The brain is like any other muscle and the more you use it the better it works. The act of writing is similar to exercise, in that it works your muscle and tones it. This then draws one to the conclusion that if they practice writing then their brain will be in better shape, thus enabling them to complete the task with less effort.
Think of it like cross training. You run five miles a day to tone your legs and lungs. Then you work on machines to pinpoint other groups of muscles and increase stamina. All of this to train for a marathon or some other physical event. So why not cross train your mind?
By this I mean, instead of writing in your style and in your vain all of the time–only running the five miles–one should also incorporate other exercises into their routine. Try writing in other genres. Do a nonfiction piece on occasion, such as a blog or technical writing. My writer’s group has begun to incorporate such thinking into our bi-weekly meetings. We now have voluntary assignments we can perform prior to each meeting. These assignments are decided upon by the group and help push us as writers. Our first assignment was to write something in seven hundred words or less that was outside of our comfort zone. For example, the historical fantasy writer chose to author a story about glittery vampires. Our next assignment was to pick an everyday form such as an obituary, recipe, ad-copy etc … etc … etc… and write a story in that form. Now how is that for straining your creative muscle?
All writers, whether in a committed group or not, should consider such practices. Working the muscle in different ways can only improve one’s ability to use it. So why not try something different, break from the routine, and write outside of your box?
Last night was another wonderful Writer’s Group. We critiqued some well written stories and laughed at each other. Sadly, I missed the comment that turned Stephen’s face red and had his breath crippled with laughter. Still, watching Stewart’s reaction to the whole thing was worth it.
The camaraderie that comes with a Writer’s Group is essential to a craft that wiles away in the silence of isolation. It is also a needed tool for one to see the forest in the trees when it comes to the stories they are too close to for self-editing. The real benefit though is how it helps one better see those small things that add up to so much. I don’t catch everything the other authors can do to improve their story. Hearing the other writers in the group point out the mistakes or possible alternative routes in stories really opens my eyes to possibilities in my own.
Another aspect which we as a group are just beginning to breach upon, is the prospect of group assignments. Now I’m sure the genesis of such an idea comes partly from having a teacher amongst our ranks, but it is still interesting. For our next meeting all who choose to participate are going to write a 500-700 word story outside of their comfort zone–in a genre or style that is not their own. A few weeks back it was suggested to me in particular and also as a good idea for others to practice writing scenes by composing a three page scene without narrative. These are wonderful exercises and something I would fare to guess many writers never try. It’s as if once we are out of school we feel there are no more practices, no more lessons, and no more learning except directly on the job. Well, in art as in many other things, if you do not continue to grow then you die.
I’m sure we all share that fantasy about the great published author who never writes anything bad and hardly needs to edit what they do. Everything the published author creates is wonderful and a best seller. Well, from my limited experience with meeting New York Times bestselling authors, I’ve discovered they still write crap, they still have to practice the basics, and they are still learning. That is what the exercises will do, they will help us aspiring writers to practice the basics.
More and more, it just makes me happy I finally came out of my rock and joined a group.
Much harder than avoiding to put your foot in your mouth during a precarious conversation, the ability to impartially look at ones work and honestly critique it is hard to come by. As the writer, we the author often know the world and characters to the extent that we forget to clue others in. We can even be guilty of writing the “Cliff’s Notes” version of a story, because the rest is so deeply ingrained in our heads that we can read between the sparse lines we write. “What do you mean you didn’t get that the protagonist’s brother was really his father, I vaguely hinted at it on page three in the fourth paragraph.” To properly self-edit we need to read as a stranger and try to forget everything we learned from that detailed outline we spent months creating before embarking on this journey of storyline.
Another aspect of editing is the ability to be brutally honest. Some fellow Writer’s Group members take the act of being honest to others to an art form level and can even deliver compliments with a poisoned tip spear. When self-editing one must assail to similar honesty with themselves. If the sentence is weak or the idea muddled then you have to admit it. Just because rewriting that one sentence will change the entire structure of the paragraph and break the tension you were attempting to affect, in no way excuses you from fixing the sentence. That one line may be the thing that confuses the reader, takes the reader out of the story, interrupts pacing, or makes them put the story down. Seriously, if you have enough weak points, then the story as a whole will fall on its face. The bad sentences can also add up to enough to make the reader walk away from the work.
Grammar is important, but can actually fall to the background if the story is told well enough the reader forgets about it. Now I’m not saying to ignore the rules of grammar because your ability is obviously so wonderful that no one would mind. Not everyone can be as lucky as Timothy Dexter. What I am saying, is to pay heed to rhythm and pacing and story and character and mood. Remember your fundamentals. Follow your tropes if you’re in genre. Be true to your characters and don’t have them do or say things that they wouldn’t. Make sure the scene is believable for your story–research the things you don’t already know and apply that knowledge to the story. Then once you are confident all of these things are working, make sure your story is not grammatically indigestible. Besides, following some grammatical rules can often help you write stronger sentences.
Once you are through writing a piece, it is also very important that you decide upon your theme if you haven’t already. During the re-read, keep your eye on how the theme affects the story and how you tell it. Perhaps you weren’t aware of the theme when you first embarked on this storyline. In that instance, you may find many references or sentences that betray that theme. If so, then fix them. Often on larger works, writers discover that the first 20,000 words they write merely help them solidify their idea of the theme and thus they are forced to throw many of those words away in rewrite. Never be afraid to throw away your words. Remember, no matter how beautiful the prose, if it weakens or betrays the story as a greater whole then it must be culled.
