Another revision is complete and sent off to editors and readers. I sit back, stretch, then read the manuscript over once more. Years it hasn’t taken me to get to this point. In a drawer beside my desk lay copies of the past six attempts to get it right. At the bottom of that stack is that very first draft, the one I remembering being so proud of, the one that declared that ‘I’ve done it – I’ve written a novel”. But when I pull it out and read just the first few lines, I cringe. God that was awful. What was I thinking?
I get an email from one of my beta readers. “Oh this is so good,” she says. “So much better. Your writing has improved so much.”
Yeah, I laugh, glancing at the first draft before me. You think?
Her email goes on to ask me how I did it. How did I improve my writing so much? It’s a good question, so much of myself goes into writing. How can I nail it down? How to make an appropriate response?
Well, I’m in an adventurous mood and feel ready to tackle this discussion. Besides, there isn’t much else for me to do until my editor finishes her red lines (come on already MH!!) Let’s take this in typical Letterman fashion. The top 5 things to help a writer improve their writing.
Number 5: Live Life
Yeah, I know – you wake up, go through your daily routine, then off to bed. Another day gone and another paycheck to get by with, until the next crisis. My friend, that is not living – that is surviving. I think that good writers experience life. They just don’t go through the motions, they observe and pay attention. They use all their senses to record everything of every moment – locked away for safe keeping. Then, when it comes time to write, they have a vast wealth of memories to recall. They know the thrill of riding the open roads on a motorcycle; they remember the fragrance of fresh cut grass; and they can muse upon the eclectic personalities at the local coffee shop. Intimate knowledge of experiencing life is number five on my list writers can use to improve writing.
Number 4: Read…. A lot
I know a number of writers that wont read anything while they are working on a piece. Some say that they don’t want others to influence their own ‘voice’. A few, honestly, worry that it takes away from the precious time they have to write. However, reading is one of the best things to help a writer. Even one of today’s most prolific writers admits to reading up to four hours a day. Reading helps to relax the mind and sets the imagination loose. All of this helps when it comes time to do your own writing. But don’t read just for the entertainment value, writers should view reading as research. In your hands is a finished PUBLISHED piece. Study the way the story is constructed, the way plots are developed, even the way sentences are put together and which words are used can help. The more a writer reads the stronger the prose.
Number 3: Self-edit
Today’s writers must wear two hats — especially those aspiring writers wanting to be published. Being a writer and being an editor. Once the writer has completed a piece he or she needs to take a break — step away from the story for a few days or a week. Then ‘read’ what they wrote, but with an editors mind. The writer must read the piece critically, as a reader would do. Always asking “is this good enough”. Often the answer is “no”. In fact a MS will go through countless revisions. In fact I have gone through six major revisions and dozens of edited revisions. The good news is that with each pass and knowing what works and what doesn’t helps the writer write it better the first time. Learning to self-edit is a valuable tool, but there are two more…
Number 2: Listen
This, I think, is the most under utilized, the easiest to do, and the hardest to master. Anyone can listen, we do it all the time. But do we actually use what we hear constructively? Two years ago I read my opening chapter in a writer’s workshop for the first time. It took me weeks to build up the courage and I was terrified during the read. Once done the critiques started rolling in. Five minutes of hell. I was crushed. Devastated! I put on my MAN face (insert sarcasm here) and showed no emotion when inside I wanted to ball. I guess my facade wasn’t good enough, because one of the writer’s pulled me aside during break and told me how to listen. Since then I’ve taken it to a new level. I listen to everything being said about everything. Assessing trends, likes and dislikes, what works and what doesn’t, I even listen to what ISN’T being said. I then make my OWN decision. I reject that which I don’t agree with and selfishly use what I do.
Number 1: Write…
A. Lee Martinez is one of the most imaginative published author I know. The stuff this guy comes up with boggles the mind. (I’m so glad he doesn’t read blogs, because I’d never admit that to him.) I once asked him how he does it. You would figure he would come up with a long explanation. A life story. I mean — he’s an author! But his reply was a single word. “Write”. So after pressing him for more he explained that to be a good writer you have to write… and write… and write… Think of this as a sport (man analogy) or walking in high heels (woman analogy). Both are relatively easy, but to mastery requires lots and LOTS of practice. The more you do it, the more natural it becomes, and the better at it you become.
So there you have it. Kirk von der Heydt’s top five ways of becoming a better writer. Keep in mind though, that being a better writer doesn’t mean you are going to get published. THAT is a topic for another post — once I’ve got it figured out myself.