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?