Lorning and Practice

(Yes, ‘learning’ is misspelled in my subject.  On purpose. It’s a joke. No, it would take too long to explain. Deal)

I tend to talk very openly about my writing goals and word counts and issues that crop up and the like.  This has led to comments, both on this blog and privately, that are along the lines of “maybe you should slow down (ie, write less) and learn more”.

Sounds like a reasonable plan, right? Except, it isn’t.  This statement and statements along the same lines have  logical fallacies in them.  They imply that a) writing slow= writing better and b) learning somehow happens outside of the actual writing work.  Neither of these things are true.

Let me demonstrate my point using videogames (because I can!).

Starcraft 2 is arguably the best real-time strategy (RTS) game out there.  A few months ago I discovered SC2 replay and tutorial videos on you-tube and have been watching them since.  I also own the game and have played a bit, but writing work has gotten in the way of that and I haven’t had nearly as much time as I’d like for videogames (and what time I’ve had, I’ve spent playing Borderlands with my husband).

But I’ve watched hundreds of hours of strategy videos and games.  I basically use SC2 videos as my mental break time during the day or late at night when I can’t sleep and don’t feel like working or reading.  I can discuss build orders and micro/macro strategies and unit choices with the best of them and probably, if no one saw me play, sound pretty much like a hard-core SC2 player.  My knowledge of the strategies and ideas behind them is huge.

I suck at SC2.  I’m really, really bad at it.  I haven’t played my ladder games (the multi-player ranking is called ladder) yet, but I imagine I’d be bottom of the heap.  I can barely beat the AI on easy.  Why is this? I mean, I’ve studied hard core, right? I know how hot-keys work and which units counter which units and what my timings should be on scouting and getting which building when.  My brain is stuffed with SC2 tactics and ideas and strategies.  But I can’t play the game to save my life.

Because I haven’t practiced.  I haven’t PLAYED the game nearly enough to get the practical skills to implement my knowledge.

See where I’m going with this?  Writing is the same.  I can read every book on writing ever written.  I can attend every conference, join every critique workshop, read and talk about writing and other people’s stories until my tongue and eyes bleed, but that won’t make me a good writer.

Only writing will.  All the side things, all the reverse-outlining best-selling novels, all the reading long-time pro’s work and blogs, all the industry knowledge and the business knowledge and the craft books in the world won’t mean jack or shit unless I’m writing my own words.

If I’d spent 200 hours playing SC2 instead of watching these videos, I bet I’d be at least Gold rank on ladder by now.  If I’d spent 100 hours watching videos and 100 hours playing, I might be Gold rank also.

It’s about doing both.  I’m learning and reading about writing and studying good books, but I’m also writing.  Writing is the first and most important thing to do.  All the rest is gravy and, like gravy, if you don’t have anything to apply the skills to, it ends up being a plate full of soupy worthlessness (okay, bad imagery, but you get the point).  Without practice, knowledge means nothing.

So yeah, I’m working hard to get my word counts up, to be more consistent in setting aside three or four or six hours a day to write.  Because the fifty or so writing books on my shelf won’t do me any good if I’m not putting the practice in, if I’m not doing the work.  I need to be writing more, in other words, not less.

So if you find yourself frustrated, if you feel like you aren’t getting anywhere skill-wise, don’t slow down.  Speed up. Do more words.  Stab those voices of doubt that are telling you that you don’t know enough, you haven’t studied enough, your words aren’t good enough, and just put your ass in the chair and write more words.  Because the easy AI might kick your ass while you’re trying to figure out how the hell you tech up to hive, but eventually you’ll have your revenge with an early 7 roach cheese push.   Because you practiced it. Over and over and over.  Until you could do it right, until you found what worked for you.

Practice. Write more.  Want a career in something? Put in the hours to get good at it.  Put in the hours for study also, but don’t neglect the practicing.  Practicing is more important.   Talking and reading about writing will never equal what you can learn by just doing it.  We’re all different, we all have different strengths and weaknesses and habits.  But if you don’t practice, you’ll never learn what those are.  No book, no other writer, no seminar or class or critique can ever tell you how you work and what your exact path in this career will be.

Only writing will do that.  Only writing can do that.

Do eet!

Library Study Project

As I move beyond the writing level where advice like “use proper manuscript format” and “don’t insult editors” no longer suffices, I’ve been looking for more ways to expand my writing skills and new things to learn.  In the pursuit of more advanced learning, I’ve come across a lot of advice from other writers, some of which I think is awesome, and some of which just makes me scratch my head (because either I’m clueless or I just don’t learn that way).

One of the bits of advice that I found valuable was to read the bestsellers and study people further ahead down the road I want to walk.  I decided to take that advice.  I’m not even close to rich, so alas, I can’t just go buy a million books like I’d want to.  But on the other hand, that forced me to do something I haven’t done in a while.  I went to my local library, and by local, I mean within a five minute walk from my home.  Can’t really beat that.  I do love owning books, but, from an economic standpoint, the mission I was about to embark on wasn’t feasible.

So in May I decided to suck it up and go to the library.  After paying 13.47 in library fines from 1998, I got my information updated (the library never forgets!) and was on my way.  I was just about to start writing a mystery/thriller/suspense novel (I thought it was a thriller, I’m told it’s actually a mystery, so what do I know? From here on out, I’m abbreviating those genres M/T/S and lumping them together, damnit).  So I decided to start with that section, which I quickly learned is shelved together with general fiction anyway. Sci/fi and Fantasy has its own section, as does YA, and chapter books.

The plan? Read at least five books by any author on the shelf with at least ten books who has been published in the last five years.  That’s a heck of a lot of authors, across a lot of genres.  I started with names I recognized, like Roberts and Patterson.  So far I’ve read over 100 books since May.  I make myself give each book 100 pages to lose or keep my interest and I think only two or three have failed past that point.  I’ve started reading authors I haven’t heard of as well, as long as they fit the 10+ books rule and are still publishing (or have been in the last few years).  The librarians have even commented on how much I read. Crazy.

But I’m not just reading for reading sake (or to impress librarians).  Every book I read I make mental (and sometimes physical) notes on what that author does that I think works, and why I like it, and how I might be able to emulate it.  Some books I’ve read twice.  I’ve even, as much as I detest outlining other’s works, have reversed outlined a few books to see how the plots work and where the emotional and storyline beats are.  I don’t love every part of every book I read, but I’m starting to see patterns and similarities of what these authors are doing with their writing that keeps them selling books.  And this process is starting to show me what I really like in what I read, and thus also what I might want to work on incorporating into my stories.

I’m only a few months into the library project.  I don’t know if I’ll keep it up quite as hard core, since I’m missing reading stuff that doesn’t fit into my qualifications, so I’ve started taking side forays into books that are coming out now or have come out that I want to read.  But I’m going to stay on top of the bestsellers, for sure, and keep seeing what’s working for the long-time professionals out there.  Because they are stomping down a path I want to be on, and while I might make my own sideways journey to the same destinations, I figure I can only learn something from those who’ve carved the paths ahead.

So that’s the library project.  Look at the shelves and see which authors (or pen names, however you slice it) have more than ten books on the shelves.  Check to make sure the author has published at least one book in the last five years (or ten or whatever you want to go with).  Then read at least five books by that author and pay attention to what you like, what you don’t like, what works, what doesn’t, and similarities between that work and others that have sold a lot.

Step three: profit.

Ok, still working on that one *grin*