This myth, that writers don’t need to practice, is so damn silly when looked at with clear vision, it seems I wouldn’t need to talk about it at all in this book. But frighteningly enough, it is one of the worst myths running, one of the deepest myths functioning in every writer’s head, and often the real difference between a good non-sold writer and a long-term professional writer. And it can also be the difference between a selling professional and a bestseller.
Practice. The ugly word for writers.
I have touched on this in a number of ways and in a number of other chapters, but let me try to hit this as squarely on the head as possible.
Here’s the question that illustrates this myth: Would you pick up a violin, take one lesson, and think you should step on the stage in front of 30,000 people to play a concert?
No sane person says sure to that question. It’s a laughable question, yet almost every beginning writer I know writes a first short story, or a first novel, fires it off to a publisher, and then gets mad when it gets rejected.
Reactions always vary in this anger. “Oh, stupid editors don’t understand true genius when they read it.” Or “I should just self-publish it because you have to know someone to get a book published these days.” And so on and so on.
The real reason your story got rejected early on? You haven’t practiced your craft enough, so your story sucked.
Write another one. Get more practice. Stay off the stage until you are good enough to not embarrass yourself. Duh. (Does this mean you shouldn’t mail every story to editors? Of course not. See why your should mail every practice session later in this post.)
An editor is a stage manager. They won’t let you out on the stage of that magazine or that book line until your skills are where they need to be and your entertainment performance is good enough to hold the audience. They also make sure your performance isn’t wrong for the audience sitting and waiting to be entertained.
So how come writers think every word they write doesn’t stink and get so angry at a simple rejection to an early story? How come the word “practice” is a dirty word to writers? The shout or thought is: “I don’t practice. I write!”
To beginning writers every word is golden. Every word needs to be polished and worked over (see that rewriting myth chapter here), even though the writer has no clue what they are fixing or not fixing. You don’t think the rewriting myth applies here to the practice myth? Of course it does. When you are rewriting, you aren’t practicing writing. You are just trying to rearrange notes in the last practice session. Think of that in music terms and you see how really silly that is.
Tell a beginning writer to toss out a manuscript and write the idea from scratch and they will sit stunned and horrified. “You can’t toss out my beautiful, wonderful, etched-in-stone words.” Yet in music you screw up an attempt at a song, you do it again. And then again. And then again. From scratch, from the idea, from the beginning.
So how come writers think this way?
Lots of reasons actually. The biggest is that early on in our lives we all started writing in one fashion or another. And, of course, those who were good in school got praise by a high school or college teacher for good writing, and thus the belief is because of that praise it is possible to be a bestseller on the first book. Uhhhh….no.
Second reason: In the early days it takes special time that must be carved out of life to write, so whatever is produced in that time can’t be “wasted” in any way. Truth: No writing is ever wasted. It is practice.
There are many other smaller reasons for this belief system. Each writer needs to figure out why they have it and crush it. Mine was because I learned to type and write my first stories on typewriters, with tons of White-Out. I felt at times like I was carving a statue on those pages. Took me a while, meaning years, to get past that feeling.
So what is practice in writing and how do you do it?
Every writer I know who is a long term professional has practice methods for almost every craft a writer needs to master. I’ll give you some general ones in a moment. But first, let me talk about how you practice.
1) A Writer is a Person Who Writes. So is just simply doing lots of writing good practice?
Sometimes yes, to a degree. If you are mailing the story or novel out to editors when you finish and getting feedback and applying the feedback to THE NEXT STORY. The key is getting feedback, listening to the feedback, and then writing the next story. See the workshop chapter here on how to use workshops for the feedback. You can’t fix a practice session, but you can learn from a practice session what works and what doesn’t work and apply that knowledge to your next story or novel.
If you just write the same story over and over, the same way, without actually trying to apply knowledge to the new story, then no, you can write for years and not improve. And sadly, I’ve seen that happen.
There is a common term for this called FOCUSED PRACTICE.
But first and foremost, you have to sit and do a lot of writing. No rewriting, writing original words. Not researching, writing original words.
2) Does everything you write in the early years need to be a focused practice session? Or can I just write?
Yes, again to a degree. Early on in your writing career, you are missing so many storytelling skills, just writing and not working to get better in an area doesn’t make much sense. As the words go by and the years pass, not every session is a practice session. But every session will always be a learning session.
3) Should I tell stories while practicing or just write paragraphs or scenes?
Oh, heavens, you are practicing being a storyteller, so every session is focused on telling a story. Nothing else matters. Everything you practice goes to telling a story, so every practice session should be on a story of some sort.
4) If I am only practicing, should I mail out my stories when they are finished?
OF COURSE!!! Duh, you have to get feedback on your practice, and an editor telling you a story works, or that they read it shows your practice is working. At first you will only get form rejections and no feedback, but develop a trusted first reader and use a workshop for feedback, but mail everything.
I used to write a story every week, then mail it to an editor on my way to turn it into my workshop. I wanted feedback on the story not to fix the story, but to learn how to do something better on the next story, and to see if something worked or didn’t work. Workshop sometimes told me that, but editors told me that even more. And I trusted the editors. After all, it was their job to keep me off the stage until I my craft and entertaining skills were ready to go on stage. I trusted they would do that as well.
5) How long do you need to practice and work on your craft and storytelling skills?
Your entire life. It never ends. The learning never stops in this art form, and the moment you think you are “good enough” you are dead.
This week I am teaching a character voice workshop to a group of professional writers who want to focus on that one craft area for an entire week. A large part of what I am setting up for them in this workshop is not only analytical skills practice, but actual focused character voice practice. Will they know how to create more character voice in their stories when they leave? I sure hope so. But then what they will have to do is go home and practice what they have learned this week. Focus practice, story after story, until what they learned here becomes automatic through their fingers.
