On Writing: What Are We Good At? What Can We Improve?

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In recent weeks, we’ve spent a good deal of time here at MW talking about the things a writer needs to do well.  Last week, I wrote about different types of ambition.  A.J. discussed the ways in which arrogance can feed creativity.  Kalayna has posted recently about inspiration and motivation.  I’d like to continue this conversation.  I think that those of us who create bring different qualities to bear on our work — we carry different arrows in our quivers, if you will.  Some qualities, it seems to me, are universal; ambition of one sort or another — be it creative, or output, or material — seems to run deep in all writers.  Then again, some qualities are more idiosyncratic.

I believe there is something to be said for recognizing our own strengths and weaknesses, for understanding which tools we have at our disposal, and which ones we might need to acquire in our continuing quest to become more accomplished artists.  And so, at the risk of sounding overly full of myself, I thought I would kick this conversation off by sharing with you those qualities I believe I possess that help me with my writing, and also, those qualities I wish I had in greater abundance.

I’ll start with the ones we’ve already mentioned in the past week or two.  I believe I am ambitious in every way imaginable.  I want to succeed, to win awards and well lots of books; I am willing to set goals for myself in terms of production that might daunt another writer; and I am willing to try new things creatively.  I am also arrogant.  I believe with all my heart that I have something to say, and that you should be reading my books.  I believe that if and when I lose that arrogance, I will need to look for another line of work.

In addition, I am disciplined.  I think that the biggest single factor in whatever success I have enjoyed thus far in my career is due to my ability to put my butt in the chair and write.  There are lots of writers out there who have more talent than I do, but I have worked hard to meet every deadline, whether self-imposed or determined from outside.  I write every day.  I almost always make my word count goals for the day, mostly because I don’t allow myself to stop working until I have.  And when I decide that I’m going to write, say three short stories in a month, or a complete novel in three months, I do it.  Discipline.  It’s probably my best quality as a writer.

I’m a good friend, a good husband, a good father.  “Okay,” you might be saying, “David, this is a post about writing; it’s not your e-harmony profile.”  Right.  But bear with me.  I believe that the same qualities that allow me to succeed in my personal relationships also aid me in my writing, specifically in my character work.  I take the time to listen to people, I understand the roots of their emotions, the ways in which they sometimes hide from their feelings or rationalize poor decisions.  Empathy comes pretty easily to me.  I might not have ever been a teenage girl, but I do a good job of getting at the root of my daughters’ problems and helping them cope.  And so when I wrote a book this past summer that had only female POV characters, I managed to write something that worked, that didn’t feel like a guy trying to write women characters.  In other words, I do a pretty good job of managing the emotional complexities of real life, and have been able to translate that skill to my writing.

I have learned to take criticism well, and to dive into revisions with as much enthusiasm as I do the first draft of a story or book.  But I suppose this is one that goes both ways.  It’s a strength, but I could also improve upon it even further.

Finally, I would also say that I have a good eye for detail.  Maybe this comes from being a photographer.  Or maybe my meager talents with a camera come from the attention to detail that I have honed in my writing.  Either way, I feel that I do a good job in my books and stories of finding the right details to focus on in descriptive passages or in dramatic scenes.  Whether it is a nervous hand gesture made by a character being interviewed in connection with an unsolved murder, or a strand of hair falling over someone’s brow in the opening moments of a love scene, little details can make a passage come alive.  And I think I’m pretty good at choosing the right one to mention.

On the other hand, I have weaknesses as a writer that I would love to improve upon in the months and years to come.  For one thing, I don’t think my imagination always serves me as well as I would like.  Oh, I think I do an okay job of coming up with storylines or magic systems or new worlds.  I think the Thieftaker books are founded on a good idea.  But I will read books by others in our genre — Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, which I just finished, is a perfect example — that leave me utterly amazed by the scope and depth of the author’s vision.  I wish I could have imagined something half as brilliant as Paolo did in this book.  But I just don’t think my imagination is capable of coming up with something that rich.  I don’t know what kind of exercises I can do to improve my imagination; maybe there are none.  But I would love to find some if they exist.

I also think that I’m not daring enough as a writer.  I often have to push myself to take chances in my books.  My agent, Lucienne Diver, who you all know through MW, reads all of my books, and she is terrific at pointing out places where I can stretch my narrative, or take a character in a bold direction.  But I would love to spot those things on my own, before Lucienne points them out to me.  This, I believe, is something I can improve on my own.  I can force myself to be even more ambitious than I have been in the past, to reject the easy path, and do something truly unexpected.  But I still have a lot of work to do on this.  I need to remind myself to be bold, to take more chances.

