In my previous post about finding what’s wrong in your work, I said that I think writers need to understand the structure of a scene to identify what’s wrong with a scene.
Another thing I strongly believe a writer needs is an unbending honesty with himself. This means you have to tell yourself the truth, not what you want to hear. This is tough to do, especially if we’re in the habit of smoothing our own ruffled feathers in other aspects of our lives. If we’ve learned how to pat ourselves on the head and make ourselves feel better over real-life issues, we should at least suspect that we’re capable of doing the same thing when it comes to our writing.
If you want to strive for excellence, you need to be honest—both about what’s wrong with your work and what’s right. No running yourself down relentlessly, indulging in false modesty and refusing to acknowledge your strengths. No glossing over your weaknesses.
One thing I clearly remember from my early days as a writer was making the decision to read the work in hard copy rather than on the screen when I’m revising. I think doing that is one of my subconscious triggers. As long as it’s on the screen, it’s “mine.” Once it’s printed on the page, I find it easier to distance myself from it. To read it as if someone else wrote it. Unless I do that, I can’t honestly determine whether I’ve hit the bar I’ve set for myself.
The first time I sat down to read a manuscript I wrote from beginning to end, I talked to myself long and hard about forgetting that I’d written it so I could approach it with some detachment. I believe this is another key element in being able to identify what’s wrong. As long as we remember that it’s our work, we retain a deep personal attachment to every word, to every scene, to every idea on the page.
When you sit down to read something you’ve written—whether it’s a page, a scene, a chapter, or an entire manuscript—remind yourself that nothing is sacred. Absolutely nothing.
It doesn’t matter how long or hard you’ve worked on a scene, how much you like a particular description or phrase—if it doesn’t fit, if it doesn’t feel right, it needs to go.
If a character or a location isn’t working, he goes, she goes, or it goes. Absolutely nothing is sacred. Absolutely nothing is safe.
If you’re approaching your work feeling protective in some way, determined to preserve, to fix, to keep what you’ve written, you are automatically shutting down some of the internal voices that will help you identify problem areas before you even begin.
To find the flaws in what you’ve written, you have to remain logical. Logic and sentiment don’t work well together. Sentiment will allow you to keep contrived and unbelievable situations because you like them or you don’t want to work as hard as you need to in order to fix them.
If you’re a discriminating reader, logic will pinpoint those problem areas immediately. You’ll know what works and what doesn’t. And that’s when you need to remember that ideas are just ideas. Words are only words.
Much as we like to talk about pouring our blood and our souls into our work, ideas are still just ideas. No matter how often we wax eloquent about the “book of my heart,” words are still just words.
When you’re looking at a scene, a chapter, or an entire manuscript and trying to figure out what’s wrong with it, remember that you’re looking at the whole picture, not just a single element. If you’re focused on a beautifully written sentence, for example, you might not be able to sense that it’s actually making your character seem weak or ineffective, or that it’s making a character behave out of character. You might not recognize that the character’s motivation is weak, or that the emotion you’ve written for her is contrived.
Remember also that an idea doesn’t make a plot. Ideas are everywhere. Some ideas can be spun into plots, but ideas and situations are not plots all by themselves.
Plots have—here comes that word again—structure.
If you don’t fully understand what your plot should be doing, it will be very difficult to identify when your plot isn’t doing it.
Does your plot have an inciting incident that’s big enough to drive the plot forward? Are your characters sufficiently motivated to keep them moving when things get tough? Does your scene contain actual conflict, or is it full of anticipated or remembered conflict?
Is your character spending too much time thinking about what just happened or what’s going to happen? It’s possible that too much time in his own head will make him feel self-centered and selfish, and that you’re losing sympathy for him without even realizing it?
Is he falling in love with a weak character or one who is TSTL (Too Stupid to Live?) Is the antagonist he’s facing too weak to present a challenge that will keep readers engaged? Are you relying on an unrealistic coincidence to either move your plot forward or bring it to a conclusion?
Do you have actual turning points, or is your plot plodding along on a predictable path? How many times has your protagonist thought about his or her goal, motivation and conflicts? Are you presenting new information to the reader, or are you rehashing stuff they already know?
Be honest with yourself. Don’t ignore those flickers of doubt. Don’t automatically assume the doubt is justified, either. But at least give it some honest consideration before you duck and run.
If you feel that something’s wrong with your story, but you don’t know what it is, ask yourself when you last felt that the story was absolutely right. Go back to that point and read what you’ve written to see if you’ve taken a wrong turn.
Have you forced a character to follow a pre-determined path just because you once decided that’s what needed to happen? Should you have listened to the character when he said that’s not how he felt and wanted to go in another direction?
Another big question I would have for anyone who has trouble identifying what’s wrong in their own work is: How much do you read?
I’ve said this before, and I’m certainly not alone. Reading is not optional if you want to be a writer.
Are you reading at least one book a week?
When you read, what are you reading? Are you reading the work of authors who are where you want to be? Are you reading outside your chosen genre? Are you opening yourself to ideas beyond what other authors in your genre have used? Even if you’re writing sweet contemporary romance, you can learn a lot from someone who writes fantasy or action/adventure or mystery, or even (gasp!) literary fiction.
If all you ever read are books from one genre, how will you identify if you’re relying on genre cliches to carry your work?
Are you constantly and consistently studying the medium in which you’re trying to work, or do you put off reading, (the necessary study of your craft) because there are other things to do?
Do you write consistently and regularly? When you sit down to write is there any discipline involved in what you’re doing?
If the answer to any of those questions is no, then I have one more question for you—how do you expect to understand what’s wrong with your work?
If you’re not working at your craft—and I mean really working, not playing, not talking about it—if you’re not actively trying to improve your understanding of the craft and practicing what you’ve learned, and stretching yourself a little more every day.
If you’re not studying by immersing yourself in the work of other authors who are where you want to be, then how do you expect to know when you get there?
As I said before, you need to clearly understand where you’re heading before you’ll even have a clue whether or not you hit the mark.
You need to earn the understanding you’re looking for. No one can hand it to you. You can’t learn it from reading a book–or even this workshop. The best teacher in the world, the best critique partner in the world, the best how-to book in the world can’t do a thing to help you if you’re not willing to help yourself.
And willing doesn’t mean intentions. Willing means action.
Yes, we can learn from others. I wouldn’t write this blog or offer workshops if I didn’t believe that. But ultimately, we learn from doing. We learn by write by writing. By trying someone else’s technique or suggestions, seeing if it works for us, and either keeping it or discarding it.
We learn by trying new techniques and perfecting the old.