Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Pivotal Scenes 3 -- Working backward to complete the story

The rest of the story doesn’t just happen… usually. Yes, there are times when, after you have your pivotal scene set (or written à la John Irving), you may have all the other scenes pop into your head. Or, after some tuning, some of the main scenes you need to insert may come to you. But you’ll probably need to take more direct action to develop a good sense of what comes before the pivotal scene, no matter how perfect it is.

I had to do this for two stories in the last week, so let me suggest some ideas to explore. (These are not the only ideas that might be useful — go ahead and make your own list — but they were of value for me, so I’m sharing them.)

A key question: What does the pivotal scene tell me about the theme of the story (or scene or sequence or act)? In one story, it seemed to me the theme was appreciated the different talents/gifts of others, and that guided revision of the rest of the work. In the other case, the importance of following through on obligations to others actually led to new scenes and especially revised dialogue earlier in the story.

Paddy Chayefsky cites the value of exploring characters in pivotal scenes. In particular, when the flaws and motivations of the protagonist are revealed in the pivotal scene, these need to be set up with authenticity. What is learned suggests decision points, opposition, and misunderstandings that shape the pivotal scene.

Chayefsky also uses the pivotal scene to tell him who needs to be in the story. Along the way, protagonists get pushed around a lot by others characters, but you can’t populate a work with a character for each shove. Who is necessary? Can characters be combined?

I like to look at what could happen, as suggested by the pivotal scene, and what must happen. The former creates a lot of options, and I may make a long list. The latter helps me to choose what must be included from that list. Before you do this, it’s a good idea to think about whether your pivotal scene is in someway ironic. This can have a big impact on options and choices.

It can be invaluable, if you have an antagonist in the story, to look at the ending from his or her perspective, too. Imagining possible scenes or actions from the antagonist’s point of view, and selecting those that must be included can enrich the story and add needed twists and turns.

Clarity is important. What are the things a reader/audience must know? Sometimes this is clues that set up a revelation. Sometimes it’s facts that add up. Paddy Chayefsky warns not to get too cute about this. A character might just need to say, “I love you.” As a writer, you may hate that, but it has to be done now and then.

Of course, being clear means being clear to you, too. Too often, writers fail to think through what they don’t know. Sometimes, this opens the door to surprises during composition. But too often it represents a lack of sufficient attention to the story and what needs to be investigated and answered. Before you complete a manuscript, ask, “What don’t I know?”

For a long time, I’ve worked with the rule of thumb of including 3-5 beats (or turns) in a scene.These always move a scene in a different direction and often provide surprises. As I worked on my two stories, it came to me that, in each case, a beat was associated with a shift in power. This could be putting as subservient position into a dominant position, with characters switching places. Or it could be putting a powerful character into an even more dominant position, knocking the other character off balance. (I tend to just let a scene play out, then analyze for these dynamics, rather than plan all the beats ahead of time.)

Of course, story logic can reveal needed (and unneeded) scenes as well as I mentions backward writing guru Kitchen in an earlier post, but you might want to go right to the source.

Interestingly, Paddy Chayefsky, a big advocate of working from a powerful scene backward, said he never did it for smaller parts of a story. He said any scene he wanted to write was there in its entirety for him. Instead, he used working backward as a way to create an overall structure for the story, something he struggled with. I’ve struggled on individual scenes and even beats within scenes, so I think the answer is, as always, do what works for you.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Pivotal Scenes 2 - Tuning for power

Last time, I suggested an exercise, choosing three questions to pose about a pivotal scene in your own work. This time, as promised, I’ll explore how the power of the scene might be magnified. Four ways to achieve this are emotion, price gap, irony, authenticity.

Let’s start with authenticity. If you looked at the questions in terms of pivotal moments in your own life, you’ve already set the bar for your fiction. The closer you can get to the importance of those moments as you experienced them and the more they feel as true to you as what shaped your life, the more authentic they are likely to be for your readers/audience.

