It’s Okay to Write Terrible Stories by Julie Falatko
You should be writing terrible stories.
Some writers love what they write and don’t want to revise. Some writers want their first drafts to be perfect and are afraid to write anything at all. Some writers write a perfect first draft that, the next day, has mystically turned into something horrible. Most writers are a combination of all of these.
Revising is hard, but the hardest part is often the idea of it. If you’re a second grader who spends two weeks painstakingly writing a story and drawing pictures to go with it, why on earth would you scrap all that work to redo it? If you’re a grownup who’s still getting your writing legs, it’s hard enough to come up with sentences in the first place, and even harder to revise.
Writing something awful feels terrible. You feel like a hack. You feel like you should give up.
You get the idea of a first draft. You hear it should be terrible. You think to yourself, “sloppy copy” and nod sagely. These are concepts you understand, intellectually. It just turns out that they are painful when you’re facing a draft that needs a lot more than crossing off adverbs. A draft that is, honestly, pretty vile except for your use of the word “squishy” in the third paragraph.
Listen. Some stories are terrible. They are, I’m sorry to tell you, unrevisable. You put the word “squishy” in your pocket and chuck the rest. That’s what that draft gave you: one word.
The first picture book I wrote, when I decided to take writing seriously, was in 2011. It was called Bang! Oops! and was the story of a boy who got a hammer for his birthday and broke everything in the house. I was so proud of this story. I imagined myself at school visits with a giant hammer, wowing the children. The problem was that Bang! Oops! was phenomenally awful. I mean: really, really bad. But it had a beginning, a middle, and an end, and so it was a start. My first Stepping Stone Story.
Do you want to hear about others? I wrote a story about a very mean monkey that was essentially a repurposed Cat in the Hat (but had a few funny bits). There was a story about a homemaking dinosaur who ate her guests (it was a very boring story, but played nicely with unexpected circumstances). A stalk of broccoli who wanted to be respected. A girl who wanted to be a writer. All were stories I toiled over, and all were unrevisably terrible.
It never gets any easier, that moment when you read a new story you wrote three days ago and realize it stinks. Maybe it can be saved, maybe not. I will say my terrible stories are getting less terrible over time, but they’re still not worth sending out into the world. They are all Stepping Stone Stories, paving a path toward better writing.
What can you do? Does it always have to be this way? If 30 percent, 50 percent, maybe even 90 percent of what I write ultimately gets scrapped, what’s the point?
Well, it’s fun. Making up stories is fun. You get an idea in your head and you get to play with it. You invent a whole person, a whole land, a whole strange situation. You put the thoughts from your head into words and it’s really cool.
Also: this is how writing works. If you sit around waiting for the perfect idea, the perfect sentence, it’ll never come. I knew this going in, but I was surprised by how many of my words never get used in the pursuit of the right words.
Writing is fun and it’s cool and I don’t know about you but also it amuses me. A lot of the world seems very silly to me, and the parts that aren’t silly should be, in my opinion, a lot sillier. So it amuses me to write very silly stories, or even just weird stories, or to try to give personalities to all the inanimate objects in the room. Because I’m sure my toaster has a personality, and my kitchen table too.
A few years ago I wrote a story called Regular Sofa. It was about talking furniture. All of the unusual furniture was complaining that they never showed up in novels or catalogs. Dais led the meeting, Pie Safe whispered a lot, and Credenza complained about being co-opted by office furniture companies. Sofa barged in, and the offbeat furniture was horrified by her presence, because how could she ever understand them? In the end they were all friends, and had hors d’oeuvres on the veranda.
Regular Sofa was a very silly story that would, as my husband put it, “appeal to two hipster parents in Brooklyn.” It amused me. And that was all.
About six months after I wrote it, I signed with my agent, Danielle Smith, and about six months after that I remembered Regular Sofa. I liked it, but wasn’t sure if it made any sense. It was a weird story. I like weird stories, but this story was really weird. It wasn’t terrible, but it didn’t seem like a picture book. I sent it to Danielle, with a note about how I’d forgotten about this story and should I continue to forget about it, forever? She replied with a lovely message (because she’s lovely), saying she liked it, but she didn’t know how to sell a story about disgruntled talking furniture. “Maybe if it was about a bunny!” she wrote, joking.
“Ha ha!” said my brain. “Ok! Bunny!” In a few days I had completely rewritten the story to be about unusual animals instead of unusual furniture. Dais became Star-Nosed Mole, Pie Safe became Fruit Fly, Credenza became Giraffe-Necked Weevil, and Sofa became Bunny.
Regular Sofa was a Stepping Stone Story because it led to other silly stories, and also because it taught me to trust in whatever I felt like putting on paper, even if ultimately I write a lot of stories that only I read. You have to practice at writing, and you have to practice a lot.
And I’m happy to tell you that the new version of Regular Sofa, which is now called Bunny’s New Friends, will be published by Viking Children’s in 2017.
Julie Falatko writes terrible stories from her home in Maine. Sometimes the terrible stories lead to good stories, and soon you can read them. She is the author of the picture books Snappsy the Alligator (Did Not Ask to Be in This Book) (2016), Bunny’s New Friends (2017), and Help Wanted: One Rooster (2018), all of which will be published by Viking Children’s.