1. KevinMcCormack
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    KevinMcCormack Member

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    Writing Exercises

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by KevinMcCormack, Jan 6, 2016.

    Hi:

    I don't have a writing education (science and psychology degrees) so am new to creative writing and have some questions about skill development.

    I'm assuming that writing is like other skills - I will need to do exercises intended to develop specific elements of the craft (in fiddle music, we call this "woodsheding"; in sports like swimming, we call this "drills", in calculus we call these "practice problems" &c).

    So, my questions are:
    1. is this true? and
    2. if so, are there resources of compiled exercises?

    Thanks.
    -KM
     
  2. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    I'm not sure about how good writing exercises would be to over all story telling but you could try doing some flash pieces or short stories. The good thing about a flash piece is that you only have a certain amount of words to convey your story - that teaches you to make every word count and to avoid redundancy.

    Short stories will help you see the process - idea, writing, editing, polishing without having to invest the time it would take to draft a novel.

    I find skill comes more from time, practice, good grammar and learning to love words. Writing exercises might help you to improve your word usage or descriptions but I'm not sure if it would help you improve writing a scene or story.
     
  3. KevinMcCormack
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    KevinMcCormack Member

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    I think that's OK, as I expect I would work on pacing by writing those longer pieces. I don't see any other way to build that type of skill. I'm thinking more about discreet elements that get glued together into smaller scale components.

    It's but I'm asking about whether there are established exercises for practicing a specific element or skill within the overall 'writing' family of skillsets.

    An example in the writing world (off the top of my head) might be: drills for practicing dialogue. Drills for POV shifts. Action. Character introduction. I'm guessing a bit here, which is why I'm asking the question.

    I should probably elaborate my analogy to clarify what I'm asking about: when I work on my violin, I won't play random pieces and just assume a skill like 'bowing' will improve automatically. I will pick up a set of 'bowing exercises' which are pieces written (or selected) specifically to develop that skill. Later, when I play any other piece, my bowing will be better due to having practiced those dedicated exercises. It's more efficient use of the student's time and propels them to competence much faster. And aside from the efficiency, bowing exercises also guide toward proper technique; whereas if I just keep banging out random pieces, there's a genuine risk I will develop poor bowing technique that will set my progress backward, and that I will have to unlearn later.
     
  4. DefinitelyMaybe
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    DefinitelyMaybe Contributing Member Contributor

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    I find writing exercises very useful. However I have to be careful about not writing something normal, pedestrian, boring in response to them. I enjoy finding a way to subvert them. I always get a whole pile of new ideas out of writing exercises which I believe are as good as my other ideas. I'm also careful not to internalise 'rules' as something that I must follow, but as a common pattern that can be followed or not followed depending on what I feel is right for what I'm writing.

    If you're learning by yourself then a major factor, perhaps the main factor, will be down to your own learning skills. Pretty much all exercises of any sort for anything can have very different levels of result depending on the person applying them.

    One thing about books and exercises is that I find they sometimes focus me on something that I hadn't really thought about. And this means that over and above any benefit that I receive from doing the exercises, that they help me in analysing subjectively good writing by other people. As I can see what others have done concerning the points/concepts/rules that have been bought to my attention.

    Continuing the music analogy: if someone learning the violin learnt their scales, and then never ever wrote any music with notes outside the scale that it is written in, then that would be limiting and likely to lead to generic composition. In some ways learning the scales can focus your attention on the notes that aren't it in. I'm playing C major, what happens if I use that Bb note?

    Personally, if you have science and psychology degrees, then I would think that your educational background would be sufficient to approach creative writing exercises with the right mindset. Just don't forget the same skepticism that you'd have in science. (Note: I'm not saying that people without degrees wouldn't. Just that degrees should imply this.)
     
    Last edited: Jan 6, 2016
  5. KevinMcCormack
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    KevinMcCormack Member

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    I think this is where I'm coming from: I have a fulltime job which limits my options for formal training. It's very clear that I need to write, write, write, but without knowing what 'things' are important, I don't feel my writing time is as productive as I need it to be. If nothing else, skill exercises will expose me to the very idea of which even exist in the first place. For example, I take spelling for granted because it was part of my past writing training. But if I've never heard of 'spelling' I'm not sure I could it into consideration when writing, regardless of how many stories I crank out. Substitute 'pacing' or 'voice' or 'point of view' or 'tense' for a more realistic example of where I'm coming from - how many skillsets are there that I have never ever heard of, much less practiced?