And, as always, I still need to work on stepping away from my verbal crutches, the little turns of phrase on which I fall back when I don’t know what else to write.  I suppose this is another form of “Be bold!”  Just as I can stretch myself with my character work and my plotting, I can also be more original with my prose.  Generally speaking, “write fast” works for me.  I am getting more done than ever before, and I think my books are leaner because I am taking less time over certain passages.  But there is a downside for me as well — when I write quickly, I rely on familiar wordings.  I try to catch them in revisions, but I could do a better job of writing in the first place.  And more generally speaking, I feel that my prose is not as smooth as I would like it to be.  I read some authors and am just blown away by the ease and flow of their writing.  I want to see those same qualities in my own work.

Anyway, there it is.  The good and the bad, and perhaps a bit of the ugly.  That’s as honest as I can be about my work.  So now it’s your turn.  What are your best qualities as a writer?  What do you need to improve?  Yeah, it’s a little scary to share at first.  But the first step toward improvement is recognizing what you need to work on.  So join the conversation.

David B. Coe
http://davidbcoe.livejournal.com
http://www.DavidBCoe.com
http://www.dbjackson-author.com
http://magicalwords.net
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41 comments to On Writing: What Are We Good At? What Can We Improve?

  • Unicorn

    Thanks for the interesting post, David.
    My greatest weakness is probably discipline. I often have trouble finishing stuff, and I also struggle with driving myself to the keyboard on days when the words just don’t flow. I write slowly, in occasional bursts of thousands of words when the mood is right; but I know I can do much better if I discipline myself a lot more, and that’s what I’m going to work on this year.
    Another great weakness for me is shyness. I’m terrifically nervous about sharing my work, or even talking about it, and there are times when that shyness or self-doubt stifles my writing. It makes me very nervous about the prospect of publication.
    When it comes to strengths, though, I like my imagination. I’m always coming up with new ideas, new worlds, new characters. Sometimes I keep myself awake at night, buzzing with stories that I know I’ll never have the time to write. Some ideas are utterly ridiculous; many, I think, are workable, and that’s why I write, because if I didn’t, I’d go crazy with all ideas. Crazier, anyway.
    I’m curious, too. I always need to know more. I need to ask questions. If I try to look up the origin of Death Valley I end up reading everything I can about eighteen-mule teams, pupfish, borax and light pillars. The curiosity fuels the imagination, and on good days, that’s what gets the words on the page.
    Now I had better get back to the WIP.
    Unicorn

  • Best qualities as a writer? I would say dialogue. That is the single area where I get my most compliments.

    For improvement, I need to work on actually putting pen to paper and finishing stories. Oftentimes, my inspiration for a story waxes and wanes and the sotry peters-out. My writing file if full of imcomplete novels. I need to learn to see a story through to the end. A big part of that, I feel, is poor planning from the outset. I get a great idea, run with it through the puppy-love beginning chapters, but then it stutters and dies in the dreaded Middle Slog. So ultimately, I guess I need to plan better.

  • David,
    Thanks for keeping this conversation going. I like how these posts all tie together. And as easy as some may think it is to talk about strengths, it takes a lot of guts to talk about weaknesses. I supposed if I were to step up to bat, I’d say that I can tell an entertaining story. My beta readers and critique buddies have often commented on that. I also seem to have a good grasp of pacing and character conflict.

    Where I’ve struggled in the past is retelling a mash-up of worn out tropes. I thought I could mix together what’s been done before and deliver it in my own way and that would be fine. For a first novel, it may have been, but I’m now pushing for more creative ways of storytelling. Granted, my second book is only a few degrees separated from the first, but I managed to change some things and make the overall story stronger. I spent a lot of time thinking about the magic system and how make the MC more unique. Thus, he’s a father and a scholar, not an orphan from the streets, and he has everything to live for instead of nothing to live for.

    I still want to push the envelope creatively, so if you come up with exercises or posts on how to stretch your imagination, please share. Good luck pushing your imagination.
    Cheers,
    NGD

  • DizzyMia

    This is a rather thought provoking post David, thanks!
    I think..my greatest strength is my ability to come up with interesting storylines. That’s the one thing I get consistent comments on “huh, I wouldn’t have thought of looking at it that way”.
    My biggest struggle is discipline. Not finishing things, but to write every single day. It would be nice to only have to write say, a thousand words per day, instead of sitting down every few days to write 5k or more.
    I know I need to work on my enthusiasm for revising. So far, I don’t like it too much.
    Good luck with stretching your imagination
    Ciao,
    Mia

  • My weakness is structure and organization…and knowing what’s extraneous and what isn’t. I tend to write around 120-130k novels. When I write a short story, it’s a novelette. A novelette, it’s a novella.

