What Are You Doing to Improve?

Equestrian and Horse JumpingAfter eight years off, I recently resumed riding horses.  I’m still relatively proficient — I can walk, trot, canter, pop over small jumps, and perform some simple dressage moves.  I’ll never ride in the Olympics, probably never even compete locally again, so my skill set is fine for my needs. Yet, I’m taking a weekly lesson in addition to my free riding time in order to improve.

Lessons are nothing new to me. When I rode BC (before children) I took weekly, sometimes twice-weekly, lessons. For years. Even though I had a horse and barn of my own, and very little disposable income. When I couldn’t afford to pay for them, I worked out a swap in sweat equity or stall space or whatever else I could trade. 

Why spend so much time and money on a hobby?

Because even if I can’t be Karen O’Connor, I can become a better rider. Because I love riding. Because riding makes me a calmer, happier person, and if it does all that for me, I owe it to myself to ride as well as I can.  

Substitute ‘writing’ for riding in the paragraph above (or, if you are from Massachusetts like me, just say them both really fast and they’ll sound identical) and we have today’s post.

Do you love writing, even if you’ll never be the next J.K. Rowling?  Does it enrich your life? Have you mastered a basic level of proficiency but want to get better?

Then what are you doing about it? 

There are lots of classes for writers just starting out on their fiction journey. But once you’ve written a book, once you’ve got the idea of plot and character development, it can be harder to find a place that will help you improve. And I’ve noticed that most published authors are scarce at workshops, unless they are there as presenters.  Partly that’s because many workshops are geared toward beginner writers, but I also think that once you’ve captured the elusive agent/editor/book contract, there’s a stigma against admitting you don’t know it all.  If you aren’t the perfect writer, why should anyone bother to read you?

My belief is that if you aren’t consistently striving to get better, your books aren’t worth your readers’ time.  Here are some of the strategies I use: 

Steal from the best.  It’s unlikely that J. R. R. Tolkien, Lee Child, or Neil Gaiman will ever spend an hour going over my latest story, what with being dead or having their own writing to do. But every time I open one of their novels, I get a free crash course in how to write my own.  Actively read books that are outside your genre — if you write women’s fiction and you struggle with plot, pick up a couple of thrillers by someone like Mr. Child.  Break them down chapter by chapter to see where the action hits, how the author builds tension, where they throw in twists and turns to keep you guessing. Apply these tricks to your own novel. 

Likewise, if you write thrillers but your characters have been called cardboard, read relationship-driven books. Figure out why the characters matter.  Write down the words the author uses to describe them. Write down the words that describe your characters. Compare the list.  Do yours work as well? If not, why not?  Repeat.

Find fabulous beta readers. Yes, it’s hard, but it’s worth it. Invest in a writing community. Spend time there  — lots of time — and give generously of yourself before you ask anyone for anything. 

Invest in a writing community. Spend time there  — lots of time — and give generously of yourself before you ask anyone for anything. 

Look for people who excel in areas of writing in which you are weak.  I write magical realism, and I’m lucky enough to have a brilliant scientist beta reader who points out the technical flaws in my plots. When I can get a scene past her, I know it’s good.  

Once you’ve found a beta you trust, do her the courtesy of listening to her. Remember that feedback is not supposed to be about people telling you how wonderful your writing is — it’s about people telling you how to make it better. If what they say helps, say thank you. If you disagree with what they say, say thank you and put their comments away for a few weeks or more. When you take them back out, you may be surprised by the truth you see in them.

Consider reading about writing. WU contributor Jael McHenry did an excellent post on books written about writing, which sparked some lively comments.  My thoughts are that reading books about writing is like reading books about riding (and I have a stack of books on both topics): You can pick up techniques and tips that spark and inspire you, but in the end the only way to learn is to get on the horse, so to speak. (Personal favorites include the perennial On Writing by Stephen King and Escaping Into the Open: The Art of Writing True by Elizabeth Berg.)

