Even established, award-winning writers were beginners once—and may still grapple with improving aspects of their fiction. Below you’ll find several great writers ruminating on their weaknesses. For more from these writers on other topics, visit the Interview section of this website.
I have to confess that I’ve always thought that just about everything I wrote was pretty wonderful. A weakness in the first couple of published novels (I can’t usefully talk about work before that) was a sort of factitious gravitas, a dark cold-eyed intensity I’m really not that good at. I might have unconsciously learned that from David Stacton, in whom it’s so extreme as to become a weird virtue. Paradoxical humor and tenderness and wit were strengths it took a while to deploy in writing (in life they came easily.) I also was too attached to the “distributed third person” mode: a few pages of X’s point of view, switch to Y, back to X, on to N and then M. The default mode for standard or generic late-20th century fiction writing. When I conceived a long book (Little, Big) I just couldn’t face writing that way, and had to rediscover old- or older-fashioned raconteur tale-telling. What a relief!
I think I had a hard time imagining and depicting interior space early in my career. I think that’s partly because I was coming out of a largely minimalist aesthetic that tended to minimize interior space and partly because I was extremely skeptical of the way interiority had been depicted by others–I rarely found it convincing or to have much correspondence to my sense of how my own mind actually worked. As time went on, I slowly started to investigate interior space more, by bits and starts, trying to work out a logic and an ethos that worked for me. That involved thinking about varying levels of interiority, suggesting the way we often seem to think multiple things at the same time, and also using the narrator as a way of filtering thoughts and providing ambiguity, having moments where you can’t tell where the interiority stops and the narrator’s opinions begin. I’m fairly happy with where I’ve gotten with that.
The biggest weakness I had was the limitations of my knowledge of literature. I had been greatly influenced by the nineteenth-century novel when I was young, and so wrote like Tennyson’s less elegant fourth cousin twice removed. I was in love with the florid nature of my own prose. I turned this into a strength when after reading more widely and coming to understand the scope of Lit. both Western and Non-Western, I again picked up that 19th century style prose, now far more under control, and put it in service of two novels—one set in the nineteenth century and one fantasy trilogy that utilized a type of faux nineteenth century writing. As a reaction against this dilemma my writing, for a while, became very minimalist, but now it is finding some kind of balance between the two. Before long, that balance will no doubt bore me, and I’ll move in another direction. This is style—a writer works on it for a lifetime, eschewing the idea of ultimate success and it’s one of the great joys of the art.
Stephen Graham Jones
I was way locked into that male kind of fantasy figure; my characters were always these hard-knock loners, just out of six months inside, coming back to their old town not to settle old scores, necessarily, but there were definitely going to be some scores getting settled over the next few pages. I mean, I might as well have strapped a katana to their back and given them Vince Black’s motorcycle. Also, with them, with all my early stuff, the story would tend to be cool, with a lot happening, but it would largely be happening to the main character, not because of the main character’s actions. And I would often end on a cool visual, or some neat phrasing, when what really needed to be happening was the main character, now changed by the story, making a decision he or she wouldn’t have made before. So, yeah, I fixed all that, or curtailed it some, anyway. I mean, I still unsecretly want to be Reno Raines, of course—he’s Conan, circa 1992—but I think I have a somewhat better handle on how stories work, now. As for the how of that, though, it’s simple: by writing just a whole that don’t. I think somewhere around sixty or seventy, and I’m talking full-length, five- and ten-thousand word jobs, it was like a little bell chimed in my head, and I paused over the keyboard for a moment, nodded. Which isn’t to say I don’t still make obvious mistakes more than I don’t. But I know to throw those stories away now, anyway.
