Saturday, April 30, 2011

Getting Better

I've heard it said many ways.

Your first five books are junk. You have to write a million words of garbage before you write anything good. It takes five years to learn to plot a novel. Learning to become an author requires as much time and effort as learning to become a brain surgeon.

So I put in the time and effort. But am I getting better?

I've been writing stories since third grade, but I wasn't serious about it until eleven years ago. To see if I really wanted to become a writer I took a year off writing any kind of fiction. It nearly killed me! I was counting the days until the ban was up. And then I sat down and wrote something.

It was terrible. I was so out of practice.

I learned two things. Yes, I want to do this, and constant practice counts!

For the next several years I tried to figure out how to do it on my own. I got better, but not much. Not until I started going to the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers Workshop. Yes, practice counts, but so does training. Being a self-taught writer got me far enough that I could sell a short story or two, but I had a lot to learn if I wanted to be a novelist. Going to an excellent workshop gave me the momentum and the skills to start scaling the cliffs of publishing.

So, practice and training are good, but now that I'm revising my fourth full manuscript I'm wondering if I've really improved as a writer. My first drafts still stink in the same ways they always have. They're confusing. I use a lot of passive voice. I never say a thing about how the characters are feeling. Act two always opens with a long meandering stretch of utter boredom. Maybe that's the way it will always be.

What's different now? I've learned how to look at the raw material that bubbles up from my brain and make it better. I hope I'm more able to divide the slush from the sparkle, clear away the bad and add more good.

And all I have to do to convince myself that I'm improving is to go back and read something I wrote a few years ago. Oh gar, did I really write that? Yes, thankfully, I am getting better.

What's helped you get better as a writer?


  1. For me, it's mostly been books I've read. I'm not old enough to go to the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers Workshop yet and so I have to learn from example. The first time I read a good book, I'm just doing it for fun, but the second time, I pay more attention to the storytelling, the characters, the action scenes and the prose. When I read good books, I get better at writing. If I stop, my writing suffers.

  2. Great post, Rebecca! There are so many resources now to help you improve, but you hit on the big one. You just have to write, whether it comes out well or not. Then you have to be willing to go back and fix it again and again. In the WIFYR classes last year, a teacher said that even when it seems like all you've written is garbage, there are pearls in there. You weed them out, then fix or chuck the rest. Also, one big help to me is getting critiques, both from respected writers who know what to look for, and from your average reader, who knows what parts they like -- and more importantly -- which parts they don't. And I can't say enough about taking Workshops and classes!

  3. Wonderful post! I want to hand this to any new writers getting into the Biz.

    Self-directed earnest study is the only way to improve. Really, in anything, but especially in this craft that is so self-directed to begin with.

    Grab any help you can get and don't be afraid to try new things. These are my mottos, matey! :)

  4. Amber, that's my favorite way to improve as a writer. I love reading a great book that inspires me to be better, and then going back through and finding out what makes it tick.

    Jonene, Isn't the miracle of revision a wonderful thing? Those lousy first drafts always have hidden sparkle waiting to be revealed. And I forgot to mention that sharing my work with others and getting feedback really helped me too.

    Sue, I've been astounded at how fast you've improved as a writer. You were always good, but now you really rock. Someday I'll be taking workshop classes from you.

  5. You went a year without writing? Yowsa. I need to remember to keep some of my old drafts around so I can go back and see if I'm getting any better. But working, working, and working at it is the only way. No short cuts in this business. Fabulous post! And thanks for all your help on my projects.

  6. Ditto that! A year without writing? I would lose my mind (and my family can attest to how tenuous my grasp on it is already.) I started out ten years ago, fresh out of Clarion West and newly inducted into a professional writers group sure that with enough practice, my first drafts would become better. Well, they never did. I thought I'd be able to cut down on rewrites. Ha! Not a chance. Ten years of being beaten up by working writers didn't make my process any faster or more streamlined. It gave me endurance. I can now rewrite and rewrite and rewrite beyond the point that sends most people gibbering. And sloooowly, I'm getting there, selling to some of the major markets. I'm 3 drafts into a short story right now; the thing'll take me 6 weeks or more to write, and it is under 5,000 words, but at least I feel in control of the loooong process.

  7. Leisha and Emily, thanks for the sympathy. I'm not sure why I did that to myself. But I did read more books in that one year than I had since high school, and I kept quite a journal. I wouldn't do it again, but the abstinence gave me impetus.

    It is a long, hard process. But I love the sense of perfecting the craft. And happy readers makes it all worth while.

  8. Awesome blogs and my critique partner have been tremendous help to my writing! :-)


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