The following is the last chapter from Business for Breakfast, Volume 1: The Beginning Professional Writer.
However, if you’re like most writers (broke!) I have now posted all twelve chapters here on my blog.
Next week, I’ll start posting chapter from Business for Breakfast, Volume 2: The Beginning Professional Publisher.
One of the greatest concepts that was ever shared with me by Dean Wesley Smith was the idea of practice.
It’s head–scratching that I wasn’t practicing before Dean said something about it. It made sense to me the moment he started talking about.
I think it’s one of the best tools in a professional writer’s tool box.
This chapter discusses practice, the hows and whys.
What Do You Mean, Practice?
In every art, there’s a certain level of practice involved. You try something new. You experiment with it. You try it again. Then you do it some more.
For example, the first time you sat down with a sketchpad and pencil, did you just start drawing everything that was around you? No. You started with simple shapes and moved onto more complicated figures.
You might draw pages and pages of eyes, trying to get the expression just right, perfect the shape, figure out how to make the eyelid look realistic.
Then you move onto noses, and do the same thing. Over and over again.
Writing is the same way. You keep trying something, over and over, until you get good at it.
That Next Level
One of the things that I love about writing is that there’s always something new to learn. A new technique. A new way of describing something. A new voice to experiment with.
Do I always succeed when I go swinging for the fences? Heck no. I have stories that are completely broken, that will never see the light of day because they’re so unrepairable. Whole novels, in fact.
But that doesn’t stop me from trying.
No matter how good you get, you should always be growing as an artist.
If you stop growing, chances are you’ll also stop selling. Maybe not right away. But your work will no longer be fresh, alive, vibrant. And that will show. You’re phoning it in.
The greatest writers of our time, the most successful, are still practicing. Still experimenting. They aren’t doing the same thing over and over again.
As a reader, you know when a writer has stopped trying.
Don’t be that guy.
Keep reaching for the new heights.
Perhaps I’ve convinced you that you should practice.
The next question, of course, is how.
Every writer is going to be different in how they approach this. I can only tell you my method. You’ll need to adapt it for your own work.
I primarily practice in novels, not short stories. (Though sometimes I go pretty far off the rails with an experimental short story.)
I will pick some aspect of storytelling that I want to practice for a particular novel. I have a reminder board on my door that I write things on. Generally, I’ll write whatever I’m practicing on that board, so I’ll see it every day.
The practice for this book? Small bites.
A lot of the topics in this book are large, sprawling, and interconnected.
I practiced taking small bites. Breaking things up. Not just ideas, but sentences. Sections.
Keep everything bite–sized, so it’ll be easy to swallow, digest, and learn.
For the novels, I’ve had a lot of different practices. For example, for more than one novel I’ve practiced cliffhangers—that is, how to end a scene or chapter with a bang, pushing the reader forward. For other novels, I’ve practiced Voice. I write voicey things. I’ve practice Voice, to make sure that a piece has a clear, distinct, possibly over–the–top voice.
But then I discovered that I sacrificed other things when I focused so much on Voice. So I wrote a novel where the practice was Voice with Setting.
I’ve also practiced being weird, going over the top, making non–sympathetic characters understandable enough that the reader didn’t mind them, and so on.
There are so many things you can practice.
The project I’m working on will suggest the practice. Then I just remind myself, before I start writing, of what my practice is. I let my back brain take care of the rest.
The Joy of Practice
As I’ve mentioned before, I giggle—a lot—when I’m writing fiction.
What I’ve discovered is that I’m generally practicing the thing that makes me giggle. For example, I recently had a novel where my board read, “Dare to be weird.”
I discovered that every time I stopped giggling, it was because I’d gone normal. I’d done the expected thing.
I needed to go back, throw away what I’d written, and go weird. Go big. Go strange.
My practice is intimately tied to my enjoyment of a piece. If I’m doing my practice well, I know the work is good, too.
What to Practice
I read for enjoyment. I don’t just read to do research. I’m right now reading a lot of modern poetry.
I know a lot of writers who don’t read for enjoyment—either the other words coming in messes them up, or they can’t turn off their critical brain, or what have you.
I think it’s important to be able to read for enjoyment. It’s part of that whole, “I want to learn new techniques.”
You might think that’s a contradiction—how can I read for enjoyment while at the same time learning?
This is where Jack comes in.
Remember—writer here. Lots of different people in my head.
I picture Jack as a Jack Russell Terrier. He sits, patiently nosing along, while I read for fun.
His job? Point out the unusual.
I’ll be reading along and suddenly Jack will jump up, trying to get my attention. There will be something different about what I just read, something he hasn’t seen before. For example, in The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis, mostly Jack just went along for the ride until the very last chapter, midway through the climax.
Took me a while to realize that the entire book had been written using a particular sentence structure, but that right there, for those two paragraphs, the sentence structure had changed.
It was masterfully done.
Will I ever practice that? Perhaps. Maybe try it first in a short story.
It’s amazing the things that Jack points out. And he enables me to be able to relax enough to enjoy reading.
So this is one of the ways I figure out what to practice. By reading for enjoyment, and finding new techniques.
Judging Your Practice
When can a writer accurately judge whether a piece is successful or not?
A writer can never tell. Only readers know.
As I said, I’ve experimented and failed. But it was good practice. I didn’t “waste” that time. I learned something.
Remember, the only way to fail is to not try.
Do you let your “failed” experiments and practice out into the public?
If your first reader says you should.
I have a couple of stories that I feel as though I failed with—I didn’t achieve what I was trying for. I was practicing and it’s obvious, to me, that I didn’t make it. I didn’t reach what I wanted to reach.
These are some of the stories that sell the best.
I cannot judge my own work. I have to let my first reader, and readers in general, tell me if I succeeded or not.
So practice. Write and release, if your first reader thinks you can. Repeat.
Here are the three things you should remember about practicing:
- All art requires practice. Writing is no different.
- You can practice anything. Voice. Character. Setting. Weirdness. Small bites. Whatever you want to get better at for that particular work.
- Let your first reader judge whether you’ve succeeded or not.