible time writing Temple of Ghosts this summer. As a pantser, I let my characters take the lead, and this time they dragged me into decidedly uncharted territory. Government conspiracies, the military, doppelgängers–ugh. What did I know about that stuff? (Okay, the doppelgänger aspect was pretty cool. That I could live with.) Taking a deep breath, I decided to trust Kate and Jacks. This was my third adventure with them, and they hadn’t steered me wrong yet. But I admit I had reservations. Huge reservations. And since I was uncomfortable with the subject matter, I dreaded writing about it. I was afraid Kate and Jacks were digging themselves into such a deep hole I’d never be able to get them out of it.

I’ve never been so relieved to finish a book. I was convinced it sucked–it had to be the worst thing I’d ever written, right?

Editor: “Holy crap, this book is good. Maybe your best one yet.”

And he’s almost as tough as my critic.

Fast forward to December. I’m finishing up my twelfth novel (well, there are twelve that I count) and I have no idea whether or not it’s any good. It’s set in Russia’s Ural Mountains, so it’s freezing, desolate, and scary. It makes me uncomfortable, and I don’t enjoy being there. How I ever thought a story inspired by this would be fun is beyond me. What happened to those people in real life was horrible, and my novel definitely takes its cue from that. It’s going to feel so good when I stop.

Frustrated, I asked a writer I respect if he knows when he’s written a good story. He thought about it for quite a while.

“That’s a good question,” he said. “In the end, I don’t really care if people think my stories are good. It’s more important to me that they are fair, and accurate, and that the people I interview feel they were properly represented.”

Ah, journalists. They have it so much easier than us novel-writing folk. I’m still envying his lack of inner critic.

So now I’ll put the same question to you: how do you know when it sucks? Or doesn’t? Can you tell? Have you ever been convinced one of your works was absolute crap and then been pleasantly surprised?

The purpose of the Insecure Writers’ Support Group is to share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Insecure Writers Support Group BadgeThose who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds. To see a full list of IWSG authors, click here.

Happy holidays, my insecure friends! I’ll see you in 2018.

1 part newsletter, 1 part unnerving updates,
2 parts sneak peeks of new projects.

63 Comments

  1. It always sucks. Any time I think it’s good, I’m wrong. But if I go in with my expectations in the basement, I can never be surprised.

    Holy shit that sounded depressing. I should see someone about that.

    (PS You don’t suck).

    Reply
    • JH

      Ha! Yes, it does sound depressing, and I’m sure you don’t suck.

      Thanks for the kind words, CD.

      Reply
  2. Aloha. I see we have the same critics. Lol. I always love my first book in the series. And when I wrote the second book – I’m always convinced it’s not as good as the first book and I’ve let people down and ‘lied’ to them as a writer. I.e. I was presenting a false front. Now what you’re reading is the real me. And I’m always convinced it’s not good. Quite dull compared to the first book. But in my Hawaiians series, I did think Orchid wasn’t as good as Lei. But now I think it’s one of the best in the series. And it won a prestigious runner up award which backed up my own feelings. I felt Ginger was rushed and was missing something and it hasn’t done as well. But I knew it on a gut level. With Orchid it was more jitters if that makes sense. I also am an editor. And I have one author who is often on a deadline. She sends me stuff right up to the deadline and says things like – I don’t even know what I’m writing but it’s probably awful. Funnily enough – it’s not. It’s often some of her best work. I’m also a pantser writer and so is she, like you. I think when we let our brain take a backseat and let the characters just tell their story – we often get some of our best work. I had a piece in Orchid that I was trying to write and I knew it must be wrong because it just wouldn’t flow. I wanted the guys to have this lovely romantic weekend at the beautiful Hula Lodge in NZ. And it ended up sounding dull and lifeless. I wanted Kalani to go surfing up at Raglan after that. I had them all organized. I finally thought – what is wrong with this piece? I asked my characters and the ungrateful wee soda just wanted to go home to Hawai’i. But…but…I said. This is HUKA LODGE for gods sake. I would kill to stay there. I reluctantly gave up – put them on a plane home to Hawai’i and wow. The scene wrote itself. I just had to type like billy-o to keep up. And it’s one of my favorite scenes with them. They knew what they needed more than I did. I think we have to trust a lot as pantser writers but I think if we can. We do write our best work. And we know it on a primal level even if we feel jittery about it. There’s a difference between jittery and no – I haven’t hit my stride quite woth this one of that’s sense. Thanks. Love you articles as always. Aloha Meg Amor. 🙂

    Reply
    • JH

      Aloha, Meg, and welcome to the blog! Thanks for sharing that story. I’ve had similar moments when my characters would not do anything I wanted–I think all of Temple was like that. But you’re right. If we can trust them and let them do the work, it results in the strongest writing. As scary as it is, I wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s how the magic happens.

