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Weekly Musing: Strengths and Weaknesses

Every writer, no matter their level of experience and success, has their strengths and weaknesses. Some write such realistic dialogue the reader can hear the characters as if they were sitting next to them having a conversation. Others are able to weave incredibly tight, complex plots. Still others are able to juggle multiple points of view. While others excel at creating unique, compelling characters. But for every writer with a strength or two or three, they also have a weakness or two or three.

And that’s okay. In theory anyway. There is a ton of information about how to improve every aspect of your writing. For someone like me, a born perfectionist who overthinks pretty much everything (thanks anxiety), getting bombarded with such makes me feel that in order to get anything published I must excel in all areas. On an intellectual level I understand this simply isn’t possible. How many of my favorite books and authors could I point out the strengths and weaknesses?

So below are what I consider my strengths and weaknesses at this point. Admittedly there will probably be more weaknesses since I tend to focus more on the negative and how to improve. Anyway, typical massive writer insecurities aside, here we go!

Strengths

Dialogue: One of the things I always appreciate in any story is dialogue. Dialogue for me is not only what gives me a sense of who a character but the story as well. I’m also fascinating by how people talk. Their choice of words, regional slang and dialect, accents, cadence, it’s all interesting.

Since characters are usually the first things that pop into my head I often find I hear their voices before I see them. So when I’m writing I try my best to capture their voice as much as I can. I think in some small way I’ve been successful at this so far. It does take me a lot of effort to really listen in a scene and make sure each person in a scene sounds like himself or herself.

One Point of View: This year I came to the realization trying to juggle more than one person’s point of view isn’t my thing. Recognizing all of the stories I’ve written have always been from one point of view, one character’s point of view is what I’m much better at. My brain concentrates better on just one task and in this case, one person’s story. I can stay inside that person’s world and mind better and it’s easier for me to see things as they do.

Oddly enough, while I don’t particularly care for first person, I noticed a fair amount of the stories I’ve had published have been the ones written in first person. Maybe because this point of view allows more freedom in truly getting deep into the emotion of the person something third person can restrict.

Weaknesses

Setting: I’ve been trying to make more of an effort to bring settings out more. After all it’s what helps ground readers into the world. It’s a struggle for me because in my head I can see it perfectly but it’s difficult to figure out how to translate that visual onto the page. Stories I’ve written of late I think I’ve done a better job but more often than not I worry if I don’t have enough information. What confuses as I study what I read are authors who have the ability to use very few words to give the reader the setting while others go into beautiful, lengthy descriptions. As a reader I respond to both so as a writer I’m unclear as to which route to take.

Descriptions: In a similar vein to setting, descriptions trip me up. Mainly in regards to what characters look like and how best to introduce this when the reader first meets them. There are two schools of thought as to what is the “best” approach. Does one do a quick paragraph description or does one sprinkle details throughout? Personally I like getting the description all at once. I tend to forget what people look like unless there is some kind of memorable feature or if the author beats me over the head with reminders.

As I writer I struggle with seeing the characters in my head yet can’t seem to find a creative way to describe them beyond generic things like blue eyes, curly blonde hair, short, tall, has a limp, etc. This struggle filters over to what people are wearing. Since I tend to write sci-fi, fantasy, and historical fiction, what people wear and look like tend to be kinda important because it gives a visual cue to the reader as to what kind of person these people are.

Endings: I struggle mightily with endings. Beginnings I’ve gotten better at seeing where the appropriate place is to start the story and middles are easy. But endings, yikes. My spouse was the first, and still only person, to point out I seem to have a tendency to kill off characters as a way to end a story. This reeks of lazy writing to me.

Since I do some form of outlining, I’ve concentrated more on endings. I’m also listening to the most common feedback I get that my endings are weak. Honestly getting suggestions for what might work helps spurn my creativity. At least I can take some comfort in I’m not the only person who struggles with endings as many, many books, TV shows, and movies leave many of us unsatisfied.

