Know Your Strength & Weaknesses

I am ankle-deep in what is shaping up to be the most challenging book I’ve ever written. I say ankle-deep because I was hoping to be knee-deep by now and that’s just not a reality at the moment. There’s way too much going on with his book, and a lot of it in areas of writing that I consider to be “weak” for me.

It’s important as a writer that you acknowledge your own strengths and weaknesses. The only way you become a better writer is by embracing and leveraging the former and challenging yourself with the latter.

For instance, I have a degree in Theatre. I am also and award-winning playwright. I know good dialogue. I know how to write it, I can visualize it coming out of the character’s mouths, and all the blocking and body language that would go with it in that particular scene. I think in terms of putting that in front of me visually as I’m writing it. My books are generally very dialogue heavy because that works for me.

I also love the sarcasm and very witty interchanges, and I especially love good wordplay, whether that’s delivering the punchline, or wielding a sentence like a sword that cleaves a character in half and leaves them bleeding. I think I’m pretty good at this. Not the greatest—yet—but I’m getting there.

Now for the list of what I’m not so great at:

Character descriptions. Believe it or not, I really struggle with giving physical descriptions of my characters in the context of the story. I even once wrote an entire book under my other pen name where I didn’t describe the protagonist in any way other than proclaiming her a female (in my defense the book was quite a few years back and one of my earliest). A reviewer called me out on it and I realized in stunned surprise that they were absolutely right. I’d never described her hair color, eye color facial features, or the build of her body. What the hell?

Describing someone’s looks is hard within the context of the story.  The last thing I want to do is pick some obvious ploy—having them stand in front of a mirror, having their best friend describe them (“Stop being so hard on yourself, Emma! I’d kill to have blonde hair, blue eyes, a perfect waist, big boobs, and porcelain skin, all in a toned five-foot six-inch frame like you!”). You have to come up with subtle ways to introduce it, like she’s playing with a strand of her curly hair with her fingers and it bounces back when she lets it go. Or she unconsciously rubs that scar on the side of her nose. Or some older relative telling her she has eyes like a summer sky. But of course, you have to work all that in as early as possible so people know how to picture this character in their mind. For me it’s just daunting.

The other area that’s tough for me is world building. Look, I’m an actor. I was trained to be an actor. The dialogue is the important thing. The interaction with the other actors is the important thing. The scenery is just there to be—scenery. It’s not the focus of the action. I’ve done tremendous shows that were in a black box environment and had nothing but a black curtain behind me and a couple of chairs. But it doesn’t work that way in a book. So I have to force myself to climb inside my character and stop for a moment to look around as they enter any new environment. What do they see, smell, hear? What can they pick up or put down or push aside? What in this environment do they need to interact with and how can I highlight that? What sort of wonderful and unique ways can I call attention to the lush world that surrounds them?

My final area of difficulty is introspection. The inner monologue of a character. As a person, I’m a natural born optimist. I have my down days, sure, but overall I am not much of a “wallower.” I’m a firm believer in picking yourself up and getting on with your life. Sitting there and beating yourself up over what happened or what you cannot or ought to change is only going to slow you down. When I write, it’s been common for editors who reviewed my manuscripts to comment that they need more, they want my character to pause and reflect a little bit longer, they need more internalization. My immediate reaction to the comment is, “But I did that!” Clearly, I didn’t do enough.

I know when I’m reading a book and a character has a very long, multi-paragraph internal monologue where they’re rehashing everything that’s occurred and how they feel about it, I have a tendency sometimes to skim it over and flip on past it. If I’m listening to an audiobook I literally wave my hand in the air like, come on, come on. That’s a personal bias of mine, and I’m learning to work through it.

I won’t lie to you, there are days when I think I should just chuck this whole manuscript and write something else. I have a file full of great ideas and some of those will be easier to write than others. But I love the story. I love these characters. It’s exciting and diverse and fantastical and if I don’t tell it, this story will never exist in the world. I just need to become a better writer to do it justice.