I always believed that I was a good writer.
This is a fairly common trait among writers and not necessarily a bad thing. No one would spend the necessary months or years to write a novel if they didn’t on some level believe themselves good at it, or at least capable of getting better.
However, after working with a critique group for the first time for the better part of a year, I’ve since come to realize I made two key, interrelated mistakes with my WIP—the first novel for which I plan to attempt traditional publication.
The first of these mistakes is that I focused too much on those aspects of writing I already knew I wasn’t good at. The known unknowns of one’s writing abilities, if you will, which is a preoccupation in which I’m evidently not alone.
Earlier this year on Twitter, an author whose identity I unfortunately can’t recall tweeted something to the effect of the following: the things you think are your writing flaws often end up becoming your strengths.
The reason for this is because you become so vigilant against committing these flaws, you end up overcompensating in the complete opposite direction.
My writing Achilles heel was always my sentence structure. My sentences used to go on for days. I would use almost every form of punctuation available to me—commas, em-dashes, semicolons, parentheses—to pack as many clauses and ideas into my sentences as I could.
They made sense to me. In truth, they would make “sense” to anyone who read them, because it wasn’t grammar per se that was the issue.
The issue was that no one wants to read a sentence ten times to parse its full meaning. No one sentence needs that much information crammed inside, like the fill of an overstuffed burrito.
The truth hurts
It took a long time for me to surrender to the truth of this writing shortcoming of mine. For some reason, the sting of this particular critique—as often as I was receiving it—seemed to cut especially close.
It might be because it was those closest to me whom the feedback was coming from. I’m a big proponent of critique, but I’ve always found it much harder to receive from people I know versus those that I don’t.
Although I’ve yet to begin the process of querying agents, I have submitted short stories, entered contest, won critiques of various portions of my submission package, and entered Pitch Wars, all without any butterflies taking flight in my stomach.
The hardest part of querying, I already know, aside from the inescapable rejection, will be the waiting.
Although I have writing friends for whom it’s a gnawing concern, the thought that agents will read and judge my work (and by association, judge me for having written it) troubles me not one bit.
The only judgement I fear is that of my friends, family, and critique partners. I’ll never forget my utter mortification that time I gave a friend a chapter to read and she told me she couldn’t even make it halfway through due to the density of the sentences.
Regardless, I eventually learned my lesson. If I say so myself (and I don’t have to because others have corroborated), my prose is now sharp enough to slice your finger. I still write long sentences on occasion, but now it’s a conscious choice instead of the sole tool at my disposal.
More so, I try to let the complexity of my ideas speak for itself, rather than seeking to further demonstrate it through complex sentence structure.
And yet my success in this endeavour has contributed to the second big mistake I made with my WIP. Namely, in all my time of obsessing over what I knew I did poorly, I did almost nothing to discover my hidden writing flaws.
Those unknown unknowns get a person every time.
(To be continued…)
What key writing flaws have you overcome?
11 thoughts on ““Mistakes Were Made”: More Thoughts on Having My Novel Critiqued”
Repetition of the same words, with or without different meanings, seems to be my Achilles’ heel. I was shocked at how often I did it, have compensated by running everything through AutoCrit’s counting and word repetition sections obsessively (if I change ONE word because I have over-used it, I may change it to another which then becomes over-used) – until I am SURE it’s as good as it can be. I think it’s a side effect of the CFS – the brain is too tired to process the alternatives, and picks the easiest.
I’ve had to learn every single craft detail, of course, because reading voraciously prepares you to learn but doesn’t teach you execution. Little by little I became aware of everything from pov and distance to flow, but it took me a long time. I still edit excessively – if that’s possible – because the tiny flaws in the final product drive me nuts.
I’m actually really good at remembering how many times I’ve used given words (or read given words in text – ask my CPs; their pages are littered with “You used that three pages ago”). It’s kind of my writer superpower. On the odd occasion that I’m not sure, I will CTRL-F that word like a boss, and the way Word’s navigation pane displays the results is brilliant for the search and destroy of repetition when necessary.
But in general I think I’m good about not repeating words because I never threw my thesaurus in the garbage like Stephen King said I should. Rather, I studied it, and as a result built up a large bank of synonyms inside my head.
I developed a vocabulary unknowingly from reading – have never studied English, or English or American literature, formally, as I grew up in Mexico. I didn’t know you could study. We didn’t have standardized tests, and I went directly into the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) from prep school because my grades were good.
The first standardized test I ever took (I think it had a vocabulary section, too) was the GRE (grad records exam), which nobody told me you could study for – I went in cold one Saturday morning.
When you read a lot of classics, you pick up words by context (didn’t have much of a dictionary for English, either). That’s a good start for a writer.
I learned a lot of words from reading as well – to the point that the first time I used some of them orally, I mispronounced them!
That’s called ‘Calliope syndrome.’ Pronounced (I think) how a child with basic phonics would say it: call-ee-ope, instead of Call-i-oh-pea (the name of the Greek character). I had it as a kid, all my kids did the same.
There are some rare words I’ve never used orally, and know only from context. Now Google makes it easy, but in my day it required a dictionary and making an effort.
At least you know those words.
I’m verbose. But over time I’ve learned to edit ruthlessly. I’m not there yet. My husband and I write books together. He has a tendency to leave small words out, while I overwrite. We’re a good writing team as we complement each other’s strengths and manage the weaknesses. Writing is a craft like any other! It takes practice and a critical gaze. I notice too that the beginnings of novels are often clunky, but the writing smoothes out further in. I take this to read that everyone finds writing challenging! First chapters. They’re the hardest. Also: I’m not as unique a writer as I thought I was.
I write long too and am still learning to edit ruthlessly. Having critique partners and seeing my work through their eyes – seeing the parts that they cross out – has helped tremendously. I really just have to get all my ideas on the page and sort through them later. I’ve tried thinking shorter ideas or expressing them more concisely from the outset but then I just end up blocked and afraid to write anything. It’s all about understanding your own process and then perfecting it.
I definitely agree that beginnings are often clunky. I think that’s because a story needs to be placed within its proper context to be effective and enjoyable, but convey that context in an engaging way can be so difficult.
Also, that’s so cool that you and your husband write books together!
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#Metoo 🙂 One of the very first pieces of advice I was given is that people don’t want to read long sentences. So I generally don’t write them. But strangely I often remove commas that my diligent proof reader/editing program have inserted. Double standards really.
I still try to have some variety in my sentence length. I don’t care for very short sentences – I don’t want my work to sound like a Dick and Jane reader. And sometimes a longer sentence can better convey a certain mood.
The big difference now is that I’m more aware of it when I write long sentences. Plus I use a text-to-speech program to listen to all my writing, which also helps me determine if a given sentence is too long (it’s also good for helping decide on the proper placement of commas).
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Ack yes – text-to-speech. I think it was Britt Skrabanek first recommended I try that. Now I’m deep in editing mode I really ought to try it.
I use Text Aloud. It’s not too expensive and has a plugin that works directly with Microsoft Word (and your internet browser as well). The price does climb a bit if you purchase a premium voice, but even that is worth it because some of those voices sound amazingly natural. Lots of different accents are available as well.