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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Don't Hold Yourself Back

I don't think of myself as someone who holds themselves back, but it turns out I was wrong.

That happens (but only occasionally). :)

I relentlessly hunt down my writing weaknesses and tackle them with every writer weapon tool I have. A weakness is safe only as long as it is hidden - if I can see it, I can fix it (usually), but if I can't see it, that weakness can plague my writing with impunity.

I've discovered lots of writing weaknesses along the way (there's always new ones that pop up, it seems), but when I discovered last week that I was holding myself back in my storytelling, I was literally shocked. It wasn't the kind of weakness I expected, sort of like finding the mailman sitting in your living room, reading your mail. Postal workers just don't do that.

And I generally don't hold myself back.

I'm not talking about refraining from writing graphic sex scenes for teens or writing blood-dripping violence for kids (I have no interest in doing those) - I'm talking about holding back from the full expression of the story, taking it to the greatest heights that it can go.

Now that sounds great in theory (don't we all want to tell a story that goes to great heights?), but in practice what did that mean? And why, for the love of all that's holy, was I holding myself back from doing that?

In a word: fear.

My fear had two main thrusts:

1) A fear of going too far - Once I set up my stories, I meander around in them for a while. Sure, eventually I get back to the main point of the story (i.e. the hero overcoming obstacles to reach his/her goal), but not before I thoroughly explore this intriguing world I've created. This isn't just because it is fun to do, but because I'm afraid that my story will seem unrealistic, outrageous, or silly. That I would break the suspension of disbelief if I forged ahead too quickly or too wildly. I didn't trust myself as a writer to build that world along with the story, and I didn't trust the reader to get it. Now that I see this weakness, I realize how ridiculous it is (and I'm in the process of pinning it down with barbed spears and slicing it apart; die, weakness, die).

2) A fear of writing myself into a box - In addition to being afraid I might make the story a bit too crazy, I was also afraid that if I threw too much at my protagonist, if I trapped her in an impossible box ... well, that there would be no way out. This was the stronger of the two fear-heads. It took a blind leap of faith to get over this one - I had to put my character in that impossible box and hope and pray I could get him out. Magically, it wasn't until I placed him in the box that my creative engine really started humming. Because there had to be a way out. And soon enough, I found it. This weakness, once discovered, had no chance whatsoever. I'm a natural faith-leaper, so it died quickly (although probably not painlessly).

A week of writing/workshopping/retreating allowed me to really dive into my story and confront my weaknesses. Like the Dark Cave your protagonist has to venture into, as part of their hero journey, you have to take a leap of faith to explore the dark corners of your fears and face your weaknesses.

Then kill them.


  1. That's the value of a good critique outside perspective to let you know when and where you could expand the story, in those times you have difficulty seeing it for yourself.

    And by "you" I mean me ;-)

  2. @Rick Yes, but some critiquers are better at critiquing story elements than others, so you have to be careful. Just because one group may think the story is good, doesn't mean it can't be better. (And by "you" in all the above, I also mean "me" :) )

  3. it's like peeling an onion huh?
    i think i'm still just snipping the greens! :P

  4. "I'm afraid that my story will seem unrealistic, outrageous, or silly" Oh! Whew! *wipes forehead* I'm not the only one! And yet we just have to keep writing :-)

  5. I admit, I torture those weaknesses a little bit before killing them, on account of all the pain they've cause. Is that wrong?

  6. @aspiring So very much like an onion, complete with tears. :)

    @Deniz Just keep writing, writing, writing...

    @Bryan You are a man after my own heart.

  7. Funny how a big weakness can hit us in the face like that when we suddenly realize it!

  8. @Laura Yes! And it wasn't like I hadn't been looking for it before. #blind

  9. Aww, beautifully said! It seems like I have to face this head-on like new with every single book. For some reason I keep forgetting it over and over, hah. I wish you the best of luck! Sounds like you've got the confidence to tackle it all. :)

  10. My biggest weakness (or fear, which is a weakness in of itself) is not believing in myself. That it is an impossible task to write the story I am dying to tell. And of course, the awful no-no of knowing that my book will never be as good as fill-in-the-blank. I think this is an issue that most writers face and one of the biggest hurdles to jump.

