Writers, no matter how adept, need to keep their skills sharp. It’s foolish to become complacent or think there’s nothing else to learn about this profession.
(If doctors have to keep going back to refresher courses and seminars on new methods, why should writers be exempt from continuing education?)
As I see it, we wordsmiths face three general areas where we should keep fit:
Let’s tackle them one at a time.
Imagination: I’ve written many posts about the care and feeding of one’s muse. I’ve also delved into suggestions about how to discipline imagination and keep it hard at work.
But imagination also needs to be let off the chain. From time to time, give it freedom and let it play.
You can dabble in other forms of art if that’s enjoyable for you. One of my writing friends paints. Another creates mixed-media collages. I’ve pieced quilts in the past, which is both artistically satisfying and a restful, soothing activity.
But I also like to write for sheer fun, playing with words, knowing as I spill them onto the page that the passage will never be part of anything published. I call this play-writing.
Write a scene that’s not connected to anything. Write description that breaks all the rules of correct syntax and grammar. Write the isolated event blaring vividly in your mind even if you don’t know anything else about it. Don’t connect the dots. Leave logic behind.
Seize a famous character from a classic in literature and write new dialogue for him or her.
Some writers indulge in free-writing in their journals, spilling thoughts and snippets of ideas or bits of dialogue onto blank pages without making anything of them.
Whatever works for you!
Writing Craft: This is where you stay vigilant about your skills. You keep your scene conflict focused. You work on honing your dialogue to a clean edge that advances story. You look at passages of description and rewrite them so that instead of rambling they are centered around a dominant impression, presenting the imagery you want.
Constantly seek to improve your techniques. Who are the authors you most admire? John Sandford is a master of scene fragments. John D. MacDonald surpasses everyone at characteristic entry action. A Dick Francis passage of description is brilliant for its brevity. Choose your authorial heroes and study what they do. Think about ways to incorporate what you learn from them into your own work.
Style: Any of you who have taken my classes may be blinking in surprise right now. Style? Since when does Deborah Chester care about–or even think about–style?
I think about it all the time. I don’t bother with it in the courses I teach because my primary objective there is focused on technique. But never suppose that I dismiss style. It’s extremely important.
It just doesn’t matter more than the story! What I can’t stand are writers who put style before everything else. That’s like trying to eat a meal of buttercream frosting instead of protein, vegetables, and a slice of cake to finish.
George Orwell said that good style should be like a pane of glass. Which means it should be crisp, clean, grammatically pure, and plain.
Never let it come between the reader and the story. We shouldn’t strive to write so beautifully that readers stop to exclaim over our lyrical passages. And we shouldn’t be so clumsy with punctuation and syntax that we come off as semi-literate.
Good style means being easily understood. It means never confusing readers or over-relying on adjectives and adverbs. I consider style a tricky, highly advanced aspect of the writing craft. It can get away from us if we don’t stay maintain our guard against convoluted, pompous wind-baggery.