How Do Writers Exercise?

Writers exercise like everyone else, I suppose–when it comes to their physical body.  Today, though, I want to consider how writers exercise their writing skills.  Early in life we learn the secret to getting better at any skill–long hours of practice and exercise.  Sadly, writing is no exception to this.

1.  The first step in a writing exercise program is to identify your weak area, or areas.  You can get a feel for these from your critique group, from any comments received from editors as they reject your manuscripts, or from honest self-assessment.  By area I mean some aspect of writing such as characters, plot, setting, the hook, thinking of story ideas, tension, pacing, active vs. passive verbs, conciseness, etc.  Chances are, there’s at least one aspect of your writing you wish to improve.

2.  Next is to assign yourself an exercise, and do it.  The point is to focus on your weak area and just try different things, explore different solutions.  You’ll be writing just for yourself here, so there’s no pressure; give your inner editor the day off.  If your problem is weak setting descriptions, for example, you could write a description of your neighborhood or describe a setting from a picture, or re-describe a setting from literature.  Then write several other descriptions of the same setting, but using different tones.

You get the idea.  This is your creative mind at play.  The time spent counts toward the 10,000 hours you’ve got to put in.  Permit me a strange metaphor here.  Imagine you’re shoveling manure from a truck and spreading it on a field.  The field is vast and the trucks keep coming with full loads.  You do this all day, then many days, then years.  At one point you pause, leaning on your shovel’s handle, and gaze out at the field and see a single plant, a flower, growing in the field of manure.  The rough ground beneath could never have supported that flower–it could only grow after all the shoveling you did.  That’s writing.  The manure represents your exercises and early stories.  The flower is your first successful publication.

As you do your exercises, don’t critique yourself at first.  Give your writing free rein.  Use the brainstorm technique.  Consider using mind-maps.  If the weak area lends itself to this, practice many (say ten or twenty) solutions to each problem.   If you like some of your solutions, feel free to alter, refine, or hone them.

3.  After you’ve done some exercising, review, reflect, and analyze what you did.  Which techniques worked?  Which didn’t?  This assessment should reveal whether you’re on the path to improvement or not.

4.  Last, what do you do with all the residue from your exercising?  Keep the flower; discard the manure.  Chances are, you’ve got something beautiful there you can use in a story.

I can hear some of you objecting to this technique already, before you’ve even tried it. Steve, you’re saying, we beginning writers are always being told to write, write, write.  Now you’re saying to take a break from that and do these silly, and time-consuming, exercises?  Don’t the exercises take valuable time away from writing stories?

Yes, they do, in a sense.  They take time away from story-writing in the same way sharpening a saw takes away time from ‘sawing’ with a dull blade in the Stephen R. Covey example.  Think about that. You’re saying you don’t have time to learn to write well because you’re too busy writing garbage that won’t sell.

So conjure an image of the roughest, most dedicated coach, gym instructor, or drill sergeant.  Hear that image yelling at you to exercise, to give him more push-ups, to run another lap?  What are you waiting for? You do want to improve your writing, don’t you?  Try exercising, then whether you believe it worked or not, leave a comment for–

                                                                             Poseidon’s Scribe  


Writing and the Outlier Theory

In a previous blog post, I mentioned Malcolm Gladwell and his book Outliers: The Story of Success.  In it, he explored why some people seem to stand out as geniuses in their fields–what made them so good?  His conclusion was that success requires two things:  (1) Luck, and (2) 10,000 hours of practice.

There’s not much we can do about luck.  Gladwell suggested it was a matter of being born at the right time and being exposed to the right influences.  When it comes to luck, you either have it or you don’t.  If you have it, ride that wave, baby.  If you don’t, well, reconcile yourself to the fact that not all books sold are written by the greatest writers of all time.  And know this, too:  there’s no way of knowing in advance whether you are lucky.  Only time will tell.

Although we can’t alter our luck, we can do something about the 10,000 hours.  Well, not shorten it, I’m afraid.  But we can accomplish it.  We can devote ourselves to it.  If you spend 10,000 hours honing your skill at one thing, it’s highly likely you’ll become good at it.  Perhaps not great, but good.  And you may grow to enjoy that activity, such that the idea of the next 10,000 hours doesn’t frighten you, but thrills you.

