5 writing strengths Meme

Jade Park has tagged me in her response to the 5 writing strengths Meme, where writers list five things that they know are their writing strengths.

A few years ago, this might have been much harder for me. Drafting was a lot like shooting a rifle off into the dark, trying to hit things. As one of my writer-heroes, Maureen McHugh, pointed out when I talked to her one-on-one in Seattle, I couldn’t see what I could do better and was just kind of stuck, with nothing actually improving in my writing and no sense of why, or how I could get past the plateau.

What helped me get to the point where I can see more clearly? Well, attending Clarion West was an important part of it. I learned some specific skills, and I also got a lot of practice generating material but also looking at others’ material critically. I seriously think that the most useful part of workshopping isn’t the feedback, useful as it can be — the thing that good workshops or crit groups do is hypersensitize you to the flaws and strengths of the various approaches your classmates or fellow critlings take. Once you look at others’ work with that critical eye long enough, it becomes more possible to look at your own that way.

The other thing that’s helped me is writing reams and reams of stuff. I have seriously produced a massive number of drafts in the 13 months since I was in Seattle — maybe not a story a week, like Jay Lake, but it’s harder to write a novella a week for a year, and I tend toward the novella length. Writing a lot helps you work on things, clarify strengths and isolate specific weaknesses. Weaknesses, I find, are the muscles that just need more exercise. Once you’re conscious of them, you can do all kinds of cool things with them, because you’re aware of them.

I still have lots of weaknesses, now, including probably a fair number I’m not wholly conscious of, and I’m going to mention them too, because it’s a good reminder to myself to focus on one or two in my next draft. But since I’m supposed to focus on strengths, I’ll get to those now.

Let’s see:

  • Volume. I can produce a lot of material in a short time. I wrote 56,600 words during the six weeks I was at Clarion West (not including false starts and such things), and this past summer I wrote 95,164 words in six weeks, including a chunk of novel that I later abandoned but also seven short stories, some of which  (That’s enough text for your average-sized novel.) I am capable of sitting and writing until it actually hurts me physically, mostly without running out of material or focus. It’s not something I do, but it’s nice to know I’ve got stuff to work with for as long as is reasonable to work.
  • Speed. I can also mostly crank out what are increasingly decent first drafts of things at relatively high speed. This is especially useful since I tend to produce new stuff in brief bursts, when I have a week or two and not much else going on. Again, physical or psychological fatigue don’t seem to kick in as much with writing. My eyes hurt to the point where I need to stop, before I usually get anywhere near to experiencing writer’s block. (And on the rare occasion I do, it’s mostly just not knowing where one story is going, and I can switch to another.)
  • Description. It’s ironic, to me, that I almost never visualize descriptive passages when I am reading. Likewise, I don’t visualize the settings for the scenes in which my characters interact; this isn’t laziness, it’s just how my mind works. I have an extremely difficult time visualizing almost anything. (Which may be one reason I’m such a junkie when it comes to visual media like TV shows and films.) Maybe it’s because of that — because all I really “see” is the description as a structured bit of text — but I think I’m pretty damned good at describing settings. In fact, I’ve been told that, over and over, and I believe it.
  • Character Variety. I don’t think I’ve mastered it, but I’ve done relatively convincing work — work of which I’m proud — in emulating the voices and minds of such a diverse range of characters, from a 1940s African-American jazz musician in New York City, to a late-19th-century Korean monk, to a modern yakuza thug, to a young Mozambican Greenhouse terrorist. I don’t tend to much trouble, or much inhibition, regarding which kinds of people (or, occasionally, beings) show up in, or even center in, my stories. And I think I am getting better all the time with pulling them off convincingly, partly by figuring out what to research and partly just by how I approach writing them. (Though, lately, I think most of my main characters have been male, which is odd — I used to write a lot of female ones. I think I’ll make sure and work on another one soon.)
  • Ideas. I’m not the most formidable idea-generator — I don’t come up with the best ones, and I don’t think I come up with them at any more incredible pace than most SF writers I know — but I have developed a kind of skill at looking at things and using them to generate ideas — that kind of 30-degrees-off-center gaze that makes things suddenly interesting in an odd way. I think I’m also pretty good at discarding the so-so ideas, or setting them aside until such time as I can do them justice. This, again, is something I’ve developed over the last year, from having gone through the false starts and abandoning drafts after a certain number of words, as well as coming back to long-neglected drafts and breathing new life into the ideas underlying them.