  • Ken

    Thanks for posting this David, there’s nothing like a bit of introspection (relatively) early in the morning 🙂

    Greatest Strengths: Imagination. My ability to work through corners that I’ve written myself into or to figure out where things are going next. I also write pretty good arguments.

    Weaknesses: Kryptonite 🙂 Discipline. Confidence. Honesty–with myself when setting writing goals or when I’m looking at The Chair after a really draining time at the day job…

  • MaCrae

    I’m good at creating bizzare worlds and the flora and fauna that resides in it. I can get an idea by just staring at the wall. I’ll admit that I think I’ve created some pretty cool stuff. Dunno if anybody else does but…:P
    Weaknesses…phhbt. Scope. Getting my universe grand enough and big enough for what I want it to be. Character development and all the typical noob writer issues.

  • Oh, and then there’s always that scene (or those several scenes) per novel of which I say, “I read that in a fanfic once.”

  • As I’ve suggested once or twice, I feel I need to really push my creative ambition, to come up with fundamentally surprising and compelling ideas or high concept approaches. That’s my goal right now. I confident enough in my facility with words on a sentence level, but I think sometimes that becomes a prop for stories or forms which might be more innovative or distinctive. For these and for all my sins, I am very sorry.

  • Well, I guess my strengths would be inspiration, discipline (at least where the writing comes in…why don’t chores do themselves?), the ability to see the story unfolding like a movie in my head (I think in pictures…well, full color movie), ambition. I have a little bit of that daring, but I would like to have more. Like David, I have a bit of empathy and I learned long ago that I can use my introversion to my advantage as I tend to watch and observe people more when I’m silent. It’s usually how I feel people out in social situations to figure out how much of my own personality I can let out. 😉 I’m pretty in touch with my emotions (though my mask of humor and stoicism hides that fact) and I think I’m good at conveying those in a character. I let them out to play in my writing. And I’ve always had a good eye for detail.

    I would love more discipline. There are days where I really have to push myself and days where I don’t get as much as I wanted done, due to distraction. I would also love to have more energy, but that’s, in part, a disease thing. I’d love to have a bit more speed, as well. I can do 5-6,000 words a week, not working weekends, but I do wish I could clear more. I also need to do some brushing up on my comma usage. And yeah, dropping crutches. Kinda need to do that myself. Thick-skin/armor…working on it. Maybe I can train myself for symbolism there… Put on a hat or certain stones when dealing with reading critique or editing suggestions. Lastly, pessimism. It’s always been my biggest stumbling block. I’ve been trying to stuff it in a closet, but it seeps out from under the door. Just as it keeps me working to perfect a work of writing or art, it also gives me those constant fears of failure, of not being good enough.

    Sorry for the length. I think on these all the time.

  • Unicorn, thanks for the comment. As I have said to you before, you are SO far ahead of the game. When I was your age I didn’t have your facility with language or your creative self-awareness. You’re going to do great in this business.

    Mark, I bet you have more going for you than just your dialogue. Sometimes the hardest part of this is identifying our strengths. As I say, I’m sure you have more of them than you indicate here.

    NGD, thanks for the comment and your contribution to the discussion. I would love to find imagination exercises, and will certainly share when I do. In the meantime, best of luck with the WIP.

    Thank you, Mia. It took me a while to start enjoying revisions. That’s something that kind of has to grow on you. Like a fungus…. 😉

    Lauren, my dear, you need to share strengths, too. As I said to Mark, criticizing ourselves is often too easy. The tough thing is learning to say, “Hey, I’m pretty good at doing this and that.” So, care to try again? 🙂

    Ken, thanks for the comment, and also for the chuckle re. Kryptonite. Discipline and confidence are problems for a lot of us, but they are also relatively easy to fix. Good luck with it!

    MaCrae, the noob stuff is hard to deal with, but it’s noob-stuff for a reason: with time it will sort itself out. Keep at it. And thanks for the comment.

    A.J., I love the way you write — your prose is gorgeous. As for the rest, two Our Fathers and three Hail Marys and all will be forgiven…

    Daniel, thanks for taking the time to answer so candidly. Having such a good handle on both our strengths and shortcomings is, as I said, incredibly helpful as we think about creative process. In find it gives me concrete goals as I see to improve. Hope it does the same as you work on your own writing.

  • FINE. If I MUST compliment myself, I think I’m pretty good at description, and my writing is usually clear, and the action easy to follow. I also think I tend to have well-realized characters with realistic flaws (though making their motivations clear and independent is something I need to work on).

