How to Measure Growth As A Writer

Writing is art and craft. As such, many areas of writing have an unnerving subjectivity to them. Anyone who has tried to submit a manuscript to agents will confirm this—some will like it, some will not. So how do you know if you’re getting any better as a writer?

Really, the only true yardstick you can use is seeing if your writing today is stronger than your writing last year, last month, last week. Comparing yourself to others is a recipe for angst, frustration, and despair. But even you comparing yourself to yourself can be subjective—we are often blind to our own faults and judge ourselves more harshly than a stranger.

Another way is to find people you trust to give you honest feedback. Hopefully, they will be able to point out where you have grown as a writer, and where you still need work. If these are people well-schooled in craft, you can be somewhat reassured that you are moving in the right direction.

I found one other way to measure my journey. Donald Maass’ Writing The Breakout Novel Workbook. This book, for those who don’t know, walks you through exercises to deepen character, enhance plot, polish themes, and many more aspects of craft to improve your book.

I have used the Workbook in my process for my last 3 manuscripts, and I am currently using it to improve my WIP. The first time I used this book, I remember that every exercise made me gasp, “Why didn’t I think of that?” or “Why didn’t I do that? It seems so obvious!” So the revisions that I came away with were extensive—but much needed.

This time through, however, I am finding that some of the exercises are already complete, in that I did it in this manuscript already, without prompting. There’s still a lot I need to do to up my game with this manuscript, but finding those parts I already did made me happy. It means I am incorporating the lessons from Maass (and others) into my subconscious process. Hopefully this will mean stronger first drafts, which will mean fewer revisions, which will mean faster completion times—without sacrificing quality.

So that is one objective way you can measure if you are improving your craft—if you find that the writing books you use are telling you things that you have already done.

How do you measure growth as a writer?

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Villains and Writers: Why is it so hard to be evil?

One of the things I often read on agent and editor blogs is that the antagonist in a manuscript isn’t strong enough. That they are cardboard, nebulous, and somehow not as threatening as they should be. I’ll admit I struggle with my antagonists. Obviously, I am not alone. But why is it so hard?

I think it’s because most of us are decent people. We can’t fathom hurting others or blocking some event that is clearly a good thing for humanity. Sure, we all have our moments of making rude gestures to other drivers, or using words we don’t want our 2-year-old overhearing, or even thinking some very vengeful thoughts. But for most of us it stops there. The darkness we all have inside of us scares us to death.

When I see someone like the Colorado shooter, I cannot fathom his thinking. Sometimes with bad guys, you can see where they’re coming from, see how they are damaged emotionally, see how they think what they’re doing is the right thing. But by all accounts, this shooter had everything going for him. And yet he killed 12 people in cold blood. How do you get inside the head of someone like that? How do you write someone like that believably?

The key, as I alluded above, is to know their damage. When writing a villain, we must remember that he has his reasons for doing what he’s doing. And they make sense to him. He is the hero of his own story, and he believes HE is the one doing the right thing.

We as the writer must know the emotional driver behind our bad guy’s thinking, his actions. Only by letting the reader understand this will our bad guy gain the strength he needs to be a gripping antagonist. I think accessing the darkness inside terrifies a lot of writers. We don’t like to think it’s inside us. And once we unleash it for a book, can we put the genie back in the bottle?

While you may discover some uncomfortable truths about yourself during this process, writing the antagonist doesn’t need to be so gut-wrenching a process.

I have found some guidance by using Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. Maass walks you through the antagonist’s world. Outline the story from the bad guy’s POV. Justify his actions using literature, mythology, law. Justify them in such a way that for just a moment your hero can actually AGREE with the villain. In other words, don’t just understand WHAT the bad guy does in your story, but understand WHY.

How do you approach your antagonists? Do you ever scare yourself?

Using the Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook

I’m currently about 2 revisions into one of my middle grade books. It’s about this time, when I know my characters and have worked out the kinks in my plot, that I turn to Donald MaassWriting the Breakout Novel Workbook. This is only the second time I have used it, and I am having a heck of a lot of fun with it!

The workbook forces me to look at my novel from different perspectives. It can help pinpoint problems I didn’t know you had, and point out my strengths as well. I thought I knew my characters well? Think again. Thought my plot was as strong as could be? Think again. Using the workbook is humbling, frustrating—and exciting!

It’s humbling because I find out how much about my novel I didn’t know. Because it shows me how much I have to learn about the craft of writing. I will admit that there are a few chapters where I simply do not know how to do what he is asking. I understand what he wants—I can clearly see it in the examples he uses. But I have no idea how to find appropriate moments in my own work, and even if I could locate them, I wouldn’t know how to do what he suggests. But I will learn.

Mostly, I find using the book exciting! It stirs the creative pot and sets it boiling. I start seeing the book with different eyes, and my brain begins making all sorts of new connections. I know immediately that most of the new ideas bubbling up are better than what I have, will strengthen what I have, and will elevate the end product.

So where’s the frustrating, you ask? I end up with SO MANY new ideas! Volume of ideas is not bad, mind you. It is precisely these new ideas that make using the book so exciting. The problem comes when I look at all the new ideas and contemplate putting them into practice. It’s not the doing that I find daunting—it’s finding the TIME for doing this major revision.

Like many writers, Time is a four-letter word for me. When I look at the amount of revising I will need to do on this book, I don’t see how I’m going to get it all done before my toddler graduates high school. I despair sometimes that I will be the first 90-year-old debut middle grade author in history.

But then I gather myself. I remind myself that even though I have 6 pages of typed notes and a copybook with even more hand written, all I need to do is focus on one change at a time. Do one thing at a time and eventually I will see the end of the road. I have done it before, I can do it now.

By cutting that daunting revision down to size, the despair lifts, and I am left with the excitement I started with. New ideas, new connections, new depth…

I can’t wait to dive in!

Do you use the Breakout Novel Workbook–or a similar book? Has it helped you?

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