I’m confident that nearly every writing book out there has this piece of advice in various forms:
“In order to write well, you have to write a lot of garbage.”
But what is this garbage we’re all talking about? On which ‘level’ of writing does this junk appear?
Well, just as there are numerous different words for unwanted items (junk, garbage, rubbish, trash, 废物, etc.), there are many ways to think about our literary waste.
As you may have noticed, opinions concerning words are as biased as politics. What you consider trash, may appear as gold to me. Some of us are able to overlook poor writing for the sake of a brilliant plot and some (like me) just get irritated if there aren’t any rules concerning how magic is used.
Already, garbage is starting to look like a very vague term. Okay, so entire novels can be junk. Plots can suck. The dialogue can be just… painful. And, maybe the actual words are vague and confusing. Which of these translates into the ‘trash’ writers are talking about?
I used to think they were referring to nonsense words that had nothing to do with anything. For example:
And now my brain can’t think and I hate these characters. Maybe I will push them off a cliff. The sunnnnn is hot. Yay. Why can’t I spell today? Jo ate the piece of toast and died. The end.
I still believe that this sort of writing is a perfectly acceptable form of random junk. It means nothing, doesn’t really have anything to do with the story, and doesn’t make sense.
Then there’s the helpful junk:
This plot isn’t going anywhere. Maybe I should try putting in a dragon– wait, no. That wouldn’t work. Yesterday I wrote a whole scene about how dragons were extinct. Well… we could delete that scene and put in dragons, but then I couldn’t introduce that guy who doesn’t have a name yet. Maybe we should just change it to a certain type of dragon that’s extinct.
Doing this can feel weird. I tend to confuse my brain by referring to myself as ‘we’ (I’m still not sure why). Writing like this always helps me. I’m writing and working out the flaws of my story at the same time. After the eureka moment, the words leading up to it are no longer valuable and get removed by the second draft (but kept in a different folder for posterity, of course!!).
This November, I wrote 50,000 words of literary refuse. Most of it isn’t random or helpful junk. I could call it a novel if I wanted to. The plot is only slightly below average, the writing isn’t too horrible, I think it makes sense. But I don’t like it. Most stories I write grab me and force me to love them– I can’t resist when they beg to be written. This novel is different– it expects to be abused. It likes cliches. It got bored with itself in the first five thousand words. I didn’t give up on it, but as the month drew on, the lack of love between me and this story became more apparent. There’s no hatred, though, just indifference.
However, I don’t think it was a waste of time. Granted, this novel may never resurface from the cluttered, dusty pit of unwanted writing, but it gave me a whole new perspective on the benefits of writing trash. I tend to focus on my audience when I write, so I’m always wondering what they will think and how they will interpret the scene (or the blog post). I didn’t do that with this year’s NaNoWriMo novel. I wrote it knowing it was just for me and no one else. It felt good.
When November was over I had this irresistible urge to get back to the patient, half-formed novels that will be seen by other eyes some day. I think the junk novel helped with that.
Moral of this post: Write more trash! Whether random, helpful, or in novel form, it will serve as fertilizer for your more beautiful work, helping your words break through the barriers to become forests one can get lost in.