  • Stuff I’m good at: One liners (often in dialogue, but not always) and touching but not smarmy moments, often the “laughter through tears” kind of moments. My favorites to write. I need discipline, though I think I’m okay with that. I need to work on variation (there are words/gestures I use too much). Dialogue tags and working action into dialouge. I skim a novel by, say, David or AJ or Faith or Kalayna, and I see dialogue with non-dialogue stuff going on there, too! I skim mine, and heck, there sometimes aren’t even dialogue tags. 😛 So I have to work on integrating action and dialogue, better beats and actions (sometimes my characters shrug so much I think they have some kind of medical tic) and better scenery description.

  • Lauren, see? That wasn’t so hard. Thanks.

    Emily, blending action and dialogue while keeping attribution clear is one of the hardest things I’ve had to learn. And yes, I had too many shrugs, too many “grins” and “wry smiles” and the like. I still do searches for these things at the end of my first drafts and often find that I need to delete bunches of them. Thanks for the comment.

  • sagablessed

    Well, this is a good posting!
    This has made me think about what I am good at and what needs work. I am good at characters, or at least I think so. And I, like Daniel, see the story in my head. So I can write it down. I hope I develop with the reader an interest in the characters, and let the reader form a ‘bond’ with those on the page. I think that is important. It has been said here on MW before: if the reader does not care about the characters, the story is lost.
    I can also be very creative about the rules of my worlds.
    I also have ideas constantly floating around in head for the next chapter, scene, or work.

    My weaknesses? I am a FaceBook addict.
    I at times have difficulty believing in myself. I am always asking myself, “You really think you are good enough?” My answer is usually “Idiot. No, you’re not.”
    I also am a minimalist: I do not add enough to the written words. So I am always having to go back and add to the WIP, mostly so the reader can keep up with my thoughts.
    And lastly: I need discipline. I am horrible about actually doing the work. :^(

  • Oh dear… I am good at … descriptions and character development. And I am not good at using time well. I am trying to get better. 🙂

    Thanks for making me think about weaknesses and strengths as a writer. Now, off my butt and to the grocery store. Then back to BIC the rest of the day.

  • Saga, thanks. Great list of good points and places to improve. My various online addictions are certainly a source of frustration for me as well.

    [Waves at Faith] I’m not sure I agree about your use of time. Given all that you do, your production amazes me. But I suppose you know yourself best. I certainly agree about your character work and descriptive passages.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Okay, I’ll give this a shot. (Sorry this is so long.)
    Strengths. I feel like creativity is one of my strengths, though it comes with the two weaknesses of not always making sure that all of the different elements tie together properly, and a laziness that lets me fall back on familiar things rather than keeping the creativity at a high level throughout. But, I too have SO many ideas that I want to try out and know I won’t have the time for all of them. (Partly I need to not be so stingy and let multiple cool ideas exist in the same work.) I don’t know any creativity exercises, but I can mention some common components of my best creative ideas: Unicorn has already mentioned curiosity, and that’s definitely important. The more cool facts I can run across, the more fabulous tidbits I can tack onto my different ongoing ideas to make them richer. Next, (I think this has also already been mentioned) I find I’m the most creative when I’m problem solving or when I’m working within a set of constraints. Sometimes this is contrariness: I’m supposed to do something with mazes but I’m more interested in spaceships. How can I contort the mazes constraint to fit what I’m interested in? Other times it’s desperation: I’ve gotten myself into such a tangle or am determined to combined two ideas that so conflict with each other, that it forces me to loosen my boundaries on what’s an “acceptable” idea and so can finally come up with a cool solution. Finally, threaded through the above points, is the combining of ideas. I want to do something with werewolves but I’m bored with the traditional settings. I take a trip to Puerto Rico and combine the scenery there with my werewolf story idea and suddenly it really sings, suddenly it’s something I MUST try.

    Weaknesses: I feel like my prose is FAIRLY good, but my main weaknesses are most of the rest of the traditional writer’s tools. Partly it’s that I’m still learning, but my plots are awful and my characters more like still-frame studies than people moving through the world, changing it and themselves. One of the most terrifying things to me is plot/character interactions; I’ve got a way I’ve figured I want the plot to go or a direction I want a character to move in and I DON’T want the one tangling up the other. I definitely need to get past this fear and take on the challenge of letting my characters muck about in my world and MAKING myself fit all the pieces together in a way that still fits my vision. Also transitions. Transitions baffle me. I think they’re a black art.

