Friday, October 16, 2009

A Man's Got To Know His Limitations

Earlier this week, Davin posted about the idea of experts versus novices, and how they view processes and fields of learning in different ways. It got me thinking about how one indicator that we are learning our craft is when we can recognize things we don't do well. If we can see our own limits, that means we have a big enough picture of what writing is to know how well our skills fit within that picture. As we write more and grow as writers, these limits get farther out and the things we need to work on become more subtle and personal. Thinking about showing and not telling, for example, maybe becomes thinking about how summarizing a scene will impact the imagery we're using and how that will affect the long-term shape of the narrative. The concept of dialogue will evolve from ideas about breaking it up with beats and tags into ideas about, maybe, the weight of individual words and the rhythm of the exchanges and how that works with the rhythm of the book's voice.

Anyway, I am sure that every established writer, no matter how many books she has published, is aware of things she'd like to do better. Even the ones who tell you otherwise and repeat a mantra of "don't get it right; get it written." I'm not talking about perfectionism here (though it's one of my many annoying traits as a writer) so much as I'm talking about awareness of not quite getting what we want down onto the page and seeing that we ought to work harder at what we can't quite do satisfactorily.

For example, I have a tendency to sort of hedge my bets when writing. I will sometimes refuse to commit to a specific meaning in a story, by which I mean that I can't decide exactly how someone feels about a situation, so that character will talk about it in vague terms. You know they feel something but I won't tell you what it is because I don't want to decide. Decisions are hard work, and have implications for the remainder of the story, so I'll write passages that could have more than one meaning--not to be clever, but because I just don't know. I wish I'd knock that off.

I also think that I don't pay as much attention to setting and detail as I should. Mostly that's because I am more interested in character than in details, or maybe I'm just telling myself that because writing setting and detail is a weak spot. In my current book, I am forcing myself to slow down and focus more on the physical details of the fictional world, and I don't like it because I don't do it well, but my hope is that when I've finished the first draft of the WIP, I'll have trained myself to do this kind of writing better. That which does not kill me makes me stronger, and all of that.

So I'm wondering, are you aware of the current limits of your craft? Are you consciously working on them? What's the most recent breakthrough you've had in your writing?

More importantly: It's Friday! This weekend cannot come too soon.


  1. Scott, I really enjoyed this post, thank you!

    As we were talking yesterday about literary and commercial fiction, I realized that I can only write what I love to write. I may admire the sweeping, deep literary masterpieces, but that doesn't mean I'm capable of writing them right away, or ever. I will certainly try, but staying within my limits is important too.

    I know my strong points, and stepping outside them step by step to slowly grow and build my craft is the way to go - not just jumping head first into a deep pool I know will drown me.

    I think it's admirable for anyone to try and write something new and outside of their comfort zone - it's how we grow, but first we need to know where our limitations are so we know when we're stepping outside them.

    The most recent breakthrough I've had in my writing is figuring out that I can create unlikable but intriguing characters. :)

  2. My strengths are in writing for children. I know that I can't, nor do I want to write for adults. I can speak like a child, be it through my picture books or novels easier than I would be able to for an adult.

    And so dialogue comes easier and easier for me. Setting has me perplexed. Creating illusion has also given me fits, though that is coming easier. I am working on setting, looking for books on the subject. Know of any?

  3. I've discovered that, because of my interests, I can't write a mainstream commercial or literary fiction tale if I tried. I'm too much invested in the sci-fi/fantasy field to even attempt it.

    Robyn --

    I'm the exact opposite. I write very well to adults and the sci-fi/fantasy community, but have difficulty with speaking to children through the written word.

    As to my strengths -- detail in setting tends to be one of them. Of course, my settings require so much research that it's almost imperative I be good at it.

    Great thoughts as always, Mr. Bailey.

  4. I do that hedging my bets kind of thing too. I like to keep my options open, but the point of writing is to tell the story and lay out the characters as they are. I have to just do it. Make them be who they are. Not let them wriggle out of any decisions.

    I also have a funny habit of writing down scenes that I'm trying to work out all backwards and mixed up. sometimes once the scene is down I have to start over and write it in order.

  5. My strengths are dialogue and cool story concepts. I also have a good eye for syntax and rhetoric.

    My weakness is in physical descriptions. I am likely to walk into a room and not notice the color of the walls. This is mostly because I am red/green colorblind and colors just escape me.

    When I dress myself, I go for comfort and fit more than style (to my wife's eternal dismay). In most cases I could care less what someone is wearing unless it is very unusual.