James Patrick Kelly
I think I was afraid of moral ambiguity and so failed to introduce convincing evil into my fiction. This isn’t to say that I didn’t make evil things happen, just that they weren’t very convincing. In part this was because I was not comfortable exploring the more twisted parts of my own personality and I certainly didn’t show them to the world in my fiction. (Hi Mom!) And in part it was because when I did let bad things happen to good people, the perps were usually too unambiguously wicked. It seems to me that most of what we call evil is caused by people who think they are doing the Right Thing. I like to remind my students that all of their characters are the heroes of their own stories. Here’s an exercise I give to those who struggle with this notion: Write an email from your Bad Guy to You the Writer in which he complains that you have totally misconstrued his actions and explains what he is trying to accomplish.
Caitlin R. Kiernan
I think I made one big mistake at the beginning, and that was trying to approach novels with elaborate ensemble casts. I look back at all my novels before The Red Tree, and they’re these messes, cluttered with far too many characters. I blame Stephen King, whom I never should have wasted time reading to start with! I read a lot of crap in high school, and it can take a long time to purge the crap from your style. Another problem was my use of what I call “compounderations,” fusing words together. In college, I fell in love with the Modernists, especially Faulkner and Joyce. And I wanted to write like that. I wanted to write weird and speculative fiction like that. Problem is, I went so far overboard with this one aspect of their work. It’s not the technique that’s flawed, it was my execution that was flawed. You survey my writing over the past twenty years, and you’ll see the “compounderations” get rarer and rarer. Also, every time a short story or novel is reprinted, almost every time, I commit a revision. These can be major revisions, to try and throw out the elements I’ve come to hate. Compare the edition of Silk that was released in 2007 to the original 1998 edition. You’ll find the language is rather radically different. I couldn’t stand to see what I perceive as my mistakes reprinted. I never can.
Early on, I realized that I couldn’t write good realistic dialogue on the few occasions I attempted to do so. Later, I found a way to write what I consider good unrealistic dialogue to accompany unrealistic—or irrealistic, a once reviewer called them—narratives.
Dialogue was always my weak area. To learn to write really powerful dialogue, I started listening to scenes in movies and reading scenes in books where the dialogue was riveting, and I listed things that good dialogue is and isn’t: it’s idiosyncratic to each character, it’s not usually about just giving information, it isn’t patterned in an A-B-A-B back-and-forth between two speakers, it’s oral and written to be heard. Etc. I spent a lot of time listening to the way people talk when their emotions are running high or running deep. In my own writing, I started to treat dialogue as a dance of revelation and concealment. Dialogue is all about the level of intimacy a character is willing to offer. What do they hold back? What do they share? How do they share it? What secrets are being kept in this conversation? What does each character want to “get” out of this conversation, emotionally?
One of the weak issues early on was that I couldn’t extend myself, if you will, to characters who were very much unlike me. This took some practice and it helped me learn a compassionate way to look at people. You can’t understand a person without some degree of compassion and curiosity, even if they happen to be the model for your villain. Apart from that it was a question of training the imagination, so that I could stand in the shoes of the other. With practice I was able to create, for example, a protagonist who happens to be old, and a man, and a Muslim, and I think I did this with some success although I am not any of those things (getting closer to being old, however).
I did not give a damn about facts. I could happily place a short story on a moon of Uranus without knowing barely anything else than its name. Or situated a story into a historical period of which I had very faint knowledge. Also, I was so much in love with my own words so that I rarely considered any cutting or trimming. Nowadays I am a research glutton. For example, in my latest novel, “Blood of Angels” (not yet translated into English but a French translation should be available this autumn), the protagonist is an undertaker by profession and is keeping bees as a hobby, and I didn’t have the slightest idea of the profession or the hobby when I started writing, and it took quite a lot of effort to write about them plausibly. It’s fortunate that for me research is not some kind of an unpleasant duty but a very, very important tool that generates continuously new fresh ideas for me to use. For trimming, I started to ask myself a question when reading drafts: “What is the function of this particular word/sentence/paragraph/chapter? Is it meant to produce vital information to the reader that is not already told or will be told later? Is it important because it creates tension or builds the atmosphere? Does it characterize a person so that we learn more about him/her?”, and if the answer is no—the word/ sentence/ paragraph/ chapter is there just because it sounds literary or witty or beautiful, I cut it.