Playing to Your Strengths

In school, most of us were taught to write according to the rules. Problem is, when it comes to writing, there are no rules. Or more specifically, for every writing rule you hear, there’s an equally valid rule that says just the opposite.

To follow the writing techniques you learned in grade school (or even college) might be a terrible idea for you. For instance, there are more extraverts in the U.S. population, but more introverts among writing instructors. If you’re an extravert, the natural writing process of introverts may not work well for you at all.

So forget everything you’ve been taught. During the first draft, let your creativity flow. Write according to your natural style. Don’t think about the final product—your first draft is just the clay you sculpt your masterpiece from. First get it written, then get it right.

The “right” techniques are the ones that work well for you, even if they don’t work at all for your coworker or critique partner. Chances are, you’ll be most comfortable and productive if you draft according to the preferences of your personality type. Then, during revision, use your nonpreferred functions to fill in what you missed. In my upcoming posts, I’ll outline the natural tendencies of writers according to their preferences as measured by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).

Note: If you don’t know your personality type, I recommend the free Jung Typology Test from Humanmetrics, although I’m told it has a slight tendency to skew toward Judging (J) over Perceiving (P). For a more thorough and accurate assessment, you can take the MBTI through a certified practitioner.

Related posts:

Extraverted Writers: Talking It Out
Introverted Writers: Thinking It Over

Finding Your Voice in Fiction

Copywriters blog about it. Literary agents yearn for it. Budding writers may know they need it, but they may be unsure how to get it (or even what it is). In a sense, voice is your platform. It’s the reason that you alone could write this story—that no one else could write it the way you did.

Many things contribute to an author’s voice. Word choice and sentence structure are part of it. But voice is also much deeper. It’s your world view, your values, your passion. In short, it’s your personality.

The websites of literary agents make it clear that they’re looking for a unique and compelling voice. If your manuscript sounds like every other submission in your genre, then no matter how well written it is, the agent will likely pass. Your personality must shine through.

Here are some of the components of voice:

Your values

David Keirsey grouped the 16 Myers-Briggs types into 4 temperaments, and identified the values unique to each. For example, the Idealists (NFs) and Guardians (SJs) value cooperation, while Rationals (NTs) and Artisans (SPs) value autonomy. But while the cooperative efforts of Guardians focus on preserving traditions and social institutions, Idealists seek to build stronger communities through personal growth. And while Artisans want autonomy so they can take advantage of immediate opportunities, Rationals focus on building systems and long-term strategies.

Think about some of your favorite novels, and consider how the voice might reflect one or more of these values. For example, I might argue that in The Help by Kathryn Stockett, Aibileen expresses Guardian values, Minny expresses Artisan values, and Miss Skeeter expresses Rational values. Yet the novel itself expresses Idealist values. The voices of the three point-of-view characters come together to give the novel a voice that’s different from the sum of its parts.

Your experiences

I’m a Pennsylvanian who’s made a home in North Carolina. I know how disorienting it is to leave your support system behind, and start a new life in a strange place with customs you don’t understand. My experience with this sense of alienation plays a role in my fiction.

But note that your experiences aren’t limited to things you’ve personally lived through. We’ve all been listening to stories—through books, TV, movies, and conversation—since we were born. The people you know also have a unique set of experiences that they can share with you. The old caveat, write what you know, is backwards. It should be know what you write. Research. Interview people. Travel if you have to. Draw on your past, but continue to build your store of knowledge.

Your interests

If you love jazz, set a couple of scenes in a jazz club. Include dialogue that could only be spoken by a jazz connoisseur. If you garden, include descriptions of trees and flowers that demonstrate your specific knowledge. These kinds of details add depth and authenticity to a scene.

Your interests may also affect the theme of your work. As a writer of women’s fiction, I’m fascinated by the effects of human evolution on behavior, particularly in the differences between men and women. In most primate societies, to avoid inbreeding, females stay in the troupe they were born into; males, on the other hand, are forced out when they reach sexual maturity, and must make their way in the world. Modern human females largely define themselves in terms of their relationships, whereas males define themselves in terms of identity. My fiction explores the conflicts that naturally occur as a result: for instance, the woman is trying to preserve the relationship but her partner is trying to preserve his identity. Or, conversely, a woman’s search for identity creates problems in her relationships.