This does not mean you need to use or create analogies of your real-life experiences (though many writers do). You can imagine a completely different event in terms of your characters, and it can measure up to your personal answers. In fact, I find that direct transfers, like dreams, tend to lose context when you relate them to others. And without providing the context for a scene, you may not create the connection with others that’s necessary. You may be able test the authenticity of scenes you’ve produced that are not real-life events by checking to see if they are revealing. Do they expose your insights, including those that make you feel vulnerable? Would the judgment of others concern you? If so, you may be on the right track.

By the way, if you did not answer any of the questions based on your own experience, it is valid to look at the answers in terms of novels or films that moved you. If the ones I mentioned mean a lot to you, use those. If not, answer the questions for works that are important to you personally. And use these answers as your measure for authenticity.

Irony is not for everyone, but it can add zest to your pivotal scenes. The ending of The Graduate, where the hero has rescued the woman he loves (bridal gown and all) and escorted her onto their escape bus, the camera refuses to turn away from the happy ending. It is the brilliance of Mike Nichols, not the script, at work as the actors stay in character and the audience is given time to realize a happily ever after isn’t guaranteed.

This ironic dimension trusts the audience and rewards them for being smart. It also engages the audience, encouraging them to participate. To speculate about about what the situation is and what might happen next. So, irony provides both the literal, expected result in a scene AND a compliment and invitation to the audience. To achieve this, the writer must challenge a pat ending to a scene and offer a different viewpoint, which is almost certainly not apparent to the characters.

The price gap is vital to the power of pivotal scenes. As I stated last time:

The gap between the price the hero expects to pay to achieve the goal and the actual price is the story.
I looked at scenes in a number of my stories to prepare for this article (and to make those scenes better). Over and over again, characters expected easy approaches to work. Ask and you shall receive. Learn the answers and people will welcome them. Develop your craft and you’ll get gigs.

What gets ignored by characters in stories (and people in real life) is usually the social aspects of prices. If you have a good product, I’ll buy it from you if I like you. You can do the job, but others can, too. What’s in it for me if I hire you? Sure, I’ll give you access. But you’ll owe me.

Most of these have a level of fairness. But what about when characters get a “yes” from someone who has a hidden agenda? Or when the “yes” is a trap (now, you’re mine)? Or the “yes” is really a “no”? Or some sort of a betrayal is involved?

Often, the gap becomes evident when the first attempts are met with “no.”

Usually, the gap gets wider and more interesting when the answer is “yes, but.” With these, what is unknown, secret, and underhanded twists the story in a new way. The shape of the world changes and the map to success fills with obstacles, tormenting characters and delighting readers and audiences.

In bold above, I did not quote my full statement. The rest of what I said last time was this:

The bigger the gap, the more emotionally involving the story is.
Which brings this analysis to the last element of power, emotion. There may be an intellectual element to the conclusion of a pivotal scene, an insight or a lesson learned. But it will remain abstract unless it engages readers or the audience emotionally. Bertolt Brecht argued for at theater of ideas, focused by an intentional rejection of emotion. To the point where a narrator might undercut feelings developed by the plot. Arthur Miller championed this idea. Maybe.

Popular films today are often overwhelmed by spectacle. Strong emotions are created in the moment, but these tend to be on the surface. With little in the way of ideas (or fully developed characters).

As a writer, you get to decide which extreme works best for you. My opinion is that the work most likely to touch audiences and readers and to be remembered and to bring new meaning with each encounter is that work that has ideas and characters in stories that are emotionally involving.

So say something that matters to you. Make it true to your characters. Provide a big gap between the characters’ expectations and the price they must pay —and make the currency of the transaction deep emotions. Love. Hate. Loss. Wonder. Find the tragedy or the comedy and go there.

Next time, with pivotal scenes tuned for power and the price gap made explicit, I’ll look at how this preparation can be used to work backward to unify sequences, scenes, acts, chapters, and stories.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Your Story’s Pivotal Scenes 1 - Finding the best candidates for reader delight

One scene can tell a story. Or make it memorable. You want to have a scene like that. If you can find those scenes and tune them so they sing, they’ll delight readers and audiences. But, more than that, they’ll guide you through a rewrite that will make your novel, screenplay, or short story as powerful as it can be. And you can use a version of this approach to sharpen an act or a chapter or a sequence of scenes.

