Practice Makes Perfect: Challenging Yourself to Become a Better Writer

As I mentioned the other day, I’m a fan of Scott H. Young’s blog on rapid/holistic learning. He’s been doing a free bootcamp via email, and he had an interesting challenge today.

Practice is necessary for perfection, but it matters what you practice and how. For instance, you’re not going to become a better writer if you just write random words or sentences; you need to have specific goals.

Also, you need feedback. If you don’t know you’ve made a mistake, practicing it will just cement the wrong thing in your brain!

Studies have found that people working a problem (like a math problem) learn faster/better if they know immediately if they got the answer wrong. Once you move on to another problem (or another subject, or another day), your brain cements that wrong answer/wrong method. It’s much harder to go back and correct yourself later.

Unfortunately, writing doesn’t typically have immediate feedback or metrics that are easy to reach. But, you can set yourself practice goals and if you blog, you can get feedback. (It’s not exactly instantaneous, but definitely better than nothing.)

My Goal

One thing that I have trouble with is being brief. I’m not bad about being repetitive (I don’t think!), but I do go on at length. That’s great when I’m writing a novel (most of the time), but not so much when I’m writing a blog post. 300-600 words is the sweet spot for blog posts.

(I also need to be better about making smaller paragraphs, using more subheadings, and more descriptive/SEO-friendly blog titles.)

So, my challenge for November is to keep all of my posts to 600 words or less. This may mean breaking up big ideas over multiple days (because I will maintain my rule about one post per day, unless there’s some really breaking news). Of course, with it being NaNo, too, I don’t have a lot of time to spend blogging, so this can keep me on task.

Your Goal?

As a writer, what is something that you struggle with, and how can you practice it?

  • Do you have trouble meeting writing goals? Can’t keep ass in chair? Do NaNo!
  • Do you have trouble blogging every day? Try Plinky for post ideas. Or read other blogs and post your own take/response to something you’ve read.
  • Do you feel you’re bad at dialogue? Write some and post it to your blog for critique. Or take bad dialogue and try to make it better (something I’ve tried with Varney the Vampire).
  • Do you need to learn to read critically? (This helps you edit/proof your own work.) Vow to read a book every 2-4 weeks and then review it on your blog. Don’t just give it a thumbs up or down, but write your review as if the writer is paying you to copy-edit. (It’s better to go with cheap romances, westerns, free novels on Smashwords, or discounted books; they’re more likely to have major flaws.)
  • Write your own challenge below. Just take something you’re not good at and find a way to practice doing it for a month.

(527 words in this post!)

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Let’s Play with Plot Cards

These are now available for purchase. Click picture for link.

This morning, I laid out a basic story spread with the Story Forge plot cards. I thought I would share it as a writing exercise.

I would really love to see all the variations people come up with, so I encourage everyone to write the story, post it online somewhere, and share a link to it in the comments. If your story is flash fiction (1,000 words or less), you can share it directly in the comments, or you can share your first page.  (Yes, I’ll do up a story and share it, too!)

This is from the “Once Upon a Time” spread, which is short and fairly basic. You could get a rough outline for an entire novel from this, but it really seems best for short stories/novellas.

The Protagonist: A doctor or healer.

The Current Situation: Catastrophic physical disaster for individual, community, or humanity.

What Makes the Situation Unstable: Red tape

What Prevents the Protagonist’s Involvement: Lust

What Overcomes the Resistance: Epiphany (In an overwhelming instant, the true nature of the universe and one’s place in it is revealed.)

What Pushes the Protagonist into Action: The Officer (A career soldier with many years of training, combat experience, and a life in the military.)

Direction the Protagonist is Pushed: Courage (Emotional fortitude is found. Even in the face of impending doom, the will to go on is within reach.)

Goal: Solitude (The goal must be pursued alone. Either assistance is not available or it must be refused.)

Four of the eight cards were destiny cards which “represent the big issues in one’s live, those events that strike like lightning and leave everything completely changed forever.” So this catastrophic disaster is going to cause a major life change for our protagonist.

I debated whether or not to leave “solitude” as the goal card, because that’s not exactly a resolution, is it? But I decided that I liked it because it leaves the end more flexible. Does the hero conquer the disaster? Succumb to it? (Death is the ultimate solitude!) Or is he going to have to fight the good fight for the rest of his life? Solitude also implies that he loses his lust-mate, but it can also mean that he loses his officer mentor/partner/friend. Or it might mean that he is the sole survivor or has to shut himself off from others in order to work on a solution. (Think I Am Legend.)

