May 28, 2010

A Healthy Balance

by Tanya Parker Mills

I have an appointment with my orthopedist this morning to find out what exactly is wrong with my left shoulder and what can be done to help it function fully again (preferably without pain). Over the last two years, I've suffered injuries to the right side of my body--a broken bone just below my right shoulder and a ruptured Achilles tendon--and I joked, at the time, that I would doubtless begin to break down on this other side in 2010. Needless to say, I'm not laughing now.

Whether this turns out to be arthritis (Come I really that old?) or something else, I've gained a new appreciation for physical balance in my life. When one joint or limb becomes less useful, a person tends to make up for it by overworking its partner on the other side. That, in turn, can become a kind of weakness.

Is it so different in our writing? I will admit, here and now, that one of my biggest weaknesses in writing is describing setting. Why? Because I have never taken the time to learn enough about nature--all the flora and fauna that add so much color to a scene. Rather than boning up on it, I squeak by with a rather spare description and, instead, concentrate on my perceived strengths: dialogue, pacing, etc. As a result, my sense of setting grows weaker and weaker...just like my left shoulder.

I'm certain the doctor today will prescribe some form of painful therapy and that is probably what I need to undertake in my writing, as well. Sometimes, writing is painful--hard, labored, and requiring extra concentration, and study. But if our goal is to be published, we must put in all the time and effort required.

I learned what is required during a "webinar" (online seminar) sponsored by Writers Digest yesterday with literary agent Rachelle Gardner. One of the many things she noted during the 90-minute session was what she looks for in any author's opening pages. She basically looks for strong story, strong voice, and strong craft. She went into more detail regarding each of those aspects, but honing in on the latter, she mentioned all of the following:

  • Characterization
  • Dialogue
  • Pacing
  • Scene-crafting
  • Dramatic structure
  • Sensory details and strong verbs
  • Few adverbs
  • Avoiding backstory
  • Showing, not telling
  • Single point of view per scene

Do our first few pages of our works in progress reflect all of those things? If not, they need to. To get our writing noticed by an agent or editor these days when they are being bombarded by hundreds (and sometimes thousands, depending on the agent) of queries each day, we need a healthy balance in those first few pages, if not the entire body of our work.


  1. While I feel sad that you are in pain, Tanya, I appreciate your insightful analogy. Thank for the list, too. Great post!

  2. Thanks, it turns out, it's not arthritis (at least, not yet), but the orthopedist said something's most likely impinging on my rotator cuff. He gave me a cortisone shot so hopefully the pain will subside in a couple of days.

    Too bad we can't just get a shot of "voice" or "setting," etc.

  3. Tanya,
    Thanks for sharing. I hate shots, but I'd take one if it helped with pacing, etc.
    I must admit the cortisone shots I've gottne in my heel were well worth it. That cortisone is good stuff in moderation.
    Terry D.

  4. Wow, that was a great list. I want to keep a score sheet and after my last edit, go through that list again to double check. Great insight and hope they find an answer. (I hate incurable conditions, blah.)

  5. Tanya,
    I can't wait to sit down with you and talk about this webinar. I listen, but you assimilate and process. I learn so much when I hear you talk about what you got out of a class that I also just attended.
    Great posting.
    I think I'm a too-much-scenery person.

  6. I hope you get feeling better. It is hard to concentrate when you are in pain.

    I really appreciate you sharing your insights. Now I just have to apply them.

  7. Thank you for the list and analogy--and the reminder of having strong first pages. Hope you are feeling better.


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