Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Don't Try To Be The Fattest Giraffe

We all have our strengths and weaknesses. Someone might be great at dialog and not so great at description. Or, someone might be great at description and not so great at structure. The obvious approach as we try to become better writers is to strengthen our weaknesses. I, for example, didn't like how I was handling structure, so I've been researching standard structures, mainly from reading screenwriting books. But, then, I started thinking about voice and what makes voice unique. What if part of what made my voice unique was the fact that my story structures were odd?

A giraffe is a cool animal, not because it is skinnier than an elephant. A giraffe is cool because it's got a super-long neck and an amazing heart that allows it to pump blood up that neck. If I were to be impressed by a giraffe, it would be because it was really tall, not really fat. In fact, I'd probably be less impressed by a fat giraffe. An elephant, on the other hand, is cool partly because it is so fat. That's why we're impressed when it can stand up on its hind legs, or balance on a ball. In other words, each of these animals is cool because of its unique characteristics, and if all animals developed features that made them equally good at everything, they would end up being less interesting as a whole, some featureless brown blob like a cardboard box with fangs.

Though I'm NOT saying that we should wallow in our weaknesses, I think a valid approach to creating unique work is to exploit our strengths to compensate for our weaknesses. Someone who is bad at dialog could write a brilliant book that contains no dialog. Someone who is bad at description could write "Hills Like White Elephants." (Yes, that's a joke.)

With this mindset, a good book can be represented by a pie chart. Some good books will have very even pie slices, where each slice represents a component of writing such as description, character, dialog, pacing, transitions, emotion, intensity etc. Other good books might have only three really big slices--character, emotion, and intensity. That doesn't necessarily mean that it is a less impressive book. It just means it has the potential to be unique.

Is this crazy? Am I wrong? Do you have weaknesses that might actually allow you to write a more unique book?

AND, we wanted to mention that writer Roz Morris is giving away FREE copies of the pdf of her book, Nail Your Novel. We checked it out and think it's a solid resource for beginning writers. Check it out!

DOUBLE AND, Tess Hilmo sold her novel, With A Name Like Love!!!!!!!


  1. Crazy? hmmm....maybe ;) all us writers are crazy

    Wrong? no - you make a good point. Know our limitations and our strengths - one reason I didn't enter the Genre Wars (so excited to see those entries, though) is that I really suck at shorts. Just can't get it together in such a short amount of space. So, I will enjoy reading the entries and appreciate the talent of my writing friends.

  2. Tess, thanks for stopping by. I'm a bit surprised you didn't enter because we found a great MG short story, and I had kind of guessed it was yours, LOL. I think a lot of people don't like to write short stories. I rarely do it myself now, simply because novel writing is a lot more fun for me lately.

  3. That’s a really interesting idea about weaknesses becoming our strengths. I’ve actually noticed an even more annoying trend in my own writing and that’s different weaknesses in different novels. Project #1, great structure, great description, poor dialogue, poor character development. Project#2, dialogue rocks, characters work well, but the structure is weak and description lacking. I think focusing on what I saw lacking in project 1 made me lose focus on what I normally concentrate on. I worked it out after draft one, but what a PITA.

  4. Thanks for the shout out, Davin. It's getting me all veclempt because my family (extended, mind you) acted like I told them I got a good deal on peaches when I announced it at Thanksgiving -- I knew I could count on my blogger/writer friends to 'get it'.

  5. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link . . . or something to that effect. If the chain still holds, even with a weak link, and intense tugging by the dog desperately struggling to get to the rabbit just beyond its reach . . . then the weakness isn't a deteriment. I think the same thing goes with the weaknesses in our writing. If our strengths are, well, strong enough, then the overall story will hold together.

    Great post, and definitely food for thought.


    p.s. while short stories really aren't my 'thing', I did submit one to the contest.

  6. I'm horrible at short stories. I have backstory-itis, lol.

    And I know I usually overdo description to an extent, but it's one of the things people seem to like about my writing, so I go with it. I try to incorporate the characters with their surroundings to make them more real, which I know has been one of my weaknesses in the past.

    Great post!

  7. Congratulations to Tess!!!!!!!!!!! I could write a whole page of exclamation points!!!!!!!!!!!! But I'll spare you. Anyway, congrats!

    Davin, yes, I think about this giraffe thing all the time. In fact, as I've been not writing and only reading this past month I've realized a lot of things about my own writing and myself, too, and what makes my writing unique and good, and what is holding me back. What's holding me back are my weaknesses, but surprisingly, I don't think I'll work nearly as hard on those as I will on strengthening my strengths even more.

