The Wall of WTF

Photo by Fernando Jorgeon, courtesy of Unsplash

The Wall of WTF

[Photo by Fernando Jorgeon, courtesy of Unsplash]

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This year I committed to an inordinate amount of new course creation for various organizations and events, which means I’ve been spending a lot of time sitting down and drafting what are essentially tiny versions of my craft book Intuitive Editing.

Each presentation needs to offer not only a solid overview of the topic I’m presenting, but enough detailed guidelines to make it practical and actionable, and of course examples to help the concepts resonate and come to life.

Here’s what course creation usually looks like for me: Once I settle on a specific subject for presentation, I start reading novels—a lot of novels. This is the research part of creation, the equivalent to fiction writers doing character development, or world building, or research on setting and situation.

Not only am I looking for good examples that will help clarify and illustrate the ideas I’ll be talking about, but I am constantly analyzing everything I’m reading with the concepts of the topic in mind, trying to dissect how the author does what they do relative to the specific subject I’m focusing on, and what makes the writing effective (or not).

This is some of the most important work of understanding craft, and it’s the basis of my constant exhortation to writers to learn to analyze like an editor. Nothing shows you how the sausage is made more than going to the sausage factory and picking apart every step.

Learn how to analyze like an editor in my online course “How to Train Your Editor Brain.”

Read more: “The Main Writing Skill You May Be Neglecting

Unlike my fiction, in my nonfiction work once I have a general idea what areas I want to hit on, I make an outline. Organization and flow are an enormous part of what makes a presentation effective and useful, so it’s important to me to get those right and think about how I want to structure the presentation before I begin.

And this is usually when I hit the first Wall of WTF.

What Is the Wall of WTF?

I’m guessing I don’t even have to expand on what I mean for most of you authors to get it. The wall can take any number of common forms:

  • “WTF, this makes no sense/is superficial/isn’t new or fresh/[insert demon here]”
  • “WTF, I’m off topic.”
  • “WTF am I forgetting or leaving out?”
  • “WTF, how will I present all this material in X amount of time?”
  • “WTF am I even talking about?”

All these WTFs are the little self-doubt demons coming out to play. Every creative, every human, has their own personal cast of those.

Read more: I’ve written about wrangling your demons hereherehere, hereherehereeverywhere!

Like the most demanding of irritating home buyers, they like to let themselves into the house as it’s being constructed and start trashing it before it’s anywhere near finished: The closets aren’t big enough. The hallways aren’t wide enough. How will their living room furniture fit with the fireplace in that corner?! It all looked so much better in the blueprints….

Like little hoodlums, if I don’t get hold of them they might start defacing the joint or knocking out support beams or stealing my copper pipe–they might even try to crack the foundation.

Something like that can derail the whole construction if you don’t sit down with the finicky home buyers and establish some boundaries—and if you don’t get hold of those little vandals before they do damage.

How to Scale the Wall of WTF

1.      Accept the wall

Getting past the Wall of WTF starts with understanding that it’s just a stage—a normal one in the process of creation.

That’s my first line of attack. I take a deep breath and remind myself that this is normal.

Read more: “Needing Help Doesn’t Mean You’re a Bad Writer
Read More: “Forgiving Your Failure

Getting past the Wall of WTF starts with understanding that it’s just a stage—a normal one in the process of creation.

The drafting process is messy just as the construction process is messy. There’s dust and dirt and scraps that result from the process of building and clutter up the site. There are miscalculations that may not reveal themselves right away, but which have to be dealt with or they may affect the entire edifice. There are changes that may be made as the building goes from 2D to 3D and you see what it’s like to actually move around in it.

This is how a house gets built. This is how anything creative gets built. It’s normal for there to be chaos and mess before there is structure and order.

2.      Know that you can conquer the wall

The second thing I have to do is remember to have faith: in myself, in the idea, in my knowledge of my topic and my ability to convey it. And even though there may sometimes be things I also don’t know, I have faith in my ability to learn them.

Read more: “Getting Unstuck in Your Writing—Or: POV Is a Bastard

I remind myself to have faith that I have information of value to offer authors that can help them in their process. Not all of it may be applicable to every writer. Not all of it may be fresh and new to them. Not all of it is even fresh and new period—just as in story, in writing craft there’s nothing really new under the sun.

But what I can do is find my own ways of analyzing and interpreting and presenting complex ideas into a form that may resonate with a certain author at a certain moment and allow them to more deeply understand something they’ve been struggling with. That’s all I have to ask of myself, and that I know I can do.