So… this is the first of three posts exploring what I’ll call pivotal scenes: Finding the best candidates, Tuning for power, and Working backward for unity.

Spoiler alert - I’ll be mentioning key scenes from several movies. I’ll head of each of these as Example (Spartacus) “I’m Spartacus” in bold so you can skip those you’d prefer to keep as surprises.

My starting point in understanding pivotal scenes was reviewing 24 of my favorite films. I simply wrote down those moments when these stories got a strong reaction from me. Then I analyzed each to determine what the essence was in each case. From this analysis, I created a list of ten questions (which led to twenty — as I tried to find another spin on each). Here are the pairs I came up with:

1) Was there a secret revealed that matters to your protagonist (or another key character)? Was there an important discovery, even the answer to the story question? Example (The Empire Strikes Back) Vader reveals he’s Luke’s father.

2) Was a key character humiliated? Or recognized (honored)? Example (Singin’ in the Rain) The curtain is pulled open on Lina Lamont as she lip-syncs to Kathy Selden’s singing.

3) Did a serious threat emerge, terrifying and dangerous? Was safety and rest attained? Example (Alien) An alien bursts from Kane’s chest and escapes into the ship.

4) Did the character fall into a trap? Or escape? Example (2001: A Space Odyssey) Bowman is caught outside the spacecraft without his helmet.

5) Was life narrowed in some way by a serious, irreversible loss? Did life’s potential broaden through wonder? Example (Ghost) Sam, mugged and killed, discovers he is now a ghost, separated from the woman he loves.

6) Was a character betrayed by someone trusted or loved? Did the character behave with cowardice or seriously fail someone? Example (Chinatown) Gittes fails to save Evelyn and to protect Katherine from Cross.

7) Was a vital relationship permanently severed (at least apparently)? Did two or more characters bond? Example (The Shawshank Redemption) Andy offers to show a guard how to shelter his inheritance from taxes and becomes the financial manager for prison employees.

8) Did a character get blamed or held to account? Was a character forgiven or did characters reconcile? Example (Big Fish) Will tells his father the story of the daring escape from the hospital to the lake.

9) Did a character become separated from society or come to learn he or she was weird? Did a character connect with others or find out how he or she fit in? Example (Amadeus) Salieri (ironically) presents himself as the patron saint of all mediocrities. (“Mediocrities everywhere... I absolve you.”)

10) Was the true power of the character revealed? Was the character’s vulnerability, flaw, or powerlessness revealed? Example (The Wizard of Oz) The Wizard is revealed as a humbug by Toto.

There is nothing canonical about this list. You can come up with your own. In fact, I found that these might be sorted into connections with basic needs, following the Maslow hierarchy. All that is pretty left brain and dry, but I had a critical filter - my gut. And I found that a good way to interrogate my answers was to take a closer look at what each scene cost the viewpoint character. In fact, this led me to an interesting observation:

The gap between the price the hero expects to pay to achieve the goal and the actual price is the story. The bigger the gap, the more emotionally involving the story is.
It’s not a rule. It’s not perfect. But I found it to be a highly useful tool as I looked at the movie scenes.

I did something else before I turned to my story. I went through pivotal moments in my own life, actually listing out 16 that easily came to mind as both emotional and transformational. Then I tried to match them up with the questions, looking for where they landed and filling in more pivotal moments prompted by the questions. These added a level of authenticity to my analysis and raised the bar for scoring potential pivotal scenes in my stories. (This is not an easy exercise, but you may find it valuable.)

Here’s how I recommend you use the questions: 1) Choose a story of yours to analyze. This is easiest if you have a finished draft, but you may find you can do it for one that isn’t completed. 2) Pick out three questions that your intuition tells you might be related to your ending or pivotal scene (known or unknown). 3) See if asking the questions gives you more insight about your ending or pivotal scene. 4) If the essence of your ending or pivotal scene does not fit any of these questions, try more questions (or develop your own).

By the time you’re done, you should have discovered a scene that has the potential for power and you probably will have some fresh insights about how it fits in with the rest of the story. Your next step will be to make it all that it can be. I’ve already hinted at what that might entail (emotion, price gap, irony, authenticity), but that will be the subject of next week’s post. 