There is nothing that says you have to adhere to the entire spread. For instance, “red tape” might be something that you don’t bother to represent (especially if you’re wanting a fairly short story), or it might appear towards the end of the story rather than at the beginning. The point of the cards is to give you an idea for a story, not write the entire story for you. So use them as a jumping-off point and feel free to deviate where necessary.

I will try to have a rough draft (or at least a start) by next week. So we’ll revisit this next Thursday and see what we come up with. Writers, start your computers!

What’s in a Room?

Tagged: In Twilight, we heard about the eighty-seven shades of Edward’s eyes, but almost none of the answers when Edward was asking Bella about herself, describing the wrong thing, New Moon, Boxers thrown over his stereo? I want to know about the girly posters!

Reasoning with Vampires makes a good point: rooms are very personal and are a great way to display a character’s personality. When I looked through my book, I found I did it quite a bit (even though I feel like description is not my strong suit and almost everything in the book is dialogue-driven). Here are some  of my examples:

Isaac’s house:

Isaac had, for the most part, been fairly tidy, but here and there something was out of place: a magazine casually tossed on the sofa; a post-it note stuck to his computer monitor; a sock half-hidden under a chair. It looked as though he had just left—as if he was coming back.

[Kalyn’s mother goes into Isaac’s bedroom] She sat down on the unmade bed and looked around. It had been a long time since she had been in it. Isaac had painted it a different color and changed the carpet sometime in the past twenty-five years, but other than that, it looked pretty much the same—down to the clothes hamper, which looked as if it had just belched a few stray pieces of clothing onto the floor.

Anselm’s garage:

Anselm went through the kitchen and stepped down into the garage. Kalyn followed him, looking around. His car was parked outside and the garage door was open—sunlight and a soft breeze coming in. Tools and garden equipment were arranged neatly on pegboards, shelves, and racks along the walls. It looked like an advertisement for some sort of home organization system. And the garage itself was so clean, it looked as though it had never been used. There wasn’t so much as a greasy spot on the concrete floor where he normally parked his car.

“Why were you worried about me getting dirty?” she asked. “I’ve been in restaurants that weren’t this clean.”

Anselm laughed. “I haven’t started [working] yet.”

“I thought Mike was kidding about the color-coded socks,” she said, as she looked over Anselm’s workbench. There was a plastic cabinet on it which had many small drawers, each neatly labeled with its contents. There was an entire row of screws—ascending in size from left to right—then nails, bolts, and nuts similarly arranged.

A guest bedroom in Marie’s house:

Kalyn took the room on the front of the house. It had a large window that went all the way to the floor. It was open and the cool night air felt wonderful. The large, four-poster cherry bed was made up with a quilt which was predominately pink and white, and the pillows were white and trimmed in eyelet lace. There was no closet in the room, but there was a large cherry wardrobe which matched the bed, and a small dressing table with a marble top. The walls were papered in pink and white stripes, with pinstripes of gold.

The bedroom of Kalyn’s best friend, Megan:

Megan’s bedroom door was standing open. She was lying on her stomach on the bed, piles of books and papers scattered in front of her.

“Hey Kalyn,” Megan said, looking up. “I thought I heard you come in.”

Kalyn sat down in Megan’s desk chair and put her backpack on the floor. Megan’s desk was piled high with so many clothes and papers and odds and ends, it was no wonder she was working on the bed; it was the clearest horizontal space in the room.

“I don’t know how you do your homework with your room in a mess like this,” Kalyn said, surveying the clothes and shoes in the floor.

Master Joshua’s living room:

Kalyn followed the woman—she assumed she was Joshua’s secretary—through a hallway and into a corner living room with large windows overlooking the city. The furniture was modern and white—as was the carpet, curtains, and walls. Paintings, sculpture, and bits and pieces of colorful art stood in stark contrast to the white. It looked more like an art gallery than a living room.

And his office:

Kalyn followed him—and Anselm and Micah followed her—into a small office off the living room. It was clearly meant for Joshua’s private use; there was only one straight-backed chair sitting beside the desk. Unlike the living room, it was painted a deep red color, which made it seem cozy and private.

So here’s a writing exercise for everyone: describe your protagonist’s bedroom. If you’ve already done it, do it for a different character. If you have a villain, describe his personal space. Or do it for a secondary character. You don’t have to put it into your final story, but it will help you know your character better, and it will show.