    And another fear is that just banging out volume has a risk of reinforcing poor technique. If I don't know about 'pacing' I may end up doing poor pacing over and over, and repetition could make it even harder for me to get it right later when I get the appropriate feedback.


    Yes, the deconstruction of an overall ability into subskills won't produce anything without extension and experimentation. I really just regard them as building blocks. My expectation was that the skill exercises would be performed in parallel to actual storywriting: that individual skill exercises are merely practicing aspects, elements, or 'pieces of the puzzle' for more inventive and experimental gestalt writing that would also be happening. The storywriting would draw on and extend practice of the elements that are practiced in addition to some 'combined' output.

    I guess back to the analogy, I'd be doing scales or other types of exercises for half the practice, and the other half of the time, applying it to a complete piece that's slightly beyond my abilities, where I would turn my attention to overall elements like emotional weighting throughout the piece. The point is that by practicing both the components and the whole, there's better progress, since I don't divide my attention between 'tone' and 'thumb angle' when working on the wholistic run-through, as I've already mastered 'thumb angle' on its own.
     
  6. LostThePlot
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    LostThePlot Contributing Member

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    I don't find formal exercises especially useful. Not because I'm just that talented or anything, just that for writing to be interesting to me I need to be working on something I care about and exercises just don't feel engaging to me. I absolutely still write loads of stuff that'll never be part of the finished project (little scenes from before the plot so I can feel out the characters, some 'what if' stuff to play with the plot in another direction, vignettes putting my characters into a different situations etc) and I find those really useful but I don't start out with an objective or try to mark myself for any specific thing. Just writing, and especially writing something that I really care about, that's what helps me be a better writer. If I don't feel the connection then I won't do it justice. I can sit down and make myself work through exercises but at the end I don't feel like I've gotten anywhere.

    It's definitely important to practice writing and looking at your work in a critical way (is this contrived? does this sound like real people?) and for some people exercises really help them do that. If that works for you then absolutely do that. But the most important thing is to write, and especially to write something that you enjoy writing. You'll get better just by doing it a lot and you'll feel much more fulfilled working on a project that interests you even if you have to go back and improve it a few times. No matter how many exercises you do you'll never get everything perfect on your first go and for me at least I'd much rather be sinking my limited time into 'actually writing' than 'practicing writing'.
     
  7. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    What you're talking about in "drills" can essentially be categorized as muscle memory. You do the drill, your muscles learn to perform that particular skill whenever your brain says "finger Ab on the top string" or "bow a harmony between the bottom two strings". Then, whenever you read a piece of music that calls for that skill, your fingers just do it leaving your active brain free to decide the mood you want to evoke.

    Writing isn't like that, it's not about performance. It's like composing music, not playing it. It's like managing a football team, not being the star player.

    Years ago I taught myself to touch-type, so now I can bang out the words without looking at my fingers; I just think them and there they are. But it wouldn't matter - except for just how many words I can write in a given time-span - whether I typed at 100 wpm or wrote by sticking a paintbrush in my mouth and painting them at 1 wpm.

    Yes, you can get better at writing by practice, but only because you write it and then read it - analytically - and try to work out what Stephen King is doing right that you're doing wrong.

    In fact, reading analytically is probably the best "drill" you can perform. And you'll have to perform 2 critiques before you get the rights to post your own work for critique anyway. So get over to the Workshop, look at some pieces in a genre that interests you, try to pick them apart as to why they work, or don't. See what other critiques they've had, and see whether you agree with them (or even understand what they're saying!). Then apply what you've learnt to your own writing.
     
  8. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    I don't find writing exercises useful. I'm in no doubt that reading prolifically is the best way to develop your skills, but personally I also needed to read some 'how to write fiction' guides as well. I only used free articles available on the web, not paid-for books. Because I had read prolifically I understood that when the articles presented something as a "you MUST" or "you must NEVER" or as any kind of absolute, that I shouldn't take it to heart. But I needed to understand why these 'rules' had come about, so I knew that when I was breaking them it was for a good reason.

