Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Getting to the next level as a writer

What's the best way to 'level up' as a writer, when you've already hit a few early milestones for success?

As someone who is agented with books under contract but still early career, I’m curious about the best ways to improve. I’m following the basics, meaning writing, reading critically, and listening carefully to both my agent and editor(s) feedback. Plus I’ve developed online and real-life writer friends who are always up craft discussions.

I’ve found writing conferences—at least the ones I’ve been to—have a diminishing rate of returns because there tends to be a strong focus on querying and (generally excellent) content for beginning writers. Don’t get me wrong: I still learn something, and they’re useful, plus it’s fun to catch up with fellow writers and meet the wide-eyed fresh chum having their minds blown by their first conference. The craft sorts of talks I’d love to hear are hard to teach at a traditional conference when talks are maybe an hour with Q&A. Plus, when the crowd trends toward beginners, it makes sense to offer business and craft content that helps them.

I’d appreciate suggestions on how to continue to grow as a writer if you or any of the reiders have suggestions, including recommendations for ‘continuing ed’ type classes or events.
This is a really interesting question, and one that will resonate with many blog readers.

What I know for sure is only what worked for me.
Will it work for you?
But like a lot of things, trial and error is probably the best way forward.
That is, try some of the ideas you'll see here, and see if they work. If they don't, try some other ideas.

I have a unique crit group: regular blog readers.  While all y'all are kind enough to not criticize my writing, what you do is ask questions about what wasn't clear. Or comment in a way that makes me realize I wasn't clear (most recent example can be seen on Question 3 here)

Being forced to write clearly, and think about how a reader will understand something, has been enormously helpful.

Writing a blog post every day (well, the last six weeks not so much) is also VERY helpful.

Extrapolating from my specific experience to a more general answer: write every day for an audience.  How you find that audience is tricky for people who don't work in jobs like mine with a built in sea of chums.

The other thing that has been enormously useful is critiquing. A lot. Writing cogently about why something doesn't work is a GREAT learning tool.

There are lots of places to find folks looking for crit help.

But if you don't want to involve real people, assess essays or short stories on your own.
Force yourself to write 100 words about every story in an MWA anthology.

That's just me.
I hope there will be a lot more ideas in the comment column today.


Mister Furkles said...

I find it helpful to take a book I've already read by a very successful writer and go scene by scene. Classify the writing phrase by phrase as to what it accomplishes: scene description, character tics, character appearance, dialogue tension, dialogue backstory, metaphorical element--a pidgin lands on the window sill while the MC is being setup by a deceitful boss, and so forth.

It's time consuming. It's tedious. It forces you to focus on how a great writer crafts a story. You may not enjoy reading novels as much after you start picking them apart.

You'll need to develop your own method and classification.

Ann Bennett said...

Searching for an epiphany is difficult in that we usually see what we expect to see. I am a hobbyist writer. So on the few conferences I go to, I talk to anyone who will talk back.

One observation I have made is that some writers are so busy staring at their computer screen and writing that they are missing the hidden curriculum at a conference, the people. It's good to have a regimen to your writing and I get the sheer pleasure of writing. But listening to the story of other people from other walks of life is valuable to expand your writing.

Congratulations on your successes.

JulieWeathers said...

A friend sent me three books for Christmas: Save the Cat Writes a Novel, The Heroes Journey, and James Scott Bell's Plot and Structure. Save the Cat has been a real eye-opener. It's also making me pull out what little hair I have left, but I'm making some important changes to The Rain Crow.

Aside from that, The Litforum is a life saver for me. Once I get through with this round of revisions, I'll post chapters back in the workshop and then make more changes and out to agents.

I honestly don't know what I would do without them.

mhleader said...

I start with a VERY critical appraisal of my own stuff, including my own analysis, comments from readers, editors, agents, whoever. Identify no more than 1 or (at most) 2 areas that you think you're weakest in. Say, it's story structure. Then take at least 3 or 4 books by other writers that you think are brilliant in those areas. Ideally, choose books that are the best in your genre for that specific writing technique. (High fantasy probably has a different story structure, for example, than a taught police procedural. And different dialogue techniques, etc.)

Take those books from multiple other authors and analyze ONLY for the specific area you want to improve. Try not only keep your focus on this one aspect of the stories but also identify commonalities and general techniques among those books. Then re-analyze your own stuff in that same area and do a comparison. What are you doing that other authors aren't? What are they doing that you are not? Then focus on narrowing that gap between what you do and what those other brilliant authors do.

Yeah, tedious. Time consuming. But it's like giving yourself a master class in that one specific area of writing.

Got that technique figured out? Great! Time to lather, rinse, repeat.

If you have a tight critique group that meets regularly (I would recommend weekly, not monthly for this), you can do this as a group project and put a group focus on improving that one area of all your stories.

As one example, many years ago, my critique group discovered Jack Bickham's book on scene structure (SCENE & STRUCTURE from Writers Digest). We started critiquing ourselves on our scene structure in particular, commenting specifically on that with every critique as well as other aspects as needed. And within 18 months EVERY ONE OF US had made our first sales. (We all wrote genre fiction, not literary or nonfiction, so that particular book may or may not be appropriate for your work.) We all managed to elevate our work by focusing on improving one essential aspect of our writing.

Good luck!

Theresa said...

To Janet's great advice, I suggest:

Attend conferences that offer master classes (or sign up for courses that are described as such). They are most likely to offer the level of instruction you're looking for.

Read every day. And not just books that will help improve your writing, but books that will take you out of your own writing and let your imagination wander.

Good luck with your writing career, OP!

Carolyn Haley said...

I second Janet's suggestion about critiquing. I learn more about writing from my clients (I'm an editor), my writers group (we constantly beta each other's WIPs), and reviewing (front-line trad-pub fiction) than I've ever learned from trying to self-teach via how-to book or seminar.

The constant interaction with other people's stories and other people's minds and viewpoints forces me to widen my perspective and stretch my imagination -- at the same time learning techniques and tricks to fine-tune storycraft and character development.

Stephen G Parks said...

I'd second Mr Furkles' idea about going back to books that mesmerized you and trying to figure out why.

Another idea: volunteer to be a slush pile reader for a magazine/publication in your genre. You'll quickly get the sense of the types of mistakes that writers in your genre make. You'll also see a lot of experimental stuff (good and bad) and get to stay on top of the direction of the conversation in your genre. (I feel like I'm not wording this correctly)

Adib Khorram said...

There are numerous writing retreats and workshops that cater specifically to writers who have already been published, and these tend to offer (a) focus on craft, (b) writing time, and (c) fellowship and discussion with other established authors (as well as sometimes industry professionals). Things like Highlights, Clarion, Kindling Words, Mad Cap Retreats. I've found enormous value in them.

I'd also suggest that you begin teaching at those conferences that cater to emerging writers. Nothing makes you hone your craft like having to teach it to others!

Jennifer Delozier said...

I don't know that I've "leveled up" yet, so take my advice lightly, but here goes:

I agree that conferences have a diminishing rate of returns for EDUCATION. But, they remain an excellent networking tool, and for early to mid career writers, that's paramount. Take ThrillerFest, for example. I love that you can register (and thus pay) for only the pieces you find helpful. I now only participate in the MasterCraft and CraftFest components.

Another thing I found to give me a big boost in my craft was signing on to judge a reputable organization's short story contest. The Derringers, the Edgars, the Nebulas, the ITW's Thriller Awards - they always struggle to find judges. Reading a large volume of already partially curated stories (in that they were published by excellent magazines) by writers at the top of their craft was enormously enlightening. Having to compare and contrast them to whittle a finalist list made it even more so. It combined the above-mentioned "practice-critiquing advice" with the "read-in-you-genre" advice into one crash course on short stories. Make no mistake - it takes a lot of time, but it's time you were probably going to spend on reading or critiquing anyway. Next year, I'm signing up to judge novels.

CynthiaMc said...

My best help has come from Jack Bickham, Blake Snyder (all the Save the Cat books including the one Julie mentioned above), and James Scott Bell. They are the best structure teachers I know. Their checklists are invaluable and they write with great clarity as to what works and why.

Craig F said...

A lot of good ideas here, but I think that since you are already on your way, your structure isn't the question.

I don't do writing conferences. My writing style is rather spare and those conferences make me think of beauty magazines and how ugly they can make you feel.

Great writing has an easy way with psychology. The best books that I have read wrenched my emotions out and worried them like a pit bull worrying a chew toy.

So, get out in the world and talk to strangers. Find out how damaged people cope and then find a way to wend that into the gestalt of your own work.

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

Terrific question. I'm eager to see everyone's input.

After my first book was published I thought I was all that - it was a pretty heady experience. Now it makes me cringe. For real. My second book is less cringe-worthy. I'm proud of my third book, yet, still see things I wish I could change. The takeaway for me: Keep writing with a critical eye on previous work. I'm grateful I could acknowledge my shortcomings. I also understand that I will battle them till my ink well runs dry.

I believe there's a fundamental truth to this writing gig. We all hope we'll spark the imagination of our readers, but really, we're writing for ourselves.

Kitty said...

I don’t read how-to books on writing. I’ve tried and they bored me. I kept telling the authors to GET TO THE GOOD STUFF! They didn’t listen. But that's just me.

I do highly recommend these two reference books because they get to the good stuff without trying to impress you:
1) Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style
2) Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, which you can read here for free.

However, if you absolutely must read a longer book on writing, I suggest Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I read this book from cover to cover, the only Stephen King book I ever read, and I learned a lot.

Carolyn Haley said...

The number one structure-related book I recommend to everyone at all stages of novel writing and editing is Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain.

french sojourn said...

My first thought was of the Flash Fiction contests. They are a great exercise in going from initial thoughts, editing, re-reading, and editing for the 12th time. They have really helped me define my writing voice.
I am working on m/s number three and the improvement in my writing is evident looking back at earlier writing. So here I would say, write, write, and write more. Mix with as much reading as writing and it should work it's way forward.

Cheers Hank.

Kitty said...

David Mamet on writing: “At some point you’re going to say, ‘Okay, it’s going to be bad.’ You’ve got to stand being bad if you want to be a writer. Because if you don’t you’re never going to write anything good.”

Fearless Reider said...

I've sung their praises here before and I know I'll do it again: Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin and Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. Congrats on continuing to level up, OP!

KariV said...

Along the lines of what Janet suggested: critiquing others work -

You could apply to be a mentor for certain Twitter mentor competitions. Pitch Wars is a big one.

It's a great way to give back to the writing community, and they say you learn best by teaching, so it might be a wonderful opportunity for you at this point in your writing career.

Alena said...

It's always so interesting to take a peek into somebody else's journey! I've found a great outlet in editing other's work (in my scramble to make a little extra money here and there). It helps a lot to rip apart sentences for extra words, excessive punctuation, rambling, ect. Especially when it's not my own work I'm ripping apart. Somehow this helps me have perspective haha. Another thing I've found helps is reading a lot of DIFFERENT stuff. Not just my own genre. Reading picture books helps with keeping sentences minimal and beautiful, same with poetry. Reading page turners helps with plot. Even music, especially rap and hip hop, help with leaning more about lyrical writing. Congrats on the success so far OP!

K. White said...

I'm nowhere near leveled up but I will add two tidbits to the conversation.

1) Several folks I know who are in your position (agented and selling) have commented that studying "Writing the Breakout Novel" by Donald Maass helped them move to the next level.

2) Being a slush pile reader didn't work for me. I found rather than learning from the mistakes of others their bad habits crept gremlin-like into my writing. Only after I gave up slush reading did my writing return to normal.

The suggestion to identify a weakness and strive to improve it is a good one. Currently I'm doing a deep dive to improve my characters.

Kandace Chapple said...

I just found CreativeLive and they have long-form writing classes that are helping me with this exact problem! It's so good - they really dig in - classes are 10-13 hours so they have a lot more depth. I loved Joyce Maynard's classes and Jennie Nash has a great one, too, on writing. Well worth the annual subscription price to really spend time on my writing skills! I listen to them while I walk and often find myself stopping to make notes on my phone!

Sherry Howard said...

Do all the things! Do all the things in these comments. Attend conferences with different intent: socialize, find out what it takes to be a presenter, attend only strands that help you, lurk in the bar and meet interesting people.

I enhanced my writing career by starting to do work-for-hire for educational publishers. I get to work directly with an editor, gaining a lot of confidence the times when no edits are needed and new understanding when they are. I get lots and lots of quality books published with my name on them. I have a whole new community. I’ve expanded my comfort zone. Write a historical fiction? Sure. Write a non-fiction about the fastest cars? Sure. Pitch your own ideas? Sure.

There are great resources in this blog. I wonder if your question is more about that rodent wheel: I’ve had success. What do I do to keep it up? Wearing that author crown is hard!

Kaphri said...

Joanna Penn's blog is an extremely helpful resource for writers at any level. Her interviews cover a wide range of topics.

Mister Furkles said...

On Elements of Style, I was astonished to read how many errors were in it.

Check out "50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice" by Geoffrey Pullum
https://www dot chronicle dot com/article/50-Years-of-Stupid-Grammar/25497
http://www dot lel dot ed dot ac dot uk/~gpullum/LandOfTheFree.pdf

I think the first now requires some registration.

Brenda said...

Sisters in Crime
Books. I loved ‘Nabokov’s Favorite Colour is Mauve’. The new Chuck Palahniuk book is a grand one.
I find that I learn the most now when I copy out and dissect pages of a favourite author’s work. It’s the only way I can figure out how they did what works.
What genre do you write OP?

CED said...

If you can afford the time and money, critique-based workshops like Odyssey and the Clarions can be a great way to level up. They immerse you in craft with about a dozen other like-minded people. I was lucky to be able to attend Odyssey last summer, and it helped my writing immensely. OP (or anyone else)--I'm happy to talk more if you're interested. Just email me at the link on my contact page and identify yourself as a Reefer.

KDJames said...

I'm going to assume you're at the career stage where you've already read most of the (excellent) resource books mentioned. Simply because I have and I'm not yet where you are. LOL

Let me suggest something different. Instead of trying to level up your writing, level up your thinking. Stimulate your imagination and increase comprehension, fill your creative well with new experiences:

Read widely outside your genre, including non-fiction. Follow people on twitter whose outlook and opinions are vastly different from yours, who make you uncomfortable or even angry. Subscribe to New Scientist and Psychology Today. Read books and articles written by writers of colour or by other marginalized voices. Read two newspapers, one liberal and one conservative, in their entirety every week (maybe skip the political stuff to retain some scrap of sanity). Read news from non-US sources (assuming you live in the US). Venture out into the real world and meet new people, especially people who are not like you, who work in jobs you've never done. Attend services at a mosque or a synagogue or whatever religion is unfamiliar to you. Travel outside your immediate area or outside your country, if you're able to do so. Ask questions. Be observant of grand vistas and tiny details. Listen more than you speak. Be curious, about everything and everyone.

Believe me, all of that "leveled up" thinking will show up in your writing, in a good way.

Rio said...

What I’ve found incredibly helpful is reading the debut novel of a well-known author and comparing it to a much later novel by that author. For example, Michael Crichton’s first novel A Case of Need vs. one of his later novels such as Prey, Timeline, Airframe, etc. I like to study exactly how the writing evolved.

Kelly said...

This book just came out a few weeks ago and so far it's hilarious and insightful: Before and After the Book Deal: A Writer's Guide to Finishing, Publishing, Promoting, and Surviving Your First Book by Courtney Maum. It seems like a lot of the material would be especially helpful to someone in your position. Good luck and congrats on your success.

Karen McCoy said...

K White I know those gremlins well.

Something I often do is go to author events (schedule and geography permitting) and listen to them talk about their stories and their craft. Plus, it's a great way to support fellow authors.

Some conferences do have tracks for more advanced writers--a recent example was SCBWI's Oktoberfest, held here in the Bay Area (though it's only held once every other year). I also had a good experience with the Writers' Digest Workshops (I attended one in Colorado last year, which talked a lot about editing). I also love writing retreats (and yes, there are some cost-effective ones). There's nothing like a break in the usual routine and getting your brain in that creative space.

Whatever method you choose, Opie, find what works best for you.

AJ Blythe said...

There are already loads of brilliant suggestions here, but I have one that I don't think has been mentioned yet...judge unpublished writing contests in your genre.

I've learnt a lot from doing this and it isn't hard. You are given a scoresheet which has the elements to judge on it.You really have to analyse the writing of the entries, which in turn teaches you what does and doesn't work.

Hope you find whatever works for you, OP.

MA Hudson said...

These are all so good that I copied them into a Word doc and saved them for if or when I ever get my writing career off the ground.

Laura Martin said...

My fifth book is about to be published...and I still don't think I've leveled up. However, here are the things I find helpful.

1. Podcasts- listening to other writers talk about what they're doing is ALWAYS helpful. The Read Aloud Revival podcast has some great author interviews with some of the greats and the Middle Grade Ninja just started a podcast as well.

2. Read your genre. And don't just read it, listen to it on audiobook. Something special happens when we listen with our ears instead of skimming with our eyes.

3. This blog has been priceless.

4. Have a good critique group that writes the same genre as you. Allow them to rip apart your work and return the favor for them.

5. When you meet another author, pick their brain relentlessly.

6. Do the same thing for independent bookstore owners who are gracious enough to host you for a signing. Also, read Shelf Talker on Writer's Digest. It's great to see behind the scenes of the people hand selling our books.

7. Do author visits to schools. Kids are brutally honest in the best possible way. Listen to their feedback on what's great, what's boring, and what they are into at the moment.