And why am I spending time teaching this class? Because I’ve been writing a number of young adult novels lately and really want to practice my character voice skills and learn more, and trust me, teaching is a great way to focus craft issues.
I once had an interviewer ask me why I wrote so many media novels. My standard answer is, of course, that I loved the universes and the characters and the work. And that’s very true. Writing for DC and Marvel and Star Trek and Men in Black and X-Box was just a blast for an old kid like me. Period, end of discussion.
But for some reason I answered a different way with this interviewer. I answered, “Practice.”
You see, for every media book I wrote, I focused on one thing to practice for that book. For example, on three novels in a row, I worked on nothing but different forms of cliff hangers. The reviews on those three books for the first time in my career started adding in the phrase “hard to put down.”
Focused practice, then feedback then more focused practice, then more feedback.
That’s the loop you want to try to set up in every way possible.
For a moment, let me give you some basic hints about feedback and how to understand what a first reader or workshop reader is saying to you. These are very basic.
“Your story really took off on page six.”
Meaning: Your opening sucks, you walked or strolled or woke up to your story, and no editor on the planet will ever buy the story.
“I just couldn’t see your story.”
You forgot to ground your reader in a setting, real setting, and your characters were just talking heads yacking at each other in a white room.
“Your character seemed flat.”
You forgot to give any kind of character voice or character opinion or character description.
“Your ending doesn’t work.”
You screwed up your set-up in the opening of your story and didn’t prepare the reader for your ending. Or you wrote two pages past your ending and didn’t know it. Or you haven’t gotten to your ending yet.
And so on and so on. You get the idea. Get the feedback, figure out what it really means, which is often not what you are hearing.
How to apply feedback like those samples and practice what you need.
Say you got feedback on a story that said “I just couldn’t see your story.”
Okay, no real setting in your story. So, first off, resist the temptation to FIX the story getting the feedback. Trust me, if you have that problem in one story, you will have it in all of your stories. So you need to work on setting, you need to practice it. Just keep the other story in the mail and get practice in the next story.
Setting is opinion, so often a story that has no setting means you are not inside a character’s head and looking out. (Yes, setting is viewpoint.)
So, on your next story, climb solidly inside a character’s head, park your butt square in the middle of that character’s five senses, and use all five senses to describe the setting around the character.
And I don’t mean just layer it in. I mean go over the top, way, way, way over the top. Make the first five pages of your next short story opinion about a setting through a character’s eyes. Use all five senses every two pages for the entire story.
And use all five senses every two pages for every story you write for a year.
Get the idea? Focused practice.
Take feedback on a story, understand what isn’t working, then focus practice the missing skill in your next stories, your next novels. Not just once but over and over and over until you got it.
And how do you get the knowledge to get better in an area? Read, go to professional level workshops, read, read how-to-write books, study what other writers did who you think do what you are practicing well, then read more. Get information from everywhere and all the time.
One fine day back when I was even younger than I was in the pictures I’ve been putting up, I was a golf professional working to play tour stops. On one round I needed to hook a seven iron around a tree and I didn’t do it.
After the round (couldn’t fix that round, just as you can’t fix a story) I went to the range, got a big yellow bucket of balls (about 300) and worked on hooking a seven iron. I did the same practice for 300 balls the next day, and then the next day, only working for those 300 golf balls on learning how to hook a seven iron until every damn ball in the last 300 hooked as I wanted each shot to hook.
I went out the next day, needed to hook a seven iron, missed the shot, because I was too much in my head thinking about it. But in a round a week later I needed the same shot and hit it perfectly. And I never had trouble with that shot after that.
It works the same with writing. You discover through one form of feedback or another you missed on something, go back to your computer and practice what you missed over and over in the next stories until you no longer miss and you no longer need to think about it.
Do I still practice with every story, every novel? Of course. I just finished a fun young adult thriller for a publisher that will first appear in serialized form online before hitting book form. I needed to use the old pulp formula and cliff hangers to keep readers coming back for a new chapter every week. Great fun, great practice.
John D. MacDonald once famously said that every writer has a million words of crap in them before they reach their first publishable story. In modern times, studies and other books have set different numbers for a person to “get good” or “become great.” Numbers like 10,000 hours. Yeah, I pretty much agree with all that. However you look at it, you must practice to gain skills.
And you must use focused practice. You can’t just type, you need to focus on something in a story, some element in a story that you suck at, and then work at getting better at it.
So in that short story or novel you are writing right now, quick, without thinking, tell me what you are practicing besides typing.
Oh, oh, caught you, didn’t I? If the answer doesn’t instantly spring to your mind, you are not doing focused practice.
One day back about novel number thirty I was moaning about not getting started on a novel that I had under deadline. Kris asked me, “What are you practicing this novel?” Duh, I had forgot to figure out what I needed to practice in the novel. No wonder my mind wouldn’t let me start. So I figured it out and the novel went smoothly.
I have never made that mistake again. Every story, every novel, has a practice focus. And every new story will until the day I die. I want to keep learning and becoming a better storyteller and the only way to do that is practice.
Focused practice and a lot of typing.
Copyright 2010 Dean Wesley Smith
This is part of my inventory in my bakery now. (Confused on that, read the Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post about making money with writing.) I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie.
If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.
And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated. Once this book is done, I will send you a copy. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately are really keeping me going on this. Thanks!
If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it. Every week or so I will be adding a new chapter on the myths and sacred cows of publishing. Stay tuned. Upcoming are chapters on bestsellers, research, rejections, and so much more. This business has a lot of myths. An entire book full.