Take any ordinary shirt and a pair of pants, picture them in your mind, and now picture them on you. Picture that same pair of pants on someone else you know. Then someone else. Quickly, the obvious truth becomes that they look absolutely different on each person. The craft of writing is the same way. We use similar words, most of us. All of us who use the same alphabet use the same letters. The same characters that make up the words of ‘Macbeth,’ make up ‘The War of the Worlds.’ The writer makes all the difference.
I don’t expect this to be a shock to anyone, rather I intend for that simple illustration to be a lead-in to the purpose of this post: What you do as a writer defines your fiction. Let me expound on that a little. As an example, there are certain things that I naturally tend to do as a storyteller. I never, ever, show all of my cards to the reader. Some authors do, and some readers love them for it. I don’t. I am fascinated by the idea of perception and the power of assumption and how those things play into the daily lives of my characters and their relationships with others. I’m equally transfixed by the utility of a reader’s assumptions about what will or won’t happen in a story. That seems to be the driving force, not behind how I plot, but how I show that plot … how I reveal the events. I love the gentle unfolding of things, be they awful, terrible or beautiful. I write, in a sense, how I like the stories I read to be told. ‘The Village’ is one of my favorite movies for a reason.
Consider your favorite authors and your favorite stories told by them. What are their tendencies? What is the foundation upon which they craft worlds? It’s easier to detect someone else’s ways than our own. We aren’t able to see ourselves as accurately as we see others. Why is this important? Well, for starters, it helps ground you. When things like, reviews for instance, come around … if you know who you are as an author, and what your cornerstone is, then your internal structure is less likely to come crashing down around you.
Do you write with a lot of description, or do you prefer to leave a lot to the imagination (I’ve been told my work is woefully bereft of detail)? Do you excel at dialog, or is your best work done in conveying the subtler aspects of human interaction … the slight turn of hand, or bodily gesture? Do you like drama or do you show all your cards to the reader from the very beginning?
These things are important because when they come into question later, you’ll know in advance that regardless of how the critic felt about it, you did them on purpose. They are part of your signature, per say. I was talking with a friend earlier and it came to light that as authors, we’re trained emotionally in a similar way to how our bodies are physically trained to deal with homeostasis. Right now, are you aware that your left foot isn’t hurting? If I randomly picked a part of your body that was hurting, then pick another part of your body that wasn’t and bear with me. Why weren’t you aware of it? Because nothing was wrong. Your body is designed to only send signals for things you need to pay attention to … to problems that need to be addressed.
As authors, we see criticism much in the same way. Suggested “solutions” automatically equal problems in our manuscripts. We’re trained to only pay attention to the negative, because our sense of balance and literary homeostasis tells us to do so in order to fix what’s “wrong.” Even if nothing is wrong at all.
As authors, we never believe the good reviews. There is a dark side of us that believes those people must be lying. Even the mediocre reviews are suspect. Yet, when the negative reviews come around, we cling to every sentence as if … not only is this person unquestionably a literary authority, they are suddenly keenly educated on the ins and outs of not just stories in general, but our story and all of its intents and purposes. We grant these nameless voices titles and power that they, frankly, don’t have. We’re built this way. We’re wired to see things this way. Those few of us who thrive and flourish under scrutiny should consider yourselves blessed because you are the exception. You’re able to appreciate that your left foot isn’t throbbing right now.
Never mind that you wouldn’t spare this guy a second glance in line at Wal-Mart. Once they’ve penned something about your work of love, they’re deemed “knowledgeable.” Or worse, “educated.” Sometimes they will be just that. Educated. And in truth, it depends on your definition of the word. But in reality, I’ve known an awful lot of quasi-intelligent morons. You know exactly what I’m talking about. The kind of people who still say certificated like it’s a real word.
And that’s part of being a holistic writer—understanding and being familiar with how we are interdependent on our writing and the worlds we create. In a sense, we’re not just what we write, but how.
Now, on another note, assuming what I’ve said is true and holds water, this means that we’re keenly apt to feel threatened when our writerly constructs are under fire. When someone says that how we’re writing is wrong, or lacks skill or interest or any number of things, we fold first. Emotionally anyway.
“Remember: Writing can get you fed to a lion whose teeth draw your whole face into its foul wet breath and cut your skull with knives. There’s no soft way to put this. A black hole swallows you up. Willpower’s no help. Getting in print is like beating cancer but losing a lung, staying in print is hopeless. Your best work goes begging…..Today’s paragraph comes, a word from the heart of the universe, and shines in the darkness, unquenched. And you ask for power, wisdom, and love as you make the anvil sing.” ~Donald Newlove
Bottom line: Writer, know thyself. It’s the only protection you have against the instant gratification of this fast food world … this five minute mass … this three minute throng of misguided souls who are only passing through your worlds, the ones you create. They don’t live there. You do.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself. And keep in mind that your writer identity may change over time … and that’s perfectly normal. But, you’ll go a long way on that path just by knowing who you are right now.
1. Does suspense play a part in how you reveal information to your readers, or do you lay it all out on the table in the beginning?
2. What POV do prefer to write in? First, third? Present, past? Why? Would you ever try a different POV or tense on for size?
3. What genre do you prefer and why? Would you feel comfortable trying on a different genre for size?
4. Do you give lots of detail, or do you leave it up to the reader?
5. Do you plot in advance, or wing it?
6. How do you feel about sequels?
7. What kinds of themes do you weave into your work? Religion, politics?
8. What kinds of things do you incorporate into your writing that are only for you? If you don’t put anything in your work for yourself, why not?
9. Are happy endings important for you? If they are, are you capable of writing a tragedy?
10. What are your pet peeves? Do you like chapter titles, etc?
11. Are there issues that you tackle repeatedly in your narratives (child abuse, etc)?
12. Are you a social author who likes to hear the public’s opinion, or are you private? Do you read reviews or avoid them?
13. Do you work within the familiar or do you stretch to be original (both are OK, so be as truthful with this one as you can. Some authors excel at the familiar)?