Just as people hit the gym to keep their muscles toned and singers run through scales before they practice their arias, so should writers keep their techniques supple.
Pick an area of writing that you do especially well. Maybe you’re really adept at description, or maybe you always manage to set a hook at the end of each chapter.
Now find a couple of modern authors–preferrably still in print–that are known for their skills in that same technique. Let’s say you’re looking at how they manage hooks.
Skim through Chosen Author’s first, best, or most famous story and see how he or she handles hooks. Are you doing as good a job? Set aside your ego and be honest. If yours are not comparing well, what is Chosen Author doing that you aren’t?
Maybe some of your hooks are actually better or more surprising. If that’s the case, give yourself a pat on the shoulder.
Then look at whether Chosen Author is offering a variety of hooks, keeping scenes or chapters ending in unpredictable ways.
Do you have variety, or are you clinging to a couple of tried-and-true-but-weary tricks?
Now look through Chosen Author’s most recent book. Are the techniques that initially made Chosen Author famous still in play( maybe a bit worn by now), or is Chosen Author serving up surprises? For example, I think John Sandford writes the best scene fragments in the business, and from book to book he never quite does them the same way. Still distinctive to the Sandford style, but always fresh.
What can you learn from this?
For the next drill, pick an area where you know you’re weak. Let’s say you aren’t very good at introducing characters. You’ve read useful texts on the subject, such as those by Jack Bickham, but you still can’t seem to bring people into your fiction with any verve.
Once again, go to your shelves. Select an author whose characters you really admire or respond to. How does that writer introduce them? If necessary, copy a passage on your computer, print it out, and lay it side by side with a page from your manuscript. (No, I don’t care if you have a big monitor capable of splitting the screen. You don’t want to do this on the computer. Print the samples out on paper, preferably with both in identical courier font.)
Compare the two, not to squelch your bruised ego further, but instead to try and find where the pins and seams are. Think it over, then open a new document file and write your character introduction anew. Print that out and compare it with Chosen Author’s.
Don’t expect or try to become identical. You must keep your individual style, your voice. The object is emulation, not imitation.
I happen to admire John D. MacDonald’s character introductions very much. He spends as much care making minor characters vivid as he does the major players, yet he never leaves you in doubt as to their level of importance to the story.