Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Practicing Your Writing

Practice your writing? What does that mean? Should you review your copy of Strunk & White again for the rules for pesky possessive singular of nouns?

I popped over to Dean Wesley Smith's blog and he writes about practicing. Here's an excerpt from the full blog entry.

So what is practice in writing and how do you do it?

Every writer I know who is a long term professional has practice methods for almost every craft a writer needs to master. I’ll give you some general ones in a moment. But first, let me talk about how you practice.

1) A Writer is a Person Who Writes. So is just simply doing lots of writing good practice?

Sometimes yes, to a degree. If you are mailing the story or novel out to editors when you finish and getting feedback and applying the feedback to THE NEXT STORY. The key is getting feedback, listening to the feedback, and then writing the next story. See the workshop chapter here on how to use workshops for the feedback. You can’t fix a practice session, but you can learn from a practice session what works and what doesn’t work and apply that knowledge to your next story or novel.

If you just write the same story over and over, the same way, without actually trying to apply knowledge to the new story, then no, you can write for years and not improve. And sadly, I’ve seen that happen.

There is a common term for this called FOCUSED PRACTICE.

But first and foremost, you have to sit and do a lot of writing. No rewriting, writing original words. Not researching, writing original words.

2) Does everything you write in the early years need to be a focused practice session? Or can I just write?

Yes, again to a degree. Early on in your writing career, you are missing so many storytelling skills, just writing and not working to get better in an area doesn’t make much sense. As the words go by and the years pass, not every session is a practice session. But every session will always be a learning session.

3) Should I tell stories while practicing or just write paragraphs or scenes?

Oh, heavens, you are practicing being a storyteller, so every session is focused on telling a story. Nothing else matters. Everything you practice goes to telling a story, so every practice session should be on a story of some sort.

4) If I am only practicing, should I mail out my stories when they are finished?

OF COURSE!!! Duh, you have to get feedback on your practice, and an editor telling you a story works, or that they read it shows your practice is working. At first you will only get form rejections and no feedback, but develop a trusted first reader and use a workshop for feedback, but mail everything.

I used to write a story every week, then mail it to an editor on my way to turn it into my workshop. I wanted feedback on the story not to fix the story, but to learn how to do something better on the next story, and to see if something worked or didn’t work. Workshop sometimes told me that, but editors told me that even more. And I trusted the editors. After all, it was their job to keep me off the stage until I my craft and entertaining skills were ready to go on stage. I trusted they would do that as well.

5) How long do you need to practice and work on your craft and storytelling skills?

Your entire life. It never ends. The learning never stops in this art form, and the moment you think you are “good enough” you are dead.

This week I am teaching a character voice workshop to a group of professional writers who want to focus on that one craft area for an entire week. A large part of what I am setting up for them in this workshop is not only analytical skills practice, but actual focused character voice practice. Will they know how to create more character voice in their stories when they leave? I sure hope so. But then what they will have to do is go home and practice what they have learned this week. Focus practice, story after story, until what they learned here becomes automatic through their fingers.

And why am I spending time teaching this class? Because I’ve been writing a number of young adult novels lately and really want to practice my character voice skills and learn more, and trust me, teaching is a great way to focus craft issues.

I once had an interviewer ask me why I wrote so many media novels. My standard answer is, of course, that I loved the universes and the characters and the work. And that’s very true. Writing for DC and Marvel and Star Trek and Men in Black and X-Box was just a blast for an old kid like me. Period, end of discussion.

But for some reason I answered a different way with this interviewer. I answered, “Practice.”

You see, for every media book I wrote, I focused on one thing to practice for that book. For example, on three novels in a row, I worked on nothing but different forms of cliff hangers. The reviews on those three books for the first time in my career started adding in the phrase “hard to put down.”

Focused practice, then feedback then more focused practice, then more feedback.

That’s the loop you want to try to set up in every way possible.


For a moment, let me give you some basic hints about feedback and how to understand what a first reader or workshop reader is saying to you. These are very basic.

“Your story really took off on page six.”

Meaning: Your opening sucks, you walked or strolled or woke up to your story, and no editor on the planet will ever buy the story.

“I just couldn’t see your story.”

You forgot to ground your reader in a setting, real setting, and your characters were just talking heads yacking at each other in a white room.

Your character seemed flat.”

You forgot to give any kind of character voice or character opinion or character description.

“Your ending doesn’t work.”

You screwed up your set-up in the opening of your story and didn’t prepare the reader for your ending. Or you wrote two pages past your ending and didn’t know it. Or you haven’t gotten to your ending yet.

And so on and so on. You get the idea. Get the feedback, figure out what it really means, which is often not what you are hearing.

He has more to say on the subject. You can read the full article here. Do you agree with his reasoning? I know for Dave and I, we have learned a lot from our 4 books. Our current WIP starts stronger and is flowing nicely. We are much more in tune with each other on this project which makes this WIP a pleasure to write.

How do you practice?