      Reply
  3. Hi J
    Your work does NOT suck, I can’t believe you’d even think that. I’m an avid reader, always have been. Back last year I switched from paper to e-reader and download books from places like Smashword and Kobo. I download 30 to 40 at a time and at least three quarters of those will be quite dreadful in a badly written
    un-enjoyable style, or just plain trash, but I know by page 2 or 3 and press ‘delete’.
    Your books however, I can’t put down, so please don’t change your style because of one dimwit.
    And if this ‘critic’ likes your work so little, the solution is simple, tell them to stop reading it!
    p.s. there were 2 small typo’s in your last book …. but we’ll keep that just between us 😉

    Reply
    • JH

      Aw, thanks Christine. In this case, that “dimwit” lives inside my head, but I’ll still try my best to take your advice. I’m so happy you enjoy the books, and sorry about the typos. I do my best to avoid them, but every now and then, one sneaks past my battalion of editors and proofreaders.

      Reply
  4. I have no answer for you. I’ve decided all you can do is cross your fingers and hope for the best (and choose your critics carefully!) 😉
    I’m envious of your pantsing abilities though. I tried that last year, and although it brought interesting things, it also brought a complete mess of a plot that I’m still trying to work out. I think I’ll stick with plantsing.

    Reply
    • JH

      Plantsing…I love it! What a great word.

      The way I write is scary as hell. All I can do is trust my characters to know what they’re doing and hope for the best. If I try to control things, it feels too artificial to me.

      Reply
  5. Hmm, your critic sounds a lot like my critic. Maybe they’re related? Maybe all of our internal critics are related? Ack!

    How can this – “freezing, desolate and scary” – not be good?! 🙂

    Reply
    • JH

      I hope you’re right, Madeline. At the very least, it should make people uncomfortable, because it’s certainly made me uncomfortable.

      Reply
  6. I just assume it always sucks. I just hope that one day it will suck less 🙁 In your case, you need to distract that inner voice in your head with a cookie or a sleeping pill or something, because I’ve read you work and I know for a fact that you don’t suck.

    Reply
    • JH

      Aw, thanks Ellen. That’s very kind of you to say. And I seriously doubt your work sucks. Your blog posts are hilarious!

      Reply
  7. If only you could turn off that critic.
    I’m never crazy about a story once I finish it, probably because I’ve worked on it so long. So I never trust my own judgment.

    Reply
    • JH

      I’m with you, Alex. It makes it difficult to keep going sometimes, but yet, it always works out in the end.

      Reply
  8. I’ve read all three books with Kate and Jackson and they do not suck. My favorite is the first one because the image of the village flooding and the doomed villagers really struck a chord with me based on some other books I’ve read that feature similar floods. My second favorite was the second because I love the nod to the Exorcist and what’s more terrifying than cannibalism? The third does have more dialogue, but there are several solid action sequences to balance them. The setting is excellent and I loved the Egyptian psychic character (sniff). The characters of Kate and Jackson are golden. Keep these stories coming if you can.

    Reply
    • JH

      Aw, thanks Tamara. That means a lot. Remember to leave a review for Temple so you’re entered to win the $100 gift card. <3

      I really appreciate your support and encouragement, and I'm so happy you enjoyed the books. There will be more in 2018!

      Reply
  9. Your critic sounds like she might have a sibling nesting up inside my head.

    Reply
    • JH

      Ouch! Sorry to hear. You have my sympathies. At least we’re not alone?

      Reply
  10. How do you know if it sucks? Critique groups help. Finding a good one is a challenge, of course, but I’ve taken away something of use from every group I’ve tried. Starting a new one this month, with high hopes and a bit of trepidation. May 2018 bring you peace, prosperity, and lots of writing time.

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks, Rhonda, and the same to you. Best of luck with your new critique group.

      Reply
  11. I give it to friends I trust and ask for their honest opinion. Not necessarily writer friends, by the way, but friends who read a lot and are representative of my audience.

    Reply
    • JH

      I agree readers are the best critics for our work, James. Good call. But what do you for doubts while writing the first draft? That’s what I struggle with–during, not after.

      Reply
  12. I can confirm 100% that you don’t suck because I love your work!
    I fully agree it is hard to silence that inner critic before, after and while you’re creating. If only there was a magic button to switch it off. At the end of the day, all we can do is our best, though, inner critic be damned!

    Reply
    • JH

      True dat, Lisa. Thanks for the kind words. I love your work too!

      Reply
  13. I can tell now. We can be over-critical, but if we think it’s all great, then we are in worse trouble.

    Reply
    • JH

      Hmm…never thought of it that way. Can’t say I’ve ever felt like that about my own work. It can always be better.

