Five writing strengths – About two weeks ago, Gord made his contribution to the “Five Writing Strengths” meme. As he is wont to do with things like this, he did an “open tag” at the end—that is, he tagged anyone who felt that the meme applied to them. I have decided, after some rumination, to pick up the torch and put in my two cents.
Basically, the idea is to list five things that you consider to be writing strengths. It took me a while to come up with five strengths, not because I have trouble thinking of strengths or because I have an overly negative view of my writing skills, but because I tried to come up with five strengths that didn’t overlap or fall under the umbrella of another strength already named. That was the hard part, and I don’t know if I succeeded.
Whether I succeeded or not, this leads me to my first strength: attention to detail. It’s this sort of obsession with getting things right that can help when you’re writing—although sometimes it can hurt if it goes too far. Most of the time, though, I’d like to think that it works in my favor. I am aware of all the little details flying around my drafts, and I think carefully before I add the next detail to make sure it’s consistent with the world I’ve built so far. As a result, I write pretty decent first drafts, because I can keep everything on track without having to rewrite.
This may seem like not that big of a deal. After all, who cares if you get things right the first time if you can go back and fix them later? There is some truth in that, I will admit, but a first draft has an advantage over all successive drafts, and that is that the story is not yet written in any form. This means that everything is free, everything is open. When you work from a draft, even if you plan to scrap the draft and start over, you have something already in mind. But with a first draft you don’t have anything set down. Maybe I’m mistaken, but it seems like more of an adventure to write a first draft—you’re discovering the story as you write it.
With everything still undiscovered, forcing myself to think about how each detail fits into the larger picture allows me to be more creative in my plotting. I know that creativity can and does come into play in successive drafts, but it seems easier to be creative when everything is still fresh and malleable. And while some people may write themselves into a corner and give up because they don’t know where to go next, I can usually find a way around any obstacle I might encounter. Even if its not the optimum solution, it remains consistent with my story and allows me to just keep writing.
Related to this attention to detail is my love of research. I am involved in academia, but that’s not why I love research. It would be more accurate to say that I am involved in academia because I love research. I don’t know why I do, but I always have, ever since I was young. I’m sure it helped that my parents bought a lot of books for me to read. Whenever I expressed an interest in a subject, they bought me a book about it. This stayed with me as I got older, and this love of research has helped me in more than just my writing—I don’t think it’s possible to write a decent dissertation in the humanities if you don’t have some affinity for research.
But this is about writing strengths, and my love of research does indeed help with my writing. I know a lot of writers who dislike research, and for this reason they will choose a genre that they feel doesn’t require any research. Fantasy is a good example of such a genre—after all, you can just make everything up, right? But these people are fooling themselves. There is no genre, fantasy included, that does not benefit from research. Even if you are writing about a completely fictional world, you still have to connect this world to something your readers can understand and relate to, and this requires research—research into social issues, technology, magic, foods, clothing styles, and countless other areas.
My love of research goes well with (and probably stems in part from) my attention to detail because I can pick elements from my research that will bring my story to life. Were I less meticulous, I must just breeze past certain passages without a second thought. Let’s say, for example, that one of my characters has a run-in with some occult figures. Even if this is a minor plot point, I will still research this area to make the story as realistic as possible. Again, though, like attention to detail, there is a downside to a love of research, namely that I sometimes get so caught up in my research that I forget to write. But I’m generally pretty good at drawing the line.
Next on my list is description, and once again this is tied closely to the previous strengths. One could argue that it should be a sub-strength of “attention to detail,” but I think it’s important enough to merit separate treatment. After all, my love of research and attention to detail wouldn’t be worth much if I couldn’t actually put them to use in my writing. So when I’m working on a story that is set in, say, England, I will use all of my research and my own experiences in England to create as convincing a picture as possible of the setting and background.
Details are an important part of description, but they’re not everything. You need to know which details to include and which to leave out—in other words, you need to be able to determine which details will lend extra life to a scene and which details will just weigh your narrative down. And then you need to be able to express those details in vivid language. This is where all those years of reading have helped me: not only in building a vocabulary, but in getting a feel for language in general.
