Writing in the spare moments

This is the secret to fitting writing in: Write in your spare moments, especially if you have “spare” moments that occur the same time every day — a smoke break, lunch, etc. Some folks even write during their 2-5 mins in the restroom each day (I don’t do this, and nor do I particularly recommend it — this is just an example of how far you can go).

Make space for writing in your life, and keep going to that space every day. Joseph Campbell called this your “sacred space”. I use it for writing, but he meant it to be your personal time for anything — your withdrawing from the world time, where the world cannot touch you.

He also said that at first it may not seem like much is happening, but if you build your sacred space — and you keep going there — eventually something will happen. You will find your center, and from there, your bliss.

In my opinion, if writing is your bliss, you will write.

Not setting yourself up for failure

You know, a lot of us have a goal to write at least once a day. Some of us even have wordage targets. But sometimes you have to have a reality check:

I did not write today at lunch. Instead, I drafted a cover letter for the complete novel and got it reviewed by a writing buddy. Crossed all the t’s, dotted all the i’s. But, to me, this counts as “writing” — it’s all part of the same thing: getting the work published.

I used to feel guilty in situations like this. In fact, that sense of guilt might even make me stop writing a for a few days as I stewed over my failure and wondered what went wrong.

But now I have come to realize there are only so many words in me per day, and work takes most of them, and blogging takes more. Until my writing muscles, build, it’s more important to not get discouraged. And besides… So what if I didn’t move forward on the current work? I did something critical for the overall goal.

I count today as a win.

On Writing #15: Adjectives, Adverbs, and The Quest for the Perfect Word

This came up today when I was on the phone with a friend — when to use adjectives and “-ly” adverbs and when not to. Since I’ve spent many years writing both fiction and technical/process/procedure documentation, I’ve run into this issue over and over.

In brief, the best solution is to cut the adjective or adverb *if you can*. If the meaning doesn’t change, the emotional content doesn’t change, then you don’t need the adjective/adverb.

Example: Pick up the silver spoon with your right hand and the plastic fork with your left.

If there is only one spoon and one fork, the adjectives mean little. If there are several forks and spoons of different types, then the information is critical. In addition, if you are writing a story that is about wealth (silver spoon) vs poverty (plastic fork), the information may also provide an emotional shading to the story that justifies keeping it.

I feel the same way about “-ly” adverbs (unusually, whitely, etc etc.) For many years I violently hated them, and I believed they were lazy and a “short cut”. As with many writers, I thought anything you were trying to say with the -ly adverb, you could say it better and more precisely by describing it.

But now age and time and KAVALIER AND KLAY have seasoned me. Sometimes — rarely — -ly adjectives are the perfect tool. When? Think in terms of rhythm, rhyme, emotional timing and pacing inside of scenes, and the risk of pulling a short story off track and focusing too much on something. In those instances, and several others, that oft-cursed, oft-derided “-ly” adverb may be your best friends.

That said, it doesn’t happen often. As I would say to a farmboy in Mos Eisly, “Best watch yourself.”

The Way Plots Work for Me

1 ) Write some good stuff
2 ) Write some more good stuff
3 ) Fall in love, but realize it needs some work
4 ) Put everything in order
5 ) Try to write some more, fail, repeat, fail, repeat. A lot of it is good, but where is it going?
6 ) Sit down and do a plot — either with index cards or a chapter-by-chapter or some other method
7 ) Begin writing again with confidence, finish one or two scenes.
8 ) Plot begins to change
9 ) Try to project forward
10 ) Plot continues to change, get more and more nervous, go to step 9, until…
11 ) I get lost. Backtrack a little bit, turn left at Albuquerque, proceed.
12 ) Repeat 9&10, perhaps 11, until…
13 ) First draft done

Then edit the hell out of it.

See, that’s all there is to it. Easy as pie 🙂

[Greatest Hits] On Writing #8: Drafting Cover Letter Blurbs and Synopses, Or How to Realize You Can’t Really Write

Ever wondered why writers complain endlessly about writing that novel blurb on the cover letter, or writing the synopsis that every agent says are standard for the industry, but every agent also says must be a different length? (C’mon guys! Are they supposed to be 1 or 2 or 3 or 5 or 8 or 10 pages, anyway?)