  • I love this post because, like the other posts in this conversation, it immediately got my brain working. So, here goes –

    Good Qualities:
    I am good at revising – I have made real progress in the last three years at being able to re-envision my ideas so that I don’t get stuck in the “I wrote what I wrote. It can never change.” mode. I know I’m good at this because last night I cheerfully deleted about 2,000 words and rewrote them. This morning the first, literally the first thought, in my head was “I need to go back and put in emotional action. More of what the POV character is seeing and feeling. The bones are good, but the scene feels too clinical.” I know I’m going to change the scene and it doesn’t bother me. This growth has happened largely through having to change when working with a collaborator and pushing myself to finish a work. This means that I’m not focused on maintaining the “purity of the original vision” anymore; I’m focused on telling a good story and a true one. What I thought was “purity of vision” turned out just to be an effort to maintain that first glorious feeling of a new idea, and that’s a mirage.

    I’m good at purple prose. Really – I strive for the lyric in my work and I think I’m getting pretty good at it.

    I’m good at telling the ugly truth – I’ve learned to write scenes where a character is as mean or gross or awkward as they really are. I’m eliminating the compulsion to pretty things up or glide over the moments where the reader (and I) should wince with embarrassment or pain or disgust.

    Needs to Improve:
    Plot development. I still really struggle with figuring out what happens next, especially at the beginning of a project.

    Time management/productivity – I’ve improved a lot, but I still really need to work on this. Saturday I got my computer, went to my cafe table…and screwed around on the internet. I made excuses, but the bottom line is that I didn’t write in the only precious time slot I had that day.

    I’m not good at small beats in dialogue. If I write “he nodded” one more time I may cry and bang my head on the desk. I’ve got to get better at seeing and describing small body movements to evoke emotion.

    PS Daniel – I’m with you on the energy level thing. Growing up with a chronically ill Dad and dealing with my own health issues the last few years has shown me just how hard it is to know when to push yourself and when to accept the limits your body imposes. It’s a tough balance. Hope you’re feeling better!

  • Hep, thanks for the creativity ideas. I think that those are going to prove helpful as I start to explore ways of prodding my own creativity into motion. (I’m currently working on plotting a couple of new books.) So thank you for that. I also have been considering a post on transitions. Maybe the next time I post (two weeks from today).

    Sarah, glad you liked the post. “Telling the ugly truth.” Ah yes. I’ve had my editor tell me that I’m too nice, that I need to be harder on my characters — this, I think, is what he has in mind. I’m getting better at it, but I’m glad to have some terminology. Thanks for that. And as I mentioned in another comment above, those attribution/action phrases in scenes with dialog, are, I believe, among the hardest to do well. You’re not the only one of us who struggles with them.

  • My strengths? Worldbuilding is one. I do a bang-up job on creating an interesting, compelling, living world, with believable cultures and inherrent conflict. Prose writing is another, though I can still stand to improve. I have a natural affinity for the use of language, and I think that comes out in my writing. It’s clean, readable, and has some pretty good style. You won’t find many grammar mistakes (and when you do, it’s usually because a utility word is missing, like a definite article or a preposition). I also think I’m pretty good at description (a story plays like a movie in my mind’s eye, so I can usually see it and describe it). I’m sure I have others.

    My weaknesses? Characterization. It’s easy for me to build character in non-protagonists. But I struggle with the protagonists. Lack-of-time. I wouldn’t say I’m undisciplined in writing. But I don’t have as much time to write as I’d need if I was going to be as productive as I want. I have far less writing time than most of the very-productive authorial aspirants I’ve read about. Finally, a chronic inability to function in large-scale, ad-hoc social situations. It’s not a question of introversion versus extraversion. I can function fine in social settings that are either (a) controlled or structured or (b) very small-scale (four-to-six other participants, give or take). I’m also unable to initiate social interactions. The latter matters because even were I to go to cons regularly, I’d be wholly incapable of approaching authors, agents, or editors, without a just cause, to engage in any sort of banter about the industry or initiate self-promotional opportunities.

    I have others of each, I’m sure…

  • ‘Tis a timely subject for me, given I’m having one of my periodic life reevaluations. Over the last few months, I’ve been thinking not only about what I’m good at and what I’d like to improve. I’ve also thought about what I enjoy.
    My Big Question? Where do they intersect, and why am I not spending my time at that intersection.

    So, my strengths. Not limited to writing…: Meeting people. Understanding people. Talking to people. Computer stuff. Character development. Dialogue. Story ideas.

    Areas I’d like to grow: Time management. Buttinchair. Fewer typos and grammar mistakes. Less repetition in my writing, both on the micro scale and macro scale. Marketing skills. Artistic skills.

    Areas I enjoy: most of the things listed above. Travel. My family.

