The last post was all about how I and most other writers, start out on what many of us hope will one day become a career. This one is about those first stumbling steps we take in our effort to improve our writing, specifically about how I did it and what I do differently now that I’ve smartened up.
As I said in the previous post, we start out with a love for the craft, a love for the written word, for stories, and without this you’ll never stick with writing long enough to become a pro. This is not like your job at the factory or the office where you’re paid from day one even though there is a learning period to begin with where your aren’t producing much quality for the company. This is a hobby that can turn into a career, but there’s a long learning curve, and until you’ve traveled along that curve for years, nobody will be handing you any money.
So what we do is we sit down and dabble out our terrible stories for the pure joy of it. And we keep doing that until we realize we enjoy it so much we want to do this for a living, but then what? Well, if you’re serious about this whole writing thing but also lazy enough, like I am, that you want to skip the most basic mistakes if possible, then you’re probably going to look into what the pros did to become pros. And this where I ran into my first problem as an aspiring author, because holy s*** there’s a lot of advice out there. (Yes, I see the irony in the fact that I’m now adding to that dung-bucket, but hopefully I’m adding something new or at least helping make what I think is the most relevant information on the subject available)
Firstly, there’s enough how-to books on the subject to last a couple of lifetimes, and on top of that there’s all the blogs and Youtube videos offering free advice, not to mention the nearly endless array of courses and classes offered by pro and semi-pro authors if you got the cash. Being a poor student at the time, I figured I might as well start with the free stuff.
The first thing I learned was that a healthy dose of skepticism and critical view at the source of the information I was getting was much needed. There a lot of people offering advice out there, and a lot of it is contradictory (I’ll talk in more detail about this in the next post). But one thing everybody agrees upon is — unless we’re talking about people trying to scam you with claims that they can turn you into a bestseller in just a few hours, remember that healthy dose of skepticism, or really just common sense — that it takes a lot of practice. You might’ve heard this advice take the form Read a lot, write a lot or Every writer has a million bad words in them they need to get out. What it really means is practice, practice, practice.
So I did what, from my experience, most aspiring writers do at this point, crammed up my writing time to max and churned more and more scenes and stories and poems. And this is where I wish I’d done thing differently.
At that same time I joined an online writing community where I could interact with other writers and also get feedback on my writing, because I knew it was bad (I’d only just begun writing so of course it was bad, terrible even), but I didn’t know why or how to fix it. Here I came a cross a bunch of people who’d been writing fiction for decades and still hadn’t published anything. That’s of course okay if just want to keep it as a hobby, but many of them were trying to break into the business and had been doing so for many years. And I thought, holy crap, they got a twenty year head start on me; I’ll never make it as a writer.
Once the panic had settled, though, I started thinking about it more rationally, and I couldn’t help wonder if these people were simply practicing wrong. Then I looked at how I was practicing and compared it to how I was practicing for other things in life and realized that I was practicing wrong too.
I wasn’t really practicing, I was producing. You can compare it to driving a car or most of the work you do at the office or factory or wherever you work. In these situations it’s the fact that you do it (the work or driving) that matters, not that you’re getting better. And when you think about it, are you really getting better? A bit, perhaps, but I bet progress comes slowly and you’re plateauing early. How much did your driving improve in the last year? How much better have you become at your job during the last five or six months? For me, the answer is not much, and I bet it’s the same for most of you. Unless if you’re just starting out, of course; in the beginning practically anything you do related to the craft will improve your skills. That’s why many people (this used to include myself) like to start new hobbies instead of honing their skills in an old one.
If you look at how you practice something like sport or music, however… Well, it could be you practice the same way, but most people tend to practice these things in a way that’s a bit more structured, focusing in particular aspect of the sport (dribbling, passing, curve balls, etc.) or the instrument (arpeggios, chords, rhythms, etc.), and only practicing the combined craft like playing a football match or a particular song once in a while.
When you look at the pro athletes and musicians, this particularly evident. Yes, they’re probably practicing more than the average hobbyist, but what sets the great apart from the good and good from the merely adequate is the time they spend improving one small aspect of their craft.* And when you spend a bit more time listening to the advice of pro authors like for example Brandon Sanderson or Dean Wesley Smith, what you hear them saying isn’t just write a lot but write a lot and focus on improving something new with every story.
If you keep writing the same crappy stories over and over again, you won’t improve, at least not a lot and not very quickly. But if you focus on improving whatever your weak points are at the time, get feedback on your effort, and strive to do it better the next time, then you’ll see some real progress. For me this means focusing on one particular thing with each story I write, and a new thing with each draft, but it also means I’m doing a lot of writing exercises. More on that in a another post.
How about you, how do you practice you writing skills? Do you think all practice is created equally?
*If you’re interested in what constitutes good practice methods, I can recommend Dr. Anders Ericsson’s Peak. This is not really a self-help book (I don’t believe those usually work) offering a quick an easy way to success. It’s an easy to understand book about what research shows us make people experts within their field, and it’s co-written by Dr. Ericsson who’s done much of the research himself. And, yes, the road to success is paved with hard work, but also smart practice.