Today I am happy to host a guest piece by a friend and colleague, LJ Cohen, whose Young Adult space adventures have earned her quite a bit of attention, including a review in Publisher’s Weekly and more recently a membership in Science Fiction Writers of America. We’re both wrestling with growth and change lately, but I’ll her get to that…
A few weeks ago, Rick posted an essay talking about his own strengths and weaknesses as a writer. It’s gotten me thinking more systematically about my own. Now that I have a body of work that includes six completed novels, three partial novels, more than a thousand blog posts, hundreds of poems, and dozens of short stories, it’s something I can critically examine.
There is some common belief that one’s first million words are for practice. And there is something to skill building through repetition and practice. Certainly, I am a better writer today than I was a year ago, or ten years before that. But it’s not simply practice that makes perfect. After all, it’s possible to practice one’s own errors until they become dangerously habitual.
But if one ties that practice into feedback – especially thoughtful and focused feedback – then practice can turn into skill.
I definitely think one of my strengths as a writer is in my openness to feedback. Taken to an extreme, it can lead someone to attempt to ‘write by committee’ which is yet another way to fail. But learning how to hear, critically assess, and integrate feedback is an essential part of the life of the artist.
When I was a child, my mother would get frustrated with my apparent lack of discipline. It was true that I had very little in the way of study skills or time management until I was well into my college years and perhaps even partway into graduate school. She always wanted me to work harder. Maybe she was right, but I also know that even then, I could throw myself fully into a task I wanted to understand and become fully absorbed.
Now that I am a writer, I either finish what I start, or I make a conscious decision that a project isn’t worth pursuing and stop. I think both require a certain amount of discipline. Certainly as I grow in my craft, I know far sooner if a project has ‘legs’. And once I do commit to one, I work on it diligently until it’s complete. I can work from initial idea to complete first draft within 6 months for a full length novel. It’s faster than some, not as fast as others, but I know what it takes to get from one end of the project to the other reliably.
Character and dialogue:
I’m listing them together here because I think they work together in my novels. Particularly in my ensemble cast novels, I have been told that each of my characters have distinct voices. That readers don’t get confused when I switch point of view and they particularly enjoy how I can show and expand characterization through using multiple points of view.
What I have learned is that dialogue and interaction in general is critical to establishing character, creating tension and conflict, and advancing plot. These things don’t easily happen in a vacuum and reading page after page after page of exposition or internal thoughts can lead to stagnation in a story.
I love to throw characters in situations and with one another and see what happens.
I struggle with keeping my focus on one thing at a time. I know there are plenty of techniques to encourage single-tasking from meditation to locking out the internet router during writing times. Trust me, I have tried them all.
My own tendency to avoid is also related to this. If I hit a plot snag or the writing gets difficult, my natural inclination is to check my email, or spend time noodling on social media. Before know it, I’ve been reading my twitter stream for 2 hours and haven’t written a word.
It’s something that effects my life at a systems level and I’m still working on solutions.
I am a fairly linear writer. I start at the beginning and move from one scene to the next to the next pretty much in linear order. I’m not one of those writers who can easily jump forward and back through a manuscript to write scenes out of order. I’ve tried, but nothing I write this way actually makes sense by the time I get to that place in the novel. Once I have written a draft, I can move scenes and storylines if they need to be moved, but before it’s written, it has to be in chronological order.
What this can mean is weeks of staring at a blinking cursor because a current scene or storyline isn’t working and I don’t yet know why. But I can’t move past it until I do know. It’s not writer’s block – because that’s not a construct that has any utility for me – but story block.
It can also lead to a relative predictability of plot if I’m not careful. I’ve worked hard to make sure there are enough ‘breadcrumbs’ in the early part of the narrative to support whatever comes later. I can definitely add that layer of foreshadowing AFTER I’ve completed the linear narrative.
Floating Heads in Black Boxes:
Visual description was something I didn’t even know I struggled with until early readers pointed it out. I would get comments that I wasn’t ‘grounding’ readers in the narrative, that my dialogue read as if it were spoken by floating heads in black boxes. Over the years, I learned to add visual details to orient the reader.
It wasn’t until this year that I understood I have aphantasia. That is, I lack a functioning ‘mind’s eye.’ I actually don’t visualize at all. I never even realized that seeing pictures in one’s mind was something people did. Seriously thought the mind’s eye was metaphorical.
When I read books, I find myself skimming over all the deeply descriptive parts (sorry writers!) unless the description is integral to something else – character, action, emotion, etc. But once we’ve established where in a forest? I get it. Trees. Great. Move on.
So it’s no wonder that I didn’t add many visual cues in my work. Nor did my characters notice their visual environments very thoroughly.
Now that I know most folks DO like to know what’s happening visually, I can layer it in, but that kind of description will never come easily or naturally to me.
I’m sure there are other areas of relative strength and relative weakness in my writing, but these are the ones that feel most relevant currently. I’ll continue to keep aware of them as I move forward in my work. If you’ve read my work and have anything to add on either side of the equation, I’d love to hear it.
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Dreadnought And Shuttle is the latest in the Halcyone Space series:
When a materials science student gets kidnapped, she’s drawn into a conflict between the young crew of a sentient spaceship, a weapons smuggling ring, and a Commonwealth-wide conspiracy and must escape before her usefulness as a hostage expires.
About the Author:
LJ Cohen is a novelist, poet, blogger, ceramics artist, and relentless optimist. After almost twenty-five years as a physical therapist, LJ now uses her anatomical knowledge and myriad clinical skills to injure characters in her science fiction and fantasy novels. She lives in the Boston area with her family, two dogs, and the occasional international student. DREADNOUGHT AND SHUTTLE (book 3 of the SF/Space Opera series Halcyone Space), is her sixth novel. LJ is a member of SFWA, Broad Universe, and the Independent Publishers of New England.