And don’t forget those conferences.  I’ll be at two this year — Grub Street’s Muse and the Marketplace the first week in May, and Writer Unboxed’s first conference in the fall.  Come sit with me and say hi.

Your turn — what are your techniques for becoming a better writer?

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About Liz Michalski

Liz Michalski's first novel, Evenfall, was published by Berkley Books (Penguin). Liz has been a reporter, an editor, and a freelance writer. In her previous life, she wrangled with ill-tempered horses and oversized show dogs. These days she's downsized to one husband, two children and a medium-sized mutt.

Comments

  1. says

    I actually did take a few years off from writing. And it was nothing like riding a bike. I found I had to complete a novel just to get back to where I left off. I like to read the how-to-be-an-awesome-writer books. I find the shorter the book, the better. James Scott Bell’s recent “Write Your Novel from the Middle” is a perfect example. Good advice that I can read in a single sitting. I also read outside my genre. I even set goals to read a certain number of them each year. Oddly, after reading a few YA contemporary novels, I discovered that I love YA contemporary. You never know what you’ll find. Thanks for the post. Stay in the saddle.

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  2. says

    I write, write and write some more and then get excellent feedback from people who know what they are talking about. Then I edit, edit, and edit some more.
    I read whatever grabs me! My eyes tend to glaze over when I read about how to write, unless it’s short, funny and inspirational. Always open to learning more.

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  3. says

    Write. Read. Write. Read about writing. Read blogs on writing. Reblog. Write. Read Writer Unboxed. Write. Observe my writing. Share my writing. Read feedback. Write. Contemplate writing. Read my writing. Write on Writer Unboxed. Write.

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  4. says

    When I saw the post was about riding again after an extended absence, then saw the words: “I can walk,” I expected the sentence to be about the aftermath. I quickly realized I was just reading my own creaky body into it.

    Your recommendations are excellent, as always, Liz. And reading them reminds me how lucky I’ve been to have such fantastic beta-readers and feedback. But the lines that will stay with me today are: “Because I love [writing]. Because [writing] makes me a calmer, happier person, and if it does all that for me, I owe it to myself to [write] as well as I can.” Thank you!

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  5. Pamala Knight says

    Thank you for that very encouraging and helpful post. I’m taping this line to my computer so I’ll see it every morning:

    “Remember that feedback is not supposed to be about people telling you how wonderful your writing is — it’s about people telling you how to make it better.”

    Very true. Another writer friend just recommended SCENE AND STRUCTURE by Jack Bickham and I’m finding it an excellent resource on writing.

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  6. says

    Valuable tips and as a finally-published writer just what I need. Finding reading and following blogs like this help – notice when other writers make basic errors now, plus marvel at great technique.

    Oh, and as an equestrian journalist got to talk to David & Karen O’Connor – great couple and great riders… even if I have a signed photo of GB team from Sydney Olympics on office wall.

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    • says

      I am SO jealous — they were my idols growing up. I was amazed not just by their riding, but by the fact they were able to make it work as a couple. Meeting them must have been amazing.

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      • says

        David & Karen were great to talk to and one of few eventing couples that were a real team. Clayton & Lucinda Fredericks (AUS) are another couple that are great together and I’m friends with a few others (on Facebook). Sadly know others that became bitter rivals. My all-time favourite has to be William Fox-Pitt, winner of Rolex Kentucky recently, as he’s brilliant horseman yet always comes up and asks how you are.

        And their success and brilliance owes so much to perseverance and basic technique. Watching you see a fluid interaction with the horse, just like reading a master writer like García Márquez, the artistry is woven into the words.

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  7. says

    Great post. I too have the editor/freelance writer/reporter hats that I wear. I find when I stop writing fiction, I get a little rusty and struggle through to get it all going again. My techniques are the usual. I have a stack of writing books that I reread from time to time as a refresher course. John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction is one of them. I use beta readers regularly for my work (Goodreads and Facebook groups have some very good people). Read, read, read! I blog about my readings of short stories (the classics) and that keeps me reading and learning from some of the best authors on a weekly basis.