      Reply
  14. I don’t normally. Sometime when I give something a breather and come back to several days later or longer I am like did I write that? I hope I will be able to say that about my book when it is done.

    Reply
    • JH

      I’m sure you will, Juneta. I believe in you!

      Reply
  15. Most things suck at the beginning. I just dig in until I don’t hate it anymore. My inner critic is tough on me as well. To be complete sure I’ve done a decent job, I offer up my work to beta readers. They never let me down.

    Reply
    • JH

      That’s awesome you have betas you can count on, Anna. Such rare and wonderful creatures are hard to find.

      Reply
  16. I think it’s when we are most critical and think out work sucks when it’s actually really good. So whenever you feel this way, remind yourself that the opposite is true. 🙂

    Reply
    • JH

      Aw, thanks Chrys. I hope you’re right. And, judging by my past experience, I suspect you are.

      Reply
  17. The only way I can tell if something I wrote is any good is to leave it be for several weeks. When I go back to begin an edit, I give it a complete read through before making major changes. I’m often surprised at myself, and when that happens, I assume if I like it, it must be good. I mean I have exquisite taste right? I love YOUR books after all.

    Reply
    • JH

      That alone proves you have exquisite taste, I agree.

      And thank you! xo

      Reply
  18. I guess for me the clue is whether I think other people will like the story. Every story I’ve published I did so because I thought people would enjoy to read it along with me.

    Reply
    • JH

      That’s an interesting way of looking at it. Do you have an “ideal reader” in mind when you write, like Stephen King does?

      Reply
  19. We are our worst critic, and some of us are perfectionists that will never really be happy with the end result. I have no idea how to know if a story sucks. I’d hate to put it out in the world if it does. I think a lot also depends on the mood you are in when criticizing your own work. Therefore, it is very important to set it aside and look at it again with fresh eyes and a better tempered mindset. I say this now… With a book, I will and must do this, but with my articles, I couldn’t wait to finish up and hit the send button! I rarely set an assignment aside and reviewed it.

    When reading notes/stories from the past, I sometimes think they suck and sometimes, I am impressed with the writing voice and word choice. I’d say some input from others helps when figuring out whether a story sucks or not.

    Reply
    • JH

      Good point, Liesbet. When I wrote this post, I was thinking more of when you’re in the middle of the first draft, when you’re not sure if what you’re writing is complete crap or not.

      I also find articles a lot easier to complete. I always give them a good copy edit before sending, though.

      Reply
  20. Now you’re asking something. I am usually pretty convinced that my work sucks. I do go through periods of being excited about it, then I go back to thinking it sucks. I’m nearing the end of editing the 3rd novel in a series right now (maybe there’s something about the 3rd?) and I’m pretty sure it has some huge flaws. Like maybe I should just get a job delivering cookies or something. The only way I know to silence that inner critic is to let someone else tell me the truth of it (which sometimes is, “you have some work to do here.”).

    Reply
    • JH

      I’ll ask you something akin to what a friend once asked me, Rebecca. If you got a job delivering cookies, would you be a cookie deliverer, or a writer who’s stuck delivering cookies? 😉

      Reply
  21. We need to keep those inner critics busy. Maybe we should send them on vacation of the Azores with one-way tickets. As to sucky stories. I can’t even start…

    Reply
    • JH

      Hmm, that’s a good idea, except…do they really deserve a trip to the Azores? Maybe they should stay here while we go.

      Reply
  22. Hmmm….I think you are a perfectionist which is great and bad all rolled into one. You need to stifle that negative critic and move forward as that negative only holds you back. I think we are all guilty in some ways but, in the end, be happy you went out of your comfort zone as most people don’t do this out of fear. You must, ultimately, be happy with yourself and be dammed the rest. If I equate it with movies, It’s a Wonderful Life bombed and didn’t become the classic we know until it came on TV. It is now regarded as a classic. The same is true for Citizen Kane which many in the industry tried to buy the rights (MGM at the best of William Randolph heasrt) to destroy it. It is now often #1 as the all time best film made. So ignore critics who offer nothing positive because if they only talk to rip it apart, then they are not worth a powder to blow as my dad would say

    Reply
    • JH

      Critics are so difficult to ignore when they’re in our own head, but I get what you’re saying, Birgit. Love the classic movie references–that’s so you. 🙂

      PS – What’s a comfort zone?

      Reply
  23. For me, it’s time. I don’t trust my gut when work is freshly finished–whether I think it’s gold or garbage, I’m probably wrong. I’m too close to see it. But if I come back to it after a longish pause, and I still like it, I start to hope it might actually be good. I also have a few “wise readers” who will give me straight talk.

    Reply
    • JH

      That’s a good point, Samantha. It’s a lot easier to see our work clearly with some distance. Doesn’t help us much when we’re wading through the murky middle, though.