As a writer your equivalent of that is reminding yourself that you don’t have to tell a story that’s never been told. You don’t have to tell a story that changes someone’s life in major ways. You don’t have to write a story that appeals to everyone, hits every bestseller list, or gets nothing but five-star reviews.

The noblest purpose of story is to connect—whether that’s with one person or one million people doesn’t matter. Your job is simply to find a way to tell a story that is meaningful to you and find the people to whom it also connects in a meaningful way for them. That’s all. And you are capable of doing that—as an artist, and as a human being who shares many of the wants and longings and drives and fears and experiences and desires of other human beings.

Some of the most important faith I have in myself at this stage is that no matter how difficult or dark the slog may seem when I’m face-first against the Wall of WTF, eventually I’m going to get to the other side. I know that I have the tools and the skill to do it.

And I know that I also have the other most important ingredient, the third element of getting through the WTF stage: persistence.

3.       Never let the wall stop you

Legion are the stories that get stuck against the Wall of WTF and never make it out. It may be because a writer has let the demons run rampant and failed to corral them. It may be because they’ve lost faith in their ability to make it through this stage, or they’ve forgotten that this stage happens to everyone and is a normal and regular part of the creative process.

But perhaps most often it’s because battering against the wall over and over hammered away at a writer’s determination. At their persistence and spark and fire. And at some point, when all these WTF walls begin to spring up, they stop trying to surmount them and give up.

Read More: "What Do You Do When the Worst Happens?"

There’s a difference between good quitting and bad quitting. I’ve written about good quitting before, when something is no longer serving you and you reevaluate your goals and priorities and where it’s worth dedicating your energy and time, and let go of some things that are no longer serving you.

But bad quitting is where you walk away from something you still really want because it got harder than you expected, or took longer, or you believed the screaming demons who convinced you you’d never achieve it.

I often say that the biggest secret of building and maintaining strong personal relationships is just showing up. I may not always say the perfect thing in a tough time, may not buy the perfect gift for an occasion, may not be able to be there day in and day out with distant friends and family.

But I show up in the lives of the people I care about, whether that’s just through dropping a text or email to let someone know I’m thinking of them, sending a little gift for no reason, setting up a call or video call, or flying into town for an important event. With the relationships that matter most to me, I just make sure that I’m present in whatever way I’m able to be, over and over and over.

I think this applies similarly to writing. So much of success is simply showing up at your computer, in the chair, with the manuscript you’re working on. You may not always have a home-run writing session. You may not always have time to spend hours and hours working through thorny plot points or drafting or editing.

You may butt right up against a Wall of WTF and get stuck there for a while, like a Roomba in a corner. But successful writers show up, whatever that looks like, day after day—one minute, five minutes, five hours; it doesn’t matter.

A lifetime of those little incremental show-ups for people creates the most meaningful relationships.

A lifetime of showing up for your writing creates stories—ones that you finish—and a writing career.

Talk to me, friends, about your Wall of WTF. What do yours look like? What do you do when you run into one? What gets you past the mental block of being stuck so you can find a productive way around, over, or through the wall?

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30 Comments. Leave new

  • Tiffany, this comes at a great time, as I’ve given myself a 2-week deadline to send my novel ms. to an agent who showed some (not a ton) of interest. I think I’ve been polishing the polishes and need to stop. You might have just saved my sanity–that’s a good day’s work right there. Thanks!

  • Chris Bailey
    July 27, 2023 12:22 pm

    Yes! I hope that I’m finally recognizing when I hit the wall. Changing gears sooner is better than grinding along in first. This scene I’m writing that seemed like such a good idea, but now isn’t working–maybe it just doesn’t work. The character could do something else instead.

    • It’s worth trying a different tack. If you haven’t seen it yet, in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, Nicholas Cage and Pedro Pascal are scaling a wall to escape (imaginary) pursuers, and struggling mightily until Pascal, who can’t make it up to the top to join Cage, tells him he must leave him behind. I won’t spoil the next scene, but Pascal makes it after all, and in an unexpected way. I always picture that now whenever I’m stuck at the wall–just to find another way.

      It may take longer than I’d like, and it may not be exactly the way I thought I needed to, but by God I will get past that wall one way or another. 🙂

  • Val Harbolovic
    July 27, 2023 12:52 pm

    There seem to be a lot of WTF walls!

  • This is super helpful. I was especially struck by your list of WTFs. They’re so tiny and constant that I hardly notice them until I’m ready to trash whatever it is I’m working on. Thank you for the reminder that the little critters come with the process and the analogy of house building. Much appreciated

    • That’s the thing exactly, Randall! Great way to put it. It’s the thousand cuts–we almost disregard them in the moment, but they’re there paper-cutting away till we’re bleeding out (to kill the metaphor). Your comment makes me realize it’s important to recognize them, even those little arrows, because they can still do damage f we don’t put them in perspective. Thanks.

