Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Craft of Writing - Knowing the Game

I know a lot about writing. I don't say that to brag, because, honestly, it surprises me a little bit. And knowing about writing is not the same as being a good writer. But I've worked hard over the last four years, studying the craft, listening to what others have to say, sharing my thoughts and getting feedback, and all without spending a lot of money. The internet has been my resource and I'm happy to say that it worked.

I've been an avid reader all my life, and wrote as a hobby since I was in high school. I thought I knew the basics. I did, I just didn't know how basic my knowledge was. When I decided to get serious about my writing, to make it my career, I knew I needed to learn more. I also knew I didn't have much money and that I learn better on my own, at my own pace and in my own way, than in a formal classroom session taught by someone of dubious credentials (and it can be really hard to figure out who's a good teacher merely from their writing bio).

The internet clearly had the information I needed, but like everything on the web it's buried in an avalanche of crap you don't want. Sifting through the sheer bulk of information is the true challenge, spotting the kernels of truth and recognizing who has useful knowledge and who is merely there to make money or inflate their egos. But a little bit of common sense, a good nose for BS, and a willingness to put in time and pay attention paid off. I learned.

How do I know that I know a lot? Because these days, when I listen to other people talk, people who have the credentials and respect of the community, I understand what they're saying. When other people ask questions, I know the answer they're going to get. When I get feedback, it's nothing new. I've heard what the experts have to say, and can repeat it myself, even when they're not around.

I don't know everything. I'm not that egotistical. There's always more to learn and I understand that and continue to learn - though I have found it harder to find new sources of information. And in a way, I don't feel I need to learn more right this moment. I have enough knowledge to write a book at a publishable level. I know enough to start.

And to reiterate, knowing is not the same as doing. Just because you know the rules to a game, doesn't mean you can play. And even if you can play, it doesn't mean you can play well. Let's use basketball as our analogy (and how that relates to writing). There is an actual rule book (Chicago Manual of Style). You can study it, memorize it, know the rules. But that won't even tell you how the game is played. There are a lot of unwritten rules (don't use adverbs, show vs. tell, people hate prologues). The rules say it's a non-contact sport, but the reality is a lot of contact is allowed. You have to watch a lot of basketball to see how it's really played (read a lot of books).

Studying is great, but it's hard to learn in isolation. You pick up a lot of information if you start talking to other basketball fans and listen to their opinion on things (Absolute Write Forums). There's a good chance that many of those fans also play ball, maybe at different levels, but often aspiring to turn pro. That community not only provides information, but gives you a chance to share what you've learned, to see if your feedback is valued or if your ideas get rejected. If gives a chance to coach (critique) a little and see what the results are. For teaching something is one of the best ways to learn it.

It also helps to listen to the what the professional coaches (agents, editors) are saying. Listen to their press conferences (#tenqueries, #askanagent). You'll pick up tips about what is important in today's game vs. what you watched when growing up (start with action). You'll learn the trends, like the importance of a shooting guard that can post up (first person present tense), and the decline of of the point guard's impact (dystopians). You might also see that there's a dearth of small forwards (#mswl), so if that's your position you might want to angle for a tryout now.

And my goal is not to coach but to play, to make it to the pros. For that you need practice time (writing). And practice is different from just playing pick up games - you need to work on drills (short stories), practice different techniques (different POV's), improve your conditioning (NaNoWriMo). You need coaching from multiple sources (critique partners). Mostly, you need dedication and persistence - you don't get to Madison Square Garden overnight.

The point of this post is not that I know a lot. It's that I was able to learn a lot, and that I was able to do it without spending money, traveling to a lot of conferences, or taking expensive classes. If you can get to this post on the internet, you can get to all the resources you need. If I can do it, anyone can. I can't promise that you'll be able to dunk the ball one day, but if you work at it, you'll understand the game and be ready to play when your name is called. Good luck!

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