Well, since I’ve been diving head-first into both of these problems — and I think I’ve recently whipped the Cover Letter Problem(TM) — I’ll tell you. It’s not that you don’t know how to write anymore. It’s not even that your novel is too complicated to compress into a blurb/XY-page synopsis.

The real problem is that you are practicing a new skill, one you may not have used very much:

The skill of summarizing.

You may have last encountered this in 10th grade as an English assignment — summarizing (perhaps) MOBY DICK or TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. I bet it wasn’t easy, was it? All the class snickering. Half of them copying off of each other. None of you even partly interested in the assignment. If you are very lucky you may have even had to summarize a book more recently, say in English 101 or History of English Literature. You probably tried harder then, banging your skull against the dogeared copy of ABSALOM ABSALOM or TAMBURLANE until Athena tried to climb out of your forehead. You may have even got an A.

But one day you start writing a novel and thinking about selling it or getting an agent, and you sense this “Cover Letter” demon and “Synopsis” monster lurking in the dark and unknown future, and you wonder, “How do I tame them? How do they not just eat me? Where do I even start?” But you’ve still got a long road ahead, so you put it off.

Then one day the novel is done. You’ve patched all the plot holes, polished the prose, charisma’ed-up the characters, eliminated the loose ends. “Well,” you decide, “I can’t wait any longer — I have to have a cover letter and a synopsis.” So you dive in. First things first, start at the BEGINNING. And when you come up for air, you read the thing and you’re pretty damn sure IT SUCKS.

What’s going on, anyway? You know how to write. Everyone’s impressed with the novel (or at least they’re pretending to be.) Maybe you’ve even sold a couple of short stories by now, possibly been nominated or even won an award. But still You. Can’t. Get. This. Damned. Thing. To. Work.

Yeah, I couldn’t either.

But then I realized: my novel, with its unusual setting, four different factions, and shifting alliances (eventually culminating in one glorious conflagration where everyone tries to kill everyone else) — well, it just doesn’t fit the coverletter format. Or the synopsis format, either. At least… not the way I’m using them.

You see, I was lost in the detail. I was trying to recreate by intercut book, in order, sometimes scene by scene. But these formats don’t easily support that sort of summarization.

I realized at last that I only have to convey the spirit of the story, not every twist and turn of the plot. To summarize, indeed, I was forced SIMPLIFY the plot.

The only way to condense this book, make it fit into the space needed, and still be entertaining was to cut out seemingly-pivotal characters, entire story arcs, perhaps even important factions. Cut, cut, cut away the fat until only the skeleton remains.

The cover letter was finished first, a couple of days ago. And when I read it, it feels pretty damn good — and I’ve never been able to say that about a cover letter before. As for the synopsis, I’m still hack-hack-hacking away.

But at least I think I know what shape the corpse should be before I pour the lightning in… Here, hold a tendon.

[Update since the original post: The synopsis feels pretty darn good when I read it, too. It’s alive… IT’S ALIVE! *mad laughter*]

[Greatest Hits] On Writing #4: The Secret to Consistent Productivity and Getting Things Done — Momentum

[To satisfy both goals of 1) moving all my on writing articles over here from LJ and 2) providing more high-quality posts to readers, I’m offering up a second On Writing post this week, one of the classics]

Once you start writing stories or a novel or poems or even essays, if you write every day you develop a head of steam. Not only does writing become a habit, but you don’t feel right if you don’t write. You feel off balance, leaning forward, like you’re standing atop a racing train and suddenly it’s pulled the brakes. You’re going to fly off. Get lost in the sky. Crash.

I’ve been feeling like that. Unfulfilled. Off balance. Uncentered. Because I haven’t bee writing and I haven’t been submitting short stories.

Well, I’ve got good news to report — not only have I started submitting stories again (I was at 0 out-to-market), but I wrote 4,211 words yesterday on a from-scratch rewrite of my WOTF Semifinalist short story “The Eye of God.”

