Aliette de Bodard has won the BSFA Award for Best Short Fiction, as well as Writers of the Future. She has also been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula and Campbell Award. Her Aztec mystery-fantasies, Servant of the Underworld, Harbinger of the Storm, and the forthcoming Master of the House of Darts, are published by Angry Robot, worldwide. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in a number of venues, such as Interzone, Realms of Fantasy, Asimov’s, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction.
Everyone has strengths and weaknesses–not only characters but writers, too. We have natural abilities, as well as things we are less good at: when I started out, I could effortlessly plot–the rhythm of a story was something I could understand instinctively, and I had very little trouble with pacing my stories. I had, however, very little eye for a smaller kind of rhythm, the one found in sentences; and it took me several years of reading Ursula Le Guin, Patricia McKillip and various English poets before I could understand the basic musicality of the language.
Strengths and weaknesses do not remain static: I used to have lots of trouble with exposition, struggling to remove infodumps from my narration, and to offer up information to the reader at a point where they needed it. Writing story after story, and being critiqued, led me to becoming better and better at exposition. It is very clear to me when I pull out early stories such as the very first Obsidian and Blood ones: “Obsidian Shards” has a very complex background, but exposition is delivered in large chunks, at a time in the narration when the reader needs it. This ensures that the relevant information is present, but it’s a clumsy technique. By contrast, when I wrote the last Obsidian and Blood book, Master of the House of Darts (more than four years after writing “Obsidian Shards”), I handled exposition in more subtle and fluid ways: I inserted worldbuilding into the way my characters breathed and thought, touched up my dialogue with typical expressions from the Aztec culture, and broke up descriptions into smaller chunks that brought atmosphere to a scene without overwhelming it. It’s evident, looking at both pieces of writing side by side, that in four years I have progressed immeasurably as a writer, by adding to my strengths.
What about my weaknesses? Of course I still have them. My dialogue often sounds clunky (a side-effect of not living in an Anglophone country); I struggle with scenes that have large groups of characters (just, as, in real life, I have trouble inserting myself into a conversation which has too many participants); and some scenes, such as action scenes, or scenes with outright conflict and outright hostility, make me as uncomfortable to write as they make me in real life.
I am, of course, ever working to improve them–but, of late, I’ve become more appreciative of my weaknesses–just as I’ve become more appreciative of stories with weaknesses. I don’t mean weak as badly executed; which is a matter of craft; but weak on some aspects. I suppose what I would call a “perfect” story would be a balanced one, with strong characters, strong worldbuilding, and strong plot. It would also be… not a bland story, but what I tend to think of as the “bowl of everything” stories. This is in part derived from my cooking experience: I can put lots of strong-tasting ingredients in a bowl–individually, they all bring a lot of flavour to the dishes they’re put in. Collectively, however… you very often end up with a sort of sludge where all those ingredients cancel out, and the result is of indifferent quality.
Similarly, stories that are strong on everything tend to come across, in my experience, as a bit bland; and that’s because they can end up lacking a focal point: strong characters focus the story on inter-personal relationships, strong worldbuilding encourages “travelogue” types of plot, where the wonders of the author’s universe are displayed to the reader; and strong plot focuses on punchy sequences of events. You can seldom have all of it in the same story, and have it not be an unholy mess.
Orson Scott Card talks about Milieu, Idea, Character and Event stories (focused respectively on travelogue, extrapolation of a given technology, character and plot): I wouldn’t be quite so rigid in classifications (I’m a really bad classifier), but it is true that I have found my own stories have to have some kind of focus in order to work. The Obsidian and Blood series, for instance, is really focuse on both worldbuilding and plot: I don’t spend as much time on building the characters, because if I were to give you, say, a detailed account of Teomitl’s love life and how he manages his crushes on a beautiful Aztec dancer with his relationship with Mihmatini, it would overwhelm the narration. Things have got to be measured and in service to the effect I seek to achieve with the plot; which in turn means I can’t have everything at top level.
All of this means that I don’t have to be strong on everything to write a strong book. I am a much better worldbuilder than I am at interpersonal relationships or action scenes; and I tend to write stories that are focused on excellent worldbuilding, and less on outright conflict and fighting. Similarly, I read writers because of one or two defining characteristics: I read Patricia McKillip for her beautiful prose, but less for her action-laden scenes; I read Isaac Asimov for his wonderful ideas, but not for his poetic prose. And yet they both produce or produced strong and memorable books.
So, yes, this is a clever way of saying that I’ve learnt to play to my strengths and ignore my weaknesses; but it also go a bit further. I have learnt to embrace my weaknesses, because they make my stories truly shine.
What about you? Do you know what are your strengths and weaknesses as a writer? How do you diminish them? How do you put the different elements of a story together?