Sunday, July 13, 2014

Writing Doesn't Make You a Better Writer


I was sitting contentedly at one of my branch offices (with the round green sign) when I overheard a curly-headed young man say, "The only way to learn how to write is to write!"

His female companion nodded with the reverential gaze of the weary pilgrim imbibing the grand secret of the universe from a wizened guru on a Himalayan summit. I dared not break the soporific spell. Even so, I was tempted to slide over and say, "And the only way to learn how to do brain surgery is to do brain surgery."

I would have gone on to explain that it is too simplistic to say "writing makes you a better writer." It might make you a better typist. But most writers want to produce prose that other people will actually buy. For that you need more than a clacking keyboard, as essential as that is to the career-minded writer.

Bobby Knight, the legendary basketball coach and tormenter of referees, had a wise saying: "Practice doesn't make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect."


That's so true. If what you ingrain in your muscle memory are bad habits, you are not moving toward competence in your sport. In point of fact, you're hurting your chances of getting to be the best you can be.

When I was learning basketball, I made sure my shot was fundamentally sound: elbow in, hands properly placed, perfect spin on the ball. I became one of the great shooters of my generation (he says, humbly). That skill never left me. At my first Bouchercon I got in the pickup basketball game that S. J. Rozan put together. Nobody knew me yet, but as we were shooting around Reed Farrel Coleman saw my shot and said, "Wow. Look at that spin!" That was cool. (I should have said to Reed, "Look at that prose!")

But I had spent countless hours refining my shot with the proper fundamentals. By way of contrast, I'd play against kids who had goofy, elbow-out, sidespin shots that had never been corrected. They were never a long-term threat.

So, let's get a few things straight about getting better at this craft:

1. You learn to write by learning how to write

As a kid I'd check out basketball books from the library and study them. Then I'd practice what I studied on my driveway. I'd watch players like Jerry West and Rick Barry and observe their technique. Later on, I got coaching, and once went to John Wooden's basketball camp. I played in endless pickup games, and afterward I'd think about how I played and what I could do to improve.

Writers learn their craft by reading novels and picking up techniques.  Also by reading books on writing. Then they practice what they learn. They get coaching from editors and go to writers' conferences. They write every day and after they write they think about how they wrote and what they can do to improve.


2. Creativity and craft go together

Every now and then some contrarian will say a writer should forget about "rules" and just write, man. That's all you need to do! Rules only choke off your creativity. Burn all those Writer's Digest books!

It's a silly and strawman argument.

First, they use the word rules as if writing craft teachers (such as your humble correspondent) lay them out as law. But no one ever does that. We talk about the techniques that work because they have been proven to do so over and over again, in actual books that actually sell. And even if a technique is so rock solid someone calls it a rule, we always allow that rules can be broken if—and only if—you know why you're breaking them and why doing so works better for your story.

What should be said by creativity mavens is this: creativity and the "wild mind" (Natalie Goldberg's phrase) are the beginning but not the end of the whole creative enterprise. One of the skills the selling writer needs to develop is how to unleash the muse at the right time but then whip her material into shape for the greater needs of the story and the marketplace for that story.

That's why structure is so important. Structure enables story to get through to readers, you know, the ones who dish out the lettuce. That's why I call structure "translation software for your imagination." I know many writers would love to be able to simply wear a beret, sit at Starbucks all day, and have whatever they write go out to the world and bring in abundant bank and critical accolades.

Not going to happen.

Meanwhile, more and more writers who have taken the time to study the craft are happily selling their books in this new, open marketplace we have.


3. Passion, precision and productivity make for writing success

To gain traction in this game, you would do well to consider the three Ps: passion, precision and productivity.

Passion. You find the kind of stories you are burning to tell. For me, it's usually contemporary suspense. I love reading it, so that's mostly what I write. But I also believe a writer can pick a genre and learn to love it. Like an arranged marriage. The key is to find some emotional investment in what you write (usually that happens by way of heavy investment in the characters you create). But that's only the first step.

Precision. Eventually, the selling writers know precisely where the niche is for the books they write. They spend some time studying the market. That's how all the pulp writers and freelancers of the past made a living. Dean Koontz at one time wanted to be a comic novelist like Joseph Heller. But when his war farce didn't sell, he switched markets. He went all-in with thrillers. He's done pretty well at this.

Productivity. Finally, selling writers produce the words. Even so, not everything will sell as hoped, but the words won't be wasted. They will be making better writers, because they have studied the craft and keep on studying and never give up. 

Therefore, writing friends, don't be lulled into thinking all you have to do each day is traipse through the tulips of your fertile imaginings, fingers following along on the QWERTY tapper, recording every jot and tittle of your genius. That's the fun part of writing, being totally wild and writing in the zone. 