It was one of the first things I wrote after I started writing again, and I was never completely happy with it. I tried rewriting it a few times, just a once-over edit, but it never really worked. I always knew it needed a rewrite from scratch and a different voice. Well, yesterday I was finally gripped with a passion to fix the story — and now there are only two scenes left. Two very difficult scenes. A steep hill for my train. Sure, it’s off to a racing start but that hill is still scary.

But I can do it. I can do it. I can get up that hill.

And you know something — you can too. We’re all little-trains-that-could, here. Maybe you’re writing something that’s beyond your skills and it feels stuffy and stilted, maybe you’re plagued by self-doubts about your editing prowess, maybe you’re a pro looking for a better writing process because you feel unfulfilled, or maybe you’ve always wanted to write and you’ve just never started.

Well, my advice is to just shovel some coal on the fire and get the engine started. Get the wheels turning. They may creak, they may be rusty, but get them turning an the rust will come off and the creaking will get better. Get your train started. It doesn’t have to be an Olympic start. Plenty of time my train just starts limping ahead 100 or 200 words at a time. That’s fine.

Because momentum BUILDS. As long as you keep the coal shovelled and keep water in the boiler, those wheels will turn — and that train will MOVE. And if your train is moving, eventually you will get to the destination.

On Writing #14: Synopsis and Query – The Art of Summary

The art of the query letter and synopsis is not summarizing your entire book. This is what took me forever to learn. It’s about IGNORING VAST SECTIONS OF YOUR BOOK. Boiling things down to the fewest characters possible, the fewest events possible.

My most successful query letter so far has almost no plot information at all, just a very quick reference to the the story to get a feel for it, and then my credentials. Just enough to hook, no more.

My synopsis, similarly, has very few character, very few plot developments. I rebelled against this at first, I felt like I was almost writing a different story, but then I realize that summary more about CHOOSING WHAT YOU LEAVE OUT than choosing what you leave in. This is because you have to leave out almost all of the book. A short summary CANNOT hold you entire novel and still make sense, unless almost nothing happens in your book.

My synopsis ended up being very high-level, much more high-level than I thought it would have been when I first started trying to write a synopsis. Eventually I realized that I needed to emphasize style and voice and a few main characters — because really, anyone reading the synopsis is just trying to get a feel for the book. So you’ve got to put the “feel” in, but you don’t need anything else. (But don’t forget to put the ending in! There are no secrets in a synopsis!)

So, dear reader, I am saying you need to cherry pick your novel. Make it make sense, but show surprisingly little of the plot (especially in the query letter). But I have this warning too: be careful how you summarize. Summary is a completely different type of writing than what most of us are used to in fiction, and it’s very easy to emphasize the WRONG parts, and make the story seem like something it isn’t.

Here are two examples:

1) (via David Brin on facebook)
“Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first woman she meets and then teams up with three complete strangers to kill again.”
— Marin County newspaper’s TV listing for “The Wizard of Oz”

2) The infamous “Shining” trailer on YouTube

I think these talk for themselves, but let me say it one more time to let it sink in: Summary is about DECIDING WHAT TO LEAVE OUT. Think about it. What did the summarizers leave out of the above examples?

Ok. ‘Nuff said.

On Writing #13: Momentum and Focus — And a Trick to Keep Novels On Track

Finishing the rough draft of a novel is all about momentum and focus. It’s about not giving up halfway through, not giving into the temptation to go write something else when you’re almost done.

Novels are big. You have a long way to go until the end, and chances are things won’t be perfect after the first pass (there is a lot of evidence to suggest that even Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” — a famed “first draft” novel — actually went through several revisions before publication, and I have sneaking suspicion this happens to all of them).

Basically, don’t worry about making your novel perfect the first time through. It’s probably not going to happen. The key is to keep slogging on. Don’t let your momentum wane or you might get stuck. Don’t give into temptation and go write a different book or you will (most likely) never come back to this one.

I hear you ask, dear reader: But how? How do you keep going when there is so much still broken?

I use three relatively common techniques (and while I have not sold a novel yet, I have, at least, finished several, and gotten a full in front of an agent).

A) I revise the previous session’s work before starting new words. This is probably the most common technique out there, and it works for many of us (everyone is different, of course). I simply re-read and edit-as-I-go all the words I wrote last time. It gets me into the voice again, and into the flow, and it helps keep the total number of continuity errors down.

