Monday, January 23, 2012

The Perks of Being an Introverted Writer

by J. Lea Lopez

In my last post, I confessed that I am both shy and an introvert, explained the difference between the two, and talked about how those traits have created challenges for me as a writer. Today I'm back to talk about the positives.

There is nothing wrong with being an introvert, or being shy. Let's be clear about that. If there's some aspect of one of those things that causes you such distress or disadvantage that you decide you need to change it, that's great. Go for it. But introversion is simply a different way of thinking and behaving. It isn't something to be fixed. You might not realize that in today's society, where so much emphasis is placed on teamwork and being outgoing, despite the many benefits of quiet solitude. (For more on this, read this excellent article on the "New Groupthink" and the inherent bias against introvert tendencies.)

It's also important to understand that introverts, like extraverts, aren't all the same. My tendencies may differ from yours or anyone else's, even if we all present as introverted. There are calm introverts, but there are also impulsive introverts (just as there are both calm and anxious extraverts). I think some of the things I'll be talking about are fairly common experiences among introverts, but I'm talking about them from a strictly personal point of view.

So how does being an introvert help my writing?


I mentioned in the last post that many introverts hate small talk. I know I certainly do. One of my fellow introverts and writers, Ty Unglebower, spells out all the reasons why it makes us uncomfortable in this post. I share many of those feelings, and I also feel the same way about dialogue in writing. I tend to be as minimal as possible with dialogue, and I hate to waste a word. You won't catch my characters engaging in meaningless small talk, unless it's done as an effect - like it's obvious to the reader that one or more characters is talking just to hear themselves talk, or because they can't bear silence instead. In my opinion, every word of dialogue should be meaningful in some way or another. I pride myself on dialogue that is realistic but not real. I kind of obsess over it, in fact. If I write too many back-and-forth volleys of dialogue, my pinky finger gets a little twitchy over the backspace key. And not to sound too proud, but I have been complimented on my dialogue, so I guess my distaste for small talk is working for me.

Nuance and Subtext

I may not speak much in a group setting, but I listen. And I watch. And I connect dots other people might not even see. I'll notice how Janet's opinions always align with George's, and how she smiles when George calls her out for a good idea. I'll be the one who sees the game of footsie between George and Mary under the the conference room table, and I'll feel bad for Janet. More than just the non-verbal communication taking place between people in the room, I often hear subtext in what's being said, or how it's being said. By the end of a discussion, I could tell you not only what was said, but a little bit about the personalities of the people involved. George manipulates others to get his way. Janet is overly agreeable toward anyone who gives her praise. Mary is stone-faced, serious, and commands much of the conversation even as her under-the-table games with George inch away from G-rated and more towards R-rated. She's always in control, and she likes it.

I try to incorporate these different layers of action and meaning into my writing. There is a time for straightforward action and dialogue, but there is also a time and place for more nuanced, subtle clues. Sometimes one small detail, enlarged and given the right treatment, can change the way a scene reads.

I can write without writing

I live in my head, in my thoughts. Even in a crowded room, or at work, or driving in the car, I can be deep in thought about anything besides what's going on around me. So while being an introvert means I often take a long time to think before I speak (and therefore speak little), it is this same aspect that allows me to work out minute details of my stories before I ever set pen to paper. It takes me ages to write a first draft because I do so much think-writing and not nearly as much actual-writing. But once the first draft is done, it's pretty clean.

Some people pound out a first draft in four or five months, let it rest a bit, then spend another six or nine months (or more) revising, getting feedback, and editing through dozens of drafts. I'll take close to a year (sometimes more) just finishing the first draft, but that's often pretty close to how the final product will look. It's not necessarily a better method, just different. There are times where I wish I could knock out a draft in mere weeks, but I can't. I've finally decided that's OK and I don't beat myself up about it.

I'm cautious

I'm a fairly calm introvert, though I'm prone to moments of anxiety about certain things (which I think mostly stems from my shyness) and this is actually a good thing. It keeps me from jumping into things too fast, before I'm ready. Sure, maybe I could've sold lots of books last year if I had self-published then. But with the benefit of hindsight, I know now that I had ZERO clue about anything last year. I might've managed to put out a nice, well-formatted, clean e-book (or I might NOT), but I wouldn't have had any type of marketing strategy and would've hated trying to navigate the marketing aspect nearly blind. I probably would've been miserable.

I spent last year reading, absorbing, watching others with more knowledge and skill navigate their way through the new indie and traditional publishing realms. I also saw some people behave in ways that served as examples of what NOT to do. I learned a lot. Some of it assuaged certain fears and aggravated others. I'm in a place now where I feel I know enough to take the leap, and if I fail or succeed, I'm confident that I'll have done so to the best of my ability. Which brings me to my last point:

I want my word to have integrity.

I mean this both in the sense of honesty in the things I say and do, but also in the written words and stories I create. I've never had trouble changing the way I think, or my opinions on certain things when faced with evidence that speaks to me and points out the error of old ways. I want to bring this to my writing as well. If I get pretty unanimous and authentic feedback that something isn't working in my writing, I'll change it. If I fail, or if I succeed, I want it to be because of the choices I've made, and nothing else. Not because I kissed ass--or didn't. Not because I whored myself on Twitter despite feeling bad about it--or didn't. Not because I slept my way to the top--or didn't. (Seriously, that doesn't happen in writing/publishing, does it? Because if it does, let me know. My husband might make an exception to our vows if it means lots of money for us..... Kidding!) I feel about my success or failure with writing the same way I feel about my life in general: I'm responsible, no one else, and I will always strive to make good, honest, informed decisions and put out the best product I know how.