The work part of writing is sweating over the material so it has the best chance to connect with readers. 

That is what makes you a better writer. 



36 comments:

  1. Amen to that, Jim. From time to time I'll get a facebook im that says "can you help me learn to write?" I groan. I groan because it's taken me over 10 years of study, trial and error, attending conferences, and highlighting paperbacks to get this far, and I haven't even published a novel yet. I try to explain to them that there is no way one guy can teach you to write. One guy can teach about dialogue, or show vs. tell, or any one of the thousands of aspects to writing, but buddy, you've got to blaze the big trail on your own. The "just write" theory you mention here is another pet peeve. I still meet writers who just "hit the word count" and call it a good day. I never see them around for long. If I do, they've given in and started to learn some "rules." Yeah, it take thousands of hours of learning and thousands of hours of practice. But you need both, not greater amounts of one.

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    1. I like that you included "highlighting paperbacks." That was one of the first things I did. Invaluable help. Your work ethic does you proud, Ron.

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    2. Good points, Ron. The most highlighted writing book in my own library is Plot & Structure. There is nothing like learning to write in order to write. Good blog post, James Scott Bell.

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    3. Thanks, Jan. I love being highlighted!

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  2. It's like you know me. Read my mind and say to yourself, " I better set her straight right away', then post what I need to hear.

    Great -- but kind of creepy.

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  3. Wow, great advice, Jim. Another teaching moment. That's why we're here.

    In #1 - Learning How to Write, you mention feedback from editors and learning the craft at writing conferences. You mentioned Bobby Knight's "perfect practice" and attending John Wooden's basketball camp. I'm betting Jodi will expound on this: Feedback from the right people is critical. Or "perfect" feedback guides a writer along the best path. And the inverse is true. I've paid for critiques that have led me astray and wasted a lot of time. But, we also learn from our mistakes. The more painful, the better we remember.

    Thanks for another insightful post.

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    1. Yes indeed, it's important to vet editors who ask for money. I had someone email me recently asking if he should be wary when he asked for client references and the freelance editor refused. I said, don't do it. A good freelance editor should have a list of satisfied customers.

      Also, request a sample edit (2 or 3 pages) for free. You're entitled to know what to expect.

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    2. Yes, reputable editors all have a list of satisfied clients, and should have testimonials on their website, with the author's name and website or other contact information.

      I'd get a sample edit of at least 4 or 5 pages of your manuscript first, and if you have to pay a nominal fee for the sample edit, it's well worth it to find an editor who really knows their stuff.

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    3. Agree with Jim and Jodie. I don't keep a website, as I have a steady stream of referral inquires and don't need it (however counterintuitive that sounds). But I send an information sheet to anyone who inquires, and it is loaded (hopefully not overloaded!) with concise testimonials. And each testimonial writer is willing to be contacted.

      And I absolutely provide sample edits, and an estimate based on the time invested in the sample and the overall word count. My clients love that I show the math behind my estimate. It's very important that writers see that editors aren't just pulling a number out of their (name your orifice).

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  4. Your points are all valid. Regarding the advice, "The only way to learn how to write is to write!", I would take this to mean that you'll never learn to be a writer by talking about it, or by rewriting the same piece of prose endlessly so that you never finish your work. We've all met these wannabies who like the glamor of being an author more than the actual labor. It takes hours of work, honing your skills like James mentioned, studying the markets, and being in this career for the long haul.

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    1. I think it was Harlan Ellison who said anybody can "be" a writer. But the trick is to "stay" a writer, day after week after month after year.

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    2. That's for sure. And no editor wants to work with a one-book wonder.

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  5. Agreed that craft and work (writing) go together. And craft isn't only "rules."

    Also, wasn't Bobby Knight also sort of, well, abusive? I don't care how much he won. http://www.biography.com/people/bobby-knight-9366978

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    1. Indeed, and I'm not holding up Coach Knight's personal behavior as an exemplar....of that there is plenty of controversy. But on the coaching level, he is considered one of the best.

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  6. I get into the "rules" discussion quite often. A writer in my circle who, in all fairness has receive a trad pub deal with a huge advance, gets quite ugly about "the rules." He is also naturally talented with a brilliant quirky voice and his book is either going straight to the top or straight to the bottom, there is no middle ground with this guy.

    For us mere mortals, I use this analogy. The architect will say, "I want swoops and swirls - make it soar!" Then the engineer will come in and say, "Yeah, swirly, okay. But you are also going to need bathrooms and parking and outlets."

