This week I handed eighteen writers a list of skills – from dialogue to structure to imagery to ability to take criticism and resilience. The writers scored each of their perceived abilities on a scale of 1-10. They weren’t comparing themselves to literary giants, just their own limitations. [Click here to see the list and score yourself.]
Granted, it seems a bit cruel, forcing writers to be both a little cocky while having their weaknesses laid bare.
Here’s why I did it. As writers, the model for improvement is criticism on the page. But rarely is someone looking for overall weaknesses, rarer still is someone creating a plan to attack those weaknesses.
Couple this with moments of positive feedback. A note on beautiful setting or deep characterization and what happens? Well, too often, the positive swells in the writer’s mind. You like it when I write setting? I’ll double down on that. You think I’m good at deep characterization? The next story is all deep characterization.
We lean into what we’re good at and we avoid our weaknesses.
This doesn’t usually happen in other fields. If you’re a talented young soccer player – a leading scorer – but you can only strike with your right foot, you’ll find that, by the time you’re twelve, someone is drilling you on shooting with your left. If no one does, you’re not able to compete when the speed of play picks up in high school. It’s over pretty quickly.
We fear our weaknesses. I get it. But if you’re naturally fearful – most writers are – you might enjoy my take that fear is a good sign. It’s an indicator that you’re pushing the work beyond your capabilities, which is a sure way to stretch those capabilities.
But you shouldn’t be passively, vaguely fearful of your weaknesses; be aggressively, actively fearful. Know your weaknesses and attack them.
As an undergraduate, none of my stories had dialogue. I didn’t know how to write dialogue. I’d never been taught.
Problem solved: my characters wouldn’t talk.
I realized that this probably wouldn’t work, long-term. So I took a playwriting class where we wrote a one-act and a 75-page full-length play. I got over my fear and love writing dialogue.
I continued to look out for my own tells. If I’m writing lush language, it’s often a cover for the fact that I really don’t know what my characters want and fear in a scene. I go soft on my characters; I’m sweet on them. I’m weak when it comes to the passage of time, as well as spatial understanding of landscapes. I attack these issues in rewrites.
I’m always surprised when emerging writers tell me things they don’t do. “I don’t write in first person. It just doesn’t work for me.” My answer is, “Write exclusively in first person until you get to know it, intimately. What does offer? What does it deny you?”
And I’m also often stunned by the limitations that established writers place on themselves. There’s the idea of building a brand, I get it. But too often, it’s not about their audience, but who they are and what they fear.
Lean into fear.
I once thought up the most awful game ever. A group of published writers get together – writers who’ve followed each other’s careers over the years — and they tell each other their true weaknesses, what’s really holding them back, their fatal flaws. Fight Club, for writers. I never had the guts. I couldn’t decide on the guest list.
It’s also like a number of writerly cocktail parties I’ve been to – though less obvious, parties I didn’t like.
It’s ugly to look at weaknesses. But it’s crucial.
After filling out the sheet, scoring their weaknesses, the emerging writers already felt a shift. [Read more…]