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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