There’s no lack of advice—on the Web, in books and magazines—for writers trying to improve their craft. It’s hard to sift through the sheer mass of it to uncover what’s likely to work for you. Maybe I can help by sharing suggestions that worked for me.
1. Know your strengths as a writer. I’ve decided language is my strength. I’ve loved words and their sounds since I was very young; I like to play with their possibilities, exploit their power. Try to identify your greatest strength and capitalize on it, but be careful not to make it a weakness, a danger I’ve run into more than once. Sometimes I get too immersed in words and sounds, and then language takes precedence over other important fictional elements, like character and plot. A good mantra for fiction writers is character-conflict-resolution.
2. Read and observe how other writers achieve their ends. I’ve internalized the following advice from Poets & Writers magazine: Find a story you admire and read it slowly several (say, five) times so that you become emotionally detached and can recognize every sentence as a part that contributes to the overall design. Take out a notebook or sheet of paper and read it again. Then—
- Characterize the narrator (POV, diction, syntax, tone, mood).
- Scrutinize each paragraph, noting every relevant element. Example: Opens with a description of setting that sets the mood of despair. Character A introduced with dialogue that reveals her selfishness. And so on.
- Chart the structure of the story. Where does a new paragraph begin? Where does a section break?
When you finish, write a story that resembles the original only in its design. For examples of this literary exercise, compare “Mexico” by Rick Bass to “The Prophet From Jupiter” by Tony Early, or “The Lady With the Pet Dog” by Anton Chekhov to “The Man With the Lapdog” by Beth Lordan.
3. Beware of the voice that says you’re not good enough. Like many other writers, I struggle with the “Are you kidding?” inner voice, as in, “Are you kidding, taking yourself seriously?” The antidote to this particular poison involves ignoring the voice and plodding on. You don’t need an M.F.A. to write. Alternate routes for learning craft abound: Take noncredit courses; attend workshop and conferences; read books. I’ve availed myself of all these opportunities. I have a library of craft publications that I turn to again and again. If you have the will, the way is clear.
4. Set goals. What are your personal goals as a writer? It’s important to articulate them. I offer mine as examples: Broadly, I want to keep experimenting and honing my skills. I don’t agree that a dwindling publishing market will stunt careers. While conventional outlets are shrinking, there is, I think, great potential for growth in e-publishing. More specifically, my goal is to write 500 words every day. Sometimes I don’t succeed, but I always try again the next day. I have an idea for a short story I’d like to bring to fruition before Thanksgiving, when life starts to get hectic. An accomplished goal: I wanted a professional-looking website. Once I realized I couldn’t do it myself, I researched web-page designers, whose prices varied widely. Ultimately, I found an affordable and professional designer that got my website up and running.
5. Transform Ideas into Stories. Ideas are everywhere. You remember something, read something, hear something, or see something that makes an impression and excites your imagination. Dump the idea into a computer file, a smartphone, or a notebook and jot down words, fragments, or sentences to trigger your memory. When you’re ready to tackle the idea, scribble off a very rough draft. Allow yourself to write garbage. Just get the words on paper. Once you’ve purged, you can sift through the waste to find that kernel of truth or beauty and expand on it. Revise the piece several times, maybe show it to your writing group members and incorporate some of their suggestions. Revise again. When you’re satisfied, and only then, send the story out for publication.
Good talking to you, fellow fiction writers. Now it’s time for me to get to work on those 500 words.