Now, for the things I’m still working on:

  • Heartlessness. I have trouble cutting the nice little bits I am so proud of. They beg and plead in their clever little voices, and I struggle to find them a niche within the story. It’s silly, since what needs to be cut needs to be cut. But I am not quite heartless enough yet, sometimes.
  • Comedy. I haven’t quite figured out how to be funny in the way I want. (Which is darkly.) I made a little progress with The Egan Thief, but I suspect careful study will be required of me.
  • Science Chops. I should really break down and read all those science-popularizations I have, because I could do a lot more with a more solid grounding in science.
  • Submitting. It’s hard for me to get myself to print stuff up and send it out. Sometimes I’m scared that a story I really believe in might not be ready, and risks rejection when, with a little more work, it could be a big deal. Most of the time, though, I just have other things going on and it’s hard for me to make myself go out and print and mail the bastard. Especially when it’s one of those prestigious magazines, where I know the chances of a rejection are good.
  • Background. Like nearly every f/sf writer I know, I am plagued by a feeling that I need to read more of the stuff, and — this might be more of an SFnal thing — I especially need to know the really seminal works better. I actually need to read more of everything, but especially more of the stuff I’m writing.
  • Dialog. I think I’m getting better at this, but I’m still really working on differentiating characters very distinctly by their individual lines of dialog. When he said/she said become wholly unnecessary, I think I’ll have hit a milestone.
  • Circularity of Details. Little things repeat and repeat in my stories. Unavailable females seem to be curly-haired blondes with green eyes, which is odd since I have no history with anyone like that. Often, I set stories in places I’ve been, but this also can lead to a kind of circularity, especially when it’s a setting like Korea. I’m working on using unusual settings — outer space, Burma, futuristic China, London, India — but it’s slow going, even in the case of India, where I’ve visited, just because of the sheer amount of things I don’t know about these places.
  • Short Form/Novel Form. It’s still hard for me to do anything under 6,500 or 7,500 words. I’m finding 12,000-20,000 words is a really comfortable length for me, and that even up 30,000 words might be doable — “A Killing in Burma” is on the verge of developing into something around 30-40,000 words long, maybe more, without much difficulty — which is unfortunate in a way since I have the impression that novellas are simply a hard sell for a newbie. (Though maybe transitioning to the novel form won’t be so hard for me, and maybe I should be thankful.) Meanwhile, the novel form daunts me for another reason, and one I need to address pronto, which is this next one… part of what I need to master is compression, but also the skill of telling a story through elisions and omissions. I worked on that in my last rewrite, “Empty of Words, the Page” but I have a ways to go before I master it.
  • Plotting. I don’t plot much at all. Mostly I have a feeling, and a cool idea or two, or a character and an idea. I mush them together, mix in a few other things — characters, problems, places, whatever — and follow where it leads. But for very short, and very long work, you need to be able to outline and plot. This is hard for me, in the same way I think chess was hard for me — thinking that many moves ahead just doesn’t come naturally to me. So I need to learn how.

Right, I claimed I would select a couple of these and mention how I’m going to work on them. I think, for one thing, I’m going to work ong Plotting by actually, well, sitting down and writing outlines. Slaving over them. Showing them to my crit group — a suggestion my excellent classmate David made which I think is just a wonderful idea. “A Killing in Burma” is a story that needs an outline, so I think that’ll be one. My old novel draft, Dead Abroad, is also awaiting a rewrite, and I think I’ll outline it as well, especially since there are bits that need much tightening, and some serious changes I’m planning on making.

“A Killing in Burma” also is an odd piece because I’m trying to make it serious in ideas, and funny in plot and characters. This is nothing like “Wonjjang and the Madman of Pyongyang,” where I could just riff on familiar oddities of Korean extraction; I need to rely on stuff the characters themselves, the tangle their lives get into, for the comedy. It’s going to be necessary for something as long as this story, especially when I’ve never been to Burma myself and can’t riff on the funny aspects of the local culture anyway. So I think I need to read some funny writing — SFnal and otherwise. I’ve got a collection by Terry Bisson here, and some James Morrow (like this one) I can look at, too, and a collection of short stories by Rudy Rucker.

(Other recommendations, SFnal or otherwise, are welcome.)

I think the other thing I’ll be working on for the next few months is Science Chops. Got a book right here waiting for my attention: Warped Passages, by Lisa Randall. As the transdimensional zombies say: “Branes! Branes!”

As for tagging. Ah, hell, I’ll tag all the aspiring writers I know online. You know who you are. Consider yourself tagged… or not.

10 thoughts on “5 writing strengths Meme

  1. “But for very short, and very long work, you need to be able to outline and plot.”

    Um….why? I mean, maybe this would be useful for you and maybe not, but this certainly isn’t a universal maxim of good writing or anything.