Crowd Control: This is a term I use to refer to whenever a scene has more than two characters. I find managing two people easy enough. Anything more, oh dear. I have a tendency to forget people until rereading the scene. And heaven forbid there be anything else in the scene like weapons or animals to consider. I’ve started to take up diagraming on a piece of paper where people are physical at in relation to others to have a visual.

Emotion: This one could be in my head. Probably is. But I think I have yet to truly be comfortable allowing a character to be 100% honest in a story.

While I do well writing from a character’s point of view, I feel myself pulling back. I’m scared to dig deeper at times to let some kind of uncomfortable emotion come out for fear of offending. It’s not unusual for an author to be blamed for something a fictional character does. A fictional character is not a reflection of the author. Yet fear of judgment and possible hate email holds me back from allowing any kind of raw, pure emotion aside from what is socially acceptable from coming out.

This is something I view as pretty detrimental to my characters and ultimately my career and probably the one weakness which worries me the most. It’s also the one I think there is no amount of advice which can be given other than my own internal work to get over it.

 

So there you have it. My strengths and weaknesses as I see them right now. It is my hope I can turn some of these weaknesses into strengths. But I must keep in mind, and every other writer must keep in mind as well, that you cannot excel in all areas. Play to your strengths and work on your weaknesses.

Musings

Weekly Musing: The Basics Part Four – Conflict and Resolution

This week we come to the conclusion of my four part series on the literary basics. For a quick recap see my previous posts on Character, Plot, and Setting. For the fourth and final installment I’ll be discussing Conflict and Resolution.

The definition of Conflict is a choice or situation the protagonist faces at the beginning of the story must be solved or not. Essentially, conflict is the reason for the plot, the characters, and the setting. Below are listed the different kinds of conflict.

Internal – As the name suggests, internal conflict is one in which the protagonist battles himself. Something happens that forces the protagonist to question himself. This may lead to a moral dilemma. The protagonist’s internal conflict can also manifest itself as a battle to overcome a perceived or real deficiency in order to “win”.

External – This type of conflict is a result of some other person or object or concept that the protagonist has a problem with. There several kinds external conflict with some debate as to whether a couple of them should be their own category or included with another one.

Man vs. Man: The most common type of conflict, it consists of one person or a group against another person or group.

Man vs. Nature: Another popular type, it consists of a person against either a force of nature, such as outrunning a powerful storm, or animal, like in Moby Dick.

Man vs. Society: In this type of external conflict, the protagonist is battling an institution, tradition, or laws of his culture in which he struggles with but ultimately either comes to accept his situation, is beaten by it, or overcomes it. Think of such stories as 1984 and many dystopian based novels.

Man vs. Supernatural: Some argue this should be included with Man vs. Nature since the Supernatural is an extension of the natural just unexplainable. Personally, I think this is definitely separate from Man vs. Nature because it’s hard to compare battling werewolves with being surrounded by actually wolves. One’s made up, while the other is real.

Man vs. Technology: A newer kind of conflict thanks to the acceleration in technology from the Industrial Revolution to now. This can be used to show how technology is used against man to enslave him.

Man vs. Fate/God: Like Man vs. Supernatural, this one could be folded into one of the other categories such as either Man vs. Nature or Man vs. Self if the protagonist is battling fate, such as in Oedipus Rex, or the gods, such as in The Odyssey. Again, I personally believe stories in which an earthly creature struggles against fate/destiny or a god/gods in different because those concepts are abstract and don’t fit neatly into any other category.

Many stories often have more than one kind of conflict in them. For example, this is particularly true when the protagonist is on a journey. Not only is he battling several foes before reaching the Big Bad, but also along the way he may start to question their own will, thus creating an internal conflict that they must solve in order to overcome the main conflict.

All of this conflict within a story should ultimately lead to the apex, or climax of the story. What this simply means is everything that has happened in the story leads to one decisive event. Following the traditional three act structure, the climax traditionally comes somewhere toward the end of the middle part of the story.