    I think our strengths are what come naturally to us, and it's important to know what they are and how they make us shine. They are most likely what lends to our VOICE the most, you know?

  8. Jennifer, the problem you describe makes a lot of sense to me. I have a feeling that as we get better all of these components will become secondhand, and we'll be able to focus on them all at once instead of piece by piece.

    Scott, that's a really great analogy--far better than my pie chart! :P I'm glad you entered the contest. I wonder if I've read your piece yet--don't tell me, though.

    Tere, it sounds like you are playing on your strengths. I really think this is a valid way of finding a unique voice!

    Michelle, very well put. When I was writing this post last night, I had included the term voice several times. I really do think this is a main contributor to a writer's voice.

  9. I'm still chewing on your question. I do believe you are right that we should use our strengths to our advantage and strengthen our weaknesses. But whether weaknesses add to uniqueness I'm not so sure. Maybe it's what you do with the weakness that counts. For instance, someone handicapped may be unable to walk or to see but if they overcome that with other skills we would be impressed.

  10. Tricia, you might be right. I'm just throwing the idea out there to see what other people think. But, to go with your analogy, it might be like how a blind person can hear better. They may find a very useful role as a super-hearer that another person might not be able to do. Maybe if someone is bad at structure--me--they'll be able to reach readers who don't like structure, who like rambly prose. They may find their niche.

  11. First and foremost, a huge ole Wahooo to Tess!

    I agree that we have to work with our strengths and minimize our weaknesses as much as we can. That's what I'm working on. My beta readers are helping me get rid of the weaknesses. Whew. It's wonderful to have friends willing to help.

  12. Nothing to add to your post, just to tell you that the image of a fat giraffe made me smile.

    And Tess: way to go!

  13. You made a great point. Embracing our weaknesses is a good idea. The less we're down on ourselves, the more inspired we can be.

  14. Lois, it sue is wonderful to have friends to help. That's a big deal, and I can't wait until I publish my book so that I can thank all of them in my acknowledgments!

    Yat-Yee, that giraffe actually came to my house last night. I fed it some corn and sent it home.

    coffeelvnmom, that's another really great point. If we think of weaknesses as something other than weaknesses, we won't feel as bad about ourselves.

  15. Tess: Congrats!

    Davin: I am of two minds about this, and my two minds were battling it out just last night during my hated 5-mile run. On the one hand, some art only exists because the artist was going with strengths he developed to compensate for weakness (John Cage's randomly rhythmic music happened because Cage failed all his harmony classes and never figured out how chords worked; or Junot Diaz's Oscar Wao being all about voice because Diaz isn't great at dramatizing scenes, or the weirdly sloppy but wonderful juxtapositions of storylines in Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses because Rushdie can't figure out how to do complex multi-story novels). On the other hand, ignoring our weaknesses only means that we are giving up in a way. Not that all writers are equally able in all facets of the craft, but I don't like the idea that it's okay to ignore the things we don't do well.

    The "fat giraffe" analogy is a faulty one, because the job of a giraffe isn't to be an elephant, it's to be a giraffe. The job of a writer is to be a writer, not to be a giraffe or an elephant. A giraffe that can't raise its head to eat the leaves from the trees above it is failing as a giraffe. It might learn to graze from the ground, but it's a pretty poor example of a giraffe in that case. Sorry to be Mister Cranky about this. As I say, I can't reconcile my admiration of the art that successfully compensates for weakness in craft with my feeling that we ought not willingly have an incomplete grasp of our craft.

  16. Scott, I'd say that there is a difference within the larger group of writers, though. I was originally going to use Darwin's finches instead of giraffes and elephants. Maybe that would have been clearer. I think that though we are all writers, we are not all trying to be the same kind of writers. Writers--in my mind--would be like the group of animals as a whole, and each of us is trying to a separate species within that whole. With the finches, they are all finches, but they have different shaped beaks so that they can eat different foods. If each writer has a particular audience, maybe by focusing on our strengths, we are better at reaching that audience.

  17. Well said, good sir. I agree with you, partly because I have no idea what my strengths and weaknesses as a writer are (haven't been doing it long enough or been critiqued enough to know). I just write, and I'd like to think that my own idiosyncratic style is what makes my work, um, work.

