So it occurs to me we’re always giving you people advise like: if you work at it and keep improving, you’ll be fine. Or “as long as you keep growing as a writer.” Or a hundred other such helpful tasks.
And if you’re like me, you sit there and go “How do I know I’m working?” And “How do I know if it’s improving?” and “how do I work on what I know to be week?”
When I went through the Kris and Dean workshop by kept baffling me by saying things like “trust the process” and “in two years you’ll be able to do this.”
I don’t know about you guys, but my process, mostly, is I write, and if I’m writing mostly to myself, I am pretty comfortable with how I write and I WILL NEVER CHANGE. You only think I’m joking.
What’s worse, what I like and work at in writing is not necessarily what anyone else likes or even notices. I spent years studying how to drop info in the Heinlein way, and not only do people not notice it, but the master himself had some big honking infodumps.
The kicker is that Kris and Dean are largely right. If you keep writing, and listening to critique, or trying to improve, you’ll eventually get there. Sometimes sideways and upside down, if you’re me, but you’ll get there.
But it’s not DIRECTED writing, and if you’re like me, you will have a never ending talent for experiencing all the byways and sideways of how not to do it, before you figure out how to do it. Let’s suppose you’re also like me and don’t want to spend the next 20 years improving. Here are a few tricks to work on your writing in a more directed manner that will get you there faster.
1- Read. Yeah, this seems easy, but it really is not. Tons of people think they can’t read while they’re writing because it will “taint” them.
Does it? A little. If you’re reading something really out of the ordinary, it will come back in your writing. I remember when I spent two weeks reading the musketeers back to back and all the papers I turned in at school had this… picaresque feel to them.
So? Use it. You know different books call for a different voice. While you’re writing, read the voice you’d like. It’s not even always in the same genre but it helps.
But also, the effect gets less and less as you get older as a writer. You start mostly writing like yourself.
And reading stocks your subconscious not just with what can be done, but with the current voice (if you’re reading at least some contemporary books.) What we read now is not what would have made you rich in the 19th century. You need to know what people want now. (And for this Indie is great, btw.)
2- Diagram what you read. I have before given an explanation of how to diagram a novel, it’s around here somewhere. But it’s not just a novel. You can also diagram a short story or even a scene to see how an effect was achieved.
All of these are better done after you read the piece a couple of times.
To diagram a novel, you go by chapter and strip it of all ornament. Chapter by chapter, you take out all the incidentals, the description, the fun stuff and look at “What happened in this chapter to advance the plot?” You write that down with the chapter number. After you’re done you look at it again and draw the lines that connect it. Say chapter 2, they got a lead about the missing parrot, chapter fourteen they found colorful feathers, chapter 20 they heard a parrot behind closed doors, etc. till that thread ends. If you’re visual use different color markers.
This will allow you to see when subplots are developed, and what the rhythm is.
You can do it with a short story or even with a scene, by just stripping the extraneous and putting in the “movements” then doing the same.
3- Read how to write books.
Most writing books are hokum. They’re not really designed to write GOOD stuff, they’re designed to write stuff that sells to the publishers. Beware when they talk of “big” books, etc, because if you’re a political/social naif you might not spot that they’re saying “these are pet causes that will stand you in big with publishers.”
There are exceptions. Of course there are. I always recommend Dwight Swain. He teach you HOW TO WRITE. There are others. Every course I’ve taken from Kris and Dean (WMG Publishing) has been a great course. There are otehrs that are horrendous for everything but little bits of info. Used judiciously, they can get you a ways towards your goal. Just remember at first at least these bits you acquire are to be used in the REVISION phase. It takes a while to integrate them in the writing phase.
If it strikes your fancy and you think you can learn from it, buy it (or borrow it) and take the parts you can use and ignore the rest.
4- Do exercises. These are things you write with no expectation of their becoming novels or shorts (but save them, because you never know.)
Even if you’re a gateway writer, and things pour into your head fully formed, unless you’re John Ringo, there will be gaps in the transmission, and places where the static overwhelms the signal, so you need to have the chops to make do in between.
What are writing exercises?
Well, there are books of writing prompts, but you can make them yourself too. Open the dictionary in three places, and pick three words, then write something involving three words.
Open whatever you use for news, take an article. Now project that same issue into the future or another world.
Take something you do every day and apply “what if” to it.
Set yourself at least 1000 words. If it ends up being a short story, great, but even if it’s just an opening, or a scene, if it gives you that practice is worth it.
Do something like this every week for a couple of hours. Professional artists and pianists practice. We’re the only art where practice is not supposed to be needed.
I’m here to tell you that’s wrong. The more you practice, the better you get.
Now stop reading this and go practice.