    In Winsconsin, Maureen McHugh told me some writers she knows outline novels (including her now) and some (including her when she was writing her best known stuff) don’t, she didn’t know of *any* writers who outlined for short stories. When I told her that Paul Park said he outlines his short stories (although he doesn’t outline his novels), she seemed genuinely suprirsed.

  2. Huh, that’s interesting.

    Well, for me, I think outlining would save me massive amounts of time. For any piece I write that’s 5,000 words long, the usual deal is that I write 12,000 and then have to agonize about which 6,000 to cut, and how to imply the good parts of what I’ve cut by adding no more than 1,000 words. (The other 2000 words are cut just with line edits and so on.)

    As for novels — I’ve been through drafting and I can get maybe 30,000-40,000 words in without needing an outline. After that, though, I start to get lost, and lose sense of where the story needs to go.

    I can see how China Mountain Zhang might have been writable without an outline, because there’s a lot of shifting between characters. I’m less worried about my current lack of outline for A Killing in Burma for the same reason — I can pick up and leave off with characters and as long as I have a vague idea of what’s to come, it all keeps moving forward.

    The other novel draft I have sitting around, though, the ghost story of the dead white dude in Korea, shows some wear and strain at the spot where I struggled to figure out where the story was supposed to go. (Likewise with “McWar” — the crits very clearly revealsed just how transparently that moment of struggle showed through, though in that case, because I was writing to a deadline, I wasn’t surprised.)

    Hm. Anyway, I know that for me, long stuff with a single character needs an outline, and even long stuff with multiple characters can. (My Korean superheroes novel was very multi-POV but it fell apart without one.)

    Anyway… by the way, I’ve been wondering whether you’re thinking of getting into the novel business. It seems a lot of people are thinking about it, or edging their way in that direction. You?

  3. For black humor, Evelyn Waugh can’t be beat. Take a pass on his “serious” novels like Helena, Brideshead Revisited, and The Sword of Honour Triology, and try a comic masterpiece like Love In The Ruins, a warped little bit of comic nastiness that is, if I remember correcctly, less than a hundred pages. Pretty much any other comic novel by Waugh will do the trick though.

  4. Thanks, Mark. I should read more Waugh. I even have something sitting on the shelf. Black Mischief, it’s called. (The only Waugh I could find used, during a trip somewhere, maybe Montreal.) But I’m sure I can find more around, maybe even at the Uni library.

    Love in the Ruins? I only know the Percy Walker.

  5. Walker Percy took the title from Waugh, but I like his novel, Love In The Ruins as well. Percy is either really good – Love In The Ruins, Lancelot, The Thanatos Syndrome, or Lost In The Cosmos – or very boring – The Movie Goer, The Last Gentleman or The Second Coming. Waugh on the whole is pretty consistent, and if you want someplace to start, it doesn’t get much blacker than Black Mischief.

  6. Yep.

    10% of the way through a novel right now (the steampunk vampire thing I mentioned over e-mail a while back), tentatively entitled “City of Blood and Clockwork.” Granted, it’s YA, so at that length 10% of the way through is only 6K, but it seems to have some momentum to it, and I’m cautiously optimistic. I’m certainly hoping to be done with it by winter break.

  7. While I think that practice generating so that you can work on plottiness is a good idea, I wonder if, given the way you work, it might not make it harder for you to write. The first draft anyway, since you tend to sh*t things out and then spend a lot of time in revisions recrafting them. What David suggested in his latest crit was that you produce an outline after your first draft–that would show you what’s actually happening in your story so far, giving you an idea of where the plot (or other elements) needs shored up AND it helps show what things need cut. I also recommend producing outlines of other people’s short stories, novels, movies, whatever, especially ones that you admire.

  8. Ben,

    Yay! Good luck with that.


    Thanks, I’ll add him to the list. Who knows, maybe another Canadian author I’ll like? (IIRC Richler is Canadian.)


    Yeah, but at the same time, I wonder if it might not make it easier for me to sh*t out things closer to the form I need them to be in? :) I guess I’ll be finding out. I think looser outlines will be useful, and very tight ones will kill me, anyway.

    Also, interestingly, in an offlist discussion, David suggested to me maybe outlining would be very useful for me. He even suggesting trying outlining something and getting the outline critted.

    For stories I’m having trouble revising, I already do produce rough outlines of the current version (a list of scenes and what pertinent information/characterization/events happen in each) and then look at what I can change or adjust in the outline to fix the story. (Sometimes I use it while revising, too, though sometimes I junk it and keep just the important changes in my head.)

    Outlining stories (etc) that I like/admire is a good idea. I think I’ll do a few of those as exercises this month. Actually, a novel would be a good one to do. Maybe one of these Nick Mamatas novels I just got… Thanks!

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