Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Taking Stock, part I

I'm in a taking-stock kind of mood lately ...

One of the things I hear over and over is that I have to be ruthless with my own work. This advice comes packaged in a million ways: kill your darlings, revise ruthlessly, cut the first chapter, eliminate every spare word, etc., etc., etc. But the point is always the same—I have to be brutally, unflinchingly honest about my own work.

And I don't disagree, but ...

There is a flip-side here. I think the general churlishness of this business has terrified a lot of writers into a defensive crouch. Perhaps daunted by the odds, many writers seem unwilling to stake out their own territory. People don't want to vocalize their dreams, or they give what feels like watered-down versions. And people don't like to be boastful because it might jinx them or seem boastful. So you rarely hear a writer say, "Hey, I'm good at this."

But for some of us, I think it's just as important to be complimentary as it is to be ruthless. At least I know this is true for me, especially over the last few days. No joke, the last few days have been rough. At one point, I caught myself thinking that the last three years of effort have earned me two manuscripts I can't sell and nothing else. As far as tangible progress is concerned, I'm exactly where I was three novels ago.

So you know what? Screw that. Today is my Stuart Smalley day, my Sally Fields day. Today is the day I'm going to say what I do right. I welcome you to do the same. And don't worry ... tomorrow we can talk about what's not working. Here goes ...

[Several minutes tick by.]

Uh, erm, well ... I was all fired up, until I actually got to this part. Ha ha. Let me try again ...

OK, first off, I'm good at plot. My plots are multilayered and I spend a lot of time creating red herrings, twists and turns, and surprises. And I'm good at world-building. That much is true for sure. I'm pretty good at creating a whole world quickly, with its own rules and identifiable vibe. And I know my writing is lean, but I also think I'm a "voice" writer to some extent. My voice isn't lush, and perhaps not intricate, but it's pretty identifiable.

Most off all, though, I think my greatest strength is mood and tone. I spend a lot of time searching for a "vibe" with every story, and it's crucial to me that every word supports that tone. I like fun; I aim for fantastic. My goal is reader immersion. I want the reader to vanish in my rabbit hole and to accept that my outlandish ideas are totally possible in this alternative world.

(OK, I'm warming up to this now!) You know, I actually think I do more right than I do wrong. I almost never, never, never go back and read my own writing, but when I do, or when I have to, I usually enjoy it. That's a nice thing. I often think, "If I didn't write this book myself, I would wish I had written it."

So there you have it. Those are some of the things I think I do right. If you happen to know my writing, feel free to add to the list (kidding).

And now it's your turn. You tell me: without inserting any qualifying criticisms, which parts do you get right?


Jude Hardin said...

I think I have a good sense of rhythm, and I'm a good editor.

Good with dialogue.

Good action scenes.

Getting better at description.

Damn. Why aren't we published, Jon?!

LurkerMonkey said...


LOL. Wait until tomorrow ...

Melanie Avila said...

I love this. It's true that we never toot our own horns but we have to be doing something right or why are we here?

WIth all the NaNo posts going on this month and listening to people lament that they've written 25K words but will probably cut 16K of them, I've realized that I write very clean. That's not to say I write perfectly on the first attempt, but I am a linear writer and write things in the order they happen. No moving around, no cutting and pasting big chunks of text (well, I'm actually doing that now, but that's besides the point).

I keep thinking that I'm not being honest with myself -- I mean, if so many people have this problem, why don't I? I think this post answers that. The people who write clean don't run around telling people that, they probably sit at their desks wondering what they're doing wrong. Or maybe that's just me.

LurkerMonkey said...


That's funny, about the clean writers all sitting at their desks wondering what they're doing wrong.

I hope being linear and clean pays off during revisions :)

Melanie Avila said...

I think it does, but I feel like I'm not doing enough. Sure, there are passages that I completely rework, but nothing like what I hear from a lot of my other friends. I can't shake the feeling that I'm missing something.

Mark Terry said...

Without any qualifications? How well you know me, Jon.


Good at plotting.

Good at creating tension.

Good at pacing.

Good at writing dialogue.

Good at writing action. (Very good at writing action).

I think I now have a distinctive voice, but it's a flexible one, or rather, I have different voices I use for different types of work.

Heather Lane said...

Okay, here goes--I'm great at world building. My characters have great voices. And I love my story ideas.

Another thing I'm good at--I can see when something doesn't work in my writing. I can see the weaknesses. And I think that, beyond anything else, is what is going to get me to the next level.

And I have this impulse to qualify my above comment. When does the doubt go away?

LurkerMonkey said...


No wonder you write thrillers :) It all adds up.

LurkerMonkey said...


The first three alone are gold. But maybe you're right that the fourth is what will push you forward.

When I was writing my own list, I kept having to go back and remove qualifiers. Funny how that works, isn't it?

Natasha Fondren said...

Jon, this is difficult! I think that's the thing: part of our job is always to pick apart our work and figure out what needs to improve. I'm always yelling at myself to be better, which I rather enjoy, but I produce better stuff when I get cocky, which is sooooooooo rare.

I'm pretty good at rhythm, I think, and I keep aware of the effect my words have on the reader. On good days, I can sometimes manipulate that effectively.

Jude Hardin said...

I can see you're good at suspense too. What happens tomorrow??????

Melanie Avila said...

LOL @ Jude.

I agree with Heather -- it was hard not to qualify! That's why I didn't include more strengths.

Erica Orloff said...

I am good at:

Characters--unique ones at that, often.



Realistic dialogue.

LurkerMonkey said...


From what I've read, you seem especially aware of your reader ... I find that actually inspiring. Your example is a good reminder.

LurkerMonkey said...


Agreed x 4!

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