And finally, remember that no great work was ever written in the first draft. The stories and books that stand the test of time are the one which the authors chose to work hard on during the rewrite process. So read your work honestly and don’t be lazy when you see the problem in your fiction, fix it.
“The first draft of anything is shit” —Ernest Hemingway
I never thought I would say this, but it really helps to belong. All of my life I’ve done things on my own, with little to no help from anyone. All of my choices in education and the funding thereof, has been of my choosing and from my pocket. Most major life decisions have also been solely mine–at least until I got married, but even then I still make most of the decisions and just clear it with my wife prior to execution. That has always been the way I am.
Part of “not being a team player” is what draws me to writing. The art and craft is a very isolated experience for the bulk of everything. When working on a story the only one to keep me company, the only one I have to work with are the very characters I create. The process of spilling them out takes hours upon hours of just me and my keyboard.
Once, I reached out to a local writer’s group, but they were all poets and mostly stay at home moms with nothing better to do with their time. Not to discredit their art, but their purpose was different from mine. I want to do this for a living and not as a way to kill time like needlepoint or puzzles. Hell, if I don’t do this sometimes it feels like I start to go crazy. I need to write.
The past 15 years I’ve virtually lived under a rock, honing my skills and teaching myself how to do what I love to do. Once or twice I searched for workshops or literary groups, in order to find a new avenue of learning or to touch base on where I was at. Needless to say, I still did it alone.
Two years ago, I discovered Genre conventions and the writing workshops that some of them provide. As is my course, I sought a few out in order to learn a little more, to get a status on my efforts. This allowed me to be introduced to Michigan authors, others who aspire as I do. These people are very serious about their craft. I was amazed.
Christine Purcell and Stewart Sternburg are very passionate (Stewart a bit animated too) about their art. They are also very willing to help anyone else who is passionate about their art. They recently invited me to join their writer’s group. Normally, I would be hesitant. As I said earlier, my past experiences have not been that positive. But this is definitely the exception. Having been through a writer’s workshop with these two individuals, I knew a little about what to expect. This helped me feel positive about reaching out from under my rock joining something.
So far, I’m very glad I did. Not only am I learning how to better edit my writing by editing other’s work and seeing how other’s edit, but I’m also learning from the mistakes all of us make and the other writers point out. Last night, Stewart gave a similar speech about characterization to the one he made at ConClave. Charles Zaglanis of Elder Signs Press made some very good points about word choice and characterization. Christine brought to the meeting some very interesting tidbits about changes in the industry. The newer members, whose names I’ve yet to learn, also offered very good input.
As part of this group, I will continue to learn and hone my craft in greater strides than by myself. It will also keep me to task working on my craft, as I need to get the critiques done in a timely manner and I also wish to have something of my own to contribute to the melee. It has been a long time since I’ve felt this positive about my dream. In of itself, that is enough reason to continue my membership in the group. As someone who battles depression every day, anything that I can add to my life which brings me joy and hope is a good thing.
So writers, you should search out a good writer’s group or form a group that is both positive and critical in a constructive manner, so that you may grow your craft, feel camaraderie from your fellow artisans, and grow in your art.
Many people will agree that the hardest part of anything is the beginning. The first ten minutes I spend on the elliptical machine are always the most torturous, pulling the lawnmower out of the garage to cut the grass is the most difficult part of mowing, and avoiding the million-things-that-can-distract-you-from-writing is the worst.
I once read an author’s quote where he said that he left the house to write because if he didn’t he’d find himself “staring into the fridge as if it held all the answers to the world”, instead of writing. Boy do I know what that is like.
Currently, I have a full-time job, a family life, and some strands of a social life. These things I’ve groomed and attended to so that I might grow as a person, enjoy this time I’ve been given, and be whatever of a blessing I can to those around me. Sadly, by choosing life, I also at times have to refuse writing. After all, the balance between living life and a person’s art is often tenuous.
When I first embarked on writing as a possibility in my life, I believed I had yet to experience life. Such is often the lament of the young. Looking back now, I know I’ve had an interesting life. The decisions I’ve made have led me to discover many a myriad notes about myself and how the world works. All of these things infuse my art, inspire my words, and shape the soul for which inspiration sprouts. They also take away from the time available for which to voice that inspiration.
The dichotomy is both exhilarating and bothersome. It is so invigorating to know that I have so much going on that life is a little more because of me, but it is also so frustrating and sad to know that my creation, my voice, my counsel suffocates in the restraints brought on by the very thing which fuels it.
The night, when the moon swam across the velvet sky, my mind would hear stories in the silence and spill them upon the page. Now, night is a time to unwind from the day and relax; a time to reconnect to the family I’ve been away from all day. Soon, in order to bring the balance back between my art and my life I’m going to have to retreat back into the night. In the spring I vowed to get up early and work on my writing while the rest of the world still slept. Alas, my mind is too foggy in the morning, too geared toward solving the problems of the day ahead. Therefore, it is in the night, the time that exists when the waking world has turned to slumber, that I must seek to ply my trade.
A few weeks ago a professional told me to never give up. Christine Purcell saw something in my command of the English language and my use of it that she liked. She even said that despite my lack of formal training I used some tropes better than most at my level. Such words are inspiring. Such prase is encouraging.
I will then move my work from the random short spurts afforded me during the hectic daytime and into the night, where it will fourish once more. This is my time. This is my opportunity to work toward that dream that I dared not dream as a kid. My time to never give up.