    What I’m doin’ about it? A career change to mash all those things up. Well, honestly, a life change to mash those things up. I’m startin’ a business around all of that stuff. Including buttinchair time.

  • Stephen, that’s a good, candid assessment, thanks. I should add, though, that I’ve met you in person at a con, and you came across as poised, confident, friendly and quite comfortable. So that may not be as much of a weakness as you think. 🙂

    Roxanne, life evaluations can be a good thing, and it sounds like you have some really exciting changes in the works. I wish you great success with all of it! And yay to BIC!

  • Razziecat

    Eeep. Well, discipline is definitely one of my weaknesses. I’m working on that one! If I could do it for NaNo, there’s no good excuse for not doing it all the time. I would love to be more daring, more bold, and more innovative in my plots. Sometimes I just don’t take an idea far enough. On the good side, my characters are interesting people with lots of their own strengths and weaknesses. And, I’m pretty good at working dialog into action so that it moves the story along.

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    > I don’t know what kind of exercises I can do to improve my imagination; maybe there are none. But I would love to find some if they exist.

    Roleplaying. Definitely works. It’s like imagination gymnastics.

    I really enjoyed your post, especially since some of your strengths are weaknesses of mine and visa versa. It is always interesting to read how other writers work.

    I am so with you on how much I wish I could catch certain errors I make without someone pointing them out to me…but I make sure to be grateful that I have people to point them out. (As, I am sure, are you!)

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    By the way…your post made me feel humble, too. I recall a time years ago when I was arrgant to John about the fact that he was bad with directions. For almost a year, my nigh-magical sense of where things are vanished and I made lots of mistakes getting places. It was so weird. It was as if the universe was saying to me…he doesn’t have a problem, you have a gift and you need to be grateful for it!

    I think we sometimes take our gifts forgranted. When we see others striving in the areas where we are strong, it is a reminder for us to be grateful for the things we do well. (You can be grateful for being good at mannerisms, like the brush of a hair thing…I am really bad at that! LOL 😉

  • Where I need work: I am not disciplined. I do not have a regular, set writing schedule. I haven’t been reading as much as I’d like or as much as I think a writer either published or seeking publication should be. I can get distracted easily—by the Internet. By chores that need doing if I’m at home, or checking my Blackberry if I’m at work on my lunch break (the Internet is an issue here, too). By new projects, most of which are not so much New Shinies as they are backburner-ideas that I promised myself I would get to later. I’m at that place where I should be starting Book 2 or at least something, but all of these projects are vying for my attention. I haven’t been writing as many fresh words as I’d like to, probably because of this chaos currently reigning in my head. I have a baaad, bad habit of overcommitting myself, too, which interferes with the so-called writing schedule. And as for writing specifically, I am not the greatest with description.

    On the positive side: I have been sleeping better, which does wonders for my mental faculties—anxiety included. I get easily inspired. I have developed a way with euphemisms, even if when I pronounce that word aloud quickly it often comes out sounding like “euthanisms”. 😉 I am a fantastic copy-editor when it comes to beta-reading. I can get over rejection quickly and well, and keep going, even if I get upset at first. For the most part, I can handle criticism well, too. I am a caring person who is always eager to help out friends and family (okay, maybe that presents a problem, but I *am* learning to put myself first sometimes, finally). On the positive side, even when things are at their worst, I am in the end an optimist.

    I could probably add more to both lists, but this is what I can think of right now. Thank you for this opportunity, David. (And now to spend my Monday evening, which is usually set aside for writing and the latest episode of Castle, at a concert. :D)

  • Great post, David!
    My main strength, I think, is being able to write evocative prose. I’m good at pacing and using the flow of the words to drive the tempo of the story. I’m pretty good at world building, and developing believable societies that reflect the histories, religions, magics, and physical aspects of that world.
    My weaknesses: Developing complex, twisting plots/plotting in general. BIC discipline. Time management. Maintaining momentum sufficient to get this old short story writer through a novel length mss. Not being able to move forward if something ~back there~ needs to be fixed.

  • I’ll have a shot too:
    Strengths
    Discipline: I can make myself write and keep writing until I reach my target for the day. This is something I’ve trained in my life in general and it is not easy. Don’t ever think that people with “strong will power” are just talented, it takes practice and a lot of teeth gritting.
    Imagination: I think I can come up with some great twisted tales of depth and interest. This is also my weakness because I tend to stretch my stories too far and fail to fill in enough detail to allow my reader to follow along.
    Description: I like to think I have a good turn of phrase and a capacity for analogy that is worth continuing.
    Thick skin: I’m happy to allow people to hold their opinion of my work regardless if it is good or bad. I enjoy the writing and can only produce as good as I can at the time. I’m always willing to improve.
    Weaknesses:
    Imagination: As above, I often don’t add enough of the finer details that exist only in my head.
    Punctuation: I used to think I was good at this until I sent my work out to beta readers and every one of them said I need to have a look at my comma usage (that hurt a little because I really did think I was good at it).
    Crutches: I have a particular sentence structure I keep returning to and it trips me up every time. I also keep using the word “glance” and pay too much attention to peoples eyebrows.

