My Quest to Perfect My Writing Craft
If you’ve read my In The Beginning post, then you’ve seen the first paragraph of my first attempt at writing a book. That beast is bad, bordering on atrocious :/
Did you spot the inconsistencies? There are several, in just one paragraph. And the grammar (and the punctuation, or lack thereof), also left much to be desired. I mean, if that’s not atrocious I don’t know what is.
To be fair though, as I was writing that first story I wasn’t thinking about where the next comma should go, or even about being published one day. I was just writing; I had to get that story out because it was literally clawing at my insides.
The day I typed “the end” on that story will always be etched into my mind. The overwhelming feeling that swept over me was one of the most indescribable moments of my life. It was then that I realized I had fallen in love with writing. That feeling of release, the creation of a new thing–I simply had to become a writer.
When I realized this, another thought smacked me in the face; I had to be the best. Not an average writer, or even a great writer…I had to become the best damn writer that ever did write 😉
Time for some truth, like deep psychological, pay someone to lie on a couch truth.
When it comes to most things, I’m not what people label a “talented” person. I excel at very few things. And most of those things that I do happen to have some measure of talent at are obscure and weird.
Growing up, I felt like I had even fewer things I was good at. As a young girl I just wanted to be a boy, but I sucked at being a boy too. I could never run as fast, or sound as cool, or shoot a basketball. I was never the smartest (though my nickname in elementary school was “Walking Dictionary”, no joke).
I didn’t consider myself pretty, and I certainly wasn’t popular (other than in the sense of “popular to pick on”). I couldn’t sew clothes, or dance, or sing. Hell, I couldn’t even boil water (you’d like to think I’m joking, but I’m not). I was always average, 100% average. I got average grades, did average things, had average friends. You name it, I was average at it.
When I finished that first story though, I recognized that this was something I could excel at. I could be one of the best authors in the world. My name could be in lights. I could sit on Jimmy Kimmel’s couch. People would recognize me in the grocery store and ask for my autograph. Lines would wrap around buildings when I did a signing.
I realized something else though. I knew, KNEW that I would remain average if I didn’t learn everything I could about writing.
So I set out on my own quest.
And I found the Golden Fleece. The end.
HAHA! Just kidding.
I expect my quest will last most of my life, and I might never see the end of it because my journey is to improve, and improving is a never-ending process. If you think you can’t improve any further, you’ve simply proven that you have a LONG way to go.
I want to be the best, so that means I’ve got to study everything I can, every morsel, each tiny tidbit. I want to learn everything that can be learned about telling stories.
When this quest first began, I had a clear goal in mind: I wanted to be Robert Jordan. His ability to tell a story with descriptive prose, complete and insanely rich worlds, fascinating magic systems, and nuances characters amazed me. The words he picked, and the way he framed a scene, was beautiful. I wanted to be him. I wanted it so badly I could taste it.
I wanted to write an epic fantasy with 200 characters, sweeping vistas, multidimensional characters, and fantastic plots. And yet, as I tried to write like him, I continued to fail. No matter how much I studied Jordan’s writing, I couldn’t write like him.
Thankfully I realized I’m not that type of storyteller, and that I needed to find my own approach. Granted, I’m sure if I work hard enough I can be, but I don’t want to be that anymore.
Thankfully, I found an author I loved, that I could emulate in key ways (without sacrificing my own voice), who was much closer to my natural style of storytelling: Brandon Sanderson.
I know, I’m like so original it hurts, but you can’t deny it; he’s like an ice-cream cone on a hot day, or a thunderstorm rolling across the prairie. He’s an artist and a machine.
So, that’s when the real work began again.
If I can cut myself a slice of humble pie, the most significant step I took was simply recognizing that I should always seek to improve myself, as a storyteller and a writer.
Many writers can’t admit they don’t know everything, and go through life never trying to improve. Fixed mindset people.
Thankfully I’m not one of those. I’m 100% in the growth mindset camp.
I’m not perfect at writing yet, far from it. I’ve got a long, long way to go. Hell, I may never be perfect at writing. But I’ll spend all of my days continuing to work towards it. Then, maybe one day, I’ll wake up and realize that I’ve made it, whatever that even means.
Even then, the process will continue.
Now, in those early days, I had to create a process to make sure I continued to improve. I came up with this process that I rise and repeat. Now that I’ve built up sufficient tension, I’ll tell you my method.
Twix, Cherry Coke, and lots of multi-colored pens.
HA! I’m half joking 😉
Okay, for real though:
1. Read how-to books (and take courses) across many areas of storytelling. Writing fiction, and non-fiction. Screenwriting.
2. Take extensive notes as I read and study these courses.
3. Read genre specific fiction in the areas I want to write.
4. Highlight relevant sentences, descriptions, grammar, and punctuation in the books I read.
5. Re-read highlighted sections to better understand.
6. Take Saturday (and sometimes Sunday) off.
Well folks, there you have it, my process. Let’s begin at #1.
1. Read How-To books.
I find nonfiction books written by seasoned professionals an excellent source of knowledge. How would one find said books? That’s a great question grasshopper! Since I like you, I’ll tell you. First, I prefer word of mouth. As an author, I have several author friends, and they’re always telling me of books they’ve read that have impressed them.