Gladwell goes on to discuss what the 10,000 hours should consist of.  Many of those hours should be devoted to freeform play where failure has a low cost.  There should be a lot of experimentation and attempts at trying out different approaches without any external criticism.  Examples he gives in his book include hockey players, musicians, and computer pioneers.  But you can see how his theory applies to writers.

For writers, the 10,000 hours is spent mostly alone, writing.  The freeform play consists of many attempts at stories of different types, many drafts that get discarded, many early tales of poor quality.  The 10,000 hours should include some study as well–research into the mechanics of writing, research into how great writers plied their craft.

At this point you might be thinking of examples of great writers who didn’t have to spend 10,000 hours perfecting their skills.  Okay, there might be a handful.  And you might end up being one.  If so, great!  But do you really think you should assume that you’re going to be one of that very rare breed that achieves greatness without a lot of work?

Yes, I’ve done the math.  I know that if you can only devote three hours a day to writing, you won’t reach 10,000 hours for over nine years.  But for most of us, there’s just no way around that.  And you need to remember that much of those 10,000 hours are spent in enjoyable play.  It needn’t be all drudgery.

So those 10,000 hours won’t happen by themselves.  If you want to be an author, get moving.  The clock’s ticking and the calendar’s flipping.  Oh, and if you know some sure-fire shortcut, please send it to–

                                                      Poseidon’s Scribe

September 11, 2011Permalink

Shortcut to Greatness?

When we watch magicians perform, we’re smart enough to know there’s no real magic involved.  We know there’s a perfectly logical trick.  In fact, we’re sure if that magician would only reveal the trick to us, we could do the act too.  Magicians guard each trick with great care so that knowledge of how they do it doesn’t spoil the show.

Think it’s the same with writing?  What if we could beseech a great author to teach us his tricks, reveal the secrets she’s been concealing?  “Make me a best-selling author, too,” we’d say, “I don’t care if it takes all day!”

I’m not a best-selling author (yet), so for all I know they are withholding the secrets from us, hoarding their tricks and special knowledge, unwilling to spill the beans and open themselves up to a little more competition.

If those no-good, stuck-up top shelf authors really are keeping secrets from us, then they’re not only guilty of that, but of lying as well.  Writer after writer has claimed there are no secrets, other than hours and hours of practice.  Writers as diverse as Isaac Asimov, Janet Evanovich, Stephen King, and Tom Clancy all say there are no shortcuts, no simple tricks, and no keyboard sleight-of-hand moves that will make you a great writer.  W. Somerset Maugham said, “there are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”  Apparently the number of rules is three, though, so that’s progress.

In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell claims the secret to genius-level greatness in any field is a combination of luck and a lot of time spent practicing.  How much time?  Gladwell says around ten thousand hours.  Yes, ten thousand. That’s a lot more than the solid afternoon we were hoping to devote to it.  More like fourteen months, continuously, without sleeping.  If all you can spare is two hours a day for your writing, then you’ll need nearly fourteen years to achieve greatness.

At this point, you may be yearning for some easier path.  What about writing courses, writing conferences, workshops, how-to books, critique groups, and the online versions of these?  I’ll give my perspective, having tried many of them.  I think all of these aids have value, some more than others.  In particular, I believe critique groups have been the most beneficial for me.  However, it’s important to embark on each one with the right attitude, the correct level of expectation.

If you pay for a conference, a how-to book, etc. thinking you’ll emerge out the other end as a pro market author, I suggest you ratchet down your hopes a few settings.  Each of these venues is fine to partake on an occasional basis to learn different viewpoints, refresh knowledge you might have forgotten, etc.  But make you a superstar author?  Doubtful.  Not impossible, just improbable.

There are expenses involved with each of the venues, too.  On the other hand, the long hours of lonely practice are nearly free, except for the amount of time spent.  I urge you not to fall into the trap of thinking that just because the last writing course (or workshop, etc.) you took didn’t result in instant success, surely the next one will.  Now that I think of it, I’ve never heard of a Great Author attributing his or her achievements to a how-to book or a conference, or any of those things.  Many of them do talk about reading a lot, especially reading the classics.  But they all say there is no substitute for writing, writing all the time, writing constantly.

So maybe one day some successful author will take you down a winding staircase into a hidden hideaway, enter the little-known combination into the locks, swing wide the series of creaking vault doors, and open the chest containing the secrets to easy writing greatness.  If you know those secrets, e-mail me here.  Until that day, I suggest practice.  But what do I know?  I’m just…

Poseidon’s Scribe