  • Raz, thanks for sharing despite the initial “eep!” It’s funny how intimidating this process can be. Talking about our strengths and weaknesses is surprisingly difficult. Again, thanks for contributing.

    Jagi, I would love to sit down with you at some point and compare notes on strengths and shortcomings. It think it would be fascinating to speak with someone who found it easy to do the things with which I struggle, and vice versa. And yes, taking our gifts for granted is something I have been working on recently, as I find myself all too willing to trumpet my own successes.

    Thanks for the list, Laura. I think that if I managed to get more and better sleep, a lot of my other issues would go away. Something to strive for in the future! And I could definitely learn something from an optimist….

    Lyn, thank you. Working out twisty plots is actually something I’ve learned to do over the years, though it took me a while. And I also find it very hard to move ahead when something needs fixing.

    John, thanks for the list. I’m not too bad with eyebrows, but brows – foreheads — yeah, way too much. Like fetish too much. Definitely something to work on. And I would love to develop a thicker skin. Good on you for having it already.

  • The Mathelete

    David, thanks for this awesome post. I don’t think I have the introspection in me right at this hour to analyze what I’m good at and what I could work on, but I might offer something that has worked really well for me in the past as far as fostering my imagination.

    It sounds crazy. Maybe it is crazy, and the poor mathelete will be shipped off to the white jackets in short order. Ready? Tell yourself bedtime stories. Whatever evening regimen you have, while you’re doing it before bed, tell yourself a story. Rule is — it’s not the next chapter of your book. It’s not the short story you’ve been trying to write. It’s not a rehash of something you’ve read or seen on the TV. Come up with a couple of characters, have them do something, and tell it to yourself. What helps me push my imagination is to never let it go far. A week, maybe two if I’m really enjoying the story I’m making up, and then I need to come up with something new.

    When I was a child many years ago, my dad would start telling a story then abruptly stop at some random point. I’d be expected to pick up where he left off. The fact that we rarely saw eye to eye (Dad: And Mickey Mantle knocked the ball out of the park. Me: And straight into an enormous space ship!) Dunno if it’ll help those of you without that experience, but I find wasting fifteen minutes before bed telling myself a story recharges my creativity, opens up ideas I’d never commit to actually typing, and really unfetters my imagination. Those of you with kids, maybe try the tandem story idea — nobody has more imagination than a child.

    And now, to sleep. Good night, Magical Words. It’s time for my bedtime story.

  • Mathelete, thanks for a terrific suggestion! I love that idea. And I would think that others here at MW will put it to use as well. Again, many thanks!

  • TwilightHero

    Hmmm, weaknesses….discipline. No question. I know I could work a lot faster if I just stopped letting myself get side-tracked doing other things.

    Also dialogue, and to a lesser extent, emotional action (http://www.magicalwords.net/diana-pharaoh-francis/physical-and-emotional-action/). Snappy one-liners I can do, but in general I have to go over the things my characters say and do to make sure they fit with their personalities. I remember reading an article not so long ago – I might have gotten the link here, I don’t remember 😀 – about how younger writers have less experience with people in general and so can have more trouble with things like dialogue and characterization. That seems to ring true for me.

    Also…yes, I’m with you, David. Got to get rid of those verbal crutches.

    Strengths on the other hand…

    That I focused on weaknesses first? 😛 I tend to think logically, which means I come up with good arguments, particularly when explaining why character X is choosing action Y. This also works for the plot in general; I WILL find every possible plot hole and either get rid of it or find a way to make it work. I have even, in some cases, come up with alternate scenarios and proceeded to explain, if only to myself, why they didn’t work (or why I killed them if they did!). Of course, this also means I have trouble explaining actions which make perfect sense to the person doing them but are obviously irrational to others…but no, these are the good points.

    On a related note, I too value the power of good relationships. You have to be aware of the differences and similarities in the ways you and your loved ones think. How else can you expect to foster such things in your characters?

    And I write good fight scenes, if I do say so myself. It’s really all just cause and effect – the logic thing again.

    A long answer I know. Thanks for listening. Great post.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    I must agree that Mathelete’s suggestion is fabulous, and I definitely need to extend the imagination bedtime game I’ve been playing with my 3-year-old.

