A couple of weeks ago, I met up with a local band of fellow writing enthusiasts. I meet with them every couple of months, to discuss writing preferences. This time, we spoke about what kinds of tales we like to write, and emphatically not like to write, what we feel we’re good at and what we find difficult.
I love reflecting on what I like and dislike with regards to writing. It helps me gain insight in what I want to do, and where my weak points are.
Personally, I am quite diverse in what I like to write, although I have a penchant in writing stories about a character looking for his/her place in the world. It’s a theme I have a lot of affinity with. I love to give the theme a twist, though. Like for instance taking a pretty nasty main character or someone set adrift later in life. I’m good at world building. Almost every one of my short stories is set into a universe of its own. I don’t like writing horror pur sang, with gore for the gore. And I need to work on intimacy within my stories, I am terrible at that.
Identifying those things helps me work on exercises to become a better writer. I allows me to think along lines like ‘what makes it that I feel like I am good at world building? And how can I help others get there as well?’ and work on what I am less good at. In light of that, for our next meet, we agreed to each write something we find difficult to write. We’re then going to look at each other’s writing. So we’ll both practice, and receive feedback to improve future attempts.
What do you like to write? What do you dislike to create yourself?
Last week I met with my writing group. We do something reminiscent of a write in every couple of months. It’s great fun and while I always write less than I expect going in, I always leave massively inspired. This was the first time we did a writing exercise in advance.
We’d agreed to all write a letter of approximately half a page from one of the characters out of one of our stories to another character from that story. It’s a great way to help develop your characters motivation further. It makes you think about what that character would say, how they would say it, and how they relate to that other character. This effect was what I’d hoped for, and pretty much an expected result based on the experiences several members of our group had at a writing event a couple of months earlier.
What I hadn’t expected was how excellent of a discussion starter it would be. I thought there was little left to learn about world-building, but we ended up having an interesting discussion about information distribution and character motivation that was both inspiring and educational. As far as I’m concerned it was a very successful experiment. It left me looking forward to see what effect other writing exercises have.
Which brings me to a question for other (aspiring) authors: do you have other writing exercises you’d recommend?
A lesson I run into every now and again is that people can not see past a lack of polish. This is not just with writing, but with many endeavors in life. When you’re selling your house, you learn most people can’t see past your stuff into the space they would actually be buying. In social occasions people can’t see past your outfit and your make up choices into who you are and what you have to say. In the case of writing, it implies that a lot of people can not see past spelling mistakes or grammatical imperfections, into the ideas that drive your stories. Even when they can, they are not always willing to invest the time and effort if the first appearances of your story isn’t pleasing. So I really do need to remember that polishing my story is very important.
When I write, I really want people to look at the bones of my story. I want them to tell me if the construction of my story works, if the characters make sense, if the plot is well crafted. That’s what I spend most thought on, put most work into and what I care about most myself.
When people are caught up on the metaphorical weird dress my story is wearing, they’re not even looking at the picture as a whole, let alone at the story´s bones. While those bones are what determine how much potential your story has, if no one takes the time to look at them, good bones get you nowhere. And if you ask for feedback, people will point out your spelling mistake, not the problem in the construction of your story. Especially if the people giving you feedback are people that you don’t know very well.
So for now, returning to crafting stories after a brief holiday into lyrics and poetry, I am beginning with polishing. And when I have done that, I will do some more polishing. Because writing more gets me only so far. If I want to work on my skill-set and get better at crafting stories, I need feedback on the bones. And to get that, I need to eliminate the imperfections in the story´s polish. So back to editing it is!
A lot of people can not read past small imperfections, especially with regards to spelling. I know, this is a fact of life. Personally, I mostly care about what is being said and how that is structured. The exact spelling of words matters much, much less to me.
What matters to you tends to be reflected in the stories you write. At least, that’s something I notice with my own stories. Most of my first drafts tell a relatively original tale, have round and complicated characters, and a thought trough and working world behind the words. They have plots with fairly few plot holes. But they also tend to be riddled with spelling errors, cause well, I just don’t care enough to catch them earlier.
This makes editing and rewriting before I show my stories to others extra important. I ran into the “I should have rewritten this” snag a couple of times, recently. Where people couldn’t get past the spelling imperfections, which I know I should have caught earlier but didn’t, and never got to the story I was trying to tell.
