Category Archives: deliberate practice

Go / Weiqi / Baduk

folder

So as an escape from the mundane (and a vent for stress), I started studying Go (a.k.a., Weiqi in Mandarin, Baduk in Korean). It’s the oldest board game we know of that is still played today, with boards and pieces dating from 2,000 years ago.

We call it Go because that’s what the Japanese call it, and they introduced it to the west.

If you are after a challenging, infinite game that has no luck to it, this is your game. It FAR easier to learn than chess — almost as easy as checkers — but the strategy is much deeper.

Only this last year did a computer finally manage to beat a top human player in Go. (They started beating Chess Grandmasters in the 70’s). ¬†According to one article, there are more legal board positions in the game then there are atoms in the universe. This has made Go the holy grail of AI research, because if you can make an AI that can learn to master Go, it can — by definition — master anything easier than Go.

All hail our new AI overlords, AlphaGo and (soon) Zen. May they be kind and gracious tyrants. ūüėČ

The Hallelujah! Booth

So… How am I increasing my productivity? Well, there are several techniques I’m using, but here’s a really simple one to implement…

The Hallelujah! Booth

I get this idea from Joseph Campbell (author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and the source of most¬†commercial fiction/movies plot structure as we know it. His idea is that you ¬†a “Sacred Space” and a “Sacred Time” will nurture your creativity.

This is the space you have that is dedicated to you and your creativity. You go here to create and to do. In my experience, this¬†is perhaps the easiest way to start making time for your writing habit, and teaches your brain that there is a time of day to be creative. That said, you don’t HAVE to have one. Jay Lake, one of the most productive writers I ever met, wrote anywhere anytime.

But I do have one.

So what’s my sacred space/time? It’s a specific booth at Chick Fil A that I show up to before work. I put in a solid hour of writing, and sometimes, if i get there early, a little more. The weakness of this is that 1) Weekends as a whole are difficult, since I don’t go to work those days, and 2) Sundays are really hard, since Chick-Fil-A is closed. But I’m learning to work around that. Slowly.

Whether yours is midnight in your closet or mid-day in your car in the parking lot of an Office Max, defining a sacred space and time will get your habit rolling.

Writing lots of words!

So, I mentioned recently that I’ve been researching productivity and how to speed up my writing. Well, it’s been going pretty well. Actually, I’m lying.

I’m bouncing with joy at the results!

–Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics–

Here are my results. As always, statistics should be taken with a grain of salt:

  • 51,780 Total Words for the entire month of January, 2016
  • Writing
    • 26,747 new words
      • all before Jan 16, when rough draft was complete
    • ¬†2578.2¬†average¬†WPH¬†(words per hour)
  • Editing
    • ¬†22,276 words edited
    • ¬†869.7 average WPH

The remaining words fall into a misclellaneous bucket of brainstorming, plot noodling, etc.

–How Many I Keep–

I keep getting this weird question, over and over: “But how many do you keep?”

This is a weird question, that seems to assume that more productivity is worse productivity. I’ve actually seen a reverse trend. I’m getting out lots of words, and while they might not be perfect, I have, out of 17 scenes written with the process, only tossed half of one in the garbage.

…And that was a really complicated fight scene.

…And what I threw away gave me a much firmer grip on what needed to happen and what order.

So no real words lost. Instead, mostly, I end up expanding the words.

–Some Cold Water–

This is nothing compared to some authors, who get 10k words per day on a consistent, repeatable basis. I can only dream of getting there.

I’m currently¬†at about 3-4k¬†per day for new words, and 700-1.9k for edits.

That said,¬†I’m doing pretty well, a lot better than any time I’ve had before.¬†It’s massively¬†more productive¬†than the 0 words a day I had been getting, that’s for sure!

And, fingers (and toeses and noses) crossed that I’ll get better! Especially on my editing speed!

New Writing Exercise: TV Episode Breakdown

This is a fairly common exercise, but if you haven’t run into it before, here you go:

1) Pick a TV Show you like, or at least that you are interested in learning about
2) Play an episode in a medium where you can pause it
3) take notes on the high level what-happens and the emotions that occur; if there are commercial breaks, mark these, as they are often act breaks.
4) When the show is done, go back through your notes and see if you can identify patterns, structure, and what was good about the episode

Be warned, this can be very enlightening. Too much so.

