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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Know your limitations. Know your strengths.

Author Topic: Know your limitations. Know your strengths.
Member # 7760

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When I first started writing, I started with an epic grand book, that I would have loved to read if Brandon Sanderson had written it. For me as the writer though, it failed. There were just too many characters, too many balls in the air for me to juggle. That was my first lesson as a writer, what size of a story I can (and can't) pull off.

When I wrote my second novel, it was much smaller. I focused on one character, one timeline, and one problem. While writing that novel, I learned I'm really good at writing characters and character motivation. I'm not so good at writing description, and world building.

So for my third novel, I set it in real life. Writing in real life taught me how to describe things, because (for me anyway) it is easier to describe something I've seen, than something I'm making up. I also learned I tend to focus too much on the love story, and not enough on the plot of the story.

My first three novels, ( although I didn't start out with them this way) ended up being autobiographical. They were novels that I had to get out on paper, so I could let real stories out.

My fourth novel is my best one. It's one I believe in, and WILL publish. But I had to write my first three in order to get to it.

Has anyone else had a similar journey in their writing?

So my question is,

What size of story can you pull off?

And hey, while we are at it,

What are your strengths as a writer, and what should you avoid?


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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I understand that Brandon Sanderson wrote ten novels before he had one that he was ready to submit to publishers.
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I am great at coming up with basic story lines. I am horrible at getting the sentence structure to where an editor likes it. Characterization is not great either.

I am not at novel length yet I have written one novel that ended up 450 double spaced crap, with great concepts inside. Cutting it in half was what was needed and I could not decide at the time exactly the best way to do it. It was based on two of my story ideas and I later figured out that I should have stuck close to the main one to make the story work in the proper page count.

Writing short "cute" stories is what I do most of. Getting them polished is the hardest part. I had an editor friend read my latest work and it was not up to snuff by a long ways.

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Member # 9183

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First novel was a single-viewpoint upper MG. Not good enough to query.

Second novel I am currently planning is an adult single-viewpoint. I really want to make this one publishable. I have quite a few short stories under my belt, but fall short of the 1 million word/10k hour mark by a long shot.

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Member # 9096

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Just finishing. *sigh* My inner editor is ruthless, usually intruding after only a few pages with the 'not good enough' mantra.
I do think I have good ideas that I would love to read myself, if I could just have the faith to get them out. And I have improved markedly in plotting and sentence structure in the two years that I've been writing. So, the damage:

First novel YA, first of a trilogy. (not completed) - I had/have no idea how to plot one book, let alone three.

Second novel MG (not complete) - Almost got there, and then got scared it wouldn't come out right.

Third novel YA (not complete) - NaNo garbage, first of a trilogy, fabulous idea, wish I could write it.

Fourth novel YA working on now, trying to force myself to get it done no - matter - what (out, out, damned editor - RoxyL as Lady McBeth)

Can't even finish short stuff, just endless edits.

Wow is that cathartic in a pitiful way to finally admit this.
(Looks around the self-help group, "Hi, I'm RoxyL and I have an editing problem...")

I appreciate seeing where everyone else is on this journey. And seeing that we all are capable of getting better. (Tonight Meredith is my hero with her phone call from and agent!).
Thanks for bringing this up, Shimiqua.

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Member # 8586

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For my first novel, I aimed for 70,000 - 80,000 words. I ran out somewhere around 45,000 due to lack of planning and having no clue what I was doing. Not that the story was complete... it was only half-finished.

My second novel fared better: 76,000 words in a complete first draft. After editing and better world-building, it came to 96,000 words, where it currently resides. It's not good enough, but I love the idea. Someday I will tell that story, but not until I can tell it well. It's supposed to be the first of a trilogy.

So now I have 1 and 1/2 novels under my belt and I'm giving short stories a spin. I've got three in the works, and they're alright, I guess. No one has seen them.

The idea of starting a new novel sort of appeals to me. I've seen so many times on here that it takes three or four to get the hang of it.

I try to keep my stories under 100k words with one main plot and a few small subplots. I'm not smart enough to handle anything bigger.

I think my strengths as a writer are building characters and mechanical writing skills (if that makes sense). My weakness is plot; I'm still learning how to develop and tell a story.

[This message has been edited by mythique890 (edited September 21, 2011).]

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Member # 2807

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I've written one complete novel and a bunch of short stuff, including a lot of flash fiction. I've been best at stuff up to about 2000 words thus far, but that doesn't mean that's what I'm really best at. I could be best at novel writing if I spent my time doing it instead of pussyfooting around. But that's my objective now--to write some good novels and get them sold. I've got two partials of over 120 double-spaced pages, so I just need to get them finished. My limitations are organizing, my strength is disciplining myself---at least in other areas discipline has been my strength. Maybe I'm the kind of person who can only discipline himself in one aspect of his life at a time, say fitness. I seem to be able to get myself to the gym every day, so why shouldn't I be able to get myself to sit down and write?
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Member # 8501

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I can write at any length. I find that it's easy for me to write a long novel. I only have to sketch out the basic plot. It may not stay that way, but if I don't, my writing will get away from me.

