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What Are You Doing to Improve?

Equestrian and Horse Jumping [1]After 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, [2] 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. 

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

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 [3], 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 [4] 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?

About Liz Michalski [5]

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.