Second, is trusty Amazon. I search by whatever topic I’m musing over, and then sort by ratings. I only go for the highest-rated books, and I read the reviews carefully. Reviews can give a wealth of information about the nature and quality of the book. Next, I see if there is a sample chapter, and if I like what I’m reading I’ll purchase or rent said book.
I want to note that this step also includes MasterClass courses, podcasts, and Brandon Sanderson’s recorded lectures on writing. Also included are nonfiction books not about writing, but that help you understand character. There are a wealth of nonfiction books to help someone understand the human condition, psychology, and criminals minds, you name it. All of this is information that enables you to improve as a writer.
Here are a few books that have really helped me:
2. Take notes.
I love handwritten notes for several reasons. One, it’s scientifically proven that writing notes helps you remember, recall facts, concepts, and provide a deeper understanding of the topic. Something about using multiple senses and different parts of the brain. (Christopher Paolini of Eragon fame swears by this and only writs longhand.)
Look how fancy I am, I’m including a link!!! WOW! Yes, I’m technically challenged, lol.
Another great trick with handwritten notes is the color of the pen. Science has also shown that changing color with topics, or sections, or really whenever you choose, also helps memory. So I changed color frequently, and it helped. I had an impressive pen set, purchased from Walgreen’s. Very fancy.
I’m picky about what notes I’ll record from any passage. It must resonate with me, and honestly, the shorter, the better. If I can get a general idea from a sentence or two, I’ll record it.
Now, handwritten notes have become a tricky topic. As I type I’m in Zagreb, Croatia because I’m living a digital nomad living from suitcases, I can’t have as many handwritten notes, (tears fall).
So I’m reduced to typed notes, which are still fine, but I strongly urge you to write your notes if you can.
Then, if you’re as dedicated/obsessive as I was (and also on the verge of world travel), type your notes into a handy-dandy and portable word document, or Scrivener folder, to reread at your leisure. This also further implants those notes because you’ve now reviewed them three times and encoded them in multiple ways.
Now, I’d like to note specially (see how it’s special because I italicized it, and I’ve mentioned it twice now!). Read and take notes on books outside of writing. Read books on anything that can help you write, books on arguing, psychology, emotion, brain chemistry, anything and everything that helps you to better perceive reality will help you become a better writer.
3. Read genre specific fiction books.
As a reader myself, this was my favorite step. I picked the top books in my chosen genre and read them carefully. As an author, my dream is to produce an epic fantasy, and since I’m not skilled enough yet for that, I’m going for practice first.
Since I decided to start with an urban, young adult fantasy for my first published novel, I analyzed:
Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones.
Sarah J Mass’ Throne of Glass
Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings
Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind
One YA urban fantasy (my exact target), one YA fantasy, and 2 epic fantasies at the top of their game. These books and authors are all extremely successful, they are masters of their craft and their genres, and I knew I could learn a ton from them (and I totally did).
4. Highlight relevant sentences, descriptions, grammar, and punctuation.
Now, as you might expect from me, I didn’t just read it. I took some very pretty colored pencils and highlighted according to assigned colors. Example: I used blue to highlight dialogue I really liked, I used tan for action scenes, orange was culture, green was setting, yellow was possible lanterns. All those books above are now colorful and full of margin notes.
I spent months pouring over those books, reading and rereading passages to understand their purpose, meaning, and intent. I learned a lot from those months. This is a process I repeat occasionally, but since I’m living from a suitcase, I highlight them in my kindle now.
I probably learned more about writing from this step than all the others combined.
Before I left for my world travels, I took a picture of my notes in Way of the Kings, so you can get a feel for it:
5. Re-read your notes.
Not sure this requires an entire section. For me, I periodically go back through all the notes I’ve taken, and I read through them again. I’ve got a note file of thoughts and extracts from all the books I’ve written that is close to 200,000 words long now.
You don’t necessarily have to condense 100+ books and courses into a single long book of notes, you can find a way that works for you, but this has worked very well for me. YMMV.
6. Take days off.
This isn’t so much of a step as a recommendation. I found myself more burned out when I worked (meaning reading, analyzing, writing, editing, or any facet of authoring), seven days a week. So I take one day (or two if I need it) to do whatever I want. Usually, that means coloring, watching sappy romance movies, exploring some exotic city, or decorating my travel journal.
I urge you to pick a day or two each week to ward off burnout.
If you really want to be an author, if you have stories burning inside that you feel compelled to release into the world…
No, I’ll say this another way.
If you want to become a great author, the process of obtaining and implementing knowledge is a continuing process. You don’t get to read three how-to books and declare yourself educated enough. It’s not possible to analyze six published books and announce you’ve learned everything and are now perfect. You can’t watch a movie or TV series and say you understand all the nuance of storytelling.
It just doesn’t work like that.
It’s a continuing process. It’s like perma-school. Strive to be the best author you can, and continually search for more to learn, more to experience, more to soak in.
I still read and note at least one or two how-to books a month. I probably always will because I want to be great. I want to succeed like Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss, J.R.R. Tolkien, and J.K. Rowling.
I want to be epic, so I’ll teach myself to be just that, because I know that it’s a journey, not a destination.
Now, I’ll probably go into more detail in future posts about each of these steps, but this is a first off, introduce you, dip your toes into the pool sorta post.
Now, go forth and write!