Sunday, July 31, 2016

Grit and the Art of Deliberate Practice

Today I’ve been reading Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth. It’s a terrific book, and one I suspect I’ll hark back to because there are a lot of good ideas here. She talks about the sociological and psychological research around overcoming defeat and disappointment, as well as specific real-world examples of people who show grit in their lives. As a writer who regularly gets rejected, developing that resilience is something for which I’m striving.

One aspect to grit that particularly struck me is the idea of deliberate practice. We’re all pretty clear on the way that time spent in an activity leads to better results. Any writer will tell you that it’s common to run into people who would love to be writers but can never manage to make the time to sit down and, you know, write something. But in Grit, Angela Duckworth takes the concept further. She points out that it’s not enough to grind out the hours. Really successful people, the ones who overcome the inevitable plateaus in life, engage in what she calls deliberate practice. They seek to improve their performance by setting goals that will test their limits and stretch their skills, by focusing on specific areas that need improvement, and (yes) putting in the hard work that will make meeting those goals possible.

She points out that, while that hard work may not be fun, those with grit take pleasure in their accomplishments, and find joy in the process as it helps them improve. So tonight, I’m thinking about deliberate practice as it applies to the art and craft of writing, and seeking ways to put those ideas to work in my own stories.

If you’re a writer who’s made a conscious effort to practice deliberately, what techniques did you use? Did you have a mentor, take a class or join a workshop? Has your study been more self-directed? How did you mesh this practice with your writing?

In line with this, I’ve been thinking about one specific thing I’d like to improve in my own stories. (This is not to say that this is the only shortcoming I have; only that this is the one I think is currently holding me back the most.) My writing needs to be more emotional, or rather, there needs to be a stronger emotional thread in the story, and a stronger emotional connection for the reader. So I’m going to read a couple books that address that particular issue, and I’m going to read stories and think about how their authors develop that emotional resonance. Until I can understand what gives me a strong emotional response as a reader, I won’t be able to translate that into my own fiction. I shy away from emotion too much, in life and in art, and that won’t work.

What about you? What’s your deliberate practice? Where are you going next, and how will you make it happen?

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Some thoughts on goal-setting for writers

I was putting together my goals for July, and found myself thinking back to earlier days and the way my goal setting has changed—and stayed the same—throughout my years as a writer. Everybody works differently, but I suspect there are few writers who succeed without setting any goals. And I have a suspicion that setting the wrong kinds of goals can be disastrous as well. Whether the goal-setter is thinking too big or too small, the way we approach progress and mileposts can hamper us. Or inspire, on the other hand, if we do it wisely.

First of all, it’s good to have an idea of what motivates you and gets your creative juices flowing. The sad fact is, there may be long stretches of time where you’re not receiving a lot of positive feedback and outside rewards for your hard work. So figure out if a special meal, a night out with friends, or a new book might give you some much-needed joy. And then think about ways to earn that enticing reward.

Dorothy is absolutely right--but the wait can be excruciating

Break it down

The rough draft of your 300,000 word fantasy opus is probably not going to sell right off. And even if it did, you still have to write the damn thing first. You’ve got your maps, and the ominous prophecy-thingy, but now what? Shockingly, opuses don’t get written in one sitting. And you’re going to struggle.  So maybe your goal list should include something other than 1) Write epic fantasy novel. Maybe you need to figure out how to get there.

Figuring out the best approach is a learning process. Maybe you’ll outline thoroughly and break it down into scenes. Maybe you’ll calculate how long you’d like it to be and plot the major turning points and where they’ll need to occur. Maybe you’ll be pantsing the whole way and set a daily or weekly word goal. Be prepared for the trial and error you’ll need to work out your best method. Remember: everyone finds themselves stuck from time to time. It’s not a sign of failure, so much as an indication that you need to rethink the process.

Best rest stop ever, or best rest stop OF ALL TIME?

Whatever path you take, set smaller goals that mark out the way. Just like you wouldn’t drive from Boston to San Francisco in one marathon session, you’ll need figurative hotels and rest stops on the story trail, too. Treat yourself when you’ve set the hook in the opening chapter, or when you’ve finally slogged through the flabby middle part of the story and see the end in sight.

Branch out

When I started, the general advice was to begin with short fiction and break into the market that way before trying to sell a novel. That advice wasn’t terribly helpful then, and is even less so now, but there’s a kernel of value. You may have a natural form that works best  for you—I’ve been most successful with poetry so far, and my stories all want to turn into novels—but it’s not wise to limit yourself to only one thing, however comfortable that feels.

Learning to write better poetry has taught me about rhythm and pattern in language, about finding images that are vivid and unique, about compressing the necessary details and deleting what doesn’t move the piece forward. Working on short fiction has made me think about satisfying beginnings and endings, and how to convey emotion to the reader in a shorter space. And longer pieces have their own needs and structural concerns, calling for much deeper thinking on matters of theme and plot and characterization. All of those things are valuable parts of a writer’s toolkit. Even if poetry requires a different mindset than fiction (like thinking in a different language, as one writer puts it), I can use what I’ve learned in every aspect of writing.

There’s value in trying different genres as well. Too often we find ourselves locked into one particular type of story, but taking the risk of writing in a different field can bring new life to all of a writer’s work. Anyone who reads voraciously can think of favorite authors whose work grew stale over the years, as they trod the same ground again and again. So don’t be afraid to experiment. Write in a point of view you’ve never tried before, switch to a different verb tense, or even give that genre mash-up you’ve been dreaming of a shot.

In other words, don’t forget to have fun. Otherwise, you might as well be making widgets in a gloomy factory.

Build it up

The longer I write, the more clearly I see how much I still have to learn. There are ideas I have that I can’t work on yet, because I just don’t have the knowledge and experience to convey what’s in my mind and heart. (I know some of you are saying that I should try anyway—and you’re right, to a point. There’s value in taking risks, but there’s also value in gaining an awareness of the gaps in your skills and exercising patience.)

So one of the things I’m working on consciously (and semi-conscientiously) right now is to gain a better understanding of what makes good writing in various areas, to study writers who are good and work on incorporating those skills into my own toolkit. To accomplish that, I’ve set goals to read anthologies and collections and think about the stories that seem particularly effective. I’m critiquing regularly for other people, too. In the past, I’ve worked as a slush reader, and that was an enlightening experience. You know how editors will say, “I don’t ever want to see stories with X [vampires, zombies, sappy love stories]!” There’s a damn good reason for that. And you will understand, when you’ve read through every possible permutation of boring, sloppy, unimaginative vampire story that your fellow writers can come up with.

When I was an editor, it was stories about people losing it and killing their spouses. There's a lot of spousal rage out there. Seriously.

In short, there are a myriad ways in which you can build and expand your writer’s toolkit. One of the terrifying things about this work is that there’s so much more to learn. But that’s also the wonderful thing about it, too. I will never reach a point where I know everything about writing. As long as I want to, as long as I work at it, there’s always another mountain to conquer.