A session with Steven Manchester
DO PP SLIDES
The first step in figuring out your strengths as a writer is to understand what inspires you as a writer. For me, it’s my children, my wife, my family, and the thoughts and feelings I want to share with them—the things in my life that evoke the most emotion and passion.
To discover your true inspiration—your muse—ask yourself two simple questions:
What do I really want to write about?
If I were writing only for myself, what would I write?
Once you have the answers to these, follow it up with an honest assessment:
How comfortable (and skilled) am I with this sort of writing?
In order to truly identify your writing strengths, you must find the central point between what you really want to write and what you can write comfortably. For example, I might want to write about world-building a la Asimov or Clarke, but if I’m being honest with myself I do not possess the skills. On the other hand, I also want to write about relationships, and I’m confident that I do that well. I think this applies universally, and that one of the biggest mistakes writers make is concentrating too much on one or the other. This either makes their work self-indulgent (too much about what they want to write about) or passionless (too much about what they’re good at but clearly don’t care about). Finding the right balance is the key to knowing your true writing strengths.
Once you’ve mulled this over and are confident you’ve gained some solid insight into what you should be writing, it’s time to turn your thoughts into actions. Building physical strength requires exercise, right? Cultivating your writing strengths is no different.
Becoming a voracious reader does several things: it increases your vocabulary, it offers you an ongoing class on writing (and how other professionals apply their craft), and so on. According to Stephen King, one of the most gifted and prolific writers of our time, “If you don’t have the time to read, then you don’t have the time—or skills—to write.” I couldn’t agree more.
The more you read, the easier it is to make an honest assessment of where you stand amongst those who write within the same genre(s). It’s hard to know where your work fits unless you know what your competition is out there in the market.
I’ve always reviewed a mix—the classics as well as the latest bestsellers within my genre—to determine where I stand.
FRIENDLY REMINDER: The older I get, the slower I read because I love the way words are arranged to make the reader think and feel. But while reading, it’s important I remain cognizant not to fall so deeply in love with someone else’s work that it becomes my own. Plagiarism is the kiss of death for any writer. Essentially, while I’m in the process of writing, I guard against becoming unwittingly impressed by certain passages or word usages from another writer that may catch my fancy. Please bear this in mind if you’re reading a great book while you’re writing an even greater one.
When it’s all said and done, reading helps you find your writing strengths through recognition of what you already possess, as well as areas that need improvement—or more focused training—on your part.
Plot lines, character development and scene setting should all be fleshed out in the outlining process. Admittedly, it has taken me years to appreciate the art of storyboarding. I used to believe that creating an outline only restricted my writing. I’ve since discovered that the opposite is true. Creating a detailed storyboard actually frees me up to write—really go at it—without wondering or worrying where my story needs to go next. The storyboard is merely a road map.
As a benefit of storyboarding, you’ll be able to identify your writing strengths (as well as your weaknesses) during the process; it isn’t difficult to determine what comes easy to you and what requires much more time and effort. In fact, these truths may jump right out at you from the written outline.
The trick to finding your true style: Most writers love to pen what they love to read. If you hate horror stories, then don’t write them. If you don’t enjoy a good mystery, then you probably shouldn’t be creating one. Again, write what you feel passionate about, what excites you.
As much as it is a craft or a passion, writing is also a discipline that requires training just like any other. Write every day, or at least schedule time dedicated to your writing. Just as I tell my young son: If you want to become a great basketball shot, the only way to get there is by spending countless hours out on the court—practicing. Eventually, you’ll learn to write even when you don’t want to, which is an important trait toward becoming both prolific and professional. True strength comes from training—and discipline.
Forgive the three clichés below, but before finding your writing strengths you must ensure that you’re employing several basic writing principles:
Show, Don’t Tell: Exactly what it says. Don’t write, “Bobby is angry!” Write, “Bobby’s nostrils flared, while his cheeks turned a frightening red. With clench fists, he stormed off.”
Familiar Material: Write what you know, who you know and where you’ve been. Anything other than that requires an incredible amount of research and is usually much less believable. I think everyone has her own story (or stories) to share, and no matter what you write your story will absolutely bleed through. Even fiction has a whole lot of truth to it. Stick to what you know. It’s what makes you unique and will inevitably define your voice as a writer.
Less Is More: Don’t be fooled. Most books are written at an eighth grade level and so should yours. In the craft of writing—though it’s taken me several years to see this—less really is so much more. You don’t have to use big words to impress people. Being published will take care of that. And although it’s important to refer to your Thesaurus during your editing process, it’s equally important to stay away from the multi-syllable pitfalls. Big words slow your story—and the reader—down. When you can use simple language to convey your thoughts and feelings, your work will be better appreciated and remembered.
