Jilly: Play to Your Strengths

Think about your favorite authors. What are the hallmarks of their writing? Jenny Crusie writes fabulous, snappy, snarky dialogue. Loretta Chase is the goddess of subtext—she’s brilliant at creating powerful emotional bonds between her heroes and heroines, who hide their feelings behind carefully constructed facades that fracture at the perfect, critical, moment.

What about you? In your writing, or any other aspect of your creativity, or your life in general, do you know what your strengths are? If you’re anything like me, I bet you’d find it far easier to list what you’re not good at, where you need to improve, where others have a skill that far surpasses yours.

I may have mentioned that we’ve been in Builder Purgatory chez Jilly for the last four weeks. We’ve been undergoing insurance-related house repairs, and we’ve had to use the loss adjuster’s preferred contractor rather than our usual Polish crew. To put it politely, the appointed builder and I have had our differences. I have no idea what the construction equivalent of spitting in the soup may be, but I’ll bet he did it. Me? I’ve been trying to write, but when the rage became too strong, I’ve been self-medicating by watching the tennis. Thank goodness for Wimbledon.

The sight of the All England Lawn Tennis Club is an immediate de-stressor—manicured green grass courts, players in immaculate white clothing, and not an advertisement in sight—unless you’re a competitor. For the players and their entourages, Wimbledon fortnight is a huge deal. Everyone wants to do well here. The standard is incredibly high, even in qualifying.

That got me to thinking. Firstly, what does it take to become a champion when everyone in the tournament plays astonishingly well? And secondly, why do I love to watch some players, even though I know they will likely never win the whole event, and why am I secretly glad when some players lose, because they’re really good but their play doesn’t excite me at all?

I think the answer to the first question is that nobody becomes a great champion purely by having solid all-round skills. The greatest players are those who are much better than the rest at some particular aspect of the game. They aren’t the best at everything, and they don’t all have the same superlative skill. Some have an amazing serve. Some are great returners or counterpunchers. Some have incredible power, others have great touch. The key thing is that the top players identify their strongest skill and hone it until it becomes a game-changer.

Imo the answer to the second question is pretty much the same. Players who will probably never reach the highest levels, but who are fascinating to watch, also have amazing super-skills. The problem is that they also have super-weaknesses that mean that while they’re capable of having a good day or two, they don’t have the consistency to put together a winning streak over a whole tournament.

A further thought is that different skills are more effective in different conditions, which means particular players have a better chance to succeed at specific tournaments. A superfast serve can make a player unbeatable on a really fast court. A slow surface may be more suited to a counterpuncher.

Told you that to tell you this: it occurred to me that it’s the same with writing. We all know what our weaknesses are and we work hard to fix them. Some of mine are: I often don’t do enough to establish place and time, I don’t give enough description to enable a reader to visualize the scene, and I need to do better at using word choices to strengthen and enrich my world and story. Ask me what my strengths are, and I’m not sure I could tell you. I don’t evaluate whether my style would be more suited to sweet or suspenseful stories, and I’ve never worked on reinforcing my strongest qualities to make my stories memorable and distinctive.

I *think* I may have made a positive change, quite by accident, in that beta readers seem to enjoy my off-beat imagination and world-building. Those fantastic qualities combined with my sometimes eccentric, Brit-sounding vocabulary make my writing potentially a good fit for the fantasy romance sub-genre I switched to last year. I hope so, anyway 😉 .

I feel strangely uncomfortable trying to focus on my writing strengths, but I think it’s something I need to do. My immediate plan is to go back over every contest feedback form and beta reader report I ever received and make a summary of all the positive feedback. Then I’ll see if I can identify some commonalities and consider how I can actively strengthen those qualities in my writing.

What about you? Do you know your superpower(s)? Do you work to develop them?

10 thoughts on “Jilly: Play to Your Strengths

  1. As one of your beta readers, I think your strengths include:
    o You write great action scenes and you create really likeable characters.
    o Your males characters manage to combine alpha traits and nurturer traits, which is unique and tough to pull off.
    o Your female characters are extraordunarily strong, yet somehow unaware of that trait, which makes them intriguging.

    As a writer for whom you beta-read, I also know that you’re really good at focusing on the logical chain of events that take a character from one psychological place to another. You keep your eyes on the prize, which makes your fiction really cohesive and believable, pulling us into your world.

    Years ago, one of my employers became fascinated with a personality test developed by the Gallup folks. Called the Strengthsfinders Assessment, the test purports to identify people’s 5 greatest strengths from a list of 34 strengths they compiled through tens of thousands of interviews. The theory behind the test is what you discussed above–that people go from good to great, not by focusing on remedying our weaknesses (although some sort of mitigation strategy is necessary), but by improving on our strengths until they become extra-ordinary. The example they gave was Tiger Woods. Back in the day, he was the best driver in the sport. His putting was only so-so, but he worked on it only enough to keep from losing tournaments on his short game. His focus was on his long game, and it paid off (at least until his personal character flaws eventually destroyed his career, but that’s a topic for a separate blog post).