I did this to an episode of Bleach once, and now all the combat-escalation based Anime are easy to predict.

Deliberate Practice Writing Drill: Practicing Compressed Description

Deliberate Practice is the path to mastery: breaking down an art, sport, or craft into individual skills and training each of those skills independently.

Continuing on my Deliberate Practice Drills for Fiction Writing series, I present a drill designed to help focus descriptive powers.

Set a five minute timer (or if you’re really fast, two minutes). Look around, pick and object, describe it:

  1. Capture the look of it as fast as you can
  2. If you have to, instead of describing the whole object, focus on one detail
  3. Stories are emotional journeys; every object in fiction should have some emotional impact on the reader, so try to realize some emotional truth, shade the description with an emotive tone, or even personify the object.
  4. Keep it short, one sentence to one paragraph, and definitely no more than three paragraphs even for the most complex scene.
  5. Repeat this at least 3-5 times in one session.

Tips

  • This is not about writing a story. You do not need characters, setting, pr any sort of plot… Unless you WANT them ūüėČ Be true to the paragraph. Don’t hold yourself back.
  • If you get done in time, feel free to go back and tweak it a little. Play with the words. But move on when the timer goes off.
  • It doesn’t have to be good. This is about practice, about learning. About developing skill. My example below I am torn about: Is it good? I don’t know. It is as good as I can get it within the confines of the time limit, but that is all.

Example

He sits at his desk and stares hopelessly at the mousepad. The mousepad is him. Worn, faded, bulging in the middle. He remembers it once bore a Picasso sketch of a bull charging, but every trace of it is gone, worn away by time and stress like the man’s hair.

Advanced Tip

Instead of just doing objects, try doing the whole room or a person.

More to come!

Deliberate Practice Writing Drill: Shading Emotion in Sentences

I said before that I had several Deliberate Practice Drills to share. Well, actually, I’m always coming up with more, so could theoretically post these forever. Here’s one I used the other day, trying to increase control and precision in the emotional content of my sentences:

1) Write a very short, very rudimentary Core Sentence, like, “He was happy,” or even, “She ran.” Subject-Verb or Subject-Verb-Object is best.
2) Write at least ten variations of this Core Sentence. Each variation must contain the Subject, Verb, and (if there is one) Object of the Core Sentence. Remember, the goal of this exercise is EMOTIONAL content.

Tips:
A) Focus on conveying emotion, especially changes in emotion and subtle shifts in tone. Remember, a story is an emotional journey.
B) Try to keep adjectives and -ly adverb use low. I don’t believe in purging them all, rather I suggest you treat them as your most precious jewels. Save them. Be spare with them. Overusing them just makes your writing gaudy, just as a necklace of huge diamonds, sapphires, and pearls jammed together without though would be gaudy. Rather, string them onto the line of the sentence — really, onto the line of the paragraph — only when they really make it shine.

Example exercise:

Core Sentence: “He was happy.”

  • He thought he was happy.
  • Then, one day, there came a moment where he thought he was happy.
  • For a moment, he thought he was happy.
  • Before the influenza took her, he thought he was happy.
  • Even while she was dead, she wondered if he was happy.
  • She wondered if he was really happy.
  • Was he happy? She wondered.
  • Sure, he was happy.
  • She was happy about being dead, and he was happy for her.
  • She seemed happy, and he told himself he was happy about it.
  • He was happy until night came.
  • He was happy until night came because with the night came the darkness, and with the darkness came the loneliness, and with the loneliness came the rusted, serrated edge of his soul scraping at his heart.
  • Etc.

The goal of this exercise is to drive yourself further and further toward precision, either by subtly changing the emotional tone and meaning of the sentence (ex – “He thought he was happy.”, which contains doubt, regret, perhaps a hint of willful self-delusion), or by expanding on the core sentence (the last example above).

And this is just a simple, passive sentence.

A final tip:
Don’t hold back on these sentences. Turn off your inner editor. What I mean by that is don’t be shy about trying something new, whether subtle, bold, or bombastic. Learning is about failing, and this is where you fail, safely. I’m not sure if the last example above, about the night, is good or absolutely horrible, and I’ll be honest — it doesn’t matter. I wrote it, I pushed myself in a new direction, and that will eventually make me a stronger writer. Also, my sentences are repetitive, some of them tiny or negligibly different from the ones before. That’s natural, especially at the beginning, when you are warming up, but even that is useful — sometimes a subtle, almost invisible shift in tone is exactly what you need.