    I was also careful not to spend too much time on reading other people's advice, and there is a lot of commonly-given advice that I have come to disagree with. I'm the kind of person that likes black and white guidelines in everything I do, and I knew I would drive myself nuts if I tried to follow all the conflicting advice I'd read.

    I do think this is personal, and you have to try things out to find what works for you. If you're not easily demotivated, my recommendation is to write a thousand word short story or chapter and put it in the workshop when you're able. People here will tell you where they think you need to improve, so at least you have something to start working on. I say this with the usual provisos... some critics are better than others, and there will probably be conflicting critiques. You shouldn't take anything as gospel.
     
  9. KevinMcCormack
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    KevinMcCormack Member

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    Yes, there's a weakness to the analogy I chose, it was just for illustration purposes. A non-muscle memory analogy was 'spelling'. Another would be in math: I should be learning the trig substitutions before tackling differential equations. If trig subs aren't second nature, I can't recognize when they need to be used and can't solve complete the calculation. I would be getting ahead of myself. In organic chemistry I needed to memorize reactions, or there was no way to visualize a complete reaction path from species A to Z. When I learned to sail, I had to memorize knots and concepts like points of sail before I was safe to crew, much less skipper. "Time on the water" won't teach these things. I have colleagues who have spent ten times as many hours on the water, and they remain a hazard to marine traffic and their families because you can't learn so many critical details just by 'doing' - especially not solo. At least not in a reasonable timeframe.

    My question comes from here, basically: everything I've learned and taught up to now has had focused exercises that reinforce fundamentals that can be combined into a complete result, the point being to work on both in parallel to generally improve competence.

    I've been asking about what sort of focused exercises are done in writing at local writing meetups, at my writing circle, and everybody just stares at me like I sprouted a third eye, so I thought I would bring it to the web. I'm thinking it's because my peers so far have not been very organized about their approach. They're not shifting careers, but rather, enjoying the writing in and of itself and so, not too concerned about their rate of improvement and don't seem to need a plan.

    It may be that I'm asking the question the wrong way... you mentioned critiquing. My learning about critiquing has been very ad hoc... if I have missed elements simply because I've never heard of them, then the past critiques have not been a good use of my time. A "well now you tell me" situation. So I may not be asking about exercises so much as writing components or subskills to have on my mind while deconstructing completed works or constructing my own.

    I guess I was hoping there would be a book out there called something like "101 writing exercises" with a chapter on "pacing" and another on "character" another on "POV"- something like that. I'm not worried about doing tedious work, if it looks like it contributes to a better final outcome. I expect writing for a living to be 'work'.

    I'm pretty sure a more formal course might be the right approach for me at this stage in my skills and experience. SFU has a part time course that includes both craft and business mentoring, and has a good reputation. But I missed this year's application deadline and the next session starts Jan 1 2017, so am looking to do as much as I can, independently, in 2016. This is the situation that precipitated my post.
     
  10. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    I've seen books on writing exercises. Their main focus, though seems to be on un-tapping your creative side rather than focusing on any of the story telling elements.
    I don't think pace could ever be worked on except through a story because pace is how the story unfolds. And every pace will be unique for each story. It's nothing you can really work on outside of a story - unless it's to shorten your descriptions. Even that doesn't help when you need to draw out a scene for tension.
    If you want to learn the basics of how to achieve each story element you could try just picking up books on the basics or check out Writer's Digest. Or you could check out the Writer's Craft -

    http://www.the-writers-craft.com/setting-of-a-story.html

    website which suggests exercises based on different components.
     
  11. Okon
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    Okon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Meh.. here's my opinion.

    To your questions:
    1, I don't believe in it past the very beginner stage.
    2, Usually you make your own exercises based on what you want to be good at.

    Mathematics and organic chemistry, for the most part, have 'right' answers. Writing does not and it makes people go crazy.

    Read a lot. Write complete things. Critique others' work based on the audience they are trying to entertain. Write your own work based on the audience you are trying to entertain. Write a first draft of something. 80k words, employing a basic 'quest' plotline with your own twist. If you can complete what people consider basic, you're on a good track.

    The quality of art is usually measured by how all of the elements form the whole. I've said this before: most aspiring writers can do character development, plot arc, dialogue, actions scenes just fine. Most of them, however, can't finish drafts. If you're not writing whole works, you have a great shot at going nowhere fast.

    Finally, don't forget to keep living. If you chain yourself to the desk, few new concepts will come in, leading to a monotone and sterile existence.
     
  12. KevinMcCormack
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    KevinMcCormack Member

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    Yes, I went through a bunch of these as a startingpoint, and in retrospect consider these books to have been a complete waste of my time. Creativity has never been a problem. I've done casual improv for 25 years, which requires regular invention on demand. However, I'm not interested in performance skill development. Writing craft is what I want to develop at this point.


    I think this is what I'm interested in, yes. I'm looking for 'books on the basics' that aren't autobiographical tomes about how some famous author handled rejection or balanced writing and family. I'm just looking for craft itself.

    Thanks!
     
  13. KevinMcCormack
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    KevinMcCormack Member

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    Makes sense, and I think I'm at that 'beginner stage'. If I got feedback saying I need to work on my X, I'm still saying "What's X? What does 'work on' mean?"


    This is what I've been doing, but my information gap is what concerns me. I may need to get good at X but if I've never heard of X, I'm never going to work on it.

    This is my fault, sorry... I think I may have got people off track with my examples. My main point was that there must be skills to learn that contribute to the gestalt outcome, are there resources for developing those skills?


    I think my anxiety is about getting the cart before the horse... if I am writing something, what are the elements I should be thinking about... if I've never heard of it, I won't be paying attention to it. I will write a full draft that has bad X because I didn't know X was a thing. I'm trying to get those general concepts on my radar up front so I can write with them in mind.

    I actually edited a newspaper for 5 years at university, which included writing filler. Not for one second did I think of anything beyond grammar and spelling, because that was all I knew at the time. This is the stage I feel I'm at right now, and the informal DIY approach to finding beginner instruction has been quite a waste of time, so I'm looking for something more appropriate for writing craft development in isolation.


    I think this is also part of my incentive and the comparison to past learning... concentrated exercises has increased my efficiency when learning other skills so my time was used appropriately; I just assumed there was a similar approach for writing, and am reaching out to see if there are established methods.
     
  14. BrianIff
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    BrianIff I'm so piano, a bad punctuator. Contributor

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    I sympathize with your situation. I am less than a year into creative writing, and have wondered about the same thing. My impression so far would be to get some writing into the workshop here and, perhaps at the end rather than beginning, ask if people experienced what you had aimed for. Certain characters will have more distinctive voices than others, settings can be evocative or cartoony, etc. Rather than a regimen of everything under the sun, first identify your strengths and weaknesses. From there, you might find materials on what needs work, or you may even have to make your exercises, which there's nothing wrong with, and may even be more effective.
     
  15. Okon
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    Okon Contributing Member Contributor

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    It looks like I didn't take enough time to consider your situation, so my due apologies there. I jumped to an answer because some people (like me) habitually spend far too long wondering about carts and horses.

    Still, I recommend that either critiquing or reading critiques be a part of your curriculum. That's where lots of buzzwords will be dropped in exactly the right place: among the many elements they are meant to represent.
     
  16. LostThePlot
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    LostThePlot Contributing Member

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    The hard truth is that there isn't really such a thing as 'craft'. That doesn't stop people trying to teach it, but the central, fundamental thing is telling a compelling story. It doesn't matter how streamlined and perfectly tuned your prose is if it's telling a story no-one cares about. Equally, if you are telling a good story that the reader cares about then they'll stick with it even through pretty bad writing. While we as aspiring writers might deride how poorly written much of the mass market is; people want to read those stories.

    That's why you see so much written about creativity rather than about 'craft'. To improve your writing skills you just need to write. Exercises can guide you but fundamentally they are just saying 'Write me a character with X' or 'Describe this scene in X words'. And that can be helpful, of course, but really that's not different to just writing a scene, critiquing it then writing another. Nothing you ever write is really absolute anyway so the value in getting things right the first time is pretty marginal. If the pacing (for example) doesn't feel right then you can get in and fix it. Even if it seemed perfectly paced when you wrote it you couldn't see the whole book together then.

