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Strength In Weakness

photo by JD Hancock [1]
photo by JD Hancock

We all have our strengths and weaknesses as writers, don’t we? In my case, I’ve found they’re often the same. A talent for detailed description, taken too far, becomes a quicksand of heavy, dense sentences that drags the reader down. Time and time again I’ve had to deal with the repercussions of this. Trimming lovely but irrelevant flights of fancy to keep the pace brisk. Deleting entire scenes that are rich and evocative but don’t move the plot forward one iota. Editing scenes again and again to make sure the balance of dialogue and action is right, and that the ways I choose to describe physical and emotional elements of the scene don’t bring the entire enterprise to a complete halt. It’s exhausting.

That said, I wouldn’t trade my love of description for anything. It really is one of the best things about my writing. When I get it right, you as the reader are in a fully realized world, feeling what my characters feel, seeing what they see, breathing their air. And what else is fiction for, if not to transport the reader to the writer’s new reality?

From a process perspective, the same is true. My greatest weakness is my greatest strength. I’m not so much a writer as I am a rewriter. The first draft comes out quickly, but then I need to go over and over and over it, adding and subtracting, adjusting plot elements, changing characters, until the book is truly what I want it to be. Entire pages — and good ones! — end up on the cutting room floor. It’s frustrating and maddening, especially when I’m in the middle of it. I yell at myself for not getting it “right” the first time.

But those repeated drafts mean a richer, deeper product in the end. All those cycles of putting words on the page, stepping away from them, then coming back mean that I see the draft more clearly each time, and it becomes easier to pare away what doesn’t belong and emphasize what does. I can add layers of meaning with just a tweak here and there, knowing that a new scene in the second chapter will pay off in spades near the book’s end. And the doubt gets less and less with each draft, since I’ve already tried and failed at several alternative approaches. I know exactly what doesn’t work and why, which makes it more obvious what will and does work best. It’s the Cook’s Illustrated approach to writing.

So here’s a thought. What’s your biggest weakness as a writer? And can you find the strength in it?

Or look at it from the other side. What’s your biggest strength? And what’s its flip side, the weakness you need to watch out for?


About Jael McHenry [2]

Jael McHenry is the debut author of The Kitchen Daughter [3] (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books, April 12, 2011). Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. You can read more about Jael and her book at jaelmchenry.com [4] or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry.