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If I'd only known...

Purely motivational threads are awesome, but I want to do something a little more specific here:

What are the top techniques and tools you've discovered related to the craft of writing that drastically improved your work?
also a bonus question:
Is there a piece of bad writing advice that hindered your progress for a time?

Here's my two cents, really excited to learn from everybody else!

1. Write it out, throw it away: Not being afraid to bring up another tab and rock through a few thousand words to practice the execution of a weird scenario, or experiment with different ways the scene could go, is something I had to learn; every word that comes out of me isn't precious or magical, and writing something as pure exercise can be really helpful, both as general practice and possibly as characters or scenarios that go in the grab bag for later use.

2. Storytelling is the art, writing is the medium: It was a HUGE mental switch for me.
Someone who wants to become an orator isn't just "practicing talking," Oration is a specific art and skillset that uses talking as it's medium.
In the same way, if I want to write a book, I need to be studying the art of Storytelling. Talking as much as you can doesn't make you a great orator, although it may help in some ways; you instead have to practice applying orator techniques to improve in what you're actually trying to accomplish. in the same way, I can "butt in chair" and "write every day" until I develop sores and carpal tunnel, but if I'm not practicing the application of storytelling methodology, which requires reading books on the craft and applying the techniques, I could very well be wasting a lot of time.

3. Study and practice the boring basics: Writing a story other people will enjoy reading isn't just about sharing my magical imagination juice via the keyboard. I have to learn how to present clearly in order for a reader to be able to go where I desperately want them to; fully into the story.
A writer has to structure an idea as it needs to appear to someone else. From the microcosm of word choice to crafting proper sentences and on, presenting every idea in cascading order with crystal clear word choice is vastly more important than "avoiding repeated words in paragraphs" or some other nuances that can be worked out later in the editing process. Learn the technical stuff. I genuinely believe that most writers who are serious about the art should be able to have conversations about English grammar that most people wouldn't understand, from bare infinitives to copular verbs.

Finally, the bad advice I had to unlearn:

Anything that has to do with not reading.
"I don't read in my genre because it will corrupt the purity of my imagination" was my particular flavor of bad practice early on, but since then I've heard it all:
"don't read outside of your genre, it will distract you,"
"I hate the classics, I'm not going to write in old English anyway"
"Literature is too snobby for me"
"I don't like reading, I base all my writing off of techno music and people say it's the best stuff they've ever read"
Listen, I get it. Some stuff is hard to read. All I'm saying is this; being an omnivorous and insatiable reader is good for writing, and the more the better. The language used to covey a story is only one tiny part of what a story is. There is a treasure trove of plot structure, character building, intro hooks, etc. in even the most archaically worded classic.
The ONLY rule about reading that I've found to be true is "Garbage in, Garbage out." My writing will improve only if what I'm reading is well-written.
I make a practice of pushing myself into higher levels of reading. If I don't understand a highly regarded work of Literature, I look up an explanation on the googles and then I read it again and try to catch what I missed. I've never regretted this practice. Do with this what you will.
 

Not_Alice

Scribe
1. Write it out, throw it away: Not being afraid to bring up another tab and rock through a few thousand words to practice the execution of a weird scenario, or experiment with different ways the scene could go

This, this, a thousand times this. I don't know how many times I hit a wall because I knew a scene as I had imagined it was wrong, but I didn't know how to fix it. I had to learn to sit down and write that wrong scene the better to see what was so very wrong with it.

Also, always carry a notebook or piece of paper or whatever, because by the time you come home you won't remember the brilliant sentence that came to you at the supermarket checkout. Okay, so now you're blocking the checkout lane and getting increasingly angry looks, but hey, that's worth it.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
Nothing has drastically improved my writing. I do believe I've got better at it, but this has been so slow it's downright geologic. This makes it hard to point at particulars, but I'll give it a shot.

First: deciding to finish; and, as a corollary, deciding what "finished" looks like.

The deciding part was a particular day; I won't bother with the details. But there came a day when I said, I have an idea--over the years I'd had many such, so this was no big deal, but this was an idea that I'd kicked around for quite a long time. It was no bolt from the blue. Maybe gradual down in a deep valley. In any event, it really was a day when i said, I am going to write this particular story and I'm going to work it until it's finished.

So, what did finished mean? It meant deciding between going trad or self-pub, first of all, because the finish line is different for each. Once I chose self-pub, then finished meant not just writing the story, it meant editing, formatting, publishing, and marketing. That in total is at least as much work as the actual writing, probably more.

Finishing the story was huge because now I knew what it felt like. I knew what it felt like when I was near but not yet finished. And by going through the entire process, I became acquainted with those moments of despair when it feels like the whole story is broken beyond all repair, and those moments when I'm sailing along and it feels like the breeze will always be two points alee and not a storm cloud in sight. Honestly, both emotions are sort of exhausting. As a postscript to that, I had to write a couple more novels and go through the same paroxysms before coming to accept that this is evidently part of what I laughingly call My Process.

Choosing the right tools is important. Not so much as to the choice, but getting past the choosing. Shopping tools and utilities is both time consuming and distracting. I've settled down now, rather like having lived past dating and finally got married.

Getting a sense of scene and chapter. No, not learn. Just getting a sense of it. Rather like getting a feel for what constitutes a character that has been sufficiently developed, or developing a feel for pacing. There's a reason no one calls writing a science. There's no formula for it. I can think of many comparisons, but today I'll go with baseball. You can study all you want, but there's really no substitute for getting out in the field and catching fly balls and fielding grounders to get a *feel* for how to play the game. And that means putting in the hours. You'll learn better with coaches and with study, but none of it counts without you put on the glove and take the field--lots of different fields, under a range of conditions, because the lessons you learned in one may not apply in the next.

Anyway, scene, chapter, and pacing all tie together in mystical ways. So do interesting characters, well-written descriptions, and all the rest. With all of it, I found most advice to range somwhere between irrelevant (at least at the time) and painfully obvious.

But really, how do I know my writing has improved? Because I'm more satisfied with it? Because the average reader rating goes up? Because some individual reader said so? I can tell you that my *process* has not improved. I still flounder and flail and wail, and then resolve to be much more displined next time around. I'm beginning to suspect I lie, every time. As for the writing itself, I just don't know. I think I'm getting better at spotting where I fall short. I spot it sooner, and feel more confident about how to fix it. I guess you could call that improvement in editing skills.
 
Suddenly realising one day (back in 1992) that a story didn't have to be all written out in one go from A to Z.

That was huge. The idea that I could just write out bullet points and notes re what happened in the story then build it up from there was the biggest breakthrough I ever had.

There have been others... learning to relax into my natural voice... learning to LOVE editing... learning the importance of staying close to the spine of the story...

All the rest is god given - having a unique handle on storytelling. That's just me, but there are all sorts of gods and some of them hate me.
 
The idea that I could just write out bullet points and notes re what happened in the story then build it up from there was the biggest breakthrough I ever had.
This is a good one. John Cleese talks about "the hare brain" (decisions and action) and "the turtle mind" (ruminating on a problem, letting your subconscious chew on it) in his book on creativity.
Taking more time, making notes, really building the story in the first stages before the coffee-fueled power-writing begins...
Alot of wisdom in that.
 

Demesnedenoir

Myth Weaver
Hmmmm, as is normal: different strokes for different folks. I'm with PMMG on this one, but I rarely read anything in its complete form, a chapter, a few pages... whatever.

Reading WIPs from unpublished writers consciously taught me more about writing than the classics.

That said, reading as a whole is not critical for me, but it might be for others.

Outlining is the destroyer of worlds: for me.

Screenwriting can teach you a helluva lot about novels, but the two are very different art forms.

I'd say writing and storytelling are both art forms; words are the medium. I've called it the art of story and the art of prose, which drives my editor nuts. That said, many successful writers suck at the art of prose (pro writer voice or worse, 50 Shades) but excel in the art of story. On the flip side, Literary folks can excel in the art of prose and be rather iffy in story.

The number one tool to improving your own writing is reviewing the crap out of other writers. Most of it will be bad writing, and bad writing is a great teacher.


Nothing beats that.
 
That said, many successful writers suck at the art of prose (pro writer voice or worse, 50 Shades) but excel in the art of story. On the flip side, Literary folks can excel in the art of prose and be rather iffy in story.
Love this delineation. Using extreme examples, the "beautifully written bore-fest" vs. the "really cool unreadable story."

My post could use a workover. I agree with your distinction between writing and storytelling being separate art forms, a distinction I made somewhat poorly with the analogy comparing speaking to oration. Both are important to make a good orator, but they are not the same.
I think it could be said:
"As words are medium to the art of the writer, so writing is medium to the art of the Novelist," The word novelist being used rather than storytelling for it being specific to the written word.
 
The most important thing for me to realize is that all writers are different, and that what works for one writer may not work for another. This means that all writing advice should be taken as a suggestion. Even if it is framed as an absolute, or maybe especially if it's framed as an absolute.

For me the biggest one here was reading Stephen King's advice on outlining, when he said that you must never, ever outline. I tried, and that just meant that I couldn't finish any story. Once I started outlining, I started finishing stories. Only took me 10 years to come to that realization...

So if you see some "always do this" or "never do that" advice, take it as "try this and see if it works for you".

There's one exception here, and that is "writers write. So to be a writer, you must write."
 
Stephen King's advice on outlining, when he said that you must never, ever outline. I tried, and that just meant that I couldn't finish any story.
Yeah, he also says something about how some people are born writers and some people aren't, and if you aren't born a writer it doesn't matter how hard you try, you'll never make it; an attitude I neither agree with nor particularly respect.
Ironic coming from someone famous for their "nail stuffed with rejection slips," and a bit of a heartless self-indulgence when one is looking down from the top.
 
I didn’t know Stephen King said that. I think with creative avenues in general, it’s a whole lot of energy to spend if you’re not naturally doing it anyway. But that said, sure there will always be those who were writing since they were in the womb…but it should not deter those who are only just getting into it, or who still have interests in publishing their work.
 

FatCat

Maester
Yeah, he also says something about how some people are born writers and some people aren't, and if you aren't born a writer it doesn't matter how hard you try, you'll never make it; an attitude I neither agree with nor particularly respect.
Ironic coming from someone famous for their "nail stuffed with rejection slips," and a bit of a heartless self-indulgence when one is looking down from the to

Yeah, he also says something about how some people are born writers and some people aren't, and if you aren't born a writer it doesn't matter how hard you try, you'll never make it; an attitude I neither agree with nor particularly respect.
Ironic coming from someone famous for their "nail stuffed with rejection slips," and a bit of a heartless self-indulgence when one is looking down from the top.
That seems fair
 

pmmg

Myth Weaver
Yeah...I'd never want to deter one who wants to, but I have read a few, and thought...it does not matter how long you pursue this, you don't got it. And then seen the opposite, where you are just like 'How can you be so naturally good at this?' I think there is some truth to what Mr. King has said.
 
Yeah...I'd never want to deter one who wants to, but I have read a few, and thought...it does not matter how long you pursue this, you don't got it. And then seen the opposite, where you are just like 'How can you be so naturally good at this?' I think there is some truth to what Mr. King has said.
There are certainly naturally talented writers, but are they better than normal writers who've put thousands of hours into learning?

I would say that a very naturally talented writer who vigorously applies themselves achieves heights of ability no one else can. But I would also say that writing a perfectly good novel is an achievable feat for anyone this side of a limiting mental impairment through dedicated study and practice of the art.
Success in popularity or fortune may be up to the fates or the celestial dice, and a true transcendent mastery may be reserved for those born under the correct constellation, but otherwise it's a question of how much work it takes to write good stuff; more work for the less talented, less for the moreso.
 

pmmg

Myth Weaver
But I would also say that writing a perfectly good novel is an achievable feat for anyone this side of a limiting mental impairment through dedicated study and practice of the art.

Well...I don't. What else is there to say?

Some people display a type of anti-talent. Its rare, but I've seen it.
 
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I’d say that you can see this if you compare the Brontë sisters to Jane Austen. The Brontë’s displayed a savant like talent rare in most people whereas Jane was always more practiced and restrained. But all basically very accomplished writers.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
If you think that was harsh from King, try Hemingway--specifically, his Monologue to the Maestro. It's a fine example of cold-blooded advice from a pro to a wannabe. The original is in Esquire, 1935. Here's a pdf. It's got too many photos in it, but just ignore them.

 
Ernest didn’t cite a single female penned book! Tsk. Though, I haven’t read a single one of his works. And now don’t intend to.
 
If you think that was harsh from King, try Hemingway--specifically, his Monologue to the Maestro. It's a fine example of cold-blooded advice from a pro to a wannabe. The original is in Esquire, 1935. Here's a pdf. It's got too many photos in it, but just ignore them.

That's hard to argue with. Id confined myself to thinking of writing and storytelling technique, I hadn't considered disposition and worldview.

I guess in that way it's kinda like being a kindergarten teacher: you can read all the books you want, but you either got it or you dont.
 

FatCat

Maester
Yeah...I'd never want to deter one who wants to, but I have read a few, and thought...it does not matter how long you pursue this, you don't got it. And then seen the opposite, where you are just like 'How can you be so naturally good at this?' I think there is some truth to what Mr. King has said.
There's a lot of people who read fantasy and want to write their own, but can't be anything other than the MC in their own mind. Good riddance imo
 
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