    I took that test, as did everybody in the company. The Gallup folks identified my strengths as:
    1) Input–Deeply inquisitive, I collect information.
    2) Connectedness–I’m good at identifying patterns and connections.
    3) Ideation–I’m fascinated by ideas and concepts.
    4) Learner–I love the process of learning. For me, the process itself is more important to me than the topic.
    5) Intellection–I like to think.

    At the time I took the test, I was a new manager, struggling to step up to that challenging role. When I got my results back, I was disgusted. Where my peers got “Maximizer” and “Positivity” and “Competition” and other useful corporate traits, my list suggested I was best qualified to become Hesse’s Siddharta (“I can sit. I can fast. I can think.”). Over time, though, I realized this is a writer’s profile (Communication fell sixth or seventh).

    More than that, it’s who I am.

    • Thank you for kick-starting my ‘strengths’ list, Jeanne–that’s extremely helpful.

      Very interesting about your Strengthsfinder assessment–I’d say they got you spot on. You also reminded me that I went through a series of psychometric tests back in my early corporate days. I remember being a little uncomfortable with how clearly they pinpointed me. I’m pretty sure I still have those reports in my files somewhere. I should dig them out and see if I can find any golden nuggets in there.

  2. I love your plan for identifying strengths, Jilly. I think I need to try that, as well. I know that, at least in my contemporary work, I rely on the snarky/snappy dialogue. In fact, in one of our class submissions, Jenny commented that I was great at it, but was perhaps over-snarking. When Jenny Crusie says dial down the snark, it’s really time to dial down the snark :-). Or at least balance it with other stuff like introspection (okay, fine, I’ll try it), description (bleh; do I have to?), and the ever-necessary bodies in motion (of course).

    Lots of great food for thought here. Thanks for getting me thinking and motivated on a Sunday morning!

    • Thinking and motivated, Nancy–then my work is done 😀

      I’m with you on description (double bleh). And gosh, if Jenny thought you were over-snarking, that must have been one super-snarky scene!

  3. I think strengths and weaknesses are two sides of the same coin. In my writing, I’m bad at conflict and good at lightness. I’m bad at emotions and good at—guess what?—lightness. As writers, we can use that to build characters. Got a take-charge guy? He probably doesn’t listen well. But developing our best skill into a super power? I can try. But I’ll need more than lightness.

    • Well, you can’t deny the world could use a little lightness right now.

      I think you have a great knack for finding offbeat characters and blending them together in a fun and enjoyable way. And I think community is your superpower–not just the obvious links (family, neighbors), but the wider human networks of real life–old ties and new friends, lovers, colleagues, vendors, bartenders, community officials. That’s a huge strength , imo 😉

  4. (-: Before I look at the comments, I’ll tell you what I think your strengths are: you can set a scene beautifully, with lots of glam and glitter. And you write engrossing characters who I care about.

    I think you make a great point about super-strengths and super-weaknesses. If we can bring our weaknesses up to a bearable level, maybe the super-strengths can consistently carry the day.

    I find myself at a complete loss to judge my work for strengths or weaknesses. I know what I like doing, and what I don’t like doing, but that’s about it — and that’s not the same as being good/bad at something.

    • Thank you very much, Micki! That’s very helpful plus a bonus hit of feelgood for a Monday morning!

      The more I think about it, the more I realize I’d buy a book for super-strengths. I’d prefer it not to have super-weaknesses, but I’d still choose that over something all-round solid.

      For me, your writing is full of the unexpected. You roam far and wide and I can never guess where you’re going to take your characters, but it’s always somewhere interesting. There’s a delicious bon-bon or Easter egg around every corner. Yum! As for weaknesses–my main ‘plaint would be that you don’t write enough ;-). You’re busy cleaning the house, teaching kids, mowing the grass, and learning the uke, and I’d like more stories, please!

      • Aw, Jilly, thanks! Just what I needed. Tuesday is my downest day of the week when I feel so blah, and I decided I was going to write 750 words each Tuesday. The alarm notification went off while I was driving to school, and I thought, “What in the world am I scheduled for?” Then I saw it was the 750 words and thought, “Oh, crap. I’m not prepared for this. Oh well. Soldier on.” So I’ll work on my super-weakness today, thanks with a nice boost from your words!

        I do love writing when it’s going well. I never know where I’m going either, and it’s so fun to stumble upon the next twist or turn!

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