  • I resort to quotes from others, taped up around my workspace:
    “Our deepest fears are like dragons, guarding our greatest treasures” (heard on “Ted Lasso” and only roughly what Rilke actually wrote. Still.)
    “The proof that you can do hard things is one of the most powerful gifts you can give yourself” (Nat Eliason)
    “Every moment is a choice between love and fear. Choose love. Every time. Choose love.” (Luke Glassman, my youngest son)
    These are all surprisingly helpful, as was your article today. Thank you!

    • I love those, Kimberly (and I keep quotes on Post-its on my desk too–my latest: “Find the fun”). All of these are great and helpful–and I love your son’s especially. He sounds like a wise soul. 🙂 Thanks for sharing these!

  • Colleen Bell
    July 27, 2023 5:10 pm

    Kimberly’s comment above reminds me of a strategy I used effectively for awhile and have somehow not tried recently: write an encouraging quote on my bathroom mirror with whiteboard marker where I see it many times each day. Here’s one of my faves: Even monkeys fall out of trees. Kimberly’s are great too!

  • Tiffany, you are the writer’s psychologist giving us insight to our phobias, offering up tools to guide us through. You are a healer. I find one of the best ways to scale my various WTF walls is to read your counsel. Thank you.

  • Tiffany, thank you for this post! I needed the reminder today a bit more than usual. When I hit the WTF wall, I remind myself of the other times I’ve hit it. Each of those times, I powered through and kept at my writing/revising/editing. With each attempt, my writing got stronger, tighter, and more vibrant. I’ve learned that I will get there, some days it takes a bit more effort than others, but eventually I scale the WTF wall and show it who’s who. Be well!

    • Oh, I love that–reminding yourself that you’ve surmounted walls before. For a while I kept a file of reminders that I’d overcome roadblocks before–your post is a good prompt to maybe start doing that again. Thank you!

  • Jennie Dugan
    July 27, 2023 8:10 pm

    I’m definitely at a WTF point. The best is realizing, after reading this, that I’m not alone, it’s not unusual, and it doesn’t mean I’m a weak writer. And, even if I am a weak writer, maybe there’s still purpose. Thanks for this.

    • I don’t think there’s really any such thing as a “weak writer”–just degrees of experience and knowledge at different times of our careers, and even from project to project and mood to mood. (Reference all the times we writers may love something we wrote one day, and then despise something else–or even the same piece!–the next.) But it does help me to remind myself that it’s NORMAL and I am normal and this too shall pass.

      Compassion researcher Kristin Neff has a mantra she suggests that I’ve found very helpful: “This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is a part of life. May I be kind to myself in this moment. May I give myself the compassion I need.” I love that for so many reasons–but not least is its acknowledgment that “suffering is a part of life”–in other words, NORMAL. (And then it reminds me to be nice and gentle with myself about it, rather than let the demons come hack at my psyche.)

      Thanks for stopping by, Jennie.

  • Garry LaFollette
    July 28, 2023 3:32 am

    Perfect timing on this blog topic. In the past week I found a way around what had been an unyielding wall of WTF. In my WIP I wanted to introduce a thorny conflict between my lead and an important series character. Every attempt to write the scene felt contrived at best, overwrought at worst. I wanted tension between them in subsequent scenes. The opportunities that would open for me felt more important than the source of the conflict. So I was desperately shoving this, that, and the other between them to no avail. I ended up borrowing an idea from the philosopher William James, who once wrote ‘if you want to acquire a trait, act as if you already have it.’ So I left the wall standing, as imposing as it had ever been, and jumped forward to writing the scene where they had to cooperate on something they both care deeply about, even as they don’t want to be in the same room as each other. I had the emotional tenor right and the scene worked as I wanted it to. It hadn’t been my expectation that putting the butterfly in flight would reveal the moth, but that is what happened. Writing the effect gave me the cause. I was able to return to the scene I’d paused and made it work. Whether this is a one off or a tool I’ll employ in the future, I don’t know. I have reservations – even as I accept the inherent mess of first drafts – with over reliance on an approach of ‘this sucker ain’t budging, I’ll come back to it later.’ If there is a broader take away, more important perhaps than putting a challenge on hold, it may be the insight into my quirky processes this afforded me. I’m an organic writer. I tend to throw a lot of manure on the wall on the wall early on, fully aware that whatever turns out to be more stench than suspense won’t survive the second draft. I accept that my hindsight is sounder than my foresight. My WTF dilemma arose from my internal dialogue of ‘I have to hit this target, because if I don’t my other ideas won’t work.’ The source of that pressure was the unwritten scenes I’d already fallen in love with and feared was at risk. Once I had the first of those on the screen, knew that it ‘existed’, the pressure evaporated. To whatever extent fear of loss is the mortar that holds our walls together, generating the assurance that the elusive butterfly has ended up in the net makes working out the metamorphous easier.