Related: Bigger 8 - The Essence of the Scene

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Killing Beguiling Beginnings - How to give your story a fresh start

Beginnings are treacherous. The requirements are high (introduce characters, present the setting, put forth a story question, hook the reader, engage with a distinct voice). After the first 20 pages, for many unpublished works that I’ve read, the author settles into a groove where the story is working. And often just cutting those early pages allows readers to connect with the story in the best place.

The problem — what makes things treacherous — is finding the exact right place to cut, making the revisions that keep the amputation from being obvious, and (most importantly) the author reconciling him/herself to saying goodbye to those first pages.

It is often the first pages that charmed the writer into working on the story to begin with. They often are the most familiar, most worked-over pages in the whole manuscript. And, somehow, they feel necessary.

I have been reading Val McDermid’s Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA, and More Tell Us About Crime. In it, there’s a crime scene investigator featured who gathers the information, sits with it, and then generates a narrative on what might have happened. What follows for her is analysis and a set of test questions. When she has gone through these steps, what she has may fit the intuitive leap. But, when the pieces don’t come together, she abandons that narrative. There’s no revision, no force-fitting, no fixes. I was captivated by that. What if you could have evidence that your beginning wasn’t working and then have no hesitation in making cuts and coming up with something new?

This is pertinent to me since I have a beginning that has gotten the same criticisms from two readers, and it is difficult for me to abandon it. But something tells me, it’s time to see where trying something new might lead me, so I’ll take a fresh approach.

It’s painful, but less hard for me than many writers because I can put together a new beginning in a day or two. And I know I can always go back to the beginning I have now. As Damon Knight said, “It’s not a watercolor.”

So, if you have a completed story and have doubts about a beginning that has charmed you, try this:
  1. Find the climax or the story’s point of highest emotion or the thematic scene of your story. You should be able to fall in love with it so that the beginning can be bent to make it better. This is your reason for trying something new.
  2. Assume the evidence doesn’t fit the beginning, and drop it (at least for the moment) the way the crime scene investigator drops her intuitive narratives, without regrets.
  3. Brainstorm alternative beginnings until you find one that you connect with viscerally. If one doesn’t pop out, think toward reflecting as aspect of your big scene in step one or toward an image that might communicate your story.
  4. Write the scene without worrying about what readers need to know or hooks or introductions or any other required elements.
If you end up with something that mostly works and gets you started on a better beginning, congratulations. Now it’s a matter of gently fitting it into place with the rest of the story. Sometimes, the most important thing is to avoid too many changes (especially adding in material). Sometimes, that means a complete revision. Sometimes, it leads to combining the new beginning with the old one. Sometimes, it takes you in a new direction. But it’s worth it because you’ll be led toward the beginning the story needs and away from the weaker one that infatuates you.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Stories People Need - Creating the [interesting] narrative

Stories are used to encourage us. To warn us. To make sense of the world. To unsettle us. To comfort us. We are a species that shapes reality with narrative.

One explanation of cave paintings is that they provided support for hunting. Here’s what a successful hunt looks like. Here’s what it means. This story gives you power that elevates the hunt. It provides useful information and assures its success.

Are we different from cave dwellers? Don’t we tell ourselves stories to guide us through uncertainty? If you were going into a dangerous situation, like surgery, you would probably look to people who had experience and listen to their stories. Or you’d gather the facts and create your own narrative with a beginning, middle, and ending. This would help you with preparations and provide a sense of control.

When I’m driving and the person in front of me begins to weave, I drop back. I assess the situation — oncoming traffic. Escape routes. Pedestrians. I draw upon my experience and knowledge, I consider the possibilities. Is the driver drunk? Ill? On the phone? My mind projects forward with a number of negative narratives — sudden stops, collisions, police activity. And I generate options from changing my route to calling the police to honking my horn to zipping around the situation and getting gone. These stories are explorations that provide guidance.

