Many writers don’t realize that writing is like pretty much any other skill – that is, you need to PRACTICE.
Of course, that presupposes that there is room for improvement. Part of the problem is that many writers think that once they know how to put a story on paper, there is nothing more to learn.
But the truly successful writers in the business know that learning and improvement are an endless road. There are always things you can work on to get better.
And that’s where FOCUSED PRACTICE comes in.
Focused practice is not just writing ANOTHER story (recall the definition of insanity). It involves making a conscious decision to work on and improve a specific aspect of your storytelling craft. Maybe you want to get better at dialogue. Perhaps you want to have richer settings. Or it might be that you are weak when it comes to pacing and getting the reader to turn one more page – so practicing cliffhangers might be helpful for you.
Regardless of the specific area you want to improve, focused practice is a great way to develop particular writing skills.
Quite simply, a focused practice session can be achieved as follows:
1) Pick a skill to work on – let’s say you’re weak in “setting” – it seems many of your scenes are talking heads in giant white rooms.
2) Sit down and write a short story.
3) Make a conscious effort to OVERDO the setting aspects of the story. Really flesh it out with lots of rich, detailed setting. Try to include descriptions using all five senses; utilizing sight, sound, touch, taste and smell at a minimum of every two pages.
4) Go back through the story when it’s done, and look for places to add even MORE setting elements.
5) By now, you may feel like this story is ridiculously chock-full of “setting” to the point of being “over-the-top.” Now give it to someone to read, without telling them you were doing a focused practice.
6) You may be surprised at their reaction. They most likely won’t even notice that there is so much description of setting, and they may even tell you it’s one of your best stories yet.
7) Now send that story out to editors who can buy it, and repeat the exercise. Or, if you are taking the indie publishing path, slap a cover on that story and put it up for sale. You may be surprised to find it creates a few more fans of your writing.
Do that a few dozen times, and before too long, you’ll find yourself writing richer settings without even thinking about it.
As a writer, one of the great things about practice is that you can send out all your “practice” for sale. No work goes to waste – it all goes into your inventory of stories you can sell. That’s not the case with most other professions.
Another part of focused practice is research.
If you’re having trouble with executing the above exercise, try seeking out examples of great “setting.” Find an author you really love, a book of theirs that you love, and find a passage that has terrific use of setting – a piece of writing that you wish YOU had created..
Now TYPE that passage into your word processor, verbatim.
By typing it in, you are training yourself to know what it actually feels like to create that kind of product – you’re training your subconscious. Now that it’s in your word processor, analyze it. Tear it apart and look at the building blocks used. Count the number of senses utilized in the descriptions. Look at the sentence structure, the punctuation, the paragraph breaks, the point-of-view and the “voice” of the passage.
Now go back and repeat the practice exercise with those things in mind. Don’t try to “copy” the style of the passage you examined, just keep in the back of your mind the techniques of that successful author.
And above all, don’t try too hard. If you’re focusing too much on the focused practice, you’ll stunt your creativity. The critical part of your mind will take over and sap the creative aspect right out of your writing, leaving it very mechanical and uninspired.
It’s a balancing act, but it can really improve your craft. And if you’re not constantly trying to improve, you won’t grow as a writer.
Focused practice: give it a try the next time you sit down to write! (Which, by the way, should be TODAY.)