B) I keep a “Fix Later” list. Sometimes there are really big changes — changing the sex of a central character, inserting a character/theme you’ve just invented throughout the rest of the story, or maybe I’m worried that someone’s pistol is anachronistic or changing brands — edits that would require some research or maybe even days of work to fix. In these situations, I usually just jot down a few notes about what I think is wrong on my “Fix Later” list. Then I put it out of my head and pretend it’s already done. It’s kind of like Wile E. Coyote running on air, and it’s probably the most important technique I learned to actually finish a novel.

C) I fix the ones that give m nightmares. Sometimes B) is not enough. Sometimes your brain starts to feel out of balance and can’t “pretend” anymore that all the edits have been made. In these few situations, I go back and make the edits that are bugging me ASAP. Best practice is to keep these times to a minimum, less the momentum of your novel die.

My current novel editing process:

1) When the “very rough” draft is done — meaning that I have have finished writing the last chapter — I work through all my “Fix Later” list. This takes a while. As I go, I find more scenes that I don’t like and places where I’m missing info. I make a list of these too. Then I fix them. Once all these basic edits are done, I have a first draft.

You say: A first draft! You must be done, right?
No.
You must be ready for beta readers?
No.
What do you do with a first draft then?
Well, the primary rules is — I don’t show it to anyone. It’s only a first draft, and not even really that. It’s the first take of the first draft.

2) Now I search the first draft for overused phrases, -ly words, etc, and make sure I need them. If I HAVE to have them, I leave them. Otherwise they end up dead on the floor. I now have the first draft, second take.
So you’re done, right? Beta reader time?
No.

3) I now read the whole first draft to myself, ALOUD. Reading aloud really helps me catch rhythm mistakes, missing words, awkward phrasing, and (unintended) grammatical errors.

I also usually can see the major clunky bits of scenes, and I end up either adding description or taking away stuff I don’t need. Lots of scenes get rewritten from the ground up.

Once this is done, I have a second draft. And before you ask, no it’s not done.

4) Now I read the second draft aloud to my wife (or other willing victim, though I have yet to find one). The performance of the piece makes me note where things still don’t move smoothly. Also, she will catch flaws as well. When this is done, I have the third draft.
Ahh, beta readers now?, I hear you ask.
Yes. Now you’re right.

5) This third draft goes to beta readers. After I incorporate feedback from them, I have a fourth draft and (hopefully) a submittable novel.

But if you’re hoping this is the end of the story, let me burst your bubble right here: I haven’t sold a novel yet, but I’ve heard that this is just the beginning of edits. The agent may request changes, then the editor at the publisher, then there are page proofs, galleys, etc.

My advice: Write a novel you love, or you may end up sick of it.

On Writing #12: So You Want to Write, But You Can’t Find the Time

So… You want to write. Maybe you want to write short stories, books, poetry. Maybe you actually want to finish a memoir, or you’re in love with the idea of publishing articles.

If you’re like a lot of us out there, the problem you’re having isn’t finding an IDEA. Ideas are cheap. Once you start writing you’ll be drowning in them.

The real problem you’re having is just WRITING. I don’t mean stringing words together so they make sense (that can be an issue for even the best of us, but it’s not the focus of this article) — let me explain.

Just about everyone I’ve met says they want to write a book one day. Most of them probably could write some astounding stories too.

So I ask them: Why haven’t you written?

That’s when the clearing of throats and mumbled excuses start pouring forth — usually excuses eventually boil down to one common thread: that with kids and work and “everything else” they can’t fit it in. They just never find the time.

The Time Problem – I Have It Too

I get the time problem. I really do. I have a job. I commute 45 mins each way every work day. I have a kid, a wife, several very demanding hobbies other than writing. While the baby was learning to sleep (6 months to 18 months old), no matter what I tried I could NOT find the time. Every spare moment I had had to be dedicated to sleep. Time is an intense problem for me, and sometimes — in very special situations like the one above — there is no solution.

So how is it that I write fiction? that I study writing, and find time to write about writing itself? How do my friends do it, too, with their busy lives?