    Investing in a writing community has not been easy or convenient (sometimes the costs for conferences are unreasonable). I much prefer to meet authors face to face than online or emails. I just started an authors group at my local library because we didn’t have one. We’ll see how that goes.

    I didn’t know WU was having a conference in the fall! Can we learn more about that?

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  8. says

    What a great post — although it made me more than a little jealous (I’ve been longing to return to riding after a long absence, not helped by a WIP that takes place in part at a stable). After years of resisting, I finally started using beta readers and now can’t imagine writing without them. One of the ways I become a better writer is to spend time away from my writing desk, out in the world, outside my mind, observing, getting new ideas, and refreshing my views. (And I’m guessing riding would help with that as well!)

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    • says

      I really believe that time away from writing is as important to the process as sitting down in the chair, Julia. And I hope you snag some riding time in the near future. (Research, right???)

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  9. says

    I love how you replaced the word riding with writing! I have found it so easy to devalue writing because I spend way more money on it than I make. But it helps me when I change my perspective, acknowledge that I find much joy in it, and choose to devote myself to it just because I like to do it.

    I think another reason published authors don’t go to conferences as much is because they are way too busy. If they only have a certain amount of time, I would think they’d rather go to retreats & workshops aimed at deepening their craft vs. conferences that are targeted more for beginners and people seeking agents.

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    • says

      Conferences definitely require time and mental prep for me, and it is way too easy to talk myself out of going. But once I’m there, I’m always energized by being with other writers and learning from them, so I’ve learned they are worth the investment.

      I remember someone (maybe from WU?) once wrote that we don’t expect everyone who takes guitar lessons to become the next Bruce Springsteen, or even make money from it. Yet we expect all writers to earn cash, even if their only goal is enjoyment. Sometimes it’s important to do something just because you love it.

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  10. says

    As a new (self-proclaimed) writer – that took a while to wrap my head around, it’s encouraging to see that even published authors, may not know everything. In fact, seeing that they’re published work is doing well, the added pressure of topping it and exceeding expectations are almost enough to keep me in my “new” box. Almost.

    I especially like the idea of obtaining a free crash course when you crack open Tolkien, for example. I can do that right now! I have a shelf dedicated to his writing. Not that elves will show up in my writing.

    Well, maybe?

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  11. says

    You had me smiling all through your post … My daughter loves to ride and she is getting lessons for the summer for her birthday. Last year she won an academic scholarship and we splurged on what she loves best. She’s part of the reason I do so much WFH. We love being able to give our kids these extras.

    All the things you mentioned help me to keep working on the stories of my heart. But I find playing the piano, singing, cooking, gardening and just lying on a blanket watching the clouds helps me with the writing as well. This summer you’ll find me scribbling in my notebook in a shady spot as my gaze rests upon my girl and her horse.

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  12. says

    I ride horses too, hence my On Writing and Riding

    I work to improve both, but I do better with the horses during the summer and the writing during the winter. I compete in endurance, so it’s more about improving the horse’s abilities, which does improve my own.

    I’ve attended a few writing conferences and they are always fabulous. Otherwise, I try to write. I find I like editing as much or more and can easily get sidetracked going over an entire ms based upon a single comment or new thing I learn.

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    • says

      I’ve been fascinated by endurance since I read Dark Sunshine as an eight-year-old horse-crazy girl. It sounds like a wonderful sport, Marlene. (And I did it wrong this year — riding in winter and writing in summer.)

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  13. says

    I just returned from the Pikes Peak Writers’ Conference in Colorado Springs and it was AMAZING! So reinvigorated me! As for novels, I always read first for enjoyment, but sometimes I’ll go back thru as student and analyze the books. Great post, Liz!