Voice is one of those things that’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it. The best way to ensure that your voice shines through is to be authentic, to write from your core self, and to be fearless. If you’re not willing to take chances in your fiction, to expose the deepest parts of yourself, you won’t touch the reader’s heart. It’s that emotional connection to the characters that keeps readers engaged. A story without voice is a story that won’t sell. So don’t hold back. Write for all you’re worth.

Tools, Not Rules

Many blogs offer advice on how to write. Often these blogs are didactic, as if the author is right and anyone who does things differently is wrong. These authors, I’m afraid, don’t understand the difference between process and product.

Let’s assume that all novelists have the goal of writing  a saleable novel. That’s their product. It doesn’t follow that they must all use the same process in order to reach that goal.

For instance, many authors recommend that you set a weekly word count goal. That’s great advice, if you’re goal-oriented or tend to be unproductive without intermediate milestones to track your progress. But if you write every day, and you’re happy with the progress you’re making, then a word count goal is just one more worry to interfere with your creative process.

Whether setting a word count is a useful goal for you may depend in part on your personality type. SJ writers may like the structure that word count goals give them. NPs may find themselves getting caught up in research or going off on tangents without word count goals to keep them focused. NJs and SPs may find such goals helpful, or they may find them restrictive. A word count goal is a tool, and the purpose of a tool is to make your job easier. If the tool doesn’t make your job easier, then stop using the tool.

Note, though, that process differs from craft. Show, don’t tell is an example of craft. “James was angry at his brother” is telling. “James kicked his brother’s Big Wheel into the bushes” is showing. Showing is more vivid and involves the reader viscerally in the story. That’s why show, don’t tell has become a mantra of fiction writing. It’s difficult to write successful fiction without employing this technique.

Understanding the difference between product, process, and craft is key to developing into a confident and competent fiction writer. Here are some examples of advice relating to each.

Product

  • Happy endings: Romance novels must have an optimistic ending. This isn’t true for other adult fiction.
  • Likeable main character: Some people will tell you that you’ll be more successful if your main character is likeable. Others will tell you that the main character must be engaging, but not necessarily likeable. It depends on the kind of novel you’re writing. Know your audience.
  • Dissimilar character names: If character names are too similar (like Kevin and Steven), readers may get them confused.
  • Title: Selecting a title has less to do with craft and more to do with marketing. That’s why publishers often choose a different title than the one the author had in mind.

Process

  • Write first thing in the morning: Okay, there may be some science behind this. But if you’re a night owl, or you have kids you need to get ready for school in the morning, this advice might not be right for you.
  • Don’t edit while you write: Sadly, some writers become discouraged and stop writing if their first drafts aren’t beauteous. For these people, slogging through the first draft without reading what they’ve written may be great advice. Also, if you’re tempted to wordsmith each scene until it shines like platinum, only to realize after you complete the first draft that half the scenes should be deleted, you may want to force yourself to keep moving rather than getting caught up in revising too soon. But many writers find it useful to edit the previous day’s work before they start drafting new material. This serves the dual purpose of cleaning up the first draft and immersing them in the world of the novel.
  • Write every day: There’s a reason that “Remember the Sabbath” is one of the ten commandments. And it’s not just to keep grocery stores from selling wine on Sunday mornings. Humans need to take a break from work to feed their souls. As long as you’re productive, you don’t have to write every day. But if you need that habit in order to stay on track, then maybe this is good advice for you. Just don’t feel guilty if you take a day off. God said it was okay.

Craft

  • Three-act structure: The three-act structure has been the basis of storytelling in the Western world for millennia. It’s so ingrained in us that we naturally follow this pattern when telling stories. Chances are, if your story is working, then it follows the three-act structure, even if you’re not aware of it. Chances are, if your story isn’t working, then it’s not following the three-act-structure. Figure out what parts of the structure are missing so you can fix the story.
  • Conflict: Nearly every successful story consists of a main character who wants something, plus obstacles that the main character must confront in order to reach that goal. If your story consists of happy, satisfied characters doing interesting things, then no one but your mom will want to read it. The momentum behind a story is frustrated desire.
  • Engaging the senses: This is an element of show, don’t tell. Part of your job as a fiction writer is to immerse the reader in the fictive world. It isn’t enough to appeal to the intellect. You must create a sensual experience. “Flowers lined the sidewalk” doesn’t draw the reader into the landscape. Include sensory details: “Golden lilies spiced the air with fragrance, and bees hummed as they hovered over the blooms.”