It’s Hard – And Not for Everyone

It’s HARD. Don’t let anyone tell you any different. Evne for the most gifted and natural of writers, fitting their art into a busy modern life is PAINFUL.

We all have to give things up, and some of us have to sacrifice more than others, and for some of us — sometimes — writing does not fit.

The cost of fitting it in for those people is just too high. And there is nothing wrong with that. Priorities have to be set!

There are Things that Should NOT be Given Up

Many of my readers may be shocked — floored, even — to hear me say this, but there are MANY things more important than writing. I might even hazard to say that MOST things in life are more important than writing — among them family and health and, yes, even freinds. These things, I believe, should not be cut back or pared away in an extreme manner. Maybe you have to duck out of a few of your friend’s birthday parties, yeah, but don’t ditch them all together. Life is for the living, people! And definitely don’t make your spouse or your kids suffer for writing. Take what tmie they are willing — and happy — to give you, but listen to them and listen to yourself. There is a limit to how much time it is appropriate to take away from them — and writing time is not worth causing either them or you permanent relationship stress.

I also do not recommend quitting your job or changing to a much simpler job to find time to write. This HAS worked for a few writers, and it might work for you if you have the right bent and the right set of situations – single, no kids, or a spouse with a ton of cash. But I am the sole income for my family unit, and — for someone in my situation — reducing income voluntarily is an impossible decision to make.

So what do you give up then?

Alright, we’ve looked at a few things I do NOT universally recommend: quitting your job, your family, your friends, your health.

But if you want to fit writing into your life, some things do have to budge. This is obvious: it’s a simple fact that the number of seconds in a day is finite, and there are PLENTY of things out there to fill them.

Your job as a writer/aspiring writer is to identify as many spare seconds and as many wasted seconds as you can, and then make a plan to use them to empower your writing.

I’ll warn you, these ideas are nothing new — but perhaps my experiences with them can help you pick which tools will help you.

Step 1) Carry a small notebook with you. It has to be small so it can fit in your back pocket or your purse or somewhere else where it can be convenient, unobtrusive, and omnipresent.

This is the book where you write the random ideas that fall upon you during the day. Some call it a journal. Some call it a writer’s book. Some just call it a scratch pad. It doesn’t matter what you call it, it’s useful.

Me — I have a tendency to write on whatever paper is at hand, forgetting that I have the journal with me — this gets many of my ideas lost in random notebooks. I end up with piles and piles of notebooks with one page full. But every once in a while I go through them. Collect them all together. Cull out the bad stuff. That, or a stumble randomly across an idea when I’m looking for a shopping list. The juices start flowing right there, right in the middle of everything else. Suddenly, I have an idea, a new persepective on a WIP.

Some say you should journal every day. Maybe they’re right. Me, I just jot ideas down when I am possessed by the muse to do so (maybe that’s why I’m so poorly organized). I go weeks, sometimes months, between notes, then I do ten in one day, every day, for a week. This is the only way I have any hope of capturing the fire.

Even for the poorly organized like myself, journalling is a valuable tool.

Step 2) Find the spare seconds I was talking about — and schedule them.

One book I read (I do not remember the title) recommended that you write every time you take a bathroom break or coffee break at work. Just one, two lines. This is extreme, but I have tried it. It does work, but only for certain stories and only when I am in a certain mood. Perhaps it will work for you — it certainly cannot hurt — even if all you write is junk, you will be getting better, you will be practicing. Just don’t be discouraged if the quality isn’t as high as you were hoping.

But, seriously, you do have to fit writing into your life. Some of my frieds get up at 5:00am every day and write for an hour before commuting an hour to work.

Others write every night, 10:00pm to 11:00pm.

Me, I write at lunch for about 45 minutes. I reread the previos days work and fine-tune it lightly, then I proceed to write the next bit. Sometimes I get 0 new words, soemtimes 250, and on a few rare and wonderful days I get lucky and get 2500.

As little as 15 minutes a day can keep you going, but you really need 30 minutes to an hour on a regular basis. Move things around. Make that one, scheudled writing space. It’s okay if it’s only on weekdays. The schedule is the important part here.

3) Think about making writing a ritual.