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  14. says

    To improve, over the past six months I have learned how to turn off the internet and sit in the chair for a prescribed number of hours.

    The discipline to turn writing from something I did when I felt like it, to something I do on a regular basis every possible day at about the same time, even on the days when that produces nothing, is the improvement.

    And, as most people who do the same thing report, just showing up for work with the right attitude means the Muse shows up, too, often with the right attitude, and we get stuff done.

    As a special gift, I also got what I often suspected: there is more pleasure in spending time trying to write, even when it isn’t working, than I knew ahead of time. When I can’t write fiction, I am writing about why I can’t write fiction right now – and learning what I can do for the next time. ‘A bad day writing is better than a good day doing most other things,’ is now my motto.

    Alicia

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    • says

      I love your whole comment, Alicia. Turning off and tuning out social media has been key for me to get any work done lately, and carving out time to write on a regular basis is the only way for me to build my skills. (Although I’ve found taking time off is equally important for me.)

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  15. says

    Like you I read other books that I like and dissect them to figure out what works and why I like certain parts. Then I look at my own writing and see how I can incorporate those techniques in my work.

    Also, I love Stephen King’s memoir “On Writing.” I went through a period where I stopped writing and his book was exactly what I needed to give me the motivation to “get back on the horse.” :)

    Great post!

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  16. says

    Cool article, I agree with everything you’ve said.

    I think it’s important to write for yourself, to enjoy it and to believe in what you produce.

    Some people feel that classes and critique sessions have the potential to dilute their stories, or that they can disrupt what they love about writing. I’ve heard people say they will lose their “voice” if they listen to other people.

    For me, learning is not antithetical to developing and discovering one’s voice.

    I think that if you have things you want to say or stories you want to tell, it helps to know whether or not the people reading your piece are really getting you.

    To your point: “…there’s a stigma against admitting you don’t know it all.”

    I think that sometimes we’re so wrapped up in wanting to be “good” we forget the joy of experimentation and growth.

    We enter conversations about our work with our defenses up, because all we really want is for someone to tell us how great we are.

    Pros and amateurs, published and not-yet-published, I think that pretty much everyone can improve some aspect of their writing.

    To me, some of it is about finding that tricky balance between hearing what people are telling you, absorbing what is helpful, and crafting something that works for you as well as for your audience.

    If we can remember the excitement of learning, and embrace the possibility that improving doesn’t equal not being “good,” we can find new levels of expression and meaning in what we do.

    I’m going to the 6 week Odyssey Writing Workshop in June and I can’t wait!

    — Arley

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    • says

      Embracing learning and not worrying about ‘grades’ seems to go all through life, Arley. (At least that’s what I’m telling my children as they take standardized tests this year.) Thanks for stopping by, and enjoy the workshop!

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  17. says

    Why, to improve my understandings of writing do’s and don’ts (and to savor writing doughnuts), I read the daily posts at WriterUnboxed, and try to incorporate the things that resonate into my own work. It’s a bushel of starlight better than the basement potatoes I grubbed through in my MFA program a century or so ago…

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  18. says

    Very true, unfortunately, that most fiction writing workshops are aimed at beginners, sometimes even if the level is supposed to be intermediate or advanced. Not being a native English speaker, I signed up for a few Writer’s Digest workshops when I decided to start writing in English, and although the instructor feedback was very valuable, the actual course content was familiar to me because I’d read several “how to” books. Eventually I worked individually with the instructor whose feedback had been most valuable (funnily enough someone who is professionally involved with literary fiction and not my genre, fantasy) and from him I learned loads.

    I’m now comfortable with learning mostly on my own, by reading as much as I can, mostly literary classics and novels that I’d like to classify as literary fantasy, because that’s what I’d eventually like to write. It’s as if every novel I read (and like) helps me with a certain aspect of writing, or helps me see what I want to write. Whenever I read Neil Gaiman or Ursula Le Guin, I think, yes, something like that, but in the shape of my own story.
    And I have a writing friend who has similar interests but a completely different style, so we learn from each other :-)

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    • says

      Lucky you to have a writing companion on your journey, Andrea. It’s nice to have someone to share the experience with. And kudos to you for taking on writing in a foreign language — I’m impressed.

