Friday, September 2, 2011

Is Practice a Dirty Word to Writers by Dean Wesley Smith

It's time for some more sage advice from Dean Wesley Smith. Today's he's talking about writers and how they perfect their craft. You can view the full article here at Dean's site:

Practice. The ugly word for writers.

Here’s the question that illustrates this myth:
Would you pick up a violin, take one lesson, and think you should step on the stage in front of 30,000 people to play a concert?
No sane person says sure to that question. It’s a laughable question, yet almost every beginning writer I know writes a first short story, or a first novel, fires it off to a publisher, and then gets mad when it gets rejected. Or they put it up electronically and wonder why only their friends and family bought it.
Reactions always vary in this anger.
— “Oh, stupid editors don’t understand true genius when they read it.”
Or when indie published you hear:
— “I need to promote this more. Clearly no one is seeing it.”
And so on and so on.
The real reason your story got rejected early on? Or no one is buying the the story online?
You haven’t practiced your craft enough, so your story sucked. Or your opening sucked. Or your blurbs sucked. All writing.
My suggestion? Leave the story alone, rewriting won’t help it. Write another one.
Get more practice.
And keep mailing or keep indie publishing as is your choice. But focus on practice, practice, practice.

I don’t practice: I write!

So how come writers think every word they write doesn’t stink and get so angry at a simple rejection to an early story? How come the word “practice” is a dirty word to writers? The shout or thought is: “I don’t practice. I write!”
To beginning writers every word is golden.
Every word needs to be polished and worked over (check out the rewriting chapter to understand that myth), even though the writer has no clue what they are fixing or not fixing. You don’t think the rewriting myth applies here to the practice myth? Of course it does. When you are rewriting, you aren’t practicing writing. You are just trying to rearrange notes in the last practice session. Think of that in music terms and you see how really silly that is.
Tell a beginning writer to toss out a manuscript and write the idea (the story) from scratch and they will sit stunned and horrified. “You can’t toss out my beautiful, wonderful, etched-in-stone words.” Yet in music you screw up an attempt at a song, you do it again.

So how come writers think this way?

Lots of reasons actually. The biggest is that early on in our lives we all started writing in one fashion or another. And, of course, those who were good in school got praise by a high school or college teacher for good writing, and thus the belief is because of that praise it is possible to be a bestseller on the first book. Uhhhh….no.
Second reason: In the early days it takes special time that must be carved out of life to write, so whatever is produced in that time can’t be “wasted” in any way.
Truth: No writing is ever wasted. It is practice.
There are many other smaller reasons for this belief system. Each writer needs to figure out why they have it and crush it. Mine was because I learned to type and write my first stories on typewriters, with tons of White-Out. I felt at times like I was carving a statue on those pages. Took me a while, meaning years, to get past that feeling.

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, or indie publishing it, 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 my caution on workshops in an earlier chapter and 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 what you need to do. It is 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. And when you are done with the story or novel, get it in the mail or indie published and move on.
2) Does everything you write in the early years need to be a focused practice session? 
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. Anyone with an English degree can type a bunch of pretty sentences. Writing a story is another matter.
4) If I am only practicing, should I mail out my stories when they are finished? Or indie publish them?
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. And readers buying or not buying your story off of Kindle and the other sites is great feedback. At first you will only get form rejections and no sales, but develop a trusted first reader and use a workshop for feedback, but get everything out.
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 and readers.
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.
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 cliffhangers. 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.

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