    My point is that writing is a whole different kind of thing. Yes, there is skill to it but you develop the skills by doing it. Just write a story you want to write, critique it, then write another one.
     
  17. nastyjman
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    nastyjman Contributing Member

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    Do some copywork. Take your favorite novel or short story and then copy a whole chapter or page. I prefer copying in longhand since the deliberate movement makes you concentrate on the task.

    I recommend this as an exercise because it gives you insight on how a certain author picks their words and how they structure their sentences. It also gives you insight on how they control their flow and pacing. Before I go to sleep or before I resume my writing session, I do a thirty minute copywork. I don't go pass that because I need to work on my manuscript.

    Additional reading regarding copywork:
     
  18. KevinMcCormack
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    KevinMcCormack Member

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    Yes, it's clear that critiquing is important... I may just need to keep trying new groups. I joined and abandoned about 10 last year. I kept finding groups that were composed of existing writers flogging their self published book, people trying to improve their English, slam poets, people working out their childhood abuse issues through some sort of writing therapy, and there was always that guy working on his memoirs for the twentieth year in a row. One group actually voted to turn into an open mic night where we don't even have to submit anything.

    2015 was a long year with dubious gains; i'm trying to get better progress in 2016.
     
  19. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I feel delighted that you're asking the question. I'm delighted because so many people seem to feel that they should be able to just sit down, start typing, and produce publishable-quality prose. I've more than once asked, "Would you expect to sit down in front of a piano for the first time and produce music worth recording?" The idea that writing is a skill, one with many subskills, that requires practice, sometimes seems to encounter resistance.

    That said...I don't know of any books of writing exercises. While you have to practice, I don't think that there's an orderly, systematic program of practice. You wouldn't sit down at that piano and try to pound out Beethoven on the first day; with writing, that's essentially what you do. You exercise all the skills, all of them probably quite badly. You ask for feedback. If someone complains about you breaking your POV, or head-hopping, or voice slippages, I think that you just have to say, "huh?" or Google.

    One way that I keep myself writing (or at least it sometimes keeps me writing) is blogging. I have a highly unprofessional blog where I babble on about whatever I like. It's mostly not fiction, though.
     
  20. Ben414
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    Ben414 Contributing Member Contributor

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    I recently made a word document, created sections like "Scene Openings," "Action Sequences," "Internal Dialogue," etc., and started copying other authors' work into those sections (sometimes a piece fits into multiple sections). Breaking the writing down into sections helps me isolate writing into its fundamental parts to make it easier to utilize when I'm trying to write. Reading is great at teaching how stories in prose fiction work, but there are too many things going on at once to efficiently teach me the minutia of sentence structure.
     
  21. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    1/ I, too have sailed. Before starting, I'd read a lot. I'd never learnt to tie a knot (flunked Scouts!) or anything formal. My learning WAS time on the water, but not just blindly going out and doing it, it was with advice from somebody who knew something. I still spend time on the water, and abhor the (fairly) recent trend to buy a jet-ski and terrorize anybody in sight!

    2/ The fact that your writing circle acquaintances give you strange looks suggests that what you're asking isn't that common an approach to creative writing.

    I remember my father telling me about a lecture he attended in college, towards the end of the course, when all the courses (arts and sciences both) were sitting together. While the lecturer did a lot of talking, the arts students jotted down the occasional point; the science students either wrote in a flurry, trying to take down what he said as dictation, or sat there unable to understand what it was they were being told to take notes about.

    My point being that you're approaching a subjective subject with an objective attitude.

    I can't be certain (I know that the only thing you can be certain of in writing is that there's nothing you can be certain about!) but I don't think that there are any exercises for writing that come close to Bach's Well-tempered Clavier. (Hell, there aren't many pieces of music that come close!)

    3/ If you're not comfortable with doing a critique of somebody else's work, try reading some other critiques of somebody else's work. OK, a lot of the time it will be Spelling, Punctuation And Grammar (SPAG) issues, and you don't seem to have any problems with that, but you will also see references to the correct way to format dialogue, changing POV, pacing, etc.

