Last week, we asked eight One Year Adventure Novel (OYAN) students to tell us what their biggest area of weakness is in writing, and what strategies they employ to overcome it.
This week, we feature another eight experienced OYANers and their responses. We hope their ideas for self-improvement will be useful to you!
Please add your own tips in the comments section!
“I pay special attention to dialogue when I’m reading novels—how each character sounds different from the rest and why. I study how personality and setting each contribute to a person’s dialect and try to apply the same patterns to my own stories. Since I’ve found that the more characters I have, the more their voices start blending together, I’ve recently been trying to consolidate characters and stick to smaller casts so I can more easily focus on honing this skill. When rewriting, dialogue is one of the first things I edit, and I keep working on it throughout the revision process. When receiving critiques, I look especially for comments regarding how the characters interact with each other so I know how much of an impression each is making and who needs more work.”
Years with OYAN: 4
Weakness: Crippling perfectionism
“When writing my first draft I do not do any editing as I go. I allow myself to look back up to one chapter just to see where I left off (which isn’t really necessary when I am writing consistently like I need to be), but no changes can be made during that time. In later drafts I will allow myself to make minor changes as I receive critiques. Any major changes have to wait until I either write the next draft, or if I’ve already written my final draft, edits begin. This ensures that I actually make progress on my stories instead of sitting and pondering the effectiveness of a single sentence for hours on end (as I am prone to do.)”
“When I run into story problems—whether it be a weak character motivation or a lack of tension in the plot—my worst tendency is to make the solution overly complicated. By the time I’m done, my story ends up looking like a pair of tangled earbuds. To fix it, I have to delve into the core of what I’m trying to communicate in my story, an essential feeling or high concept, and build from the bottom up. It’s this re-imagining that gets rid of any excess—anything that doesn’t enhance or propel this core concept has got to go. Simplicity is the best solution.”
“First I record myself reading the piece aloud, and I listen to catch sections where I could not convey the meaning of what I was reading—with voice inflection—without getting out of breath. Then I ask someone else to read it and highlight any lines that did not make sense and any lines they had to read more than once to understand. No matter how much I like the sound of those lines, they must be cut or simplified. I also immediately consider suspect any lines I feel clever about. They probably don’t make sense.”
“First, I read through the manuscript (often out loud) and take notes—what obviously works? What obviously doesn’t? Is the character’s action/reaction consistent with his or her internal motivations? What plot threads still need resolution of some sort? I track the timeline, the points of major conflict, the points of major character changes, and the like. I also write down a basic summary of each chapter, each character’s arc, and any glaring changes. Then I have to read the critiques my fellow writers have given me, carefully read over the notes I made, and see what fits and what needs to be tweaked or chopped. If a lot requires rearranging or condensing, sticky notes are great for re-storyboarding a novel. When it’s time to actually make the changes, rewriting each chapter has, for me, been a great way to get enough “distance” from the text; I open the old chapter and a new document, re-transcribing each word I decide belongs.”
“People baffle me. In person or on page, the existence of others is hard to fully comprehend when you are stuck inside your own head. When I write, the hyper awareness of myself helps me create multidimensional main characters, but it doesn’t help me with side characters. To combat this, I have two questions I ask when I write people outside my head. The first question is, “What does this person want?” You are not a living human being unless you have a goal. Why should you—and I, for that matter—believe in someone who doesn’t seem to want anything? After the goal of my side character is clear, I ask, “How much do they want it?” The level of desire impacts their behavior, and it changes the way they interact with my main character. When I know these two things, my writing becomes much more believable and interesting.”
“I’m a concept author. I love to play against reader expectations, subvert tropes, and craft characters that don’t fit stereotypes. Trouble is, I can get so wrapped up in abstraction that I fail to give the story a clear, traceable plotline with compelling conflicts and logical event sequencing. My first novel was a disaster because I ignored gaping plot holes to focus on my areas of strength, like prose or character details. Those elements help, of course, but I’m learning that my “clever ideas” are much more interesting to readers if I link them inextricably to the story itself. For my work-in-progress, I’ve outlined every chapter in detail and asked myself “If this, then what? What consequences does this idea have on the rest of the story? How can I resolve this theme or subplot in a tangible way?” Finding these answers ahead of time helps me avoid killing my abstract concepts with boring, illogical execution.”
“Comparison kills creativity. Instead of worrying whether my story is better—or worse—than another person’s, I’m learning to embrace my own unique style. If I like humor, I write humor. If I want my character to live, he lives. If I like adverbs … I kill them anyway. Because I can. When I catch myself stressing about my story, I pause, refocus, and find new joy in big words and implausible situations. The energy I once spent envying another writer’s talent is better used to train and grow my own skill. I wait to share my work with others until I feel confident that it sounds—not perfect—but like me. And when I grow defensive during a critique? I remind myself that criticism isn’t an attack, but an honor. There is always room for growth.”
What is your biggest struggle as a writer? Have you found any strategies that help you deal with it?