Playing My Hand

A long while ago at a convention, a panel proposed the idea that all the aspects of writing comprise a deck of cards, and as writers we’re dealt certain cards—our talents, strengths, what have you. The panel took a positive about the whole damn idea. Both in proudly, boldly! stating their talents. And in discussing ways they’ve handled story issues by playing to their strengths and disguising weaknesses.

Despite being all about gathering more ways to disguise weaknesses, that conversation, as most conversations do, caused in me rising panic. Must acquire ALL THE CARDS. Look at everyone’s else’s card-laden hands, look at the two or three tattered cards in my hands. Oops, I dropped one. Shit, it got wet. And now it’s blowing across the pavement.

To kill panic, voice a little bit of gratitude. I may have only a few cards: dialogue, evocative word choice, description. But, I’m really, really good at those. Even from the get-go. Stories written in the 7th grade, fan fic posted circa 2001. And to double-down on the gratitude, I’ve also improved in those areas.

So, there’s comfort in knowing that we are not passive recipients of these cards. We are not blessed once by the talent gods and then forgotten. Cards can be given, earned, lost, defaced, gilded, traded. After years of writing and studying craft, trialing and tribulating, I’ve earned a few more cards. Grammar, though I lose it often. Story pacing, though I forget to play it in the first couple of drafts. Story tension, though that one tends to get stuck to the back of the forgotten structure card.

Some cards, despite lots work of equal effort, still elude me. I will never plot well on the first draft. Writing quickly is a NaNoWrimo only trick. My characters will always choose navel gazing and flashbacks over just doing something—especially if that something involves a transition.

For those problems I’ve resigned myself to simply giving myself time enough to work through them. The plot will bend and break in cool ways over multiple drafts. If I keep plunking down 300 words per writing session—even while seething in jealousy over others plopping down 2,500 words in the same session—I’ll eventually get a finished story. Navel gazing and flashbacks can be edited out or moved elsewhere, so all the reader sees is the heroine, elegantly, uniquely, timeless-prosedly crossing the room and opening the door.

And now, I’ve begun musing about the cards themselves. It’s modern human nature to want all the cards. But do we need all the cards? Worldbuilding is important to a writer of epic fantasy. For a writer of contemporary lit short stories, maybe not so much.
Except, maybe it is. The New York of “Girls” is very different from the New York of “Law and Order”, “Jessica Jones”, “Seinfeld”, and “Mr. Robot”. Maybe there’s a sub-set of cards within the card. Like, the epic fantasy worldbuilder deploys his skill to make her worlds seem huge and wondrous and all-encompassing. And the contemporary lit short story writer has succinctness and naturalism within her worldbuilding skills. Oh Lord, save me from going down this rabbit hole.

Or maybe having one card creates proficiency in other aspects. When I knuckled down on grammar, sentence structure and the advice to vary your sentence structure, became easier. Gaining the grammar card leveled up my skills on story flow, expanded my repertoire of storytelling techniques, gave expression to non-dialogue aspects of my writing. Having the grammar card even improved the richness of critiques I received. Instead of wading through grammar mistakes, my readers could focus on the story, and their feedback centered on that instead of quickie reminders on verb tenses of lay/lie.

Of course, unfortunately, the opposite must bear some truth too. Weakness in one area weakens the whole. Dialogue can bear some of the work of story momentum, but not all of it. Description complements worldbuilding but can’t substitute entirely for it.

Which brings up the question: Is it better to have middle ground skills in ALL THE CARDS, or to hold a few superstars? I’m going to write until I find out.

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