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Things to Consider When Plotting World Domination: Play to your Strengths

WritersdontcryYou there! Stop! Whatever you do: don’t touch that pen. Before youRachel E. Morris write even one word of that outline, there’s something you need to think about long and hard. It’s a very important question. It will determine whether your first draft is filled with tears of rage and despair or with joy, rainbows, and mechanical unicorns. It is the most important of important questions, and I ask it with all seriousness: Have you sat down and thought about what kind of a writer you are recently? And no, I don’t mean what overworked, underappreciated, underpaid writers whose creativity’s constantly under assault by the mundane demands of everyday life we all are. I mean what you do well, what you suck at, and what you hope one day to not suck at. Believe me, this is a far more important question than picking out your hero’s name (though that is also a process rife with peril).

See, the success of a book isn’t just the quality of the idea—it’s also how well the idea fits your skill set and interests. I know designing your book around things you do well and avoiding things you do badly sounds like a total no brainer—but it’s actually not very intuitive. Most people are so wrapped up in the agonies of the harrowing that is outlines that they don’t think about how they made that thing they hate integral to the plot until it’s far too late—or worse, they don’t even have an outline, and they wrote themselves into a literary corner filled with all their least favorite writing techniques. Not to mention, giving your talents a place to shine can be hard when you happened to design a plot that doesn’t give you a place to show them off.

So take a little time and think about yourself.  You’re far more likely to finish a book you’re jazzed writing than one that fills you with dread. And who knows? You may even come up with an idea or two for a new book while you’re at it! Here are a few questions to get you started.

Brag to Me, Baby

Humbleness is well and good. But pre-book time is no time to be humble. I want you to brag to me, baby. Toot your own horn. Sing your own praises from the rooftops. Because I want you to think about what you do really well—and I don’t mean about how you really know your way around a comma, or how you hardly ever misplace quotation marks. I mean the kinds of scenes you delight in—and that equally delight your readers. Those blessed writing moments that are so “easy” you don’t spare them a second thought—may we all have more of them.

It is important to actually think about what you do well before you start plotting your shiny new book. Not only will this provide the confidence and mood booster you’ll need to get through the hell that is outlining and the inescapable killing field of infinite woe that is first drafts, but it’s also a good sign of things you should maybe try to touch on in your book.

Do evocative descriptions come as naturally as breathing to you? Then make sure your book has plenty of occasions for those. This means making sure that descriptive passages enhance your story—without detracting, breaking pace, or feeling out of place. And it means considering things like setting. If there is not much change in backdrop, then keeping descriptions from getting repetitive can be a challenge.

Does snappy dialogue, filled with personality infuse your every page? Then build your book around dialogue! Try not to leave your characters alone, where dialogue means they’re talking to themselves or inanimates, and make sure to give your main character a number of interesting personalities to interact with. Make sure that the kind of book you’re writing goes well with the style of dialogue you prefer—rather than breaking the mood or feeling anachronistic.

Or are fight scenes your bread and butter—unfolding off the page with startling vividness? Then it might behoove you to get your character into a bit of trouble. This means thinking of a setting that can provide you with interesting combat opportunities, and a character that has a way of falling into trouble. Having an excuse for a variety of opponents who fight in a variety of visually arresting styles is also helpful. And don’t knock finding reasons to include cliffs, rope bridges, the insides of crowded book stores, and other places that will give you things to play with during a fight.

The Parts that Suck

This is the part to be humble. To be as brutally honest and open as you can be with yourself. What parts do dread writing? You know what I’m talking about. The bits you skip, telling yourself you’ll come back later. The things you rewrite sixty times because you just can’t get them right and you’re still unhappy with them in the end. The stuff you don’t even know how to start. The parts that suck.

Thinking about the parts that suck sounds like a total downer, but it’s actually kind of empowering because—since this is your book—you don’t have to put any of the sucky parts in it. And enumerating sucky bits ahead of time helps make sure you don’t accidentally hinge your plot on one of them (don’t laugh; believe me, it happens to the best of us).

Of course, it can also help to figure out what exactly it is that you hate about writing those particular scenes, and if you’ve ever seen it done in a way you particularly like. While avoidance may be the answer, there are also times when you can adjust or limit the scenes to better fit your writing style.

Stretch Goals

Playing to your strengths doesn’t mean you should stop trying to grow as a writer: it just means don’t punish yourself by ignoring the things you’re good at and wallowing in the things you hate most. That being said, consider giving yourself a stretch goal or two. Think about the things you may not be the best at now that you’d love to add to your list of skills in the near future—and put one or two of them in your book. To make yourself more confident about their inclusion keep the new parts small at first, do some writing exercises that will help you tackle the tricky issues, and read books that excel in the parts you find problematic.

Of course, writing a book is no cake walk even without stretch goals. It requires truckloads of determination, a pinch of inspiration, and oceans of perspiration. So don’t be more of a masochist than you have to: write what you love. The rest will come with practice.

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I'm glad you found it helpful, Liz! Susan Sontag is an amazing writer. And I completely agree: accepting yourself and working to your strengths is key to happiness and success. Best of luck with your writing!

As someone who's trying to write non fiction, this is hugely helpful for me. My brain doesn't seem to work that way, and I have to constantly remind myself that that's fine, and I should work to my strengths.

I'm reading the second volume of Susan Sontag's diaries, and what comes through for me is her sense that she wasn't a "real" writer because she never wrote fiction. I don't want to end up like her.

Thanks, Sam X! Agreed, so often, we do what we think we're supposed to do rather than what we want to do. Kudos for you for figuring out what you want, and going with it.

Excellent points! When I first sat down to write after college, I was stuck in the "literary fiction" mindset--because that's generally what we were taught. But it wasn't playing to either my concerns or my strengths. As soon as I switched to writing science fiction, I felt more at ease and more interested in my material, and thus more likely to finish project. Each project since then has gotten closer and closer to my own personal interests; and now since I'm self-publishing I can basically write the exact story I want to.

Another part of my process was accepting that dialogue is my best skill; this led me to develop tighter characters and give them opportunities to talk to each other. I think/hope it's resulted in better fiction.

Thanks, Chris! I'm glad you found it helpful!

Thanks for the great advice! I really need to start working with outlines, so I don't write myself into a corner....

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