In the narratives of my youth — at school, on TV, and in church — the points seemed to be comfort and moral instruction. History was about a series of successes that proved my forebears, society, and leaders had great ideas that kept me safe and free. Situation comedies proved that errors were trivial and balance would be restored in 30 minutes. I think most church readings got immediate interpretations supporting the status quo and emphasizing obedience and punishment for disobedience. (Since I was an avid reader, I often had read the stories by myself, within a larger context. Even in the ten-year-old me, this created a level of dissonance.) So narratives can have a stabilizing, social aspect, reducing conflict.

I often found the opposite of the endorsed stories of my youth in science fiction — a genre my parents abhorred. While there were plenty of status quo stories, the best raised questions and challenged authority. “What if?" It’s a powerful question that presumes the world could be different. And SF used known and projected facts to support new visions. An ending could be great for an SF protagonist (but leave me unsettled). Or formally happy without being happy. (“[Winston Smith]  had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.” - 1984) Or thoroughly bleak. Or charged with wonder.

Wish fulfillment is big for a lot of readers. By the time I was seven, I’d put even the gee whiz wishes of Tom Swift aside, and I never identified much with macho heroes like James Kirk, James Bond, or Matt Dillon. But, for plenty of people, the exercise of power and getting rewards is a part of the value of narrative. It provides relief and perhaps hope.

So we need stories for:

Guidance - which means the writing must be clear, take great care with ambiguity, and persuade.

Sense - Think of the wonderful tales of why mosquitoes buzz or how the elephant got its trunk. Whimsical stories can help us make sense of the world as much as books on science or math. The greatest tools: taking on the best questions, knowing your audience and using story logic.

Comfort - Which means introducing something that may worry readers in a way that does not overwhelm them (often with humor) and showing that everything turns out all right.

Challenges - Understand people want and don’t want this. I’ve found stories that deviate from the status quo or unsettle people or provide warnings need to be compelling. Creating worlds worth exploring, exploiting curiosity, distracting with wish fulfillment (see below) or poetry or empathetic character can make people welcome opening doors marked “Do Not Enter.” Humor helps, too.

Wish fulfillment - which means the talents of the heroes must be on full display. They need to make all the decisions, never take orders, and enjoy enviable payoffs. Description is a big deal. Challenges must escalate. Increasing tension by withholding fulfillment of wishes (but not too much) is vital. Power scenes are tinged with sex, and sex scenes are tinged with power. The best relationship is usually with the villain.

This list could be extended, but I hope it provides a useful starting point to adding power to your stories through a better understanding of the will toward narration and how to work with it.

Narrative doesn’t always matter. It may be jettisoned in the case where the art is abstract. Like music, poetic works may be more about sounds and silences. Perhaps with the addition of wordplay. It’s possible to touch the spirit and the soul without a narrative, and this can shape lives as surely as a tale. Or the senses can be appealed to without narrative. Porn famously cuts most of the story elements to showcase sex. A big film may be more about spectacle than story.

Narrative isn’t present with every book or film or video, and that may be intentional. But if you choose to tell a story in the medium of your choice, it’s helpful to, at some point, determine which need you are working to fulfill and to choose your tools carefully.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Wonder-Full Stories 4 - Inspirational characters

Sometimes the character who makes a mark on your soul isn’t the hero. It’s someone talked about or on the periphery. The character may act heroically and even be the protagonist, but something needs to be withheld or it becomes too easy to put the character into a box.

I could argue that humanized characters (in both fiction and nonfiction) are easier to emulate, but truly inspirational characters, those who fire us to go beyond imitation, have a mystery about them. If you seek to put wonder in your stories, knowing how to create these characters can be valuable. I’ve been putting together some ideas on what might work, and I thought I’d share them:

Mystery - The easiest way the character can break out of frame is if he or she has elements (usually in the backstory) that aren’t revealed. These are often hinted at. Think of the gossip about Gatsby’s war record and how he acquired his wealth.

Accomplishments - It can’t all be rumor. There needs to be evidence of capability and achievement. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch’s legal skills are on display. But a moment of action that creates wonder is when he shoots the rabid dog. Here’s a talent that was hidden to Scout but implies worlds of possibilities.