    If I may, I thought I’d offer up an exercise based on thinking about my above comments some more (though I doubt it’s a terribly new idea). Going with the desperation theme, one might consider writing, or at least plotting out, short stories based around themes (as for a themed anthology) one finds terribly boring. For example: I have very little interest in most sports, so a good one for me would be to find a way to write a story *I* *liked* based around football, or better yet superbowl parties. But maybe this is too difficult for me. So I’ll start with something easier: kayaking (sorry Faith). Kayaking is a good place to start, because I don’t have any interest in doing it, but I can link it back around to something I find very interesting, namely far-north Native American mythology. Once I’ve dealt with that, I can go back to the football assignment and decide that maybe I can run with the Native American theme to make this interesting, maybe I’ll write a fantasy story centered around a superbowl-party-like event but using the Aztec ball court instead and a bunch of cool Aztec cultural influences. Maybe that’s not super creative, but it’s creative for me, because I connect so poorly to team-based sports.

    Of course, simpler than this exercise might just be writing a short story based around a couple random elements (possibly elements already cool all by themselves) drawn out of a hat.

  • TH, thanks for the answer — not too long at all. Have a logical mind is a great tool for plotting (as well as for action scenes). I am somewhat logical, but my wife is VERY strong on that score, and so I often run things past her.

    Hep, I like that idea a lot. A couple of the best stories I’ve ever written have been for themed anthologies. I probably never would have attempted the stories without the prompts of those themes, and so I think that your idea has a ton of merit. I was also thinking that taking a random sentence from a newspaper or magazine and using it as a conceptual starting point for stories might also be a way to spur imaginative leaps. Thanks!

  • Hepseba ALHH

    I’m glad you like the idea. Starting with a random sentence could work well too, but I’d add a note of caution here: make sure it’s something you still have to put good effort into. It can be cool to watch the sparks fly when combining disparate ideas, but work still goes into making sure the end result is cohesive. Similarly, if you start with something you think is boring, you really have to flex your creative muscles to turn it into something you think is cool. However, I’d watch out for letting yourself pick a starting sentence that jumps off the page at you as interesting (if you chose it that way), partly because a full sentence can have enough context that it can be tempting to just run with that first easy context/direction the mind presents you with.

    Sorry if I sound like I’m overstepping myself. Good luck and good fun with whatever you decide to try! (And please do consider that post on transitions!)

  • Hep, I appreciate the cautions, but I’m not sure I agree (which is fine — we can disagree on stuff here). I don’t think I share the view that something we would otherwise find boring necessarily demands more creativity or imagination than something that catches our eye in an exciting way. “An idea,” Robert Frost once said, “is a feat of association.” Any thing that sparks an idea engages the imagination, and the more we use our imagination, I would argue, the more nimble it becomes. I understand the point you’re making, but I also think that any time we can use something random to make ourselves write a new piece, it has value. Does that make any sense?

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Perfect good sense. I’m sorry my last comment came across as sounding so black and white. Certainly banging one’s head against something that remains flat and boring no matter how we turn it is going to do little for the imagination.

  • Thank you, David. The sleep has been a big help and has done wonders. Another thing I really need to work on: taking a moment or six to think before I click “Post Comment”! A lot of that “Needs Improvement” list came from frustrations going on that day, and I think I was harder on myself than I should have been. I am capable of time management, for example; I’m just taking a few days to figure out where my creativity wants to be.

  • Hep, your comment was fine. Really. No worries.

    Laura, my pleasure. Glad the sleep helped, and glad you’re not being quite so hard on yourself.

  • ajp88

    I think my biggest issue lately has been BIC. Taking to heart the mundane, physically taxing day job that still has me drowning in debt has been getting in the way of my writing. I shouldn’t let it effect me when I’m home on my own time but lately I haven’t manned up and forced myself to work through the stress and forget for a few hours. My goals for the year are lofty yet attainable if I would only just write more.

    My strengths are absolutely my knack for plot twists and harrowing character moments. I suspect I owe that ability to my pension for gripping, standout dramas: Breaking Bad, A Song of Ice & Fire, The Wire. I live for imagining those scenes where my characters reach their breaking points and lash out. Following the plot thread back and discovering the knots of tension that lead to the fray is also one of my favorite things about my stories and something that I have no problem with. Scrivener has 6 separate novels that I’ve plotted out the “oh sh*t!” moments, as I like to call them, years before I’ll get to them.

    Plot wise, I’m full of confidence and maybe a little hot air. Fleshing out the characters and setting are where I know I need improvement. And dialogue will forever be a chore.