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  19. says

    Great post! It grabbed my attention right away, because my other passion is also horses.

    I got back to writing a few years ago after a break for – you guessed it – horses and riding. Before the horses, I had collected and read a shelf full of books on writing, taken university courses, participated in a week-long mystery writing workshop at The Book Passage with Elizabeth George, and joined a critique group. I also attended writers’ conferences, frequently the Surrey International Writers’ Conference which was close to home and featured some excellent guests, including Donald Maass, Diana Gabaldon, Anne Perry, John Lescroart and too many more to mention.

    I don’t do as much of that now, but do refer frequently to my books and notes to refresh my memory on good techniques, and I read as much as I have time for, both contemporary fiction and classics. I have a few readers I trust to critique my work before it’s released. Since I write murder mysteries, I also watch a lot of true crime on TV, both for plot & character ideas, and to stay familiar with police procedure.

    Good luck with your future riding and writing!

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  20. says

    This is the second post I’ve read to day that’s making me want to write a YA horse book. Ah! Anyway, yes, I think I like writing enough that I’ll find things to write about even if it doesn’t get published. The first writing group I attended through a public library was filled with mostly hobbyists. I loved that so many people were writing for themselves and just happy to learn the craft. We never talked query letters, just story, characters, etc.

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    • says

      That sounds like a wonderful group, Stephanie. I’m glad you got so much enjoyment and knowledge out of it. And I read a LOT of YA horse books as a kid — it set me on my current path of crime. : )

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  21. says

    I love to learn but even with a fairly consistent reading schedule, I can get into a rut. Once ever six months or so, it’s worth the time and expense to travel to a nearby writing organization to attend a seminar. Something about the energy and auditory presentation help access a different part of my brain.

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  22. says

    Simply pushing myself to experiment and do different things, even if everyone else says not to do it. I used to be on writing forums, and I would hear writers discouraging new writers from even trying something because it was “hard” or because most writers don’t do it right. How are we supposed to learn then if we do all the easy stuff?

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  23. says

    Thank you for this inspiring article, Liz.
    Some of my favourite ways of improving my writing is to write daily–whether that be by writing something new or revising something older–and attending literary festivals. Listening to experienced authors is very helpful. After all they’ve been there, done that. I’d love to share what I learnt from my last literary festivals. Please visit my blog…

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  24. says

    Anything. Just do something. Any professional needs to continue to learn, and writing is no exception.

    What disturbs me most is a writer who thinks now they’ve published one book that they know enough and there’s nothing more to learn. It’s especially awkward if they’re self-published …

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  25. says

    Liz, I have been curious about finding a beta reader. What’s the best way to do this? Do you think Twitter is a community that could offer up such a person? Hoping one lands on my doorstep. I look outside each morning, but there’s only the newspaper. And it is no help with writing.
    Sigh.
    I improve my writing by sticking with it, writing daily, reading good writing, reading about writing, talking to readers about books they like, writing some more.
    I also find that taking a break and returning to your work gives a fresh perspective. I have found glaring errors in plot by leaving my story alone for a week.
    And, of course, checking out great ideas on sites like Writerunboxed.
    Thanks, Liz!

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    • says

      Hi Ellen! I’m sorry it took me a bit to get back to you — I started having trouble leaving comments using my other browser. I don’t know if Twitter is a good place to find a beta reader or not — it seems like such a fast-paced environment I have a hard time getting a true sense of the people I meet there. I always think that writing communities like WU are a good place to start, because you get to know people and get a sense of their interests in a deeper way. I belong to several online writing communities and I’ve found great beta readers using almost all of them. Good luck!

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