Courage - I love characters, like Dorothy, who can face down a wicked witch. But the ones you never see sweat provoke a different response. When I was a kid, this was the typical silent cowboy hero. (Clint Eastwood played this character a lot.) And, for an eleven-year-old, James Bond could do the job. Many historical heroes (Lincoln, Columbus, Teddy Roosevelt) fit this model before revisionist histories became a thing. I’m still in awe of Hannibal because he brought elephants across the Alps to take on the Roman Empire. And I know nothing about this foibles.

Contradictions - As long as the story still feels authentic and classically heroic, it’s fine to have moments that are difficult to explain. The point is to open doors, not close them. Like a koan, two pieces that don’t quite fit can imply something bigger.  As Whitman said…

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Most importantly, an inspirational character needs to be larger than life. Something about him or her must reach beyond normal talent, behavior, or capability. And this must be demonstrated.

There is a sideways approach, where the character is humanized, then made inspirational. These are creation stories that end with the character with new, untested powers. Lots of comic hero origin stories have this coming of age aspect that adds to their power. As long as they end before too much is revealed, there can be wonder. I’ll note that many of these creation myths begin with something humble or miraculous  — born in a log cabin or of a virgin. Somehow, setting the character apart or spared (the one who lived) suggests greatness. Elvis Presley, a man from humble beginnings and also the twin who lived, got off to a fine start.

Mythmaking is ripped apart in our culture… and also indulged in. Don’t be afraid to have an anecdote about your inspirational character chopping down a cherry tree or splitting rails. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt to include fate or a prediction.

Some things to avoid…

Don’t make the inspirational character the viewpoint character. Both Gatsby and Finch have their stories told by someone else.

Be careful about showing doubt or internal struggle. Inspirational characters may evoke complex emotions, but they tend to be simple. Feet of clay will only limit the possibilities.

Resist the urge to use humor in a way that could undercut the greatness of the character. Humor is a great leveler, so it is dangerous to these characters. Go ahead and put humor in the draft, but be ready to cut it.

The ending for an inspirational character eliminates possibilities. There is a temptation to make these character into martyrs. Generally a bad idea. Unless they come back to life.

Overall, lean more toward Greek Mythology than toward Christianity. Men becoming gods (or demi-gods) beats a God becoming a man for THIS purpose. Again, not in terms of moral guidance or identification. (I’m not trying to make a statement on how to live. I’m just presenting a writing choice.) Wonder transcends the ordinary, and an inspirational character may be just what you need to tell your story.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

What’s holding back your writing career? - An unscientific test

Some writers imagine themselves with multi-book, mega-buck contracts. Other see themselves holding an Oscar for best original screenplay. And many would be happy to sell a short story or get a memoir finished for the family. Coming up short isn’t in itself a problem. As Browning said, “"Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?" But I think being deeply frustrated because of fixable problems is tragic.

With that in mind, I present another one of my completely unscientific diagnostic tests. I won’t be checking your answers, so you get to decide if it illuminates barriers, delusions, or distractions that are holding you back from achieving your goals. The imagined goal for the test-taker is a person who wants to be a novelist who makes a little money on writing. Transpose your conclusions to fit your actual ambitions.

For each pair, choose a score from one to ten, giving yourself nearer one if the first statement feels more like the truth and and nearer to ten if the second statement feels more like the truth.

1 Other priorities - Most writers claim they don’t have enough time to write. The truth is that few writers have the time to write and revise all the stories they wish to tell. What they do have is a dedication to the work that carves out time for it. In my experience, working with hundreds of writers, the minimum required is 15 minutes a day, five days a week, committed to moving one Work in Progress (WIP) to completion.

Several times a year, I spend a week without writing. / I rarely go through a week where I don’t write five days on my WIP.

2 Poor choices - What you write matters. Some people pursue what they believe is the easiest course, but if that means working in a genre that doesn’t interest you or telling a story you’re not invested in just because it has a great concept, that’s unlikely to lead to success. Routinely beginning new projects before finishing a WIP (and not having any criteria for selecting a WIP) means delays in finishing works or not finishing them at all. Having difficulty deciding which project to work on demonstrates a lack of focus. Chasing every new opportunity (contests, markets, gigs) without at least a general career plan and selection process only leads to confusion.