This is the “sacred space” concept, and is tied intimately with the idea of scheduling the same time of day.

This is idea that if you make a special place or a series of things you always do before you write, writing will become a habit and you will always fit writing in because otherwise you will not feel right.

Go to the same restaurant every day (I do Schlotsky’s) and write there. Or maybe build something more elaborate — always ride the stationary bike ten minutes, take your shower, and then write. or light a couple of candles. Maybe play the same song before you start, listen to it deeply. Maybe, like Stephen King used to, Write in a small utility room so your family will not come out to bother you.

There is a danger to this, though. I now write nowhere but this one Schlotsky’s. What happens if it closes? What happens if I need to write on the weekend and I don’t feel like driving across town?

Jay Lake can write anywhere, in any sitting or prone or standing position. This is a decison you have to be careful of making, because it can limit you — but it can also keep you writing when nothing else will.

4) Cut back on TV, Video games

You don’t have to give them up. But you probably will have to cut back.

Most of an American’s day is filled with TV. I don’t even have cable, and I still watch an hour or two of it per day.

This can be hard to do. Prime Time TV is essentially it’s own ritual, it’s own sacred space (the same concept we just discussed). Video games give you instantaneous positive feedback – the same type of feedback most of us are hoping to get from our writing.

Your writing is in direct competition with these two time sinks. Writing takes work — unlike TV. Writing is slow and takes a LOT of time to get feedback on — unlike video games.

It’s amazing anyone breaks away long enough to write, really, considering how powerful TV and Video Games can be, emotionally.

But, really, here’s my experiences cutting back:

For video games, I’ve had two different things work:

1) Play your video games only AFTER you’ve written your minimum time or word count. If you don’t write, you don’t get to play. This worked for a while for me, but eventually I gave up.

2) What’s working right now: I play video games only in a certain time window every day. I am allowed to play in that time window — one hour, right after work. I set an alarm, or my wife does, and when teh alarm goes off I have to leave. Period. Slowly this has become a sacred space, and I just don’t feel right playing at any other time of day.

For TV:

Same things as above work for TV.

I also cancelled my cable, and I only watch the shows I want to watch on Hulu, or I use the money I would have spent on cable and buy an entire season of a show.

The real key here has been: I have 2 shows, maybe three, that I watch, and I tend to watch a whole season at a time — two weeks, one episode a night, or one weekend with most of them piled all together. No waiting for the next episode, no wondering what happens next, and entire series are out of the way in a relatively small amount of time.

Maybe it’s bad, but I binge on TV. But then for days and weeks I don’t care about it anymore.

I keep up, but it’s not central to my life, or my evening, and this frees up time for me to do writing drills or just to THINK about my stories — and that, in iteslf, s an imporant activity.

There are Many More Ideas Out There

Like I always say, you have one of the most powerful research tools in the known universe at your fingertips — the internet. The problem with it is that half the stuff you read will be wrong — but when you’re looking for time saving tips, you can usually sort the wheat from the chaff pretty easy.

So go, find more ways to save time, apply them. And then share with me, so I can find more time too!

On Writing #11: Deliberate Practice Drill – Quick and Dirty Style Analysis

In everything from sword fighting to martial arts to painting to — yes — WRITING, one of the key ways the good get better and the better become experts is to analyze the styles of those they respect.

Perhaps you like Dan Brown’s “DaVinci Code”, perhaps for you the Sookie Stackhouse books are just the best series ever, perhaps you are amazed by Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow”, perhaps you cannot understand how Herman Melville creates such emotion and vibrance in every line. There unnumbered different writers, different readers. We all have different goals and different tastes, but if we want to write — and write well — this takes DELIBERATE PRACTICE.

I am not here to give a lecture on deliberate practice, to define it, or to discuss the “10,000 hours to expertise” theory. There are plenty of books, articles, and links out there about them.

I do need to put a disclaimer here first, though: Beginners who start deliberate practice find it boring, slow, and it usually causes them to drop out — it is much more important for beginners to just HAVE FUN. Deliberate practice is for later, after you love your hobby already, so you can get that much better at it. So if you’re new to writing, maybe you should skip this post and come back to it later, after you’re already in love with it.