    You've seen the suggestion that you need to read a lot...and good authors, so that you can work out what they're doing right. But sometimes, you can learn more from a car crash and what NOT to do.
     
  22. KevinMcCormack
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    KevinMcCormack Member

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    Yes, I think that 'advice from somebody who knew something' maybe closer to what I'm looking for, but ideally more than just 'some guys opinion' or 'get a lot of word of mouth, muddle through it' - the latter sounds like how to learn the wrong way to do it.


    I was trying to figure out if it's unfamiliar to them because of that, or if it's just that they're approaching it from a hobbyist or personal therapy point of view. None have expressed an interest in things like writing anything longer than about 1,000 words, or agents or publishers, for example. They seem to be satisfied with self financed print runs of 50 and open mic night.

    Note: not that I think there's anything wrong with that... just that as an aspiring novelist, I may not be engaging the right kind of critique peers.


    I'm not sure. I also tried painting and sculpting when I was a teenager, and what I remember of the first two years of that was that there were dedicated exercises for those art categories. In fact, I think we called them 'studies'? (eg: study in figurine poses, study in fan brush, study in pointillation, study in puttyknife, glaze charting... basically fundamental skills we would combine into a finished work)

    I'm thinking now that I'm just asking the question the wrong way, or asking the wrong forum.


    I'm thinking they may be tucked away in more formal textbooks, maybe not the sort of thing that bookstores stock.


    I think that may help, actually. Is there a resource of existing critiques somewhere?


    That part I don't have a problem with. I'm 50 and probably read over 100 books a year. I'm one of those people who never owned a TV. The concern I have is that a lot of past reading may not 'count' since I wasn't thinking of them in terms of critique. I have to confess that if you asked me how the pacing was in Nicholas Nickelby, I have to admit I don't recall that aspect of it, seeing as I read it in 1981. So the hope was that I could get a primer of 'what to look for' and start afresh.
     
  23. Malisky
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    Malisky Fuzz Overdriver Contributor

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    http://www.indiebound.org/book/9781582973760

    I found this very helpful as I'm interested in mystery/ crime/ suspense and it sort of showed me a method to organize my story and keep track of what I'm actually doing. It also contains tips upon various elements, like character development, multiple other major characters and minor characters, setting, dialogue, dramatizing, opening, P.O.V., etc.
     
  24. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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  25. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think you've probably gotten past the "drills" stage in writing just by being an educated adult. All the stuff you learned in school? Spelling, grammar, vocabulary, organization... that's the "drill"-level stuff.

    There are new writers who need to learn all that before they start writing, but they're people who didn't learn it in school already. If you're an educated adult, I think you've got the basics covered.

    Which doesn't mean you don't have to think about those things or pay attention to them or refine your practice, but it probably means drills won't do you much good.

    There are definitely writers who swear by starting out with shorter works and building toward longer ones, but I don't think this is universally effective.

    In terms of finding someone to help you and critique you - I think there are two different issues. If you consider your goal of writing to be to reach your audience and hold their interest, then it's really useful to get feedback from non-expert readers. (Personally, I think non-writer readers are the best for this, because they're less likely to want to interject their own style or quirks, but non-writer readers generally don't want to spend a lot of time beta reading.) The non-experts are your ultimate audience, so it's great to find out whether they were bored or interested, etc.

    More in-depth critiques, in my opinion, really should come from people whose writing you know and respect. I'm not saying there's no benefit from getting critiques from beginning writers, but there's a lot of chaff you'll have to sort through to get to the wheat. Mostly, I agree with those who say the chief benefit of critiques on sites like this go to the critiquers, not the critiqued.

    If you want expert advice, it's definitely available, but you'll generally have to pay for it and you'll have to be very careful about who you work with. There are a lot of people out there claiming to be expert writers, writing coaches, editors, etc. who have no credentials and no damn idea what they're talking about. There are also some great writers who can't critique or teach worth a damn.

    So - simple? Nope. There's probably going to be a lot of blundering around and re-writing and being frustrated. But I don't think there's really a more scientific way to learn to write. Unfortunately.
     

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