Learning which advice to follow and which to ignore is one of the toughest challenges that beginning writers face. I recommend this simple guideline: If it makes you a better writer, then it’s good advice. If it doesn’t make you a better writer, and especially if it paralyzes you or keeps you from writing, then it’s not good advice. Listen to your heart, listen to your gut, and keep writing.

For more information on the three-act structure, I recommend Screenwriting Tricks For Authors (and Screenwriters!) or Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks for Authors II by Alexandra Sokoloff.

When Success Feels Like Failure

Perfectionism takes a toll on the psyche.

I remember, in kindergarten, the first time one of my worksheets was marked wrong. We were learning to write by tracing over numbers, the same number repeatedly, before moving on to the next. I got caught up in the rhythm and missed a transition, writing one too many sevens when I should have written an eight.

I was so ashamed, that on the walk from the bus stop to my house, I balled up the sheet of paper and tossed it into a ditch, hoping my parents would never find out I had made a mistake.

I was four years old.

My entire life, perfection has been the only standard that mattered. Excellence was a low bar to me. It never felt like success.

Graduating first in my high school class didn’t seem like success. It’s what was expected of me. Graduating second would have seemed a shocking failure.

I never aspired to become class valedictorian. During my thirteen years of public education, I was a good student without much effort. And that easy success inured me to any sense of accomplishment.

And so it continues today.

In true INFJ fashion, I create visions in my mind of how things could be. But execution never lives up to imagination. How could it? So instead of seeing the things I did well, I’m mortified by the things that fell short, even if no one else can tell the difference. After all, they didn’t see what was in my imagination. They don’t know how much better it was supposed to be.

The one place where I feel a true sense of virtuosity is in my writing. Through the magic of editing, I can craft a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter until every word is perfect. Or at least, until it feels perfect to me. That’s the gift that creative writing gives me.

In a blog post on Writers and Doubt, author James Scott Bell suggests that doubt is inevitable in any novelist worth reading. But creative writing is the one place where I never feel doubt. If the manuscript is flawed, I can fix it. If I don’t know how, I can learn.

I’ve never worked harder on anything in my life than I have on my novel in progress, now nearly complete after an eight-year-journey. And no effort has been so rewarding. I know the novel will never be perfect, but it doesn’t have to be. Novels aren’t about perfection. They’re about humanity—our common struggles, failures, contradictions, self-sabotage, and rare brilliant moments when we grasp the longed-for and near-impossible prize.

I was born to write. That’s the positive part of my INFJ personality. The negative is that when I’m speaking with people, I feel barely competent to string words into sentences. And afterward, I obsess over all the things I could have done better. I keep trying to edit my life.

The four-year-old inside me still wants me to be perfect. But the great God-force inside me asks only that I share my gifts with the world. And if I’m grateful for those gifts, I must also be grateful for my limitations. They’re two sides of the same coin.

So when the doubts of my life feel overwhelming, I retreat to the one place where I always feel sure. The one place where struggle is the best teacher and failure the source of deep insight. The one place where I can get it right the fourteenth time instead of the first, and no one will ever know the difference.

I write.

It’s Not Me, It’s You: When Conflict Is Unavoidable

All of us are faced with conflict in our personal and professional lives. INFJs like me are naturally diplomatic, and they tend to develop good conflict resolution skills. They can often see conflict coming, and will try to head it off. Sometimes, though, conflict is unavoidable. Because some people, as my husband would say, are idiots (bless their hearts).

INFJs look for the good in people. We want to help them reach their potential. When we suspect that someone might be going off track, we want to step in and help. And when other people fail, we ask ourselves, “What could I have done differently to prevent that from happening?”

But sometimes people fail because they’re incompetent, or because they’re not very bright, or because they’re too proud to ask for help. And I can’t do anything about that.