My first novel was 110,000 words. I wrote much of it at church, by hand, not listening to the speakers. I am rewriting it, because I liked the plot and still do.

My second novel is just about ready for publishing and is 93,000 words.

In my third novel, 107,000 words, I tried to change it to YA. I found out that I currently don't have the ability to go deep enough into the character enough for female readers. So that one just might not make it.

My fourth novel, 90,000 words, didn't quite work out with the initial readers. Not quite politically correct enough. (women were physically unable to remember magic spells). That's one I'll rewrite because I have a trilogy worked out (and women eventually do get the ability to work magic...)

The problem with my writing is that too much of the characters and the descriptions are in my head and I don't get enough of it out into the work. (I also have some sentence construction issues, but that's improving, too.)

I think that's why you have to continue to write to get better. I have no problem with length. The advent of self-publishing makes length problems a lot easier to handle because you can self-publish a 40,000 word work that a publisher wouldn't touch because of the odd length.

[This message has been edited by Owasm (edited September 21, 2011).]

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Member # 8631

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I can't write short stories. I've tried, and they all would work better as novels. Well, I guess I could learn, but I'd rather write novels.

I think my strengths are characterization and dialog, or maybe that is just what I enjoy the most. I think I'm pretty good at plotting, or at least plots seem to come easy to me, and I enjoy working the plot puzzles (if that makes sense).

My weakness are: beginnings, endings, world-building, and description. I put a lot of time and effort into those aspects. I also struggle at the word level, making the words on the page match the story that is in my head.

Wow, I have a lot more weakenesses than strengths. Yikes!

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Member # 5137

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I recently indie published my first novel. While I believe the idea that sometimes we need to write just to put ideas down and the actual story isn't really there or coherent, I don't believe it's a universal truth. I've written other novels that aren't as good as my first because I didn't (still don't) have the details figured out as well, didn't have the arc down.

My biggest issue I think is a general plotting/story arc one. It's a little ridiculous, actually, because for most people that comes as naturally as breathing. Sigh. I think a portion of my issue is self-doubt that I think the final conflicts aren't exciting enough, when in reality I don't write crazy thrillers that are heart-stopping to the end. I write MG and YA sci-fi that's more about the kids and their thoughts and the way technology plays into their lives than anything else. But still I worry about having the right kind of arc, the right amount of tension (I err on the side of too little conflict. It's a knee-jerk reaction to annoyance with a lot of existing MG and YA fiction that has the MC's life suck, then their dog dies, then they get kicked out of school, then they break their leg, ad nauseum. Ugh, painful to read, can't imagine writing stuff like that!)

The thing I do well is character voice. You get a strong sense of who my character is by reading my stories (and she's usually a little bit funny, not that sure of herself, and oddly obsessed with both boys and technology. Hmm...) Most characters are quite a bit autobiographical, but I expect to evolve away from so much self-reflection as I mature as a writer. I just figure these are the kinds of stories I can and want to tell now. Later I can tell the other ones.

But for now, I'll tell these stories, and I tell them for all the geeky girls out there, because they're THEIR stories, after all.

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Member # 8714

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The question of 'what should you avoid?' bothers me. It implies that if you're not good at something you shouldn't try doing it. I don't believe you should avoid anything. The only way you're going to get better at something you're not good at is to do it, possibly poorly, examine the results and try to do better next time. You have to push yourself as a writer. The more things you learn, the more tools you have at your disposal and that will give you a wider range of choices when considering how to tackle a story. Never let a weakness stop you. Embrace it and learn.
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Member # 5512

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My problem: I'm unable to write short stories. Somehow I need space to evolve my story and characters, resulting in a longer text. I know this is not a bad thing but I would probably have more stories finished by now if I could do it on less pages.

I've heard my dialogues are great but I'm poor with scene description. I don't want to be like Hemingway who could write a hundred pages describing a shrub but I do need to make the reader immerse in the story.

At least I have something to do, eh?

[This message has been edited by MartinV (edited September 22, 2011).]

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What size of story can you pull off?
Define "pull off"?
Publication? Then, I've only sold pieces of <1000 words.
Entertaining? Well, I've written a novel, flash, short stories, and novelette lengths and been told "I liked it", "enjoyable", "I'd look for more stories (by you)", etc.
Though I've had my share of clunkers--stories I thought worked but were too obtuse or simply didn't work for my test readers.
What are your strengths as a writer, and what should you avoid?
Questions best asked of my reviewers/readers, I believe.
I think I'm adequate in crafting an interesting story, in placing one word after another, in natural-sounding dialog--not that these cannot be improved. They can. I'm continuing to work on description vs pace, and creating better character empathy, etc.

