Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Finding Your Strengths as A Writer


If you remember, last week I blogged about a lesson I learned about writing from my old Aikido instructor, and part of that lesson entailed leading with your strengths.  Writer friend and person who lives in Wyoming, the lucky bum, Summer Ross commented that she wished she knew what her strengths as a writer are.

I think this is a common predicament that writers have.  I know I really struggled with understanding that for a long time myself.  These days, I feel much more confident in knowing my strengths and more secure in embracing those and working from them as my base.  I thought I might share my own experience in case something in my own path helps others.

There are two key components to learning your strength in any endeavor, including writing: (1) self-awareness, (2) trusted appraisers.

Trusted appraisers do not need to be critique partners.  They need to people who understand your writing, understand what you want to accomplish with your writing, and give you honest feedback about the craft itself.  In my case, most of the influential, trusted appraisers didn't even necessarily know that's what they were doing -- and I think that's part of why I trusted them.

Sometimes it's really simple and casual.  If good readers laugh when you want them to laugh and cry when you want them to cry, you know you're hitting a strong point.  In my case, barely a handful of people laugh when I want them to.  Some people cry when I want them to laugh.  But a lot of people cried when I wanted them to cry, including some quality readers.  That was an early clue, especially during college, about the kind of content and presentation that I excelled at.  Using language to make people weep.


I for years, though, without getting any further help.  There were odds and ends of feedback, but not the same thing.  It was really a handful of experiences brought about by the internet that really helped me start to understand -- some of them recently.

I began posting regularly at Flashy Fiction.  Met a lot of great people there, and got plenty of good feedback, but Deb Markanton was especially helpful in helping me embrace my strengths.  She gave me plenty of general, positive feedback, but her most enthusiastic feedback was also for things that showed me she got what I was trying to do, and felt what I wanted her to feel.  When your best reception is in-line with your intentions: that's a strong point.

Not all your strengths are going to be obvious, but that doesn't make them any less of strengths.  Most of my writing has, for a while, begun with a  really abstract philosophical question or conundrum.  Both stories that were published in Genre Wars began with very intentionally existentialist philosophy.  My current book, Sublimation, is based on a Hegelian dialectic.  Another short story of mine that I'm submitting for publication is based on a different Hegelian dialectic.  A different short story revolves around the idea of rationalization-by-Divine-affirmation.  My next book, Ennui and Malaise, will deal with with the philosophical and psychological question of boredom.  So philosophy runneth amok.  But, in large part, it's obscured by scary stuff and richly voiced crazy people.  Imagine how shocked I was when author Domey Malasarn actually commented to me one day that part of what he liked about my stories in Genre Wars was the philosophical digressions.

Woah, he got it!  And he liked it!

The point is: pay attention to your feedback.  Look for patterns in specific comments.  Look for how your responses line up with what you wanted your responses to be.  Watch what specific elements trigger the most passionate responses.

But none of that is helpful without the first ingredient: self-awareness.  You have to know what it is you're trying to do.  You have to be aware of what you like to write.  What you want your readers to feel or think or do in response to your writing.  What writing flows and what writing is labored.  You have to learn to pay attention to yourself.

And that, my friends, takes little more than practice.  Writing.  A lot.  And doing so with open eyes.  Do a ton of flash writing prompts if you can.  Free write pages that you never do anything with.  Just write.  And learn how you write and what your expectations are.  Sometimes, your strengths are what you write most quickly, but sometimes they're what gives me the most satisfaction to struggle through.

All you can do is pay attention.

Be intentional.

Walk by putting one foot in front of the other, and remember to breath.

When you want to turn?  Turn head, body follows. :)



  1. Thank you for this post, and your wonderful new-old ideas "Writing. A lot. And doing so with open eyes." Everything we write about writing seems to boil down to that, and yet we keep writing about writing because we need to . . . ok that got way more circular than I intended.

    I like the idea of writing a ton of flash writing prompts.

