Hello and welcome back to the blog! There isn’t much to report on my end today. I’m still querying literary agents about Breaking Character: The Craven House. I started the second round of edits on From Darkness Comes… earlier this week. Todays topic is self-awareness. This blog post was inspired by a comment from a few weeks ago. Thanks for the inspiration. Let’s get started.
As a writer I’m constantly trying to better my craft. I have read numerous books and perused countless blogs on the art of the written word. If you’re a writer I’m sure you have done the same. The most common—and probably the best—advice is to read and write a lot. It’s sound advice, as a writer you would do well to listen. Reading can help build your foundation as a writer and give you good examples of what should and shouldn’t be done. Writing puts these things into practice. However, today I wanted to talk about the best advice I have to give that I haven’t seen or heard anyone mention. That advice is to be self-aware, know your strengths and your weaknesses.
I started submitting short stories to literary magazines at the age of nineteen. I had already been writing stories for several years at the time. The plan at the forefront of my brain was simple, yet bold. I would submit short stories for a few years, building up my publishing credits. By the age of twenty-five I would publish my first novel. It didn’t work out that way. Sure, I did have one story published amongst that first group of stories I submitted. I even finished writing my first novel by the time I was twenty-five. For fear of rejection that novel sat in a desk drawer never to be seen by an agent (I believe I have talked about this before in the post on rejection). Eight years passed between my first publication and my second. Obviously, there was something wrong, but was it the magazine editors or me?
For a while I thought the problem had to be on the other end. Somewhere along the line I submitted a short story to a horror podcast. I received a rejection along with a critique. The words were blunt and hard to read. Perhaps more tact should have been used by the magazine editor. In any case, I dismissed it and went about my writing.
A couple years later I had a revelation while reading a story that had been rejected several times. My plan was to send it back out, but I was curious. In my memory the story was good, could I have been wrong? The plot of the story was indeed solid. The writing? Not so much. The magazine editor’s words flashed into my brain as I read my story. “Has a tendency to slip tenses.” An answer to the question posed earlier became clear. There was a problem and it was me.
In a panic I read several stories I had recently submitted to magazines. The tenses consistently slipped from past to present in an inconsistent manner. Fearing the worst, I opened a story that was several years old. My fears were realized. This was a pattern I’d had for a long time, only I hadn’t seen it. Once the mistake was seen I couldn’t unsee it.
For the next year—magazines are notoriously slow—I edited short stories as they were rejected, killing all the tense errors. It became such a part of my editing process that I started to catch it while I was writing. As a result, I rarely make the error anymore.
(A note: for some reason there are writers out there who write books in present tense, Stephen King’s End of Watch springs to mind. Constantly looking for my lapses in tense has ruined this for me forever. It’s okay, I find it a strange way to write a story anyway.)
The bulk of my publications in literary magazines have come since correcting this constant error. If I had listened to the magazine editor a few years prior I could have saved myself some time and misery. That wasn’t the only mistake I realized I was making over the years. It just happened to be the only one pointed out by someone else. The rest are purely self-critical in nature.
Jonathan Stroud writes the Lockwood & Co. series, of which I am a huge fan. Each of the novels in the series start at the beginning of the story. That sounds like a silly thing to point out about a series but hear me out. Often times a writer will build towards the action. In Lockwood & Co. Stroud begins with action and keeps a steady pace throughout the entirety of the novel. While reading the first book, The Screaming Staircase, I realized the pacing of my own stories left something to be desired.
With Breaking Character: The Craven House I sought to fix that problem. In my previous writing I had focused on building character before any action took place. Of course, I didn’t forgo that completely in favor of the fast start. Instead I did both. I built up the characters while keeping a fast-paced story. As far as I’m concerned it was successful. Now I’m waiting to see if literary agents agree.
In high school several classmates called me by the nickname Silent Steve. Other than the fact that I hate being called Steve, it was a fitting nickname. Growing up I was monk-like quiet. I’m still an extremely quiet person as a thirty-five-year-old adult. It’s been said before that quiet people have trouble writing dialogue. I don’t know if it’s true for others, but it holds true in my case. It’s an area I have always struggled with.
Luckily, I know this is an area of weakness for me. Through the years I have worked at it. I believe I have improved to some degree. The best advice I have for writing dialogue is a two-fold process. First, listen to people as they speak. If you’re a quiet person, well, chances are you’re a listener already. Study their vocabulary and syntax. All people don’t sound the same. It drives me crazy when I read a story where all the characters speak in the same manner. Second, read your dialogue out loud. A line of dialogue can come together or fall apart simply by speaking it. Does it sound natural? Or is it forced? Admittedly, this is the area where I still have improvements to make. Yet, I’m miles from where I used to be.
This post has mostly been about how I realized and tried to implement fixes to some of my bad habits. However, that’s not all self-awareness is about. Make sure that you’re aware of the elements where you thrive. I tend to be self-critical, but I can tell you my strengths as well. I excel in the act of writing, which is good since I’m a writer. Character development is another area where I shine a little brighter than other aspects of the job.
Becoming self-aware isn’t easy and it may take time. Being honest with yourself can help speed up the process. Take the opinion of others into account. Make sure you know what you do well so you can highlight those areas in your writing. Hey, if it’s a strength take advantage of it. Remember to look for the good along with the bad. Subjecting yourself to the criticism of others is hard and they might not use as much grace as you wish. Do yourself a favor, have some with yourself.
Thanks for reading. Until next time, remember to follow your dreams, even if they terrify you.
Stephen Michael Roth