      Reply
  24. So I bought your third Ghost book, then realized I should read the first two first. Reading City of Ghosts now. It most certainly does not suck. That said, I have that same damn critic in my head. I have re-read some of my own work that does suck, but I don’t try to publish it in its present state. I know because I have put it aside and approached it with fresh eyes. Trust your process and be at peace.

    Reply
    • JH

      Wow, thanks so much, Lee. I had no idea! My books are written to be read on their own, but Temple of Ghosts does pick up where the second book left off, so you will get more out of them if you read them in sequence. Hope you enjoy them!

      I wish you luck with trusting your process as well.

      Reply
  25. I know it sucks, or doesn’t, when my crit partners say so. I love honest feed back, no fluff or ego stroking. Well, I crave well deserved ego stroking, lol. I’m like you, sometimes i just have to keep going with it and leave the questions of why the subject matter makes me uncomfortable to be answered later, during editing/revision.

    Reply
    • JH

      Yes, moving forward in spite of our doubts appears to be the key to success, especially since I believe letting someone critique a work in progress is not a good idea.

      Trusting ourselves is one of the most challenging parts of this gig.

      Reply
  26. I know that nasty critic. Mine’s the same way. Maybe it’s when we push ourselves over the top that we feel most critical, then it turns out to be great. Looking forward to reading Temple of Ghosts! And, the Yeti story!!!

    Reply
    • JH

      Awesome, Mary. I’m so happy you’re enjoying the books, and I SO appreciate the reviews. You make this writer’s heart sing.

      Reply
  27. Inner critics are the worst. The absolute worst. They have a inside track to our most private insecurities and they’re mean, really mean. As to worrying whether what I write sucks, oh I have that nailed down as a writing newbie. You, my friend, have published … and I had hoped (in vain clearly) that would enable a number of fingers to be raised at that inner critic. Keep on fighting it, keep on writing, keep on pleasing your readers!

    Reply
    • JH

      Aw, thanks Deb. I will do my best.

      And nope, sadly, it never stops. I bet even J.K. Rowling isn’t safe from the inner critic.

      Reply
  28. Those voices are in my head, too. Siblings? In the end, though, the most important aspect for me is if I love the book. Sometimes, it’s better to ask that question after the book has been set aside for a bit, then reread it. If I love the characters, then it’s a good book.

    Reply
    • JH

      True. It’s hard to gauge when you’re in the thick of things, though.

      Reply
  29. I think somewhere inside us, we know. I think if I’m doing something wrong with my story or characters, my brain reacts by shutting down or needing to binge watch TV. When I take a deeper look, I realize that I must be shying away from my story for a reason. We have to trust our gut. It’s the only way to get through. And… you don’t suck!
    Thank you for participating!
    Heather
    Co-host, IWSG

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks, Heather. Sadly, that indicator isn’t accurate for me. Sometimes when I’m shying away, it’s just because the writing is hard work. Some of the toughest writing sessions I’ve done that I’ve hated the most have resulted in my strongest work.

      Reply
  30. My inner critic is utterly disappointed in me. Evidently, I should have taken up pottery or origami.

    But, I’ll offer an anecdote of one time I knew my writing didn’t absolutely suck. My brother, whose opinion always comes frank and swift, could not put down one of my books. That meant a lot to me. This is a guy who has rows upon rows of sci-fi and fantasy series on his shelf. A real bookworm. One who wasn’t afraid to tell me when he didn’t like one of my stories. We were at my town’s pool and I handed him my novel, and told him to give it a try. He read half the book before we left — he was a bit sun burnt. And when he finished it, he was sad and a bit angry at me of how it turned out, but glad that the story wasn’t over. He’s been bugging me ever since to release the next book.

    So, that keeps me going. To at least one person (a very harsh critic of my life in general) my writing didn’t absolutely suck.

    As for the rest of the world, who the hell knows. I think that, after all the hours upon hours of editing and questioning and rewriting and self doubting, I have to be happy with the final product. As long as I’m happy with it, there’s really nothing more I can do.

    Reply
    • JH

      Wow, that must have felt great, Tanya. It’s wonderful when our greatest critics become our biggest fans.

      Reply
  31. If it isn’t resonating emotionally with me I know then it sucks. If I’m not “feeling” it, neither will my reader. That inner editor is such a hard person to live with. Never lets me think it’s done. Great post!

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks, Lisa. Inner critics are brutal, for sure.

      Reply
  32. A comfort zone is something you are used to and feel safe in doing. It can be as simple taking the same route to work every day to budgeting, saving and not spending on impulse. To get out of one’s comfort zone would be to make our heart’s race like when I went zip lining…I was scared to death because of my fear of heights but I did it.

    Reply

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