What do accountants, psychologists, and hairdressers have in common? They all have to invest in continuing education – they all keep learning their whole careers. Writers are no different. Whether you’re brand new to the field or have been writing your whole life, there’s always something new to learn.
Characterization, plot, theme, style, voice, structure, dialogue, action, scene, arc – these are just a few of the building blocks of great fiction. Working on one topic at a time can be a hugely effective strategy, but nothing delivers better than trying your hand at a whole story. But make sure you study prewriting and revision both – neither were taught in the college courses I took, and both make you better. In the case of revision, MUCH better.
Where do you learn? Writing books are always great resources. Two of my favorites are Immediate Fiction by Jerry Cleaver and Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams. Check out your local library – mid-sized to large libraries have whole shelves devoted to writing books. Bring home an armful and try out several. Make sure you do all the exercises, no matter how simplistic – what you put into this is really what you get out of it.
Classes and Conferences
In-person classes and conferences are also great places to learn. Plus, you get to make friends with other writers (essential to building a career). Community colleges, local schools and writer’s clubs – even bookstores – are all great places to find classes. Conferences are usually held in mid-sized to larger cities, but odds are there’s one near you. Search the name of a larger city near you and “Writer’s Conference” and you may be surprised what pops up. Both classes and conferences can get a bit pricey, so make sure you know what you’re getting and the level of writer to which the class is geared. Also, ask questions about the instructor. He or she doesn’t necessarily have to be a best-selling author (although that helps), but they should know what they’re talking about and be further along in their career than where you are now. As I’ve said before, the best way to learn is to surround yourself with people better than you are and ask lots of questions.
There are also a number of online classes, which can be cheaper than in-person while still having an instructor. They range from very cheap (i.e. SavvyAuthors.com) to more expensive (Writer’s Digest), or installment plans such as Holly Lisle’s. (I’ve taken a few of Holly’s self-paced courses and can’t recommend her enough – information in the sidebar). There seem to be a wide range of both quality and price out there, so do your research. As with the books, in many cases you’ve got to be willing and able to work on your own to get real value out of the classes.
Speaking of surrounding yourself with good people, a great writer’s group is essential. Nothing teaches you so much about writing as critiquing other people’s writing and discussing what does and doesn’t work about it. Having several reader perspectives on your own work is also critical for getting better. Sometimes you don’t understand what you’re doing is bad until four readers point it out!
Make sure as you look for a group that it is constructive – meaning, the meetings spend most of the time talking about the work, not the authors. The people say good things as well as bad. And there are no personal attacks or personality cults. Keep looking until you find one where the people are at your level or above, and don’t be afraid to say no to a mediocre group in your search for a good one. You can find groups both online and through other writers, or found your own. My in-person scifi group I found on Facebook.
Butt in chair, hands on keyboard. Without practice, you can’t get better. But, like any good musician, you’ll find the more focused your practice, the more good you get out of it. Try exercise books like The 3 A.M. Ephiphany by Brian Kiteley. Follow a blog or two for story prompts. And play. Try things outside of your comfort zone. Be experimental. If it turns out awful, no one has to see it, and expanding your horizons is the only way to get better.
Often neglected, one of the most natural ways to learn good writing is to read. Read things like your work, and read things as unlike your work as possible. When we were children, we learned to speak by hearing. Writing is no different – the more writing input you put in, the more your brain learns. Speed up the process by paying attention to how the writer did his job. Study a good book for structure, character, writing and more – and see if you can imitate the techniques the writer used.