Prudence Shen on Being a Good Bad Writer

High-school warfare, robot death matches, and Thanksgiving runaways are all normal affairs in Faith Erin Hicks’ and Prudence Shen’s graphic novel, Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong.

Today, Prudence Shen is dropping by Figment to tell us why it’s so important to be a bad writer. (For a while, anyhow.)




My parents, in an act of outright abuse, sold my childhood home in the rolling hills of North Carolina’s Piedmont region and packed up for California a few years ago.

When I was 26. And living in London at the time.

But this was the house I had grown up in, snuck out of and into (just kidding, Mom), and subjected to years of my adolescent tantrums. I had hosted sleepovers and mastered the art of mascara there. Its white siding and navy shutters were the face of my late childhood and teens, and the upstairs window on the right was where I sat until the early hours, hunched over primary-colored wide-rule notebooks, scratching away.

Prudence Shen, incognito

The move, on top of generally traumatizing me, unearthed a forgotten mountain of early literary efforts that were wretched.

Guys, I’m not kidding here. This stuff is so bad I can’t even offer you an excerpt because I tried to burn them immediately as some sort of apology to the gods. An “I’m So Sorry I Wrote This Garbage Down” sacrifice. Deities may be best pleased by blood offerings, but I would have given them a lot of purple prose and gristle to work their teeth on if my mother hadn’t intervened.

I’d filled up and then forgotten a half-dozen of these notebooks in my pre-word processor days, and they were snuggled with equally vexing 3 1/2-inch floppies in a rainbow of colors labeled things like NOVEL, STORY, STORY 2, and PRU’S DON’T READ!!!!!! It’s a small mercy I don’t own a machine capable of taking those disks anymore, because while the handwritten crap was surely crap, at least it was innocent-ish crap. If the floppies are where I’d started to explore my teenaged longings then sweet fancy Moses, please never let me know of their contents, amen. 

But even as I was perusing my early writing with gap-jawed horror, I was terribly, terribly grateful for it.

Anybody who’s been (un)fortunate enough to work with kids knows that the keystone of their essential sweetness, that ineffable something that keeps us from choking them out, is their unselfconsciousness, their lovely interest. They don’t know to feel silly or embarrassed about so many things. When they attack something that sparks their interest, they don’t do it furtively, in secret, knowing that they have to achieve some level of competence before they’ve fulfilled an unspoken social contact and, thus, are allowed to share. That hesitation is something the years grind into us, a scar left over.

The stuff I was writing at 11 and 12 years old is remarkable not only for its awfulness — it ranges in subject matter from Agent Prudence Shen joining forces with Mulder and Scully to Solve Crime! to thinly veiled versions of me and my then-crush falling in love…and then joining forces with Mulder and Scully to Solve Crime! — but that I remember adoring it

When I think back to being this age and writing dumb stories with crumbling narrative structures and zero ability to edit, all I remember is being ravishingly in love with the writing itself. I loved everything about it, tumbling head over feet like a new parent with an ugly, verbose baby. I loved being able to commit this late-night fantasy to paper and reread it the next day. It felt more real, substantive. I loved the way my handwriting filled up a line. I loved having an idea and watching it bleed out across a page in ink. I didn’t think about how my characters didn’t make sense or how — fifteen years later — my No. 1 turnoff would be the same giant chunks of expository dialog I was writing. 

I remember making my friends read this dreck at the lunch table, reading it to people over the phone, telling my parents about it

(For contrast, Grown-Up Me didn’t tell my parents I had written Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong until I emailed to say it was going to be published as a graphic novel in May 2013.)

I was a crappy writer, but I didn’t know it and wouldn’t have cared. I was at the first level of Moliere’s literary cynicism: I was doing it for the love of it.

We become better writers as we view our work with a more sober eye and more editorial viciousness. We’re not so easy on ourselves or happy with the outcomes. Maybe we’re trying to make a point, or do something Different, try something New. We have a plot we may love but we have to get there in ways that make sense, no skipping over crucial (but boring) parts. This is where you end up having hallucinatory conversations with yourself about whether it’s better to write a story in third-person omniscient point of view or third-person limited. Or would it best serve the tone to write it in first-person

These aren’t fun questions, nor do they lead to fun rewrites. The less you stink, the more complex the process. You recognize certain plot points and pieces of dialog as what they are: indulgent. You gut your work of unneeded adverbs and adjectives. Most importantly, you are cognizant of your continued shortcomings, that you should strive for everything you write to be an improvement on the last, that this story you were telling has turned into a process by which you’re discarding your favorite literary crutch and leaving behind that tired cliche.

And this is why being bad is so big. It’s of twofold importance:

1. If there are no bad writers, then they can’t grow into good writers. Remember this the next time you’re dumping on someone after a particularly agonizing writer’s group meeting. That person’s scifi novella about the erotic adventures of cat people is — admittedly— repellent, but maybe in a few years that same yahoo will write a four-part epic that’s going to have you shaking like an junkie for the conclusion.

2. And if you weren’t ever unselfconsciously bad, then the process of training yourself to be a good writer would be awful, with no recourse. 

You wouldn’t remember the easy pleasure of it, the way you could commit a late-night fantasy to paper and have it feel more substantial, the way your handwriting filled out a line. And that wouldn’t carry you through the third round of rewrites or your own self doubt, that moment you blink and it’s 4 a.m. and you’ve done something avante garde with your hair and a binder clip to keep it out of your eyes as you type.

Writing, once you’re actually getting good at it, is not easy. You better cherish it when you suck, and carry that bright spark as you get better, because you will get better; you’ll start doing it for your friends, and if you’re very fortunate, you’ll eventually get to do it for the money.

Here is your notebook and pen. Be unselfconscious. Be awful. It’s going to be great.

Prudence Shen is a writer and caffeine addict who pays rent in New York even though she mostly lives in airports. Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong is her first book. She loves robots. Not like that.

6 thoughts on “Prudence Shen on Being a Good Bad Writer

  1. YESH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    This is so me. I’ve moved several times, but in particular I remember the move from Arizona to Utah when I finally sat down and ORGANIZED my “portfolio” of drawings and writings into a file folder–I uncovered the fossils. Oh. My. Word. The words I wrote…my spelling was attrocious, my plot lines and characters cliche, and honestly? The grammar made NO sense. Gah. But…it was very helpful. One half-started story I came across (while horribly written) actually isn’t a half-bad idea that I shall probably pursue one day, after MANY rewrites.

  2. So true. So, so true.

    When you move, you find everything, right? (laughs) That wasn’t the only thing that was true. I unearthed my lit portfolio (basically a file folder I put stuff in around eight and nine) and I wrote Mary Sues out the flipping wazoo. I also wrote a guy named Mr. Admirable- thinly veiled way to describe a mean teacher. He was also evil, and looking back I’m pretty sure I was venting frustration about my evil English teacher at the time (he made me hate writing. I’m not joking).
    But I can see some gems in there about why I do write, and that’s the good thing. 🙂

  3. Thanks Prudence. You made me realize to FIRST write for myself, for the love of writing. In the beginning don’t care that you’ll look back on it and say “that story is crap.” Live for now, write for now. 🙂

  4. wow i really like this and its awkward because so many of my story ideas have characters that are basically me and whoever my crush happened to be and its so silly and i dont continue those story ideas but… yay writing crap is good! 😀

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