Have you ever wondered why so many writers are still struggling to produce that breakout novel? Every May I attend a writer's conference where I sit in the workshops wondering why all of us aren't great writers. Every year hundreds pile into this conference, but only a few seem to surface as the writers we all envy.
I finally figured out why more breakout writers have not been produced from these conferences and workshops that you see advertised in writers' magazines or on the Internet. Look at the topics they offer: How to make you novel shine, how to get published, and how to market your book. More emphasis is placed on how to get published. This assumes you are publishable. We must shift our focus from getting published to becoming great writers.
My theory has been: As beginning writers we are taught the wrong topics at these venues, and what we should be taught is how to become a great writer. I have found someone that supports my theory. These conferences are more interested in what Barbara Baig calls "Performance Writing". She defines this as "writing something good enough to get published." In my opinion, this seems to be the goal of all these workshops---performance writing. Does this method work for most writers? Ms. Baig says it does not, because beginning writers don't have the skills they need to produce professional quality work. And I agree with her.
When I started writing years ago, I began practicing my writing, thinking it would improve my skills. Not that I was smarter than anyone else, but because my first writing teacher drove me mad. He came down hard on me about my stilted writing. "You are still writing in that scientific mode," he lamented. "You must learn to loosen up. Go and write whatever comes to your mind. Write without stopping for ten minutes. Practice this over and over."
Well, I did what he said, but I became discouraged and decided to do something about it on my own. I researched what tools I needed to make my writing better. They included: setting, characterization, dialogue, plot, subplot, description, scene, theme,and point of view. While daunting, I believed if I practiced them in some way my writing would get better. But I didn't know how or where to begin? At the time I was getting hammered, I had just finished one of my favorite author's (Sidney Sheldon) novels, Doomsday Conspiracy, and really loved it. So with my teacher's comments screaming in the back of my mind, I decided I would do something drastic. I would copy Sheldon's novel, word for word, chapter by chapter, from front to back, and maybe I'd learn what not to do. So I bought a package of legal pads and started. My hope was to capture Sheldon's frame of mind in this story, and maybe learn some skills along the way. While copying I began to feel I was entering in another place. When I got to the middle of the novel the flow of the writing took over. I could see the scenes in my mind and feel character development and action as I "helped" in the change of the characters and their dialogue. When I finished copying Sheldon's novel, I felt like I had walked in his shoes, feeling a little guilty that maybe I stepped into a sacrosanct realm. I confess that I was pleased that I had accomplished something, albeit, not the kind of practice that experts would recommend, but frankly, I enjoyed it. At the time, I thought, now I know how to write a novel. Somewhat naïve, correct? Perhaps. What I didn't know at the time was I had to practice each individual technique Sheldon used to better my writing. How does one do that? Glad you asked.
Let's turn back to Ms. Barbara Baig. She believes that writers must practice like athletes and musicians do. It's more than just writing every day. Writers must practice their writing skills. Baig believes that very few writers, if any, do what we call practice. She offers the opinion that writers need to practice two skills: "content skills," and "craft skills."
She defines content skills as:
and Curiosity --- we use these to come up with ideas and materials for pieces of writing. Does your imagination give you vivid, detailed pictures?
Craft skills involve:
an understanding of how a chosen genre works,
and in the craft of choosing words and putting them together into clear, eloquent, musical sentences. Are you good at finding wonderful words?
To begin your practice, you'll have to determine what skills you now have, which ones you are strong in and which ones you are weak in. According to Ms. Baig, the way to determine this is to make a list based on the comments of those who have read your work (be careful here, my words) and list them. Or you can read an author you respect and analyze his work to see how he uses the two skills mentioned above and list them. (In my opinion, you must be wary of some comments from writing groups. I trust comments from reputable authors, agents, editors, copy editors, and other professional reviewers.) Each skill has to be broken down into parts and each part practiced separately. If athletes and musicians can do this, then so can we. If someone told you that your description is vague or your characters are one dimensional, then the skills of creating characters---characterization--- and writing descriptions—creating mental images that allow readers to fully enjoy the story--- go on your list. Now you're ready to devise practices and start doing them regularly. For more on this I recommend that you read Ms. Baig's article (Barbara Baig, The Talent Myth, The Writer, April 2012, pp 42-3), but more importantly, visit her web site: www.wherewriterslearn.com where she gives free lessons on these skills.