    I write to a pretty strict 3-Act structure. I don't outline per se, but I can tell you what scene ends the act and roughly what the word count will be at that point. Then I move to the next act (and, now, of course, the mirror moment.)

    Maybe that's why I went to engineering school instead of architect school.

    Terri

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    1. There are naturally gifted writers. I'm not one of them.

      But even among those who have a great "voice" there usually comes a time of reckoning. That first book may indeed "soar," but what about the next? And the one after that? Many are the accounts of first-novel wunderkinds not sustaining a career.

      But there are indeed exceptions. Key word: Exceptions.

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  7. JSB -
    No Sherpa required.
    No raw airways or struggle in the thin high altitude air.
    Just a mouse-click and I find the words of a wizened writing master!
    This post is packed with the profound yet all is clear and accessible. One of your best ever imo - and that is saying something.
    Thank you, jump-shooting Guru of writing!

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    1. I thank you for your kind words, Tom. Except for wizened. I've still got a few years before that adjective...at least, I hope so.

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  8. Hi guys,
    Haven't been here much but am checking in from Michigan where we are deep in rewrites and teaching a two-day writing workshop yesterday. Good group...will tell you about them Tuesday in my post. But we tried hard to stress to them exactly what you are saying here, Jim. I told them all to check out our blog and books...they were grateful.

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    1. And I'm grateful to you, Kris, for passing along the torch of writing wisdom. Looking forward to your post.

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  9. Great post, Jim. After hearing "no rules" at a recent writer's conference, I penned this poem.

    THERE ARE NO RULES! BUT…

    You are a writer
    There are no rules!

    But consider these suggestions.

    Start your story with the climax,
    And end it by introducing your protagonist.

    Begin with tension,
    Then let it deflate into nothing.

    Reflect life,
    With all the dull parts included.

    Have God
    Pluck your hero from the jaws of defeat,
    Turn your villain’s heart to gold,
    And bring back to life all beloved pets.

    You are a writer.
    There are no rules!

    But consider these suggestions,
    If you want to save yourself the trouble
    Of signing your name
    Over and over and over again.


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    1. Brilliant. If poetry sold, this would sell.

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  10. Thank you for this great post. Very helpful.

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    1. We aim to help here at TKZ. You're welcome.

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  11. Another excellent post, Jim, as your Sunday posts always are. Wise words yet again, even though of course you aren't "wizened" yet! ;-) I'll be promoting this on social media and sending my clients here to check out your advice.

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    1. It's just some days that I feel wizened. :-)

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  12. This is such wonderful advice and a good reminder. Years ago when I decided I was going to take this writing thing seriously (I wrote "novels" all through high school, but didn't study anything, and rarely finished what I started), I bought "Plot and Structure". I took the section where you explain how you taught yourself by studying books you were reading and taking notes to heart and did the same thing.

    I noticed a huge improvement, and the rejections started getting more personal, always a good sign. :D

    I haven't done this in a while though, focusing on drafting and revision, although I've been read a ton of books on craft. I guess it goes in cycles of learning and putting what you learn into practice.

    I also find myself learning more from revising what I've written than drafting. Maybe it's just me, but drafting is all about translating what I see in my head, and revision is about honing what's already there.

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    1. You're right, Elizabeth. The revising part really does get your craft honed, and that's gets ingrained for later.

      But I also like to go back and revisit things I've learned. I review my favorite writing books periodically. Always get re-inspired.

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  13. Love this advice, Jim, as I love your books on craft. I wish you'd been around twenty-five years ago to slap me silly when I was submitting excruciating coming-of-age "literary" novels featuring a lot of navel-gazing and lyrical noodling in the service of very little. Having one of those books published would have been a tragedy from which I might never have recovered.

    It took longer than it should have to realize that my one gift — for lyrical sentences — wasn't enough. I had no craft, and any attempt to educate me about that was brushed aside, basically, with: "Yes, but I have anger and intensity and pretty similes."

    I'm 49 now, try not to regret those decades of pretentiousness too much, and manage to remember to be glad that I grew up and learned craft and structure. And when — not if — I publish, it'll be because I'm ready. And not a decade sooner.

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    1. Great, great thoughts, Jim. Your story is not uncommon. I have no doubt you will marry your lyricism with the craft, and the results will be stunning. Good luck.

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  14. Does this mean I shouldn't bring my Jack Purcells to Buchercon this fall?

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    1. I was always a Chuck Taylor All-Stars high top man myself.

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  15. Amen! When I first started writing, I had no idea about info dumps, structure, and all the other writing terms I've learned. What a difference now vs. then. Plot & Structure is still one of my favorite craft books. It's worn from me reading it as I plot each new book.

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