When we begin to write, we know nothing. Our writing muscles are weak and flabby, having never been exercised. Or, it may be you have toned them in a specific way, to write a certain way, such as technical papers, and now they need to be trained to write fiction – like a sprinter training for a marathon.
We can learn a certain amount from watching, and writers do this by learning from what they read. The problem with this is:
- ·Not everything you read will be quality and you may not (in the early days) be able to distinguish; and
- ·Eventually you will get to the point where you know what you’re reading is better than what you’re writing, but you don’t know why.
Like an athlete trying to learn from watching, we can observe the effect, but we can’t always observe all the technical detail, or understand it if we can observe it. Why does a runner warm-up? Why does he run in a certain way? What is the strategy that goes into a marathon? None of these are things you can observe.
As your writing skill improves, you will know the sentence you are reading is better than yours but not why. And the why can’t be observed. Through trial and error you may eventually figure out the why, but this is the long, hard way.
There is an easier (and much faster) way.
In my own learning curve, there have been three key events that accelerated my writing skills:
- Joining a critique group;
- Taking advantage of the advice of a freelance editor; and
These days, they are easily accessible online and often inexpensive as well. I mostly do mine through Savvy Authors, but there are plenty of others to choose from. In fact, if you want to see how serious I am about workshops, you can find the complete list of workshops I have completed on my website.
Workshops will teach you the technical details, the why you can’t learn from observation. Why does sentence length matter? Why are adverbs bad? Why are saidisms bad? How do I improve my sentence? Why does POV matter? How do I write better descriptions? How can I create better plots How do I create more conflict?
Even if you have been doing some of these things right before, a workshop may help you to better understand what you have been doing intuitively or unconsciously, and then you can make an effort to do more of it consciously.
As an example, I am plotting an outline for my next book at the moment. I’ve started from an outline I did previously, because when I plotted my last book, I plotted its sequel at the same time. Now I remember the last time I did this, when I went to write the book, I realised I had half a book badly in need of subplots.
This time, as I am writing it, I’m thinking:
- Has it got enough subplots?
- Why are the characters doing these things? Do they make sense?
- Is there enough conflict/tension?
- What do each of the characters want?
I couldn’t easily answer any of those questions just looking at the outline, but I simply thought ‘I will do a Goal Motivation Conflict’ chart. And that helps me to see what characters should be doing, what’s stopping them achieving their goals, and any other areas of potential conflict. Such a simple tool, but one of which I was unaware last time I outlined. In fact, I wasn’t even consciously asking the questions last time.
Now you may be aware of GMC charts already (or not), or you may not like to use structured tools (I do, because hey, let’s face it, I’m a lawyer and that’s how I think) but I assure you there is more to learn that just GMC charts, and you can apply the knowledge without using the structured tools if that’s your preference.
After all, the important thing I really took away from that workshop was not the GMC chart, but the knowledge to ask the questions I asked. Answering the questions can be done in a multitude of ways, in whatever manner best suits your writing process, but you can’t answer a question you don’t know to ask.
So if you haven’t already done so, go! Study! And learn. If you have used workshops, what did you study, and did you find it valuable?
For a list of the workshops I have attended, please visit my website!