  11. Great post. It seems for me (maybe because I'm earlier in the stages of my writer's journey and so have more unslain weaknesses) that it's easier to realize my weaknesses (I've been discovering a lot of them by reading writing blogs), but harder to kill them because I need to figure out how to write past it.

    I have the exactly the problem that you feared sometimes: I was having my characters face certain scary monsters or big problems and I couldn't figure out how the characters were going to overcome them. Looking back, some of the ways I found for my characters to get past those monsters ended up seeming like a cheat because I couldn't figure out how the character could actually rise to the challenge.
    - David

  12. @Michelle I have to keep learning the same lessons over and over too! But my confidence does grow with each book. :)

    @Ruth Having faith in yourself (and your story) is SO tough. I think this is why I bury myself in the hunt for weaknesses. :)

    @David You are right that knowing what they are is only half the battle. Knowing how to fix it is tough, but I try to dissect writers that I admire to find clues. And as far as having characters cheat to rise to the challenge, I think the key there is to have the answer already in your character - which might mean going back and rewriting your character to be the kind that CAN overcome the obstacle. Not easy, for sure. Keep writing! :)

  13. #2 is the main reason I aspire to write a political fantasy and don't just write a political fantasy. The characters have to be brilliant and tricksy and ensnare others while avoiding traps themselves which means that *I* have to be able to get them into and out of trouble. I fear I'm not that good yet. Admitting my aspiration is probably as good a first step as any though, right?

  14. @Sophia Absolutely! This is how I feel about historical novels. Maybe someday ...

  15. Awesome that you got such great feedback/experience and synthesized it so quickly.

  16. I loved your analogy with the postman sitting in your living room reading your mail!

    And I love how when we put our characters into boxes they can't get out of, our creative energy zooms into overdrive to solve the problem!

    I'm working on a problem right now... it's actually been a couple weeks with no solution yet, but I'm confident it will come. Probably at the most opportune moment (e.g. right before I start to teach - or right in the middle of teaching!!!)

  17. This IS a great post! I have experienced that fear multiple times in my current WIP, because at times I had NO idea where the heck I was going. It was hard to trust my characters ... to just go ahead and let them take me where they wanted to go. I'm within 3 chapters of finishing now, I think. And they really are leading me to an ending.

    Now, that's not to say that the draft isn't a hot mess that must be revised multiple times before I'd let my agent see it. But to get this far, I had to face the fear of failing altogether and beat it.

  18. I hold myself back too! I realized that in my writing but I'm getting better at letting go though.

  19. I'm glad you're confronting your weaknesses, and I know that will make your already awesome stories even more incredible! The fact that you continue to not only grow as a writer in your craft and technique but also as a world-builder and storyteller is both encouraging and challenging. Because now don't we have to do the same? ;) I'm grateful for you!

  20. @Bane It's amazing what a week with no distractions can do for you... :)

    @Margo I'm sure your problem-solution will come! :)

    @Dianne Facing fears like that is always harder, it seems, than the work itself! Good for you!

    @LM It's definitely a process, isn't it? Good for you, for continuing to press forward!

    @Charity I'm grateful for your awesome continued support (and I look forward to reading your MS!). The journey is never-ending, but we each have our own path - and only you can travel it!

  21. I'm busy killing weaknesses, too. There are just so darn many of them. Sigh.

  22. @Leisha Yup. Kinda like zombies. :)

  23. Overthinking and perseverating on a point are my weaknesses. Sometimes I talk myself out of moments in the story that should stay just because I've looked at it so many times. I also catch myself saying the same thing three different ways when one will do. Thank goodness for eagle eye critique partners. It's also a writing rush when you find yourself growing out of a weakness.


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