Quite simply, if you’re not writing—practicing your chosen craft—then you’re not discovering anything: your strengths or weaknesses. In some creative circles, it is believed that it takes more than ten thousand hours to become a master at anything. I believe—with writing—it takes no less than a lifetime. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t produce great works while we’re learning.
More often than not, strengths are found in the things that come easy to us; the things that feel more natural. Weaknesses, on the other hand, usually pose as challenges; things we must learn to master.
Again, unless you’re writing—actively—you can’t learn anything about your strengths or weaknesses.
Whenever I complete the first draft of a new novel—and go through it twice with my editor’s hat on—I place the manuscript in the bottom drawer of my desk and leave it alone for at least three to four weeks. When I return to it, it always reads much differently than I remember—highlighting the holes (or weaknesses) in the writing. It’s on that honest, most objective day that I can begin my final and most important edit (which should then total three). Upon completion of this edit, my work is the very best I can produce and is now ready to be viewed by a real editor; that’s right, you need a set of objective, professional eyes before you present to an agent or publisher.
The back and forth process between you and your trusted editor will undoubtedly highlight the strengths (and weaknesses) within your writing. There’s only a few things you need to have in place for this magic to occur:
An open mind and willingness to take constructive criticism (and apply it).
An editor with a keen eye and willingness to help you develop your skills.
Fortunately, I’ve been blessed with both.
Your editor should be someone who enjoys your work, but can still prove honest and critical; someone better at the mechanics of writing than you are, but who is not simply feeding his or her ego. Once real trust is established—and you absolutely need to trust this person, while surrendering to the process—there is no better stage to discover what your writing strengths (as well as weaknesses) are. In fact, an editor worth his or her salt will be very candid and detailed about both. You want someone tough—and please be sure to appreciate every second they put into your work—but you also want someone who is fair. If an editor does not appreciate your style or voice, how can they help better your work?
For my book, The Unexpected Storm, the publishing house agreed to publish the book if I peeled off sixty pages and cut it back from 290 pages to 230 pages. And they didn’t care which sixty. Talk about a nightmare! Fortunately, my editor and I worked through it (It would have been unbearable to cut back so much alone. It’s easier to add, trust me). I can attest that we shared some classic arguments, but in the end I can honestly say that it turned out to be a better read—and that I learned more about my writing (strengths and weaknesses) than I had during the writing process.
Solicit legitimate, objective book reviewers and bloggers to read and critique your work. Sorry, but moms and boyfriends do not count. For years, I’ve cultivated and maintained a growing list of book bloggers to review each new novel I pen. There are multiple benefits for doing this—such as spreading the word about your books to each blogger’s readership—but for me, being able to measure the strengths and weaknesses of my writing proves to be the most valuable payoff. Objective reviewers have no qualms about pointing out deficiencies in your work, or areas that require more focus and effort. Fortunately, they’re also honest about the things they liked—undoubtedly, your strengths.
Internalize their honest feedback; you may not like what they have to say or even agree with it, but you do need to consider it—and apply it—toward your next rewrite and future writings.
Even as a seasoned writer, I have to constantly remind myself that writing is a journey and not a destination. I’m always learning and trying to get better at my chosen craft by becoming stronger in every aspect of my writing. My motto: Always happy. Never satisfied. Once I learned what my true writing strengths were, I asked myself one final question: What is the difference between good writing and great writing? In my experience, a good writer makes his reader think, while a great writer makes his reader feel. You’ll be remembered longer and by many more readers if you go for the heart. If you’re not laughing or crying while you write, don’t expect others to have similar experiences when they read your work.
My writing strengths are found in my ability to develop believable, relatable characters that are able to evoke strong emotions within the reader. And how do I know this? Because I’ve put in the hours, trusted my editor (mentor); leveraging his knowledge and experience, and received enough honest feedback to know where I truly stand. And what do I do with this knowledge? I write more and hone my strengths, while also paying close attention to the areas I’m not as strong in (and put in the time and effort to get better).
Once you’ve figured out your strengths as a writer, write the book you’ve always wanted to read!
About the Author…
STEVEN MANCHESTER is the author of the #1 bestseller Twelve Months, Goodnight, Brian, The Rockin` Chair, and several other books. His work has appeared on NBC’s Today Show, CBS’s The Early Show, CNN’s American Morning and BET’s Nightly News. Three of Manchester’s short stories were selected “101 Best” for the Chicken Soup for the Soul series.