In case you haven’t heard about Deliberate Practice, here is an overview, but this is not exhaustive:
– The best in any field get that way NOT because they work “harder” than everyone else, but because they work “smarter”
– Normal practice is not good enough — just playing your sport, writing a novel, going out and doing a gymnastics routine, playing a new song on a piano will get you good, but it will take a long time, and you may never be one of the best.
– Deliberate practice is the type of practice where you design, participate, and review drills that improve SPECIFIC ELEMENTS of your chosen field. This includes such things as: Playing blues scales in different tempos and rhythms, drilling specific kicks/angles/passes for soccer players, practicing that ONE MOST difficult step in your martial arts form for hours, etc, etc.
– There is no limit to the types of drills that can be created as part of deliberate practice, but some will be of more use than others.
– The best of the best usually grow to LOVE their drills and exercises for their own sake — because they can see how much the drills make them better.

For a more detailed discussion of Deliberate Practice, check here: http://www.suite101.com/content/deliberate-practice-a132437

Just remember, if you’re still new to writing, don’t let deliberate practice chase you away.

So now that you know what deliberate practice is, or at least you have a general idea, let me discuss one of the drills that I do to add to my toolbox and improve my writing skills:
Quick and Dirty Style Analysis

Whoever your favorite writers are, whether the critics love them or hate them, there is always something you can learn from a pro. In general, since books are made of words, these lessons involve tearing books apart — dissecting them, if you will — so you can see how the different parts of them work.

There are many ways to do this. I’ve designed perhaps 5 different drills, analyzing the structure within an individual chapter, the way chapters are organized in novels, shifts of POV, voice, mood, metaphorical analysis — but, really, I can’t fit them all in here.

So we’ll focus on one: Quick and Dirty Style Analysis.

I’ve already talked about style/voice at length in On Writing #3, but process described there is when you want to completely grok and work into your own DNA the way your favorite writing genius works. What if you don’t really have time for that. Or what if you’re comfortable with your current voice in the middle of a story and you don’t want to risk your voice changing dramatically half way through — but, at the same time, you can’t stand the thought of NOT learning, NOT getting better.

Well, this is where Quick and Dirty Style Analysis comes in.

1) Find your favorite book, or at least on that affected you greatly.
2) Find your favorite part of that book.
3) Copy your absolutely favorite paragraph/sentence out LONGHAND on a blank piece of paper.
4) Take this sentence apart. Find it’s structure. Find why it works.
5) Switch out nouns, verbs, adjectives in the same structure. The move the words around. Cut out articles, play with the phrase. See what does work, what doesn’t.
6) Repeat with more sentences until you think you understand how the person you are learning from does some of their best tricks.
7) Implement the techniques you’ve learned as you need them.

Note to beginners/intermediate writers: I’ve already said I don’t think you need to do this drill for the very good reasons stated earlier. But if you ignore me and do it anyway, Do NOT copy directly — or even summarize the work of — another writer in your own writing. Copying or summarizing even small parts of someone else’s work is Plagiarism. Don’t plagiarize. Ever. A little later on you will learn how to give an homage those who have influenced you, but this early don’t worry about it.

Okay, that’s it.

Wait! This isn’t easy, you say. No, it isn’t. It’s hard work. All of writing is hard work. But this drill is effective.

And let me be clear — a many writers do this, or do something similar.

Variations of this drill that I have seen people do (that I actually use myself) include the following:
A) Simply underlining/highlighting sections you like and coming back to read and chew on them again
B) Writing out paragraphs from your favorite book long hand just before bed and dreaming about them
C) Doing what William Faulkner used to do — picking up a book he considered an old friend, and turning to directly to your favorite passages, and imagining you are in the room with the writer.

All I have done here is introduce a little actual analysis to the process — and depending on your temperament — or depending on your mood that day (this is my case) — this drill may not suit your needs. Feel free to ignore it, change it, or mix it up. I sure do.

Art, after all, is not a science. It cannot be contained. And every writer is different.

Many of us, though, have stumbled into similar processes because reading and thinking critically about other peoples’ writing is a great way to get better at writing yourself. Simply put, IT WORKS.