2016 Writing Self-Critique: Leveling Up My Craft, Process and Production

I’m at the stage in my writing where my expectations for myself are higher than my abilities, and I’m working hard to improve my writing quality and output to catch up. Awareness is the first step to improvement, so I believe it’s worthwhile to complete a writing self-critique. I looked for patterns of challenge areas in my writing craft, process, and production to identify ways I can improve. In 2015 I completed a self-evaluation of my writing to get a snapshot of my writing abilities, but I’ve learned a lot in the past year and my challenge areas have changed.

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2016 Writing Report: What and How I Wrote

What I Wrote in 2016

  • Wrote about 129,000 new words of fiction (53k on my novel, 70k on my comic project, 5k on a short story, and 1k on a flash)
  • Finally reached “The End” of a first draft for the first time, at 188,000 words
  • Wrote one new short story and one new flash piece
  • Wrote a zero draft of what will become a comic script for NaNoWriMo in November, 70,500 words

Craft: Storytelling and Prose Skills

I focused on the challenges I identified in my 2015 writing self-evaluation, and tackled a couple of my common problems head-on.

  • I created a chapter analysis worksheet (download Word template (.dotx)) for my novel that forces me to specifically respond to my challenge area of lacking sensory details, clarify the purpose of each chapter, and hone in on the POV character’s motivations and goals.
  • I removed one of the POV characters in my WIP novel.
  • When doing text-level edits, I pay special attention to dialogue blocking and gerunds.

Production: The Physical Act of Writing

  • 253 hours of active writing time, in Scrivener, according to RescueTime – an average of about 40 minutes a day.
  • Set a(n audacious) goal of writing for 1.5 hours daily – I wrote (or drew / designed) for at least 1.5 hours on 106 days
  • Met my writing group three times a week
  • Leveraged community energy by participating in NaNoWriMo and Camp NaNo
  • Tried a competition spreadsheet with my writing group that rewards you for maintaining a streak – I didn’t find it successful because it didn’t acknowledge the different goals that we had, and the one person with really high word counts made everyone else less inspired to continue
  • Used Pomodoro Technique of 25 minute writing stretches (recently started using Cuckoo after Tomato.ist died) – I was much better at this early in the year and fell out of the habit towards the end of the year
  • Used RescueTime to stop myself from spending too much time on social media and to give me reminders to track my progress.

Writing Process: Techniques, Tools and Steps

  • Submitted short stories 20 times (that’s less than in 2015), following one of my 2016 goal “philosophies”: to share my work
  • Wrote my NaNoWriMo draft, which will eventually become a graphic novel, as a zero draft. It includes art direction, description, character blocking, panel ideas, some key dialogue, and, of course, what happens in the story.
  • Used paper for brainstorming and editing, Excel for outlining, Scrivener for drafting and revising, and Word for initial drafts and final editing of short stories

Classes i took and Books I read

2016 Writing Self-Critique

Craft Challenge Areas

  • Storytelling remains my greatest writing challenge. I haven’t employed established structures, wanting to tell a different type of story, but my writing suffers for it. I’m coming to terms with try/fail cycles, and I’m trying out the heroine’s journey for one of my novel’s POV characters.
  • Initial character motivations – the very root of why the character has decided to act and launch the story – are missing in my first drafts.
  • Writing briefly. Everything I write is too long. My novel draft is almost 190,000 words, and needs to be closer to 120,000 per my research. My short stories veer into 7000+ words, when they need to be closer to 4000 if I want to sell them.
  • Realistic dialogue. My characters are big on talking through their problems, instead of avoiding talking about them like real people usually do.
  • Over-blocking during character exchanges. Nearly every piece of dialogue is accompanied with character movement, in place of dialogue tags (this is a continuing challenge area from last year’s assessment).
  • Outlining. Although I create outlines (in excel) for my novel and longer works, I find myself wishing I had spent more time developing sequences. I often will reach a scene description that calls for two characters to “argue”. About what? Screw you, past self. My outlines tend to push forward a little too aggressively as I reach for the ending, leaving the middles weak.
  • Middles. I (mostly) know the beginning and the ending of the stories I want to write, but I struggle at connecting them (especially doing so quickly).
  • Gerunds. I love them, apparently. Someone needs to take -ing away from me.
  • Titles. I’m terrible at titles.

Production Challenge Areas

  • I want to get back into using Pomodoro timed writing sessions, which are especially effective for me. I may try out some other tools designed for tracking writing output besides my Excel spreadsheet.
  • While I’m trying to write better, I’d also like to write faster. Most of the short stories I’ve written are on hiatus from submission because I’ve learned more about storytelling and need to revise them. Some new story ideas are on hold because I haven’t made time for writing outside my novel. I need to figure out a way to balance novel and short story writing, as well as drafting new text and editing / plotting / outlining. I’d like to submit more short stories in 2017.
  • I think I need to create a daily writing habit, where I write at the same time each day. Currently, I don’t have a set schedule for the days I’m not at my writing group.

Process Challenge Areas

  • I want to become more confident in my ability to evaluate my own work. I consider my prose functional, and never expect to write beautiful words – so I’m always a bit fearful when I make an attempt to “class up” my prose. I thought I was decent at natural dialogue, so it shattered my confidence in my judgment when the Fairhaven Writer’s Workshop said my dialogue is ‘on the nose.’ I’m not sure how to get here. I should have more people read my work. Continuing to read short stories and briefly evaluate them will help me learn about short form storytelling and spot shortfalls in others’ work, which hopefully will make it easier to spot them in my own work.
  • I’m revising my novel’s first draft. I removed a POV character and re-outlined a good portion of the book to beef up the character motivations at the beginning and clean up the middle. I’m also shortening it by combining scenes. I’m drooling to get my red pen on the prose level, but first I need to write the new scenes outlined. I. Can’t. Wait. Then, once I do a prose-level sweep, I can finally share it with beta readers. That had better happen in 2017.
  • I’ll work on outlining in more depth, perhaps applying my Chapter Analysis Worksheet (.dotx) at the outlining stage instead of after the fact.

Writing Successes

nanowrimo-2016-stats

  • Reaching “The End” of my novel draft was a major accomplishment for me. I’ve always left the middle incomplete, so I’ve never had a draft someone else could read without blanks. I’m proud of myself for pushing through last spring, even though it took months longer than anticipated.
  • I tried out some fun tones on a few short stories, experimenting with weird west and steampunk.
  • I imagine epic, complex stories. Though I’m daunted, I’m telling the stories I want to, not just ones I feel comfortable telling.
  • This NaNoWriMo, I started writing a graphic novel. Even the zero draft required a different type of writing and thinking. My artistic chops may not be up to the massive scope of a graphic novel, but I at least plan to convert the zero draft into a script.
  • I persevered through an emotionally challenging NaNoWriMo with a relatively consistent pace and finished with more words than last year.
  • I identified a consistent storytelling problem: a poorly explained (and thought-through) “why” behind the main character’s desires at the beginning.
  • My chapter analysis worksheet helped me proceed when staring at my Excel outline wasn’t making progress.
  • I’m using a technique from the Clarion West classes: free-writing 4-5 versions of the story’s beginning, middle, or end to push for more creative solutions.

What were your writing or creative successes this year? What challenges do you want to work on next year?

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About Tracy Durnell

Seattle-area graphic designer and SFF writer inspired by the Pacific Northwest, crafting a sustainable and intentional life.

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