    I used to think I could never write humor . . . until I wrote a "Super Short Silly Superhero" story with my kids last year, and now this year with a whole class of 9-11 year olds. They laughed, and laughed, and laughed at my story and it is just plain silly, not really fresh or new, or revealing in any way.
    It was amazing, because the only things I've been able to publish so far have been somewhat self-concerned, occassionally weepy poetry. Writing, trying new writing prompts, and writing every day leads me to see new horizons.

  2. Love it, Nevets.

    "Using language to make people weep.


    Awesome, indeed.


  3. These are some good points and they lead me towards a direction I can try and accomplish. I agree that good readers are important. I've learned alot with my online experience and I do know that honesty is one of the few things I have going for me, but only in Non-fiction- I haven't figured out quite how to use it in fiction yet. But I'm working on it. :)

    Thanks for posting this!

  4. I haven't had anyone read my writing, actually, except for really close family. I really don't have any comments to base my strengths on; I know I should have more people reading what I write. So I can know more about myself.

  5. @Tyrean - It's tried and true because people have tried it, and it's a true. lol I think the daily prompts at Flashy Fiction are a great help, very low key, tons of variety, and lot of friendly people.

    @Elena - Thanks!

    @Bru - People want stories about things they can relate to - life and death, good and evil . . . Listen to me, I'm actually rooting for a plague.

    @Summer - Honesty is so easy to do in writing, but so tough to let yourself do. As my Aikido instructor used to say, it's so hard because it's so easy. Good luck on figuring out how to come to grips with that challenge. If I can ever help, drop me a line!

    @G'Eagle - Take your time. People sometimes rush into exposing their writing, and I'm not sure that's necessary. When you're ready, find a person or two whom you respect and trust and let them read it. I don't think most people benefit from getting their first real feedback from mass audience on the internet or relative strangers in crit groups. Those things have their place, but I think it's more helpful for most people to get some confidence and some quality assurance done first.

  6. Um, it's really unfair that your strength is Hegelian dialectic. That's like cheating when you roll the dice in D&D to give your character god-like powers.

  7. Nevets, I'm honored that my feedback made an impact. Thanks for that acknowledgment. As you know, I grin like an idiot whenever I'm presented with the philosophical, psychological, especially when it's peppered with scary stuff and crazy people. LOL! When I read someone's offering, I go with my gut and voice that. I never talk about the technical aspects because...pfft. That can be addressed any time. I want a reader's gut reaction to my stuff. It tells me if I'm doing what I intended to with the story.

  8. I am forever thankful to my critique partners who told me pretty bluntly what my shortcomings were. I needed to know and I'm a better writer for it.
    Thanks for your comments on my blog. I really appreciate hearing different viewpoints on the topic!

  9. @Tara - haha Yeah, my philosopher friends say the same thing. haha And I only cheated at D&D dice when it was 3D6. I'm not sure if I stopped cheating beceause I grew older or because the change in system made it seem less significant somehow, lol

    @Deb - Thank you for your continued encouragement! And I love your approach to feedback. That's the stuff that we writers often need and don't get.

    @Lydia - Yeah, we all need to know both our short-comings and our strengths. I think too many crit groups are great with the former and poor with the latter, but that's a post for another day. Or maybe later today.

    And you're welcome! I enjoy your blog!

  10. I think you're beginning to join the ranks of intuitive writing and that is exciting. The only way to get there is to write and write and write. Me and Scott and Davin been talking about this lately.

    And THIS: The point is: pay attention to your feedback. Look for patterns in specific comments. Look for how your responses line up with what you wanted your responses to be. Watch what specific elements trigger the most passionate responses....

    VERY WELL SAID! I'm so glad we're reading each other's stuff. :)

  11. I agree about the intuitive writing. It's just like playing guitar, really. You can't solo worth a darn until you've done it lots. I haven't, and I can't solo worth a darn. It takes intuition and instinct.

    I'm glad you like that part, Michelle. And ME TOO! Speaking of which, hopefully tomorrow I can finally get to that!


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