Back in December, I posted a list of my favorite writing craft books. Then I started to share some tips for using those books. Well, here is the long-awaited continuation of that topic – how do you make the most of your writing guide experience?
Take Your Time
These books aren’t stories; even the best written are information dense. If you slog through them, you’re not likely to get much out of the experience. Don’t be afraid to skip to another section or put it down for a while.
Don’t Skip Stuff because you’re awesome at the discussed topic.
Bouncing around the book is fine – in fact, reading a particularly interesting or timely topic first can be more useful than pedantically reading from front to back. But if you are tempted to skip because you “don’t need to get better” in that area, beware! Complacency can turn strength into weakness. Besides, you might need that warm smug feeling you get when you read advice you already apply.
I think most writers are a little insecure. I know I am. So when I read a book full of things I need to work on, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the enormity of the task ahead. That’s perfectionism rearing its ugly head. So, when I start to feel discouraged, I try to recognize that I’m taking dead black ink too personally, and putting unreasonable expectations on myself. I don’t know what pep talk will work for you, but find a way to beat that discouragement! It’s impossibly hard to grow when you’re squashed under a boulder.
Sometimes I have a major “ah-ha!” moment, only to forget about it after another two pages. Prevent this by having a place to keep especially pertinent insights!
Let it Percolate
It is OK to “just” read a book. They don’t always have to trigger a massive overhaul of your life. Just having read the book will do you good. It will add to your troubleshooting toolkit and your vocabulary for discussing writing with other people. One reason I read so many writing books is because I find they expand my peripheral awareness of the industry, and keep me from getting a) depressed or b) a big head. So passively allowing the things you’ve read to impact your work is a viable strategy. Don’t knock it.
Reading isn’t osmosis. Therefore, expecting yourself to automatically absorb everything mentioned in a book isn’t reasonable. You’ll freeze, overload your system, if you try to apply everything you learned at once. Besides, not all the advice will be appropriate for your brain. This is where patience and focus comes in. Fully understanding and developing good habits around a few topics is infinitely better than trying to pull your writing in a thousand poorly planned directions. It’s just like the proverbial pickle jar – try to grab too many pickles, and you’ll get stuck in the jar.
So how to pick what you’re going to focus on?
Maybe start by asking yourself what excited you the most in the book. What do you most want to implement right now? What would be easiest, or change your work the most?
Another option is asking external sources – namely, other writers – what would most improve your work. This is one of the reasons I’m so strongly in favor of writing/critique groups*. It’s almost impossible to objectively view your own skills. Some of the things you think are strengths might actually be weaknesses, and vice versa. Other people often see this more clearly, and if they’re writers too, they might have experiences that could help you.
It makes sense, right? If a musician wants to improve her phrasing or intonation, she’ll do exercises specific to those skills. You can do the same thing with your writing!
There are thousands of exercise ideas out there, from writing prompts to free association. The exercise you choose will depend on what you want to focus on. What I want to talk about are some tips that will help, regardless of the specific exercise you choose.
- Be Specific. Don’t just focus on dialogue. Focus on dialogue tags or pacing or voice. The more specific you are, the better you’ll be able to judge your progress. Small steps add up to big ones.
- Don’t use your current project. I find it incredibly difficult to do exercises involving my current project. It just matters too much for me to play around as much as I should. So when I am practicing a specific skill, I’ll use a piece I don’t care much about, or I’ll start something new. The cool thing is that sometimes (especially when I’m working on structure or character things), this results in a salable** short story.
- Develop flexibility. Writing is a fluid process, and skills are rarely black and white. Often, expertise is deftly navigating a continuum. You want to be so comfortable with the concept that you can slide from one end to the other whenever you need to. So if you are looking at pacing, do your exercise trying to get it to go as fast as possible, as slow as possible, or start fast and end slow, etc. Practice along the whole continuum, not just one end.
- Go wild. Write something strange, a style/tense/voice/genre you don’t normally write in. Experiment. Don’t let your preconceptions limit you. You might discover something fun or deep, or you might decide that was the worst idea you’ve ever had. The good thing about having tried it is that you’ll recognize it later if it comes up again by accident.