This is not exactly a recipe for good description. To be honest, I haven’t given much thought to what exactly it is that I do when I describe things. I just know that when I’m done, people often comment that my settings and locations come alive, as if the reader him or herself were actually there.
My fourth strength is plotting. This refers to the general scheme of the work, the plan that shows how one event leads to the next. I can write without a plan, but I have to admit that I’m not nearly as good as when I have a plan. This doesn’t mean that I have everything mapped out in advance, of course. Usually I plot up to a certain point and then I get stuck. This is my cue to start writing—before I start the actual writing, I can only get so far before it becomes impossible for me to plot further. To put it in slightly different terms, I can only extrapolate so far without the data I gain by actually writing the story rather than just thinking about it.
This strength is also closely related to my attention to detail. Like I mentioned above, I carefully consider all the details of the current state of the story when thinking about my next step, and this helps me decide where the story is going to go. But it goes beyond just attention to detail. There is also a certain amount of logic involved, and an understanding of narrative in general. You get a feel for which narrative branches are going to work and which are going to bog down the story. When I’m on the ball and committed, I can keep a story interesting. It’s usually when I run out of steam or get lazy that my plotting collapses and I take the easy way out.
My final strength in this list would have to be my story ideas. I don’t have a problem coming up with things to write about, and my reading and research allow me to come up with interesting seeds. This is what I call the kernels that eventually (hopefully) blossom into full-grown narratives: “story seeds.” These are usually questions, and they are often along the lines of “What if?” What if you could weave dreams for other people? What if everything you wrote in a book came true? These are not entirely original ideas, but they were the seeds for two of my three NaNoWriMo novels. The other strengths I listed above helped me to nurture these seeds into what turned out to be decent first drafts.
I don’t know if this ability to come up with ideas is something that can be taught. I think you can probably improve on this ability, but to a certain extent I suspect that it might have to be something you just naturally possess. It is closely related to curiosity and imagination—if you are not a naturally curious person, and if you are not a daydreamer, you might find that you have difficulty coming up with things to write about. But us curious daydreamers, that’s what we do in our spare moments: think about neat stuff.
Well, those are my five writing strengths: attention to detail, research, description, plotting, and story ideas. I don’t want to give the impression that I am tooting my own horn here, and I suspect that’s why Gord rounded out his list of strengths with a list of areas he stills needs work on. I think that’s a good idea. I’m not going to go into as much detail as Gord, mainly because I’d never reach the end and probably end up slitting my wrists out of depression, but I suppose it’s only fair to mention my major weakness.
This major weakness is a crippling one: lack of motivation. This manifests itself in a number of problems, the most obvious being the paucity of fiction written outside NaNoWriMo. But even when I do manage to write something, I rarely go beyond the first draft. And this is where my ability to produce decent first drafts becomes a curse. Because the first drafts are decent (for first drafts, mind you), I rarely feel motivated enough to come back to them and actually do anything with them.
I realize that this isn’t exactly a writing problem per se, but it might as well be. What is the good of having all those writing strengths if I’m not actually going to write any fiction? How will I develop these strengths and improve on my weaknesses? I won’t, of course. So it would seem that the answer to my problems is simple: write more fiction. But if it were that simple, I guess everyone on the planet would be a best-selling author.
I have so many things on my plate these days that I can barely motivate myself to get the important things done, let alone a leisure activity like fiction. To be perfectly frank, I doubt very much I will write any fiction of note before I finish my dissertation. Perhaps this is taking too negative a view of things. Maybe I should have a positive attitude. But I just can’t get over the fact that nothing has happened so far, and, thanks, to inertia nothing will likely continue to happen.
OK, I’m going to wrap this up before I depress myself further. One of the reasons I decided to run with this meme was so that I could tag That David Guy, who has written absolute squat lately. He’ll protest, saying that he’s been writing at Cast of Horribles, of course, but we both know it’s not real writing (although the drawings are quite nice). And don’t give me this “I’m getting ready for NaNoWriMo and don’t have the time” crap. What better time to assess your strengths than before embarking on a month-long marathon of hellishness? So get cracking. No excuses.