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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Figuring Out Your Strengths and Weaknesses

Courtesy of cobrasoft
One of the things I pay special attention to while I'm in the revision stage--including pre-revision--is what my strengths and weaknesses are.

I do this for two reasons. I pay attention to the things I know I'm weak at, the writerly version of bad habits, so I can fix them. I do this by either deleting them (repetitious words) or by changing them to make them stronger (showing instead of telling, restructuring sentences to reduce usage of to be verbs, etc.). I also keep an eye out for things I know I do well so I can knock them up a notch. For example, if I'm good at having a hook at the beginning of each chapter, I'd go through and make sure I have a hook in the middle and at the end of each page (as well as the beginning) as part of my evil plan to give my readers no choice but to keep on reading.

For me, the revision process is about taking weak things and making them strong, and taking strong things and making them stronger. All with the aim of polishing and shining the story until it's as perfect as I can make it.

So how do you discover what you need to work on and what you're good at, but could amp up?

Critique Partners/ Beta Readers
A good critique group/beta reader is worth their weight in gold--and then some. Often, they can point out bad writing habits you have that you weren't aware of, and they can also point out sections they felt were particularly well done. They may not be as specific about what you're doing right, but the information will be there for you to analyze.

Now. That being said, even the most brilliant critiquer isn't going to be perfect 100% of the time. It's important to sift through your critique and weigh each thing--especially when you're just starting out--with your gut. It's vital to be honest with yourself here. Do you disagree with what they said about X, because Y isn't their genre, so they don't understand the conventions, because that's what you were going for even though that particular reader didn't like it, because fill-in-the-blank, or do you disagree with it because your words are sacrosanct and what do they know anyway? 

(This can fall under the umbrella of pride, ignorance (in high school, I honestly couldn't see why my english teacher had such a dislike for adverbs), or laziness--wanting to squeak by, because you've already put so much work into it. To be clear, I'm not judging here. I think we've all been influenced by one or more of the above at one time or other.)

The reason why it's so important to be honest is that you can't fix something if you don't acknowledge that it's broken in the first place. And if you aren't, the only person you'll be cheating is yourself.

Continuing Education
A way to start to recognize your strengths and weaknesses is to keep learning. Go to conferences when you can, talk to people about craft (there are a lot of excellent online forums that you can use), read about it, and keep practicing.

Again, it's always good to weigh things you hear against your gut, but I've found all of the above to be very valuable as I continue to strive to grow and excel. Everything you hear from every person will not mesh with your writing process or your story, but I've found that I can learn something from any class so long as I go in seeking to learn. Sometimes what I learn applies to craft, and sometimes I figure out more about how my writerly process works.

The reason why continuing your writing education is so important--besides learning more about what you do well and what needs work, is the moment you start to believe you've made it, is the moment your work will begin to suffer. Brilliant writing, awesome stories, and incredible characters don't happen by accident. It's important to keep challenging yourself to reach higher and do better with each draft and each story.

Making Your Reading Active 

Most writers are also avid readers. We kind of have to be if we want to stay current on trends and what's going on in the genre we're writing in. But we can also improve--and identify more of our strengths and weaknesses--by actively reading. (And I'm totally guilty of being more passive about reading. I open the book and let the story sweep me away.)

Active reading means analyzing what you've read. What's working for you? What do you think could be strengthened? What do you like? Dislike? Why? What are some things the author's doing that maybe you've never seen before? How does this author handle dialogue, for example?

Color coding can be especially helpful when you're analyzing published text. Not only does it ensure you're mind's not wandering as you're analyzing, it also helps to have a visual representation of what the words on the page are actually doing and how they're functioning.

Then, after you've analyzed the published text, do it to your own and see how they compare. (And make sure the samples you're using are similar--ex: if you're focusing on action sequences, make sure both the published text and your sample have to do with action sequences.)

So how does this all apply to figuring out what you do well?

The most straightforward way is to have personal feedback from someone--readers, agents, etc. The others are a little more roundabout, but you can still figure out some of your things by analyzing them. Pay attention to what you're noticing in published books. Figure out why. Chances are, those are going to be areas you're strong in.
Go in to conferences, conversations, and writing books with an open attitude that's determined to get something good out of it. Look and things they suggest and compare them to what you're actually doing in your own writing. Chances are you'll be able pinpoint some of your weaknesses this way.

What about you? How have you figured out what you're good at and what you need to keep practicing?

Danyelle writes MG and YA fantasy. In her spare time, she collects dragons, talking frogs, and fairy godmothers. She can be found discussing the art of turning one's characters into various animals, painting with words, and the best ways to avoid getting eaten by dragons on her blog. Her serial novel THE FAIRY GODMOTHER DILEMMA can be found here.

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