12.5 Rules of Writing

I found the following rules over on E. L. Taylor III’s blog:

1. As I have mentioned here before, there’s an axiom that every writer has a million words of crap in them. Even if you feel like you’re writing crap, you are accomplishing something: you’re getting the crap out. So yes, write every day, even if it sucks and you end up throwing it out. It is still beneficial.

2. This is related to another axiom: write what you’d like to read. That sounds logical, but some people get caught up in writing for profit and writing what people think they people want to hear. When I decided to try my hand at writing historical romance, I was confronted with the dilemma of whether to word it the way that I thought romances were worded (i.e. “cheesy”), but I decided not to go there. It’s not natural for me to write in that style, and it’s not what I like to read. Time will show if it sells well, but my pre-readers–including my husband–liked the initial draft and, in fact, wanted to see more. So stick with what you know and what you like and you will probably do well. At the very least, you won’t be ashamed of anything you’ve written.

3. I’m not too much on routines–never have been–but I will agree that setting goals/deadlines is important to keeping yourself moving in a forward direction. Once I set a publication date on my book, it necessitated that I word on my final proofreading edits every day (I usually do a little every morning, before I go to work).

4. I suppose it doesn’t have to rhyme, although I do prefer when it does.

5. Stereotypes/caricatures do get boring. Also, be careful that you’re not doing the same thing over and over again. My husband said he used to read science-fiction, until he started to notice that the characters and plots were all very similar. This can be a problem when you’re writing in a genre–be it fantasy, sci-fi, western, or romance. There’s only so many times the shy virgin can be ravished to her rapturous delight before people start to say, “This has been done to death.” So not only avoid stereotypical characters, but also avoid the stereotypes of your genre.

6. I’ve trumpeted this rule before, too. Reading will help you improve your grammar and build your vocabulary. Reading will give you ideas for your own stories. Reading critically–especially in your own genre–will also show you what you should and should not do to your own stories.

7. I don’t see much use in this, however, I would encourage people to make a list of names that they find interesting; then you never lack for a name for a character. Also, I’ve seen it recommended that you compile information on other things you find interesting–a job or a city or pictures of people who interest you–so that you can use that later in your writing. In short, be constantly researching and compile a database of names and faces and jobs and locations so that you can plop a plot down in the middle of it and call it amore.

8. This seems to be true of modern fiction (“literature” or non-genre fiction), but I think it’s probably less true of genres. Romances are expected to have a happy ending and I think sci-fi and fantasy books are expected to have either a cautionary element or an old-fashioned good-versus-evil plot. My own trilogy has a moral: destroy evil when you have the opportunity, or it will come back to destroy you one day. So no, not all fiction requires a moral, but be sure you have one when the genre demands it, or you’ll wind up disappointing everyone.

9. I have to agree with this, because I know if I don’t write something down immediately, I’ll forget it. When I’ve gotten good ideas in the car, I’ve written on the backs of scrap paper and envelopes, just to keep from losing some good idea. So put a small notebook and pencil (no fear that it will die) in your car and keep one beside your bed for those end-of-the-day thoughts. (You might also have a dim reading light or nightlight that you can turn on so you can see to write without completely waking your brain–or partner–up by using a bright light.)

10. This is something I’ve recommended before to people suffering from writer’s block with a story. Start a fresh document and write about your character having an average day. Write about them before the story starts, after it’s done, or on one of the boring days in the middle where nothing exciting is happening–you know, all that time that occurs between important plot points. Make them do the laundry, cook dinner, groom their horse, read a magazine while having a bowel movement–everyday, normal stuff. Why? Because real people do these things, and if you want your character to seem real, you’ll know what they’re doing when they’re not having an exciting life. This can often trigger an idea for some new, exciting plot twist, but at the very least, once you learn what your characters do and don’t like doing, you can sprinkle references to that throughout your book and make your character seem that much more real. And don’t worry about having to throw away this boring chapter; it’s been valuable to you, even if it doesn’t end up in your book (see #1 above).

11. I decided to write a historical romance because I thought it would be easier to get my first book published in that genre. The surprising thing was that I actually enjoyed writing it and I came out with a story that I really like. It inspired me to consider writing possibilities in all genres. I also wrote it from the POV of a man–not something I do often. Another way to break out of a rut is to switch from third person to first person or active tense versus past tense.

12. Even if you want to stay in the POV of a single character all the time (almost a requirement if you’re writing from first person), write a throwaway chapter (or three) where you tell the story from the POV of another character. Again, this is a good way to get over writer’s block, plus it makes your non-primary characters more believable.