Feeling types don’t like to admit to themselves that people—especially people they like—aren’t up to the task. It’s somehow easier for us to say, “I’m cranky and impatient. I’m not providing the necessary guidance.”

But I’ve come to realize that sometimes, I am not the problem. If you’re a feeling type, here are some signs that the other person may be at fault for the conflict:

  • They don’t ask for help when they need it. Feeling types may be sensitive to people’s needs, but we’re not clairvoyant.
  • They get upset if you communicate in a business-like rather than a friendly way. Sometimes the Thinking part of your personality may emerge. That’s OK. You can’t be expected to coddle people all the time. If they don’t develop a thicker skin, then life will inevitably leave them bruised.
  • They do stupid things. I can’t define what that means, but you’ll know it when you see it. You can’t anticipate every stupid thing a person might do, and then tell them in advance not to do it. It’s up to them to make a practice of not doing stupid things, so that their lives go more smoothly.

Feeling types want the world to be a harmonious place. When conflict erupts, it upsets our sense of balance. We may even question our own competence. But all we can do is our best. If another person doesn’t do the same, then we are not responsible for the consequences.

Related posts:

Temperament and Leadership: One NF’s View
The INFJ Personality and the Search for the Perfect Relationship
The INFJ Writing Personality: Eloquent Vision

The Unity of Character and Plot

Several years ago, at the North Carolina Writers Network conference, I attended a session where the instructor claimed that character is plot. While I understand her point, I think she went too far. Many things happen in our lives that we can’t control. In fiction, the response to external events demonstrates character and propels plot. But generally, by the end of the story, the protagonist becomes proactive instead of responsive, and the protagonist’s positive action creates the climax.

Character and plot must work in harmony. For the story to be believable, the actions the character takes must be consistent with the character you’ve created. For instance, imagine if two of Shakespeare’s great tragic figures, Hamlet and Othello, were the protagonist in each other’s stories. How would those plays go?

Act I, Scene 1: The ghost of the old king tells Othello to avenge the old king’s death by killing Claudius.
Act I, Scene 2: Othello kills Claudius.
The End

No story, right? And if Iago hinted to Hamlet that Desdemona were cheating on him, Hamlet would answer, “You cannot play upon me.”

For the two plays to work, Othello‘s hero must display extraverted, sensing, judging energy, while Hamlet‘s hero must display introverted, intuitive, perceiving energy.

Keep in mind, though, that when under extreme stress, people (and characters) behave in ways they never would otherwise. In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass advises novelists to imagine something their character would never think, say, or do—then create a situation where the character thinks, says, or does exactly that. If it’s critical to your story that your character behave in uncharacteristic ways, put that character in an environment of increasing stress, until the point that the character’s “shadow” takes over. Isabel Myers defined the “shadow” as the inferior function. It is the least developed, and the one least likely to be used in a rational and mature manner—even in the best of times. When someone is under stress, and the inferior function takes charge, the results can be disastrous.

In your own stories, do character and plot work in harmony? If a character behaves in an uncharacteristic way, be sure to show that the character is under enough stress to make the action believable.

There Must Be Some Misunderstanding: Leveraging Personality Type for Effective Communication

The Myers-Briggs theory teaches that we each have preferred ways of communicating. But our preferences may not be the best way of making the message clear to the audience. When writing, we have the luxury of editing what we wrote. Not so in speech. Either way, misunderstanding can ensue when we don’t adequately consider the needs of our audience.

Sensing vs. Intuition

Often, preference isn’t about what we do, but the order in which we do it. For instance, when I’m writing a scene for a novel, I start with the dialogue. Once that’s in place, I’ll add gestures, facial expressions, and movement. Setting and sensory detail come last, because sensing is my inferior function. That part of the scene doesn’t have meaning for me until the rest of the scene is in place.

But the setting elements of the scene must come first for the reader. Readers can’t immerse themselves in the scene until they know when and where it’s taking place, and which characters are there. Is the environment light or dark, quiet or noisy? Are the characters happy, angry, or frightened?

So, too, in spoken communication, Continue reading “There Must Be Some Misunderstanding: Leveraging Personality Type for Effective Communication”