    I might suggest that first drafts are written with no thought for our normal strengths or weaknesses. The edits are where we can tweak things that we find are soft or weak. That kind of allows the best of both worlds, in that our natural strengths are given free rein to dominate the initial construction of a story, and our weakness can be systematically strengthened in edits.

  18. Simon, I like your thoughts about the drafts. That's how I try to write, pretty much - just get out that draft and then I start planning and tweaking and rewriting and all that jazz. That's where I start strengthening the weaknesses and making my strengths even stronger.

    Scott has a great point about how we shouldn't ignore our weaknesses. I agree. If we ignore them they will get worse and possibly bring down the whole piece altogether, strengths and all. I think it's very important to know our weaknesses and our strengths, and work on them with balance. Ignoring either won't work.

  19. Simon, I think that's an excellent point about first drafts and revisions. I agree that not caring in the first draft is something that can help push your strengths to the foreground. A lot of people try hard not to self-edit in the first draft, probably for that reason.

    And, congrats again on the publication!

  20. Interesting question. Of course we all play to our strengths (when we know them), but I think if something shows up as a weakness, it strikes a wrong note that isn't intended - looks clumsy or rushed.

  21. Davin: Darwin's finches is a better analogy, and in that case I'm inclined to agree with you. I'm also very sleepy, which might explain why Cocke and Bull were sleeping during the section of Chapter 11 I wrote during lunch. All those chapters in "So Honest a Man" that end with Horatio going to bed? They were written in the wee small hours of the night.

  22. I liked the sleeping sections. Maybe you're sneaking in Sleeping Beauty motifs as well as Snow White. *wink*

  23. Roz, no problem. You've got a good publication, and I think it can be really helpful.

    Scott, like Michelle, I like the sleeping sections too, after you explained them to me. It's like an insider detail that makes the book more interesting, like the commentaries on DVDs.

  24. Our weaknesses becoming our strengths. Hmm, I like that Davin.I know when I first started writing novels, I couldn't write dialogue to save my life. Now look at me. My dialogue is very natural and effortless.

    Also, after having written picture books for so long my detail wasn't. :) I've greatly improved that too.

    And crazy? Uh yeah! That about sums it up. But in a very good way. *grin*

    I love giraffes too. They are so very cool.

  25. Robyn, Sadly, I like it when people call me crazy. It doesn't happen nearly enough.

  26. I try to look at my weaknesses as opportunities for improvement. I try to understand them and work on them. It's like whack-a-mole, though. Once I nail one, another pops up.

    Scott mentioned yesterday that he wrote a piece chock fill o' transitions to practice them because he knew it was a weakness. That's a great exercise. It's like lifting weights to make your muscles stronger.

    As we write more, weaknesses in past works will come to be like age rings inside a tree showing our progression as we grow into the craft.

  27. There are some really popular commercial authors (not naming names) who write incredibly compelling stories with bite-your-nails tension, but the dialog is at best absolutely hideous and unrealistic. There are those who provide every last detail about their characters and paint beautiful pictures so that the setting leaps off the page at you, but the plot doesn't resonate.

    But they're all successful, so yeah, I agree. Because in the end, there is an audience for each and every style.

    Me? I'm weak at setting because I'm not patient enough to stop telling the story and make the background pop. But I know it, which is why I reserve a lot of time in my second revision for setting alone. I kind of wonder how it looks in the end, though.

  28. Rick, I think that's true. I feel a lot better about certain elements of writing that were more difficult for me before. Overall, I think I'm a better writer than I was a year ago, which sometimes means nothing more than being able to see more of my weaknesses.

    Jay, I think you're absolutely right. Somethings work, even if they aren't strong in every field. I know another writer who is like you when it comes to setting. She'll neglect it and then add it in later, only to realize that she doesn't actually like it, so she'll take it out again. :)

  29. This post was just what I needed today...I found it a day late obviously, but still. :) I know I have certain strengths as a writer, but sometimes I wallow in my weaknesses a bit much...especially when I read someone else's writing and think, "If only I wrote like that person, I'd be an excellent writer. My story would be golden!" I'm fine with world-building, dialogue, and conflict...but sometimes I feel like I suck at description. Sometimes, it comes easily and other times I have to toil over it and rework it for hours. The physical descriptions that are supposed to support dialogue, for instance? I HATE know, the whole she said this while doing or looking like this.

    Anyway...thanks for a good post. It brightened my day! I especially loved the visual I got of cardboard animals with fangs. LOL. ;-)

  30. Ashley, wow! I'm glad this post made you feel better! That makes my day! :)


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