More to come!

The Path to Mastery: Deliberate Practice in Fiction Writing

If you know me, you probably know how many hobbies I have, how many things I am trying to not just be good at, but MASTER: seven different styles of Kung Fu, Fiction Writing, several different languages, sword fighting, being a good parent, etc.

Despite apparently being spread thin, I am damn good at all of them: I’ve got 28 medals in Kung Fu from various national and international tournaments, I’m an excellent sword fighter, I’ve got published short stories and am >this< close to having a major agent for my novel. What I have not mastered, I am slowly mastering.

And how do I do it? A little something called DELIBERATE PRACTICE.

Deliberate Practice was first discussed in Malcom Gladwell’s book, Outliers: The Story of Success. If you’ve ever heard the “10,000 hours rule”, that mastery comes with 10,000 hours of practice it comes from this book. But people get that wrong all the time — it’s not 10,000 hours of practice. It’s 10,000 hours of DELIBERATE PRACTICE.

If you read “Outliers”, and I have, he talks at length about the difference between just practice and Deliberate Practice, and even theorizes that Professional Athletes are actually “geniuses”, geniuses at physical activity because of their constant Deliberate Practice, and that our culture could have geniuses in science or arts or writing or whatever just as easily, but, since we don’t monetarily incentivize those activities the way we do sports with multimillion dollar contracts, and since there are no training regimens designed for them, geniuses occur in mental fields much less often than in physical ones.

“So,” I hear you say, “If I want to be writing geniuses we need to do some Deliberate Practice, right?” Wrong. You need to do A LOT of deliberate practice.

“Fine,” you say, “I’ll write. A lot. And read. A lot. Problem solved.”

Wrong again. But don’t be discouraged, this is a common misunderstanding, made by people who are invested in the deliberate practice movement. An example:

Author Justine Musk has a very cogent article defining Deliberate Practice, here. It’s a really good summary. I recommend it.¬†BUT… She then goes on to post her recommendations for Deliberate Practice, here… And they are pretty much what you came up with alone.

It’s almost surreal: if you read her practice recommenations and then you read the description of Deliberate Practice in “Outliers,” or even the definition she herself provides, her exercises don’t match up with the book. Why?¬†Because here is the key piece of information she’s forgetting:

Engaging in Deliberate Practice is BASICALLY THE SAME THING as doing a drill in sports.

In sports, the smaller the drill, the more focused it is on ONE TINY PIECE of the mastery puzzle, the more effective it is when repeated. People training to be pro tennis stars spend hours and hours perfecting the JUMP on the serve. Not the swing, just the jump. They train the swing SEPARATELY and alone. They also spend hours and hours practicing their back hand at the net. Just the back hand. Quarterbacks in American football practice their snap, practice then throwing the ball through a tire, practice dodging linebackers. Hockey players practice puck handling skills, physical agility skills, shooting accuracy drills, and even a skill as small as getting back onto their feet as soon as they fall down on the ice (they fall down a lot!).

This is what Musk has missed — breaking the craft of writing (or, if you will, the “sport” of writing”) down into its tiniest components, so that each component can be consciously mastered and then folded back into the primary skillset.

You’re probably thinking: “Okay. That makes sense. But how do I do it? How do I apply Deliberate Practice to fiction writing?”

You design and complete drills. A lot. A whole hell of a lot. Repetition repetition repetition. And then you write stories, and you try to bring what you have learned to bear.

“But what drills? How do I design them? I’m confused!”

Don’t worry. I’ve got your back. I have a lot of drills I already use that have worked for me, and I’ll share them. For each one, try it every other day for a week, and if you don’t like it, if you’re not learning anything or feeling mentally stronger, dump it and move on.

“But you mentioned designing my own drills too. That sounds scary!”

It’s not. Once you’ve got your feet under you, once you’ve been drilling and writing for a while, and you know what YOUR writing weaknesses are, think about what sort of drills you can do to make yourself stronger. Then try it, and share!

Other Deliberate Practice posts: