Monday, February 20, 2006

JSB: Writer, Examine Thyself

I have a Chinese doctor. Thirty minutes after he examines me, I want to be examined again.

Ba dump bump.

At least it's a healthy relationship. Which is not to say I enjoy the process. But I know that regular examinations are called for in life, and that goes for writing, too.

Fortunately, you can give yourself a regular writer's checkup in the privacy of your own home.

When I first started writing I realized very quickly that the one person who could motivate me toward constant and never ending improvement was me. No one else was going to do it, even though I was getting some encouraging rah-rahs from the sidelines. A few razzes, too. "Writers are born, not made!" was one such raspberry. Piffle. I wasn't listening. Neither should you.

Instead, one thing I started doing, and have never stopped, is collecting, reading and highlighting books on writing. I use the R2A2 formula—Read and Review, Assimilate and Apply. Try stuff. See if it works.

Then, periodically, I design a writing improvement course for myself.

Any writer can do this. And if you do, and set it up as a regular deal – like going to the doctor – you'll see immediate and large scale improvement in your writing.

For example, about four years ago I decided I needed more work on my characterizations. I went to my bookshelf and pulled out half a dozen books that I knew had good stuff on character work. Like Maren Elwood's classic, Characters Make Your Story; Robert Newton Peck's Fiction is Folks; and Nancy Kress's Dynamic Characters.

Then, I chose some novels I'd read with unforgettable Leads. Gone With the Wind, The Catcher in the Rye, Midnight (by Koontz) and Eight Million Ways to Die by Larry Block.

I gave myself six weeks to read and review and analyze. I did writing exercises to try things out. My writing markedly improved as a result. And it was fun.

Try it. Take an honest look at your own writing and ask what area you need to work on most. Then design a little course for yourself. Find some how to books and some novels that handle that aspect well. Get out a highlighter or pencil and start digging. When you find something that works—and you will—write some scenes that utilize your discovery.

Another thing I've done is arrange my writing books on my shelf in a loose order of importance to me. The books that have been most helpful over the years are at the top. If I get to a point where I need some inspiration, I'll take one down and flip through it, reading the portions I've highlighted. Almost always I get a terrific reminder that gets me back to the keyboard.

BTW, my #1 book is Writing Novels That Sell by Jack Bickham. There's a new edition from WD Books, re-titled Writing and Selling Your Novel. It was while I was struggling as a screenwriter that I first read this book, and in the middle of it had a literal epiphany. Lights started going off, sirens sounded, fireworks crackled and a chorus of heavenly angels burst into song (perhaps I need to examine my prose style next).

Anyway, I still look back fondly on that happy moment when so much fell into place. From that point on I started to sell.

Give yourself the chance to set off some fireworks. Systematically study your craft. There is a business consultant I admire who tells CEOs and entrepreneurs that they must read one hour a day in their field if they want to get ahead.

Can you do the same? Of course. Every time you read a novel, read with an eye to the craft. Listen to audio books when you walk or drive. Join the Writers Digest book club and treat yourself to a new book on writing every so often.

That's the prescription for a healthy writer. And unlike my visits to Dr. Yeh, you'll be more than happy to repeat the process, over and over again.

James Scott Bell is the author of Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure (Writers Digest Books) "The Suspense Never Rests"™


At 9:28 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Great advice. I've never heard of that book and here I was thinking I've read every how to book on writing there was. I'll check it out.

I've recently been thinking more on characterization since reading Jack Cavanaugh's Storm. He does an amazing job and I've learned a lot reading that novel.

Excellent post.

At 9:40 AM, Blogger Kristy Dykes said...

Great post and advice. Thanks so much. I'm reading John Gardner's The Art of Fiction right now and highlighting as I go. A few things that jumped out at me:

On studying technique:

"Though the literary dabbler may write a fine story now and then, the true writer is one for whom technique has become, as it is for the pianist, second nature."

"Some important writers have said the opposite--for instance, Ernest Hemingway, who is quoted as having said that the way for a writer to learn his craft is to go away and write. Hemingway, it may help to remember, went away for free 'tutorials' to two of the finest teachers then living, Sherwood Anderson and Gertrude Stein."

"No one can hope to write really well if he has not learned how to analyze fiction--how to recognize a symbol when it jumps at him, how to make out theme in a literary work, how to account for a writer's selection and organization of fictional details."

On studying novels:
"All great writing is in a sense imitation of great writing."

"It rarely happens, if it happens at all, that a writer can achieve effects much larger than the effects achieved in books he has read and admired. Human beings, like chimpanzees, can do very little without models."

"It's by training--by studying great books and by writing--that one learns to present one's fictions, giving them their due."

At 12:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ha! I can't believe you used the word piffle! I love that word! Man, I love those bursts of joy I get when I discover that some of my favorite authors are just regular-type people who use the same random words I do.

Keep it up.

At 7:08 PM, Blogger Camy Tang said...

Good advice on those writing-improvement courses. A writer who posts on Romancing the Blog has an Uber-Challenge every year for herself--she picks one area of her writing or writing life that she needs to improve and focuses on that all year. This year, she's set up an email loop for other writers to connect, check in, and encourage each other.

I picked discipline, and I've been reading books and articles and taking online courses to help me. It's been really nice to have this one-year time to really work on it. I've seen changes already, and it's helping me be a better writer.



Post a Comment

<< Home