I should avoid making excuses not to write.

Dr. Bob

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Member # 8612

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Interesting how you started out with Brandon Sanderson as an example. He is the author I love to hate. He always gives advice that I just KNOW is true, but I can't bring myself to quite follow it.

Case in point: he is a strong believer that you shouldn't write your baby first (you know, that one novel/story/whatever that is your main motivation to write?) You need practice first, and then you can do that. And, he followed his own advice. He wrote many unpublished stories before he started getting published, and even then, he wrote more before he started working on Way of Kings (which I understand was his baby). The result was (probably) a way better final product for WoK than he probably could have done earlier. He says that this preliminary work is necessary to learn how to write well enough to effectively birth that baby.

Ok, that metaphor is starting to go too far...

Contrast that with someone like Terry Goodkind, who wrote one book and managed to get published first try.

I mention this because I finally figured I wasn't ready to write my motivating work. Try as I might, I didn't have the skills. Yet whenever I tried my hand at another novel or at short stories, I found I just didn't care enough about them as my initial idea to keep at it. I kept getting distracted back to the original product. Even though I knew that writing a short story would be beneficial and give my writing muscles lots of practice and even held the remote possibility of getting published so that my later endeavors wouldn't have as much difficulty getting to an editor's desk... even though I knew all that, I lacked the discipline to keep at it. I kept wandering back to my pet project. And, keeping people like Terry Goodkind and Stephanie Meyer and JK Rowling in mind who managed to publish their first work, I naively thought I could do the same (not their success, just the getting published part...) But yet I couldn't write my pet project well enough...

What I ended up doing was finding out that one of the side characters in that story needed his own tale told, and now I am writing that story and it is going much easier. So, to answer your question:

What size of story can you pull off?

I hope I can pull off (meaning, finish and get published) this preliminary story. It is looking to me as though it might be 160K words, which worries me a little about how long it is, but I don't fret that right now. It is a complex plot (the plot twists are what is keeping me from moving forward as fast as I would like right now), but told nearly exclusively from one character's viewpoint. In that sense, it is a simpler story than those arching magnum opi by genius like Sanderson who can actually make me care about 4 characters at once.

Whether I can pull it off remains to be seen...

What are your strengths as a writer, and what should you avoid?

One of my strengths is editing. I know lots of people say editing is harder than writing, but for me it is opposite. Putting something down on a blank page is way tougher than manipulating text around on that page. That is something I do sometimes when I get writers block. I just write nonsense to fill the page so that I can go back and edit it later. I even write notes to myself in the middle of writing:

... Bob the Main Character turned round the corner and ran into (something really scary. Maybe put some horns on it...) Then, he meets up with that girl from chapter two. Make her insult him about his tie (did he buy the tie yet? (Better: make it a bow tie))
Then she sees the Scary Thing and shouts:
"You idiot, why didn't you tell me..." story continues...

What I find hardest is simply having the discipline to write. I spend more time surfing the internet than writing. That is shameful.

What I find second hardest is related to the fact that I find writing hard. I like to have the whole story planned out (in my mind or outline form) before I get started. Otherwise, get hung up on details for lack of direction and can't progress. I am definitely NOT a discovery writer... This is hard, because I usually select plotlines that are very difficult for me to fully flesh out. The result is that I spend more time brooding over outlines than actually writing anything.

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Robert Nowall
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I've come up, lately, with the notion that something I've been writing about "doesn't pass my smell test," meaning I'm writing about something I know little to nothing about.

A few years ago, I decided I knew nothing about the military. e never been in it, even though a lot of my characters were military or paramilitary. (My experience with the USPS is not the same.) So I gave that up and went looking for other situations to put my characters in.

Later, but still a couple years ago, I decided I knew nothing about medical matters. I can put a character in a hospital, or have a character injured, but anything more elaborate (which some of my stuff has been), and I'm out of my depth, damn near plagiarizing writers who are better at medical stuff than I am. (Sometimes well into that---and, those, I suppress, file-and-forget.)

This leaves me casting about, trying to figure out what it is I do know well enough to write about...which isn't easy...

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I've been at this serious writing business for a relatively short time compared to most folks here, just over a year.

While I think my natural tendency is to write long, owing to the fact I've spent much more time reading novels than short stories, I'm convinced I should become proficient at short stories first. I believe one learns faster in this format, simply because you can get more feedback on a shorter timeline and work through many more projects. It also forces me to focus on fewer plot lines and fewer characters, and work at making prose efficient. I'll consider myself proficient at short stories when I've made my first pro sale.

I'm starting to also focus on novelette and novella sized work. I started a novel, and have written up to six chapters, but I put it off because I still think there is work to be done at the shorter format level. My end goal, though, is write novels more so than short stories.