Ah well. I’ll just have to make sure I remember this, next time. Letting people read things before I’ve triple-checked the spelling is a bad idea. I must fix the spelling first, before I can get the feedback I am looking for. Because I do need other people to track down those plot holes I missed, and to point out where the world the story is set in needs more, or often less explanations.
Coming up from feeling sick, I’ve been spending a bunch of nights, while the world outside feels wet and dark, motivating myself by doing some editing. This may sound funny, but unlike most people, I enjoy the hell out of editing. For a long time I felt like I didn’t have the patience to finish a long story. When I am editing, I am looking at the proof that yes, I sat down and actually wrote all of those words. And now I get to fix the mistakes I made the first time around! (I am a total perfectionist. Making things better is something I always enjoy doing.) Also, I tend to write what I love. Wading trough the words is therefore fun. And because it refreshes my memory on what I’ve built, it’s very inspiring. I always end up having new ideas for little pothooks, either for the story I am polishing or for a different one, sometimes within the same story-world. It gives me a platform, all mine, to explore from.
One thing I have been spending a lot of thought on while editing, is the action versus detail balance. I have written about this balance before. This time, I have been working on a different balancing of this concept. Sometimes, describing instead of showing can speed up the pace of the story. Less detail, more skipping the less exciting parts. Sometimes, though, it turns something that could have been beautiful, meaningful or exciting into a bland description. I guess it’s also a part of the ‘showing’ or ‘telling’ balance, where I generally prefer showing wherever it doesn’t boggle down my story with too many details.
So within my editing I’ve been addressing a lot of smaller descriptions, asking myself, whether or not the description mostly speeds the story up or makes it more bland. And then the task of turning the bland bits into bits with more detail follows. I do hope in the end, this edit will improve the story. I think it will, and regardless of whether or not I’ll be successful, I am learning oodles about balancing my stories.
Recently, I ran into a snag with one of the stories I’m writing, and it got me thinking about character identity.
We humans all have ideas about who we are. I believe most of us have even consciously thought about why we are the way we are. We have stories we tell ourselves and others about ourselves. Tales about where we came from, whom our parents were, what our background is. We also have beliefs about what we do, and what we’re good at, whether we’re actually good at it or not. Thoughts about what is right and what is wrong. These ideas shape who we are and who we want to be. They are part of our identity.
If you’re writing a three dimensional character, or a round character, your character also has a origin story. They’ll have a story or even multiple stories that they tell themselves and the characters around them about who they are and why they are the way they are. The character would have ideas about what they’re good at, who they should be and who they actually want to be.
This means that when developing a character, you’re not only thinking about who they actually are, but also who they believe they are and who they believe they should be. These don’t always overlap, and can create very interesting situations.
In the case of the story I was writing, the character is a competent person coming from a privileged background. But the story the character tells herself, is one of competition and struggle. Of working hard for what she has. Of fighting to be seen as a worthwhile person. And in her own way, she has.
For the writers among you, I’d like to challenge you to think about the question of who your characters believe they are?
This month I am entering a contest for short stories. In reality, short stories are not really my thing. I tend to be verbose and detail oriented, and am a better world builder then I am a crafter of plots. Which means that in general, I need lots of words to tell the story I want to tell *just right*.
Which, quite naturally, makes writing short stories an entirely beneficial exercise for my writing muscles. It forces me to leave out most info-dumps, because there is no space. I have to craft a clear, compact plot-line, and leave out the details I tend to get boggled down by. I forces me to work on increasing the speed of my story, which I value greatly.
But the fact that doing it in itself is an educational experience is not entirely why compete in these contests. That’s more of a pleasant side-effect. I compete, because the contests I enter into tend to give you feedback. Feedback written by people that genuinely want you to improve and who get nothing out of it except the honor of saying they judged the contest. People that tend to know their craft, so the feedback they give tends to be very useful.
After I finish the story for this contest, I will work on the next one, although that contest is not one you can ‘win’ in the traditional sense. Also not a contest that provides the marvelous gift of feedback. It’s not even for short stories. I am entering NaNoWriMo. And the contest is writing a lot of words. The reward is having written a lot of words. I hope I’ll manage, and I am greatly looking forward to it.
If you enter contests, what do you get out of it?