Once we get the climax, we come to the last puzzle piece. Resolution is all the falling action after the climax and which propels the story to a resolution, or end. In the traditional three act structure a small percentage of the story is spent to tidy things up. Resolution doesn’t always necessarily mean that all a reader’s questions will be answered.

This last point is quite tricky because some believe resolutions and endings should be definitive with no room for doubt. Others are okay with some open endings as long as other things are satisfactorily concluded. Still others don’t mind completely open-ended endings. Of course, if a book is part of a series then some amount of unresolvedness is needed. How to end a story is difficult and is probably one of the reasons why many, many readers often feel dissatisfied at the conclusion. Personally, I’m okay with some ambiguity as life isn’t so nice and tidy and I don’t mind wondering “What happened?”

 

Hopefully this series has helped. I think it’s important as readers to understand the basics so that as we read and reflect we can understand the choices the characters make. Also, when we are having discussions with our friends, our book club, or online, we come across as an intelligent reader who can successfully defend their position. As writers it’s good to have a solid foundation on the basics to not only understand what readers expect, but then how to tweak those expectations. It also makes us look like we know what we’re doing even if at times it doesn’t feel that way.

Musings

Weekly Musing: The Basics Part Two – Setting

A couple of weeks ago I started a series reviewing story basics. I started with Character and continue the series this week with Setting. Unlike some of the other story elements, setting is pretty straightforward. A lot easier to keep straight and not confuse terms.

The simplest definition of setting is it is where the story takes place. As we all know, it can be a real place or something fantastical or even a place within a character’s mind. In addition to be the world, setting also helps the reader fix the time, culture, and mood of the world in which the story takes place.

Below are definitions of a few different kinds of settings frequently seen in literature:

Alternate History – This might seem confusing since alternate history is also a subgenre of both science fiction and historical fiction. In this context, alternate history is a setting because it is a world set in a different universe from what our normal history is. This could also be defined as Alternate Universe or Parallel Universe.

Imaginary World – This type of setting is one in which the author has created a world from scratch including its own set of rules, logic, culture, and religion. This is mostly found in science fiction and fantasy. Many authors who have created their own worlds, such as Middle Earth and Mordor in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Westeros in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, have based them on the real world.

Dystopia – Stories set in this kind of setting feature societies which have completed broken down. Everything is usually bleak and depressing. This is quite popular with examples such as the various districts within The Hunger Games trilogy. While commonly associated with science fiction, literary fiction frequently employs this setting as well.

Mythical Place – As the name suggests, the setting is some mythical time and place found in mythology, folklore, or religious texts. This is different from an Imaginary World in that this setting would be something like Asgard or Camelot or the Garden of Eden.

Utopia – This is the opposite of Dystopia in that instead of a broken down society, society is based upon the principle of equality in all things. People frequently believe that a utopian world means that everyone is happy and everything is perfect. This isn’t necessarily the case as seen A Brave New World and 1984.

 

These are just a few of the different kinds of settings. All of us have read books set in real places with real people yet fictionalized for the sake of the story. And we’ve all read books set in a fictional place set here on Earth but which perhaps takes place during our modern time or a point in history.

While setting is one of the simplest literary elements, it’s easy to see where readers could start to get confused. When connecting it with Character, for example, I frequently see and hear people criticize a character’s actions because the story is set in a time period and culture different from own. I’ve seen this more with new historical fiction readers, but all genres are affected.  I believe this comes down to readers not remembering the context of the world. Characters within the story’s world who behave as good or bad suddenly are deemed the opposite because the reader projects modern values and their own biases.

Setting, while unassuming and operating seemingly in the shadows, should be on equal footing as other literary elements. Without a firm grasp on setting, an author cannot fully convey to the reader what it is he or she wants the reader to not only visualize, but also how Character and Plot are affected by it. The inverse is true for the reader. Without a firm understanding of the setting, all the other literary elements cannot work as well as the author intended. By better understanding its purpose both readers and authors become better.