If you haven’t heard successful writers preach to you about how you absolutely MUST write for a specific amount of time (or some word count) EVERY darn day, then you’re lucky. But it’s the law of the land.
I’m saying it’s not a well-thought-through law. The fact that I’m not a published writer (statistics show I probably never will be) might give you reason to ignore the golden perspective I’m about to unload, but it’s always good to listen to both sides of the big issues, even the stupid side across the aisle.
You’ve heard that practice makes perfect. Nothing could be further from the truth. As my quadriplegic day-trader friend, Mike Reed at http://www.tradestalker.com, says: “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” He should know. The Dodgers were very interested in him before the accident that caused his paralysis. He played catcher in those days and had legs like tree-trunks. Now he trades for a living and has done remarkably well for over 25 years.
If you practice cavalierly you are practicing mistakes. If your goal is to get in an hour of casual writing every day, you are practicing mistakes. When you practice doing things wrong, you’re going to do things wrong in the game.
Worse yet, take it from me, it’s twice as difficult to “unlearn” hack writing than it is to learn to do things decently the first time.
How can you practice writing without practicing the natural mistakes of hack writers?
First, reading books about fiction writing is NOT the key. It’s like taking voice lessons without listening to great singers. I did that.
Launching into a five-year story-writing binge and neglecting all those essential zombie hours with the TV and kids doesn’t help your writing much either. I tried it. Great fun, though! Writing fiction is like a drug.
Writing endless long emails arguing politics across the aisle? That doesn’t help much, either. You could lose a life-long friend. I did.
Keeping a journal? Not too sure, I never stuck with it.
Reading the type of book you’re writing? Yeah, that helped me more than anything else, by three orders of magnitude.
I don’t know about this next thing, but… I think a fast reader can read a ton of fiction and not allow it improve his/her/its writing.
I think it’s like singing. You listen to Pavarotti for a while, turn him off, get on the piano and vocalize, try to break into your upper range using his tone quality… Then you go back and try to sing along with him. Eventually, if you’re lucky, you might take some voice lessons or read a book about singing. The key is listening to a great singer, not a guy who’s charging you 75 bucks an hour to sing art songs that make you want to barf.
The fiction reading that helps me is like this: I read a little in the first chapter or two, try to remember what’s going on with the mechanics of the story, try to “hear” the way this author puts words together, and then sit down immediately at the keyboard to “vocalize.” I’m not copying the author. Strike that. I’m subconsciously copying the hecque out of her techniques, her flow of words, her range of vocabulary, her use of suspense, surprise, backstory, dialogue, and everything else my tiny mind can absorb. It’s not deliberate copying, of course, it’s the kind of thing you could honestly not realize you’re doing at all. It’s what toddlers do when they learn their native tongue: absorbing the gestalt of adult professionals.
There’s no shame in learning a new language or skill the way children do. Wisdom, yeah, but no shame.
One time I took some notes out of Collin’s book, “The Hunger Games,” and posted them on this blog. (They’re still here.) They were notes to myself, but later I edited them a little to make things slightly less unreadable – just in case someone might ever read them.
Analyzing and breathing in a published author’s story, writing down the thoughts, and reviewing them before writing my own stuff helped me more than anything – in terms of fiction writing. Watching “Predator” helped me more in personal relationships.
Should you write every day?
Not unless you can’t help it. I write pretty much every day, but it’s an unhealthy obsession, not a duty. And I try hard not to practice mistakes. But I’d be better off writing fewer hours at a time and doing a lot less editing.
Whether you write every day or not, I hope you take my priceless and infallible advice: thoughtfully read some good fiction before you start writing – every time, if possible.
If you have enough self-discipline, limit yourself to “perfect” practice… writing as well as the professional whose influence you cherish, whose books you can’t put down. Just five minutes of that is invaluable. Five years of daily re-enforcing hack mistakes while reading books about avoiding hack mistakes doesn’t get you far. Trust me, I’ve tried it.
M. Talmage Moorehead