Writers may sometimes feel overwhelmed by the many aspects of fiction they must attend to when learning to write. Getting better at writing comes with practice, but you can also work on your craft consciously:
Consume stories like a writer
Sometimes, writers talk about reading as a writer. What they mean is that when they read, they notice how the plot is constructed, how characters are developed, and what the prose is like among other things.
This becomes almost second nature to many writers, and you can develop it if you have not begun to do so already. When you sit down to read, notice how the writer constructs the story. How is new information introduced? Are there plot holes? What are the book’s strengths and weaknesses? What would you have done differently if you had written it?
You can do something similar with television shows and movies. Of course, these types of stories are constructed in a different way from fiction and use different tools.
Dialogue that works on a page may not in a script; movies and television have access to visuals to convey information that the writer of prose does not. However, you can still learn a lot by looking at the way the arc of a plot develops over the course of a single episode of a television show or a film. For television shows that tell stories and have series-long plot and character arcs, you can examine how those plots and characters are developed over a much longer period.
Books, films and television shows can also help you strengthen your understanding of structure. As you read and watch, notice how the stories are structured and where the high points, revelations and lulls occur. If you are familiar with the concept of the three-act structure, see if you can identify some of those points. As you improve your ability to identify structure in other works, you will be better able to use it in your own writing.
Eavesdrop and observe
You may have always heard that eavesdropping is rude, but doing so can be
invaluable for a writer. Pay attention to things such as what people talk about and how they talk. Notice the rhythms of their speech. If you can, take notes on what they are saying. Some comments or conversations overheard might even spark inspiration for a story.
Observation can also be a powerful teacher. As you go about your daily business at work, at home and in other people’s homes, notice details.
How are things arranged in a room, and what kind of atmosphere does that create? What does that tell you about the person who lives there? How do people dress and carry themselves? What do you surmise from that? Watch a group of people together, and see if you can figure out what their relationship is to one another. Are they friends, family or co-workers, and what made you come to that conclusion?
Writers also have to have a wide breadth of knowledge or great research skills, and observation can also help you to learn more about many different things. For example, you may need to describe the exterior of an old house for your readers, and in doing so, you will need to describe architectural features accurately.
You can’t write that there is “one of those fairy-tale-looking tower things on top” when what you actually mean is a turret. You may need to know the correct terminology for parts of a car or an airplane or what a particular plant species is called, and in your fiction, you’ll need to introduce these terms to your readers in a way that lets them know what you are writing about as well.
As you go about your daily life, look at houses and cars and plants and notice what they look like. If you have a smartphone, you can snap photos and look up terminology online in the moment. Think about how you would describe the things you see around you to your readers. A writer is a kind of student of life, and by observing the life that is all around you, you will hone your powers of observations and description.
As you listen to others and observe more, you will also begin to realise that stories are all around you.
Think about theme
You can combine your observations about both fictional forms of storytelling and the real life that is unfolding around you to deepen your understanding of theme and the role it plays in stories. As you read or watch TV and movies, try to identify the themes. How are the themes explored? Be critical; is the story successful in explicating its themes, or do they seem confusing or inconsistent? What elements of the story would you need to change in order to change the themes?
You can do the same thing with your observations. Perhaps you’re sitting on a city bus or in a restaurant and you hear two people near you arguing about how to handle the care of an elderly relative. Think about this conversation as though it is the basis of a story; how might the story unfold if you wanted to convey the idea that blood is thicker than water?
Alternately, what if you wanted to refute that idea? By thinking about theme and how it appears in stories as well as how it weaves its way through ordinary life, you will gain a better understanding of this element and its use in your fiction.
Do writing exercises
These are a bit more complex than some of the suggestions above in that you will need to set aside a little time to do them, but the nature of writing exercises is that they can be done in short bursts. Therefore, if you have just a few minutes here and there during a commute, sitting in a waiting room or standing in line, you may have time to do a writing exercise.
There are some classic books of writing exercises such as What If? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter and The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner.
It’s good to keep a couple of books like this to hand, but you might also find some good writing exercises online. If you have a tablet or another portable device you can use to access the internet and do some basic writing, you can take advantages of small breaks during your day to go to bookmarked sites and do short exercises.
Here are a few simple writing exercises you can do anytime.
- Write from a prompt. You can keep a list of prompts handy or make a game for yourself. For example, if you are sitting in a coffee shop, in a break room at work or on public transportation, the next sentence that you overhear from someone can be your writing prompt. Write for ten or fifteen minutes and see what you come up with.
- Copy the masters. Choose a short passage from a writer you admire and copy it out. You can do it longhand or on a keyboard. It may sound strange at first, but some writers swear by this method, and you might be surprised at what you learn from it. Consider both how you felt as you were typing it and how you feel about the passage after you have “written” it yourself. Read back over it, and analyse what makes it work so well. Are there any weaknesses that you see now? By stepping into the skin of another writer for a short time, you might learn some new techniques you can bring into your own fiction.
- Freewrite every day. A site called 750 words encourages you to write 750 words daily and provides a private place online where you can do so. The site will provide you with feedback on how quickly you write, the mood of your writing and more. This can be valuable for fluency and for getting you into the habit of writing daily, and the statistical feedback can be a fun way of looking at what you have written. It’s also a good way to work out plot or other problems that may be nagging you regarding your novel.
Honing your craft does not always require that you be sitting at your desk and working. You can do so throughout your everyday life by observing people and things around you. You can analyse the books you read and the movies and TV shows that you watch. You can also do writing exercises to strengthen particular aspects of your work.
What is one simple technique, tool or approach you have used to hone your craft?