Friday, December 21, 2012

How I am Becoming a Better Writer

Last spring, I took a course on writing genre fiction, and that was the first time I'd heard the idea of writing being a business. Even if writers are artists at heart, those who succeed are also craftsmen and craftswomen preparing a product to sell: stories that live on long after they are written, and long after they are read. And, just like anyone who is truly skilled at what they do, writers have tools and procedures, tricks that they learn to make their stories the best they can be. Over the last 9 months, I've taken this approach to writing seriously, and I've learned several useful skills that I think are fundamental to writing a story successfully. Here are a few of them:

1) Learn from other authors. That means picking authors who you think do what they do well and have something to teach you. I've been told to read lots of different things - and this is good, in its own way - but I think it is also very important to find some authors whose voices resonate with yours or intrigue you. For everyone this looks different. Sometimes you need to read a lot of different things, perhaps you are the type who collects little pieces here and there and adds them all together. Sometimes (as in my case) you need to keep your focus small, to deepen your awareness of what sort of things are cutting edge in your subgenre and know what's been done so you can add your own spin or do it differently. That old axiom, "know thyself," is the key factor here.

2) Keep track of new words. I have a little book that accompanies the dictionary (that accompanies whatever book I'm reading), and I don't hesitate to write down every word I come across when I can't think of the definition. Often, I learn new uses for common words, or realize that a common word I've used many times in my writing I'm using improperly. This practice is good when writing - developing the habit for reading helps you realize when it's time to stop and think about every word you use. There is always a "right word." But, if you want to avoid Moliere's predicament, then getting in the habit of sharpening your word use will avoid an all-day search.

3) Have the patience to outline and be organized. It's very easy to get lost in a tale and to think that story-telling magic is going to help you resolve complicated plots. This is good if you already have an outline and, in the process of writing, you discover a new twist - the tale always throws you things you couldn't have anticipated. If, however, you have no clue what's supposed to happen from the beginning, then all these twists and turns can lead to a real snarl. Some authors resort to many many drafts and can iron out these details, but it's my preference to spend some time getting a sense of the story, its characters and its settings beforehand so that, when I go into the forest, I can find my way around all those tangled trees without losing a sense of the the premise, conflicts, and structure of the story.

4) Read it out loud. It's our tendency when we write to fill our manuscripts with tough-to-penetrate prose, clunky wording, passive voice, disorganized adjectives and other such things that make you have to read a sentence twice. This can be avoided if you read it all aloud. Better yet, get a digital recorder, read everything front to back and listen carefully. It takes extra time and patience, but you'll hear things in your reading that make you shudder and will know right away what needs to be changed.

5) Share, share, share! I belong to a writer's group and we meet often, even if it's just a writing get-together. Being connected with other writers not only gives you motivation to keep moving forward with your projects, it also keeps you grounded as you expose yourself to feedback. It's easy to fall in love with your writing when the only things you see in it are the things you like. This is a mistake, because in reality there are many people who are going to see what you wrote, and it's the effect it has on them that matters, first and foremost. Being part of a writing group, where I often have to read out loud, keeps me open-minded and willing to try again if it doesn't have the effect I was going for.

6) If you don't think it's good enough to publish as-is, don't submit it. Not yet. This is very hard to do, especially for writers who want to get their foot in the door, but rest assured, if there's anything that disuades you (or a beta reader), there's a good chance it's going to have the same (or worse) effect on anyone considering it for publication. Be patient, go over and over and over - heck, put it away, work on something new, learn something different about your craft, then come back to it. There's no such thing as wasted writing time and there's no such thing as a story idea that's more profound than anything else you'll ever come up with.

So, there we have it. Some cold, hard tips I've picked up, and rules I live by. Bit by bit, these things are making me a better writing, a little bit every day.

Graeme Brown is a Winnipeg author. He writes epic fantasy, with his first story, The Pact, due for release this June. He is a frequent blogger and a tweeter, and a full-time math student.


TKToppin said...

Great advice!!!

TK Toppin

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

All good advice. I especially like adding to one's vocabulary. I keep booklet of new words I find being used, and new uses for words I know. They enrich metaphors.

We are blessed to write in English, the richest language in the world. This is not boasting; it's confessing. English is a composite of every language from countries we visit. Quick to embrace a new sound, we enter it into our language database within a year of hearing it used effectively.

Browng34 said...

So true, Julie! Part of what I love about learning new words is researching the history behind them. Our language is filled with the stories of warring Scottish clans, Viking invaders, fractured Roman states, the hustle and bustle of sixteenth century urban living. Oh, it's so wonderful!

Annabel Aidan said...

All good points. Those of us who pay the bills by writing can never forget it's a business. We're asking editors and publishers to invest in US rather than the 10,000 people behind us. We must be professional, courteous, and reliable at all times.

Most of all, we have to show up and do the work, even on the tough days, just like everybody else!