Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Focused Practice for Writers #1


Practice is the primary tool to developing our art into something better. Some say it takes ten thousand hours, others say a million words, but all of it means the same thing: In order for us to get better we have to invest time. In the interest of investing our time as writers better I share a technique I learned from Howard Tayler, author of Schlock Mercenary and member of the Writing Excuses Podcast, at LDS Storymakers 2013. It is called Focused Practice.

Focused Practice is when you work on a skillset in any domain and you identify the things that you are not good at, and instead of building shortcuts around them you focus your practice efforts there. For our purposes the domain is writing and storytelling. And I know what you are saying, "I'm no good at complex plots," or "I don't want to tell that kind of story." And all that may be true, but the idea is to seize control over these skills.
Listen to Howard talk about
Focused Practice here.

Tayler boils down a concept Carol Dweck, a Stafford professor, teaches: "If you believe a thing is within your control you're more likely to exercise control over it."

When I do focused practice, I spend fifteen minutes typing as quickly as I can with the focus of developing one skill. This works better than trying to develop all my writing skills at the same time.  As a writer who is looking to serve other writers, I wanted to share three writing prompts that have helped me in my own focused practice:

I rewrote a chapter from
this "Words of Radiance."
1. Rewrite the work of an author you want to imitate word for word.
Tayler comments that in order to utilize focused practice best we need to have a mentor. Unfortunately sometimes we don't have a critique group or mentor that fills that role for us. In my experience we don't always have mentors or critique groups to help us. This exercise can help us that problem. Taking a writer you admire and writing out their prose word for word can be very helpful. You'll have to ask yourself why they made the choices they for verbs, nouns, and perhaps most importantly when they use adjectives and adverbs. Upon finishing this exercise compare some of your writing to theirs. Without the luxury of a real life mentor you now will be able to recognize some of the places that you want to develop your skills.

2. "Write the other."
Nikki Giovanni, a famous poet who teaches at Virginia Tech, states, "Writers don't write from experience, although many are hesitant to admit they don't. I want to be clear on this. If you wrote from experience, you'd get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writer's write from empathy." Take a real life situation that you can empathize (or even better one you can't) with and write from the perspective on one of the people involved. This will help you to get outside yourself and see world differently. There is not one morality in a good story, there should be at least two, and in more complex stories you'll need even more.



3. Use a picture for inspiration
If anyone looks at my Scrivener set up, they will find thousands of inspirational pictures like the one to the left. The novel I am currently working on has been inspired by several pictures like this. So the focused practice to engage in here is to create a story based off of this picture. It doesn't have to be the best story in the world, you are just looking to allow your imagination to move in different directions. Have fun with this prompt.

For the next month these will be the types of practice I will be focusing on. Next month I'll post another three.

Addendum for those writing with A Round of Words in Eighty Days: As for my goals, though I've been writing a lot I am still less than halfway done with the short story I am working on. But the most important thing I have to remember is that every word I write brings me closer to the end of the story. I might have to practice meeting deadlines, but more importantly I have to practice finishing stories first. If I can't finish a story, I can't meet a deadline.

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