So what are my strengths? Prose, dialog, imagery and description, and revision based on the feedback I get from others. Being thick skinned and clinical about my own work as well. Finally, that succeeding is a matter of putting in the requisite effort.

What are my weaknesses? I believe I need to spend more time on world and character building as well as stronger internal and external story arcs. I tend to start my stories slow, so I also need to work that.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Robert, I'm sure you've considered writing about something to do with the work you do, but have you considered all the possibilities?

Just working from the phrase "going postal," you could explore several possibilities:

there's a magical cause for it, and your MC can detect magic in some way (I have a published short story about a character who can smell magic) and has to try to stop it

your MC can see what he perceives as signs that other workers are heading in that direction, and then notices signs that he might be, as well

your MC is caught in a situation where someone has actually "gone postal" and what he does in such a situation to survive and help others survive, whether he manages to help stop the individual who has "gone postal" or not

the PO decides to bring in some kind of "preventative test" that all employees are subject to, and how the testing and the results of the testing affect the situation at work (and maybe even lead to an incident)

and so on.

And that's just for "going postal" which probably bigger in the public imagination than it actually is in your (or any postal worker's) life. But surely it isn't the only possibility for interesting stories in your work.

What about projecting possible developments into the future? We keep hearing things about email and social networking making regular mail obsolete, but we also know that there are some things that still have to go through the mail, no matter what.

What about a postal worker who stumbles upon something that would revolutionize the whole process--a postal "transporter" that would mean the mail wouldn't have to go by air or truck to get from one post office to another (not to mention all the repercussions for any kind of "shipping" of goods), and all the challenges with whether or not to even tell anyone about it, and then the word leaks out anyway, and this group tries to kill the inventor, and that group tries to steal the idea, and another group tries to exploit it, and so on. Basic stuff, but you can write about all of it from your work experience.

Or is there something in your work contract that prevents you from being able to do something like any of that?

Anyway, just some thoughts.

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I originally came to the Treehouse intending on writing a novel. I don't believe I'm ready yet (though I have attempted) and like Osiris - am now focusing on short stories to help me gain the skills that I need to enable me to write a good (great!) novel.

Strengths: Sometimes, somewhere, somehow - I manage to write a witty piece of dialogue or set a great scene or write things that are really worth reading.

Weaknesses: That doesn't happen often enough yet.

But getting better all the time

I'm astounded at how much I have learnt (am learning) since starting this writing business.

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Robert Nowall
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My work has degenerated to the point where I'm not interested in it...I do it efficiently, but it's all autopilot...everything that was interesting has been drained off it by management...if it weren't for the pay and benefits, I'd've been long gone by now.

So how can I write about that?

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I have absolutely no experience with military stuff other than what I see on TV or what I've read in other people's fiction. I am thinking of reading some military books but at the same time I think it's more fun to write from my own perspective, making my characters do what I think is right. As long as I follow my own logic, I can't feel guilty about it. Right now I'm planning a military heavy story with fantasy races (despite all the battles, LOTR or Narnia don't make much sense in a military sense). So far most fantasy books I've read disappointed me on the military level so I'm trying to write what I would like to read.

Writing about stuff I don't know enough is also the reason why I'm thinking on how to approach experts (I've asked about this here on Hatrack before).

[This message has been edited by MartinV (edited September 25, 2011).]

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The one compliment I hear most from editors and critiquers is that they like my concepts and ideas. I take pride in that. Iím an Ďideasí writer, sometimes to the detriment of character development.

What others might deem as my weaknesses notwithstanding, I myself point the accusing finger at my tendency to take forever at making critical editorial decisions. If I could finish stories half as fast as I create the concepts, my list of completed works would be at least triple what it is now.

I wanted to know why it was this way with me (Iím not blaming ADD for everything), so I decided to challenge myself by signing up for Hatrackís WotF 2011 Q4 reading group. It was a disaster. Not only did I miss the first deadline completely, but I ended up editing out just about every aspect of my original vision just to make the second deadline, to the point where the version I offered up was not even close to the story I wanted to tell.

I was just about ready to lay the guilt on my inability to cope successfully with deadlines. Except, my editorial sluggishness existed long before my reading group participation. I reread some of the short stories and novels Iíve written over the last few years but chose to discard because they didnít turn out the way I wanted, and realized my true weakness: at some point during the editing phase, I lost contact with my vision for the story. My editorial decisions were sluggish because I spent way too much time attempting to recapture the original vision (when I could remember what it was) that I mistakenly carved away (during those times I didnít remember what it was). Maybe itís ADDís fault, after all...!

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Member # 5512

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I think every writer is good with something and not so good with other things. So as writers we need to compensate our weaknesses with hard work and use our strengths to make our stories stand out.
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