I think, when first starting out as a writer, one of the hardest things is figuring out what you can write. I mean, obviously you have the freedom to put whatever words on the page you want, but I’m talking about the stuff that you actually do well. Not every author goes through this journey, of course, some of you lucky bastards out there can work in all manner of styles and genres without losing a step. But, for many of us, writing is as much a process of elimination as it is of discovery. Not everyone writes everything well, and the process of finding the stuff you like and have the knack for is one of the most important parts in getting books off the ground.
Since you all know I love to work with examples, and this is just such a good one to shake the shit-stick at, my first attempt at a book captures this well. I’ve mentioned this project before, but for those of you who missed those posts, the general summary is that it was fuuuuucking awful. Mary Sue protagonist, so many tropes, written in (sigh) first person present. It was garbage, which is why it will never see the light of day. But, bad as it was, I don’t regret it, because it was a valuable learning experience.
The book came from the same place as most people’s first attempts, trying to model my stuff after works I enjoyed. In my case, it was Dresden Files, so I tried to write a gritty, magical-urban adventure. Now let me stop for a minute and make something clear: there is absolutely nothing wrong with trying to write in a genre you admire. In fact, I’m sure it’s how a lot of our favorite books have come into existence. You see something you love, and you want to add more of it to the world. That’s fantastic, and should be encouraged. The reason I’m holding up this example is because of how spectacularly bad I was at it.
Strange as it might be to say, what we love to read and what we write well aren’t always the same. I used to read mysteries all the time, and in fact I’ve had an idea for a mystery series for years, but every attempt has floundered because I can’t write a normal one, and haven’t found a way to approach it in my own style that works. Similarly, I still love the gritty action of Dresden Files, but over time I’ve learned that’s just not a style I can do well. My characters are always too snarky, and I like playing odd situations for humor more than blood when given the chance. I’ve learned to write some action, obviously, but I have to approach it in a very different way than when trying to create that sort of piece.
Back to the example of my first ever attempt at a book, after a few weeks of writing I realized that what I was churning out was pretty much awful. But, instead of casting it away completely, I reread through the thing, looking to see if there were any bright spots in it. And low and behold, I found that in the scenes I had where a pair of best friends were hanging out by themselves, trading quips and having fun, the dialogue actually wasn’t terrible. The bits I’d thrown in as comedic relief to dial down the pacing were the only parts that showed a little bit of hope. Not enough to save the project, mind you, but enough to steer me in a new direction.
While I couldn’t write in the genre I tried to start in, that didn’t mean I couldn’t write at all. Figuring out that I was okay at humor, and enjoyed writing it, led me to try and develop my talents by working on something a little more in my league. Which was how my first web-serial, No More Ramen, came into being.
Now this isn’t me saying to find only the genres you’re best at and never stray from them. As Super Powereds alone indicates, I eventually did go back to writing some action along with my humor. What finding your style, your best strengths, gives you is a safe place to work from. It lets you stretch your limits, playing with new things until you get the hang of them, while still having the solid parts to carry you through.
I’ve talked a lot before about knowing your weaknesses as a writer (*cough* my editing *cough*) but it’s equally important to know your strengths. Figuring out your style is the key to knowing what areas you need to work at, and which you can trust in. Plus, it lets you approach projects you might not normally pull off from an angle that can work. Remember I said in the beginning that I realized I couldn’t do urban magical action? Well, that was true then, but after a few years I thought that it might be in my wheelhouse if I came at it through satire and an unheroic protagonist, thus, Fred the Vampire Accountant.
Bottom line, when you start off things will be tough, again unless you’re just one of those naturally talented jerks. Just remember that failing on one project doesn’t mean you lack talent, it might mean you started in the wrong genre. And no project, no matter how awful it might seem, is a complete waste of time. If you’re willing to dig through them with an objective eye, you can get a good sense of where you’re strong, where you’re weak, and maybe, if you’re lucky, what direction your second attempt should be in.
Just keep at it, because once you do find the style that fits you, a whole world of possibilities opens up.