What are some of your own quirks or traits that have positively influenced your writing, even if they're otherwise considered negative traits by some?


Baur said...

I can be a bit introverted aswell, sometimes I just like to be alone. But there's advantages and disadvantages to every character trait :/

Jemi Fraser said...

Really, really interesting post, Jen! I'm pretty shy and introverted too. And I'm also an excellent observer of body language and can 'read' people really well. Definitely helps in my job as well as my writing :)

Joey Francisco said...

Very interesting post. I'm the exact opposite, but sometimes you know what? I won't feel like talking.

IMHO, I think most writers are very good and astute judges of character, and we are watchers. We notice little things around us, when the rest of the world might go "meh" and walk away.

In my profession, I read body language all day long. I can tell when someone is frightened, experiencing dread, or fears pain. It's in their eyes, how they hold their hands, and their posture.

ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) said...

I'm with everyone else - I am also most interested in the idea of the body language observation as well as tone and direction in people's voices. I am an introvert, but have never considered this aspect of that trait - or that it could show up in my writing.

I do, however, use this observational trait in one of my characters. He is asked by my MC at one point how he can tell when she's lying, and he describes how the tone of her voice shifts subtly - that is her primary "tell". Would my husband, the extrovert write a character this way? Perhaps not.

And -- this is me, too: "It takes me ages to write a first draft because I do so much think-writing and not nearly as much actual-writing. But once the first draft is done, it's pretty clean."

J. Lea Lopez said...

Thanks for reading Baur, Jemi, Joey and Janet (lots of J names!) I think quite a lot of writers have, at the least, a few introvert tendencies. And I'm willing to bet they find their way into our writing the majority of the time, whether it's our close observation that allows us to see the stories woven between people, or our personal writing processes.

Janet - I can't tell you how long that trait of taking forever to write a draft has bothered me. I'd always see people whizzing through them, and I'd feel inadequate, or frustrated that they could do it so quickly. It's taken me a while to be able to say hey, this is what works for me, and I like the product I get from this process, so I think I'll keep at it.

Naomi Ruth said...

I think it's silly that extroverts are considered as socially better, that's insane. I'm both an introvert and extrovert, so I can be confused sometimes, but it is helpful for writing characters.

And subtext is most certainly important. Body language is where so much of the conversation happens.

I liked so much of what you said here :) Happy.

E.B. Black said...

The fact that I am an introvert does indeed help my writing. I've read that a lot of people getting lonely while trying to write full time and can't handle the lack of feedback. I don't. I thrive in that environment better than a setting with a lot of people.

I had an argument a few months ago with my boyfriend about how book dialogue is different than real life dialogue. He thought it couldn't be realistic if it was different, but I insisted that it was and that it was just a shortened version of real life. I told him that people don't often choose their words carefully in real life. They repeat themselves and ramble and that's normal, but not okay in a book. You have to get to the point in dialogue in a book and every word should serve a purpose. There is no small talk in stories.

Pauline Fisk said...

Thank you. 'I want my words to have integrity.' that's a great quote.

E.B. Black said...

I was thinking about your post today and wanted to add something because I find it funny and ironic.

I'm the exact opposite of you in one way. I can write a rough draft incredibly quickly. In fact, for my most recent novel, I wrote my first draft in a week.

What I hate though is I always have to spend so much time editting! A ridiculous amount. The beginning product is nowhere near what the finished product is going to be most of the time.

And I've always been jealous of people who write their first draft and do it almost perfectly. Unlike mine, which sometimes reads like a second grader wrote it and is full of so many notes by the end of it, that the only person who could make sense of it is me.

J. Lea Lopez said...

Naomi - thanks for reading! It is ridiculous that extraversion is considered "normal" and "right" while introversion is often seen as something to be fixed or cured. Unfortunately, there are many instances in which that's the case. No worries, though. Like you, I know that both aspects have their own value in the right situations, and I'm happy with that :-)

E.B. - your dialogue comment is SPOT. ON. Real life conversation is NOT okay in a book haha. Regarding your drafts/edits comment, I wouldn't worry about it too much. We each have our own method. It's the end product that's important.

Pauline - thanks for reading! I'm glad you liked the integrity part. :-)

E. F. Jace said...

Your part about taking a while to write a first draft is what really rang true to me. Even in school, I hated that we had to hand in a first draft and then the 'revised' version, I only had the one draft and it was fine the way it was. Because I thought about it long and hard before I wrote it.

Even now I'm working on a re-write of my MS and I'll think and think and think on a scene, even run through the dialogue a few times in my head (or out loud) plot out the movements in my head, and think about just how I want to word it all, THEN I sit down to type it. And even after all that there's no guarantee I won't change my mind. I'll type up a line, say it in my head, delete half of it, re-do it, delete all of it, do it again, until it's the line I want. Takes longer, yes, but also means there's less (god I hope there's less) to edit on the go-through.

I've tried the word-vomit way and I just can't do it.

I wonder, do you have any issues talking on the phone? For me talking on the phone is like one long, painful excursion through small talk hell!

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I totally agree with the writer that being introvert or extrovert does not affect your writing capabilities. Because writing is based on your knowledge, thoughts and creativity.