I have several active projects and could not articulate how each of them move me toward success. / I am committed to a WIP that fits criteria that move me closer to achieving my writing ambitions.
3 Fear - Whether you call it the doubt monster or the critic in your head, it is a part of you that challenges or dismisses what you do. All writers have this. In fact, it’s necessary. If you are delighted with your first drafts, it’s unlikely you’ll do the work required to suitably revise your stories for real audiences. A successful writer can manage these negative voices during the drafting stages (and, as needed, during rewrites).

Useless fears are along the lines of “what would my mom say about this?” No one sees the work unless you put it out there. “I have nothing to say” is another fear that is baseless. We all have stories others are interested in. If you don’t believe that, sit down now and write your most embarrassing moment. Fear of failure? It’s really fear of trying, isn’t it? It’s ridiculous to worry about failure or success in the absence of a completed work. There also may be an over-focussing on weaknesses, from lack of experience (guess how you get experience) to shortcomings in craft (character development, plotting, grammar, etc.).

Every writer has weaknesses. And, yes, these need to be overcome enough to reach professional minimums (though, perhaps with help from an editor). The best come to understand their strengths and appreciate and develop these.

Anxiety keeps me away from writing or sabotages my work on a weekly basis. / I am able to put aside fear and negativity enough to get my work done almost all the time.
4 Lack of commitment - Even though dwelling on weakness can become a barrier, ignoring them is not a good idea. Writers should be dedicated to growing and developing through exercises, courses, and mostly attentively reading other writers. Some writers go stale by writing the same thing over and over again. Others get lazy and reduce their attention to selecting and developing concepts or going through sufficient rewrites. Good writers who get better take pride in their work (while avoiding perfectionism. They don’t abandon work when it gets difficult. They step out of their comfort zones and learn from failures.

My approach to craft and my career is ad hoc, going where the spirit leads me. / I have articulated what I have to achieve, I have specific tasks (including development work) aimed at getting me there, and my calendar includes deadlines for achieving tasks.

5 Unhelpful guidance - When you tell people you write, you will meet those who see that as an invitation to make nasty remarks. There is no way you can write stories of a high enough quality or can be prolific enough or edgy enough or responsible enough to satisfy self-appointed critics. Family and friends can get into your head — out of concern for your well-being, the need to right your wrongs, snark, jealousy, or the need to put you in your place. If your work goes out into the world, complete strangers will troll you. Sometimes, they’ll carry the title of critics. Peers and would-be mentors and teachers may also undercut your confidence, challenging your skills, talents, and choices. It can drag your writing down and even block you. The solution is compartmentalize this unhelpful guidance, which may mean removing topics of conversation or ending contact with some people.

A self-inflicted wound is comparing yourself to other writers. Often this means comparing your work to completed, edited work, which is crazy. As is jealousy of others’ success. You are not competing with anyone. Only you can tell your stories, and no one has complete control over how their stories are received.

Allied to this topic is concern about a lack of credentials, whether that means education or perspectives (as in writing from the point of view of another race or sex). This only (possibly) matters for nonfiction. For the rest, you may make mistakes, but, as long as you write with integrity, your expertise and identity will not trump the authenticity of your endeavor.

I feel every criticism and clutch the negative ones with both hands. / When I pay attention to others’ views of my work or my career, I explore the comments dispassionately and make changes in response to the very few that are important and resonate with me.
How did you do? Looking at the low scores, do any of them hint at what might need attention? Do the statements on the right suggest solutions to you? And not to make this all negative, are some of your high scores indicative of strengths that will help you reach your ambitions?

Sadly, there are clinical issues that can hold people back. Writers frequently suffer from depression, attention deficit, and obsession with perfection. Outside forces, like illness, injury, poverty, being a care provider, and legal problems can stymie a career. These do not have easy answers, and they usually require the help of an expert.

There also seem to be many people who are enthusiastic about the idea of being writers or having things written, but who don’t actually have writing as part of their lives. Some have no idea what the actual job is comprised of (even if they have taken dozens of courses). They either don’t write or write only when they are inspired. If you’re one of these people, perhaps this test was entertaining, but I doubt it will motivate you to move from aspirations to actions.

But my hope is that for many writers, this test will indicate where brainstorming new approaches to writing will lead to action that leads to greater success.