    • I love this idea, Garry! There’s a lot of power in just avoiding the roadblock and detouring past it till you can figure out what the obstacle is. And that lets you keep writing forward–and often, as you say (more poetically than I am), suggests a solution.

      I think any strategies in surmounting a Wall of WTF are worth a try–sometimes it’s the craziest solutions that work. And I like your thoughts about taking the pressure off–I think that’s very valid. We can wind ourselves into knots at a block–and sometimes I think the fact of the block makes take on more and more dread in our minds, feel more and more daunting. Nice to circumvent that by writing around or past it. Thanks for sharing!

  • All this time I thought you just put everything on the back burner and made another casserole.

  • Robin Yaklin
    July 28, 2023 5:05 pm

    Gee, didn’t know what to call this place I’m in. Now I do! So, my wall. Developmental draft stage. Many scenes written but I no longer have a sense of the whole. Not a plotter so what this feels like is 52-card pick up. I’d like to create a notebook where I could see the blanks. Sounds easy. Ha! I’ve tried several times and I stall out. About to give it another go but I feel inadequate to the task. Cue the demons!

    • Whew, that’s an overwhelming place to be! It can help to try to step back, as you say, and look at the basics. I have a story template here that might help make sure you’ve defined the spine, and I often tout the X-ray as a way to see what you have and what may need strengthening/reworking. I also have a pretty exhaustive Self-editing Checklist here that may help. All those are free resources–and then of course my book Intuitive Editing drills down deep into exactly this–how to make sense of the morass! 🙂

      Good luck–this can be the most daunting and difficult part of writing, but I think it can also be the most fun and rewarding. Happy editing!

  • I needed that. Thanks.

  • Nathan S. Jones
    July 31, 2023 3:06 pm

    I have a steep trail near my house (I’m up against the Wasatch range of the Rockies in Utah) that I love going up every other day.

    I’ve done it long enough that I pass most people going up, but I’m amazed at how differently people view that mountain. Some, like me, see it as a great work out that boosts their health. Some see it as a formidable (if not impossible) EVEREST to climb.

    It really depends on the attitude and the persistence.

    Tiffany’s excellent, positive blog posts are exactly the energy boost I need to sit and face the work (so I don’t see it as an Everest to climb). Starting is the hardest part.

    As Steinbeck says (in his excellent journals ‘Working Days’) forming the habit of writing every day requires “a sort of fierceness” but it’s well worth it.

    As the French writer (name?) said, “to write is the joy and the torment of the idle.”

    Thanks again Tiffany!

    • Boy, isn’t that the truth–attitude and persistence. Two of the most potent ingredients of success, in my view. Love the quotes….

      Thanks for such kind words, Nathan! It means a lot to know the work is useful to authors.

  • Tiffany, thank you! You have nailed the WTF experience.

    Your tools are helpful. One of mine is to set aside all of my notes and write in my own voice, the voice I have developed just for speaking with my audience; I have learned to trust that the most important points will emerge, and if not, I can always go back and insert more material. In my case as a non-fiction writer, this keeps me from getting lost in the weeds/becoming pedantic and dry. It allows me to tell the hopeful and true story of how science can help people find and keep the love of their lives.

    I also love your point about finding the audience that wants to relate to your voice and story, rather than trying to relate to absolutely everyone. I believe readers seek a voice they can connect with: one that reflects their feelings and needs, and helps them feel understood. Nobody can be that for every person. All of us can be that for some!

    And you are that for me.

    • This makes me feel so great to hear, friend–you know how much I think of you, professionally and personally, and it makes me happy if you get even part of the enjoyment from my work that I get from yours.

      I love your techniques for braking through “pedantic voice.” That’s a tool I can use too–I find my best and most incisive writing usually comes when I can let go of worrying about how it sounds, or even hitting all the bases perfectly, and just write from my gut and my experiences in my work. It’s also the most fun I have writing–and I think the most fun to read, when I’m able to stay tapped into that authentic voice. Love that you don’t worry about whether you’re getting it all exactly right out of the gate. That’s what editing is for! 🙂 Like you, I try to trust that if it’s not what I want it to be at first, I can get it there.

      And yeah…that thing about not trying to please everyone was a big revelation to me and a big help. Thanks for this lovely comment!


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