    When I write, I need to force myself to consider these types of general descriptions that are outside my personal comfort zone but are interesting to many readers. When I write the descriptions, I need to triple check to make sure that they are seamlessly incorporated into the story and not thrown in at random or over-written.

  6. Michelle: Yeah, but we're talking now about two different types of limits. I could never write something like the first "Harry Potter" book that's a fun, imaginative kid's book about magic. I'm fond of that book, but it's not me. On the other hand, I can learn to write about landscapes in the manner of Turgenov, or at least something like him.

    My most recent breakthrough was so obvious that I won't say, though it was about dialogue tags.

    Robyn: I don't know of any books on setting. My solution to problems of craft has always been to seek out good examples of what I can't do well, and figure out how real-live writers solved those problems.

    MattDel: I don't think I could write a decent SF/F book.

    Lois: I know what you mean about writing the scene backwards! A lot of my early drafts have all the right words, but all the action is out of order. Sometimes I can get away with rearranging, but sometimes I have to rewrite from scratch.

    Rick: I always pay attention to what people wear, but I am not comfortable writing about it. I'm consciously working on using more of the senses in my storytelling.

  7. Yeah, I know I was talking about a different kind of limitation. That's what you get for posting on Friday. My brain is mush by this time, and I ramble. :)

  8. I've begun to see that I hurry through scenes where I should be probing the emotional depth. I know it's there and, perhaps, don't want to really face it, or maybe think my readers will get it without elaboration. But it's not so. I need to get visceral.

  9. Nice post, Scott. Lately I've been very aware of my limitations. I think it's a good sign that I can see my writing more clearly. At the same time it's a bit frustrating to see how far I still need to go. My big problem right now is that I don't think I care enough about making my characters sympathetic enough. So, readers don't naturally tend to be on my characters' side. The other thing I want to work on is to be more imaginative. I feel like too often I'm grounded in my concept of reality, which can make for boring stories.

  10. I don't know, Davin, I find realistic real-world stories more interesting than fantasy or sci-fi or paranormal - that's just me. I like to imagine more of what could happen in my own reality than in an alternate one removed from my own. I know a lot of people roll their eyes when I say that, but it's just how I work. Maybe one day I'll write something fantastical. :)

  11. Davin: "Rooster" certainly told a story that was outside of my concept of reality, as does "Red Man/Blue Man." You worry too much. I also think that compelling characters are more interesting to read than sympathetic characters. The protagonist in "Bread" is both compelling and, from what I've seen, sympathetic.

    Michelle: I agree, sort of. I think that a lot of times, writers in SF/F are talking about the same things we are in "real-world" stories, just with different settings. A compelling story is about character. I don't write SF/F, but I've read plenty of it and I think that in the end, we all write about what it's like to be alive. So I have reversed myself. Who's surprised by that?

  12. Limits? One of them is setting. Like scott f, I am much more interested in what the characters think and feel and say than their surroundings. Until recently I would skip over passages of setting in my own reading, but I'm making myself read more of these descriptions now and find that I do, in fact, enjoy some of it. Hopefully, my treatment of setting won't sound so wooden and apologetic.

    Recent breakthrough: I am less enslaved by the need to Not Waste A Single Word. I've gone so overboard that I've cut out even those words that give my writing life and color. I used to write like the pianist with the shoulders all hunched up and holding her breath. Now, I think I write more loosely, in the good sense of the word.

  13. Fantastic post. Recognizing one's own limitations can be the difference between improving at storytelling and not growing.

    For me, proof-reading is killer. I can catch a "there" for "their" in other's work, but can't seem to easily spot it in my own work. Recently, this has been driving me nuts.

    Breakthrough: I don't know if I've had a complete breakthrough but I am beginning to recognize when something isn't working in a paragraph, but oftentimes, it still eludes me as to what exactly isn't working. I supposed I'm one step in the right direction.

  14. Yat-Yee: I know what you mean about writing hunched up. Relax and be bold! I've learned to trust myself and my vision for what good prose is like, and I tell myself that if it feels good when I'm writing it, I should be able to stand by it.

    Crimogenic: It's hard for anyone to proof their own work. We know what it's supposed to say, and will often read that instead of what's actually on the page! Of your other point, knowing that something doesn't sit right with you is the first important thing. A lot of writers, when they can't work out what's wrong, just call it "close enough" and leave it. I used to be that way, and I'd vehemently defend writing even I knew didn't work. At some point, I decided to fix it instead of defend it.

  15. I'm away at a mystery convention and learning so much about how I can continue to improve. I have a tendency to skim the nasty parts -- to make my villans too simple. I really want to work on complexity of ALL characters and try to put a little fear in the reader from time to time....


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