12.5. What are you waiting for?

Vacation Cometh

Me looking haughty in my handmade 14th century English garb. (It's the hair; I'm very vain of it.)

Vacations sure are a lot of work to plan, pack, travel, enjoy, travel, and unpack. To say nothing of catching up work upon your return and cleaning the house that you destroyed while packing.

Regardless, I am about to go on vacation to the middle ages. Every year, my husband and I go to southern Mississippi for a week and camp in our period tent and do various medieval activities. I’m teaching 4 different classes (and one I’m teaching twice), plus I will take take classes. I will also volunteer to do some illumination (we give handmade illuminations to people as a reward). Most of the men (and some women) will spend time fighting.

In most years, attendance is around 3,000-3,500. The economy makes it hard for some people to go, but this year it happens to coincide with most school’s spring breaks, so people with children who do not normally get to go will be there. So we should meet our average, if not a bit better.

So, since I’m going to be gone next week, there will be no episode of Bloodsuckers released. However, I do have a treat for my regular readers. If you go to Amazon on Saturday, March 17 (yes, St. Patrick’s Day), you can download a copy of my short story, The Last Golden Dragon, for FREE. I’m doing this in honor of Ireland–my spiritual home and the place where I conceived of and wrote the story.

This lovely picture–which is now paired with my story–was done by Oakendragon, whom I found on DeviantArt. She very graciously gave me permission to use it royalty-free, so it’s now on Amazon as my “book” cover.

I chose her picture because it’s close to what I envisioned my dragon looking like, plus he’s smiling and rather benign-looking. It’s actually rather hard to find a dragon which is more kindly than fearsome.

Looking through her art–and some of the other art on DeviantArt–makes me wonder about starting with a picture and coming up with a story based on it. That might be an experiment I’ll try after vacation.

In fact, let’s make that today’s writing exercise. Go on DeviantArt and find a picture that appeals to you. Then write a short story inspired by it (it’s okay if your story ends up looking nothing like the picture; creativity can evolve in some weird directions sometimes).

Writing Exercise: Mishmashed Storylines

Monty Python crosses Attila the Hun with a 1960's situation sitcom

My husband and I are now the proud owners of all of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (a steal at McKay’s Used Bookstore in Knoxville, TN because they’re on VHS). The Attila the Hun episode was particularly funny, and several of the sketches in that episode seemed to have been put together using some mishmash (or mismatched) technique. I thought that a similar technique might make for a fun writing exercise (and/or party game).

Using index cards or scraps of paper, write down a main character. Examples:

  • A king
  • An 8 year old boy
  • Betty White
  • A British bus driver
  • A snuffleupagus
  • A teen mother
  • A dead man
  • Yourself

Be somewhat specific (no generalities like  “woman” or “man”) and give yourself a variety of funny, serious, and neutral characters.

Next, compile some locations for your main character:

  • A rural bus stop on a Polynesian island
  • A shady lawyer’s office
  • The Oval Office
  • A kosher deli in Montana
  • A bush meat barbecue in Africa
  • A palm tree on the bank of the Nile
  • A ship rounding Cape Horn

You can stop there, or you add a third level of situations which your main character finds him or herself:

  • Pregnant
  • Someone is dead
  • Unemployed
  • Had a one-night stand
  • Working for a corrupt/dishonest business
  • Driving drunk
  • Newlywed
  • Going overseas for the first time
  • Kidnapped by Mexican drug lords

If you want, you can also do a fourth selection, which dictates the tone/style of your writing:

  • 1st person autobiography
  • 3rd person
  • Narrator view of your main character (think Ishmael in Moby Dick; even though he was the narrator of the story, and a character in it, Captain Ahab was the main character)
  • Humorous
  • Fantasy/science fiction
  • Dream/psychotic episode/alien abduction or some other situation where what happens is later revealed not to be real
  • Serious
  • Satire

Now, put all of your options in separate piles and pull one option from each pile. This sets your main character and location and, if you’ve chosen, the situation and story form. Write a short story (3 pages or more) based on these selections.

You can also do this exercise if you have a novel started, but are totally stuck on your plot. Just write all of your character’s names on pieces of papers and throw in a few new characters (name and a brief description of personality and/or life history). Then make a pile of situations, like above, and pull out a name and a situation. If the situation calls for it, pull out another character name to decide who is the accomplice or victim.