(Niceville, Florida; 22 August 2021) – The pen is mightier than the sword, but, just as a blade-carrying duelist requires years to hone their techniques, how much more training does an accomplished writer need to successfully wield the prodigious power of the pen?
Straight up, writing is hard work, both creatively and physically. The question of “How do I become a writer?!” is not answered by merely clicking away at your keyboard. Before you can begin sculpting your stories, you need to first decide what you want to write about. That exploration can take years, but during that time you can be concurrently practicing the craft itself.
I was a career Navy photojournalist and journalist…and editor, and instructor, and course developer, and bane of those who need coffee to wake up in the morning (I don’t). My professional life was centered on, around, in, under, and next to writing. This provided me the opportunity to spend 20 years practicing this craft in one form or another. I had years to practice developing narratives, organizing information, creating visual ‘word pictures,’ and economy of verbiage (in other words, how to write succinctly). Not every aspiring writer works in a field that involves daily writing, and this raises the question of how to hone the craft when you don’t write for a living already?
Writing is something you can practice daily in our modern world. We write numerous emails during the day. Use this as a small bit of practice. Write your emails in full and proper sentences instead of falling back on emojis and shorthand like ‘LOL’ and ‘LMAO,’. Let the software’s spell and grammar check assist you, but take the time to practice everything from active voice to vivid imagery (as appropriate, of course—you don’t want to wax poetic about the pallidly plasticized look of a corpse if you’re reaching out to a family member about a funeral). This is sort of like the ‘wax on/wax off’ scene in the 1984 film The Karate Kid. Mr. Miagi’s insistence on how Daniel repeatedly washed and waxed Miagi’s collection of cars was actually building muscle memory for Daniel in the basic moves of Karate. Writing emails, and even texts, with proper sentences and grammar, is but a small, yet daily, way to build that kind of literary muscle memory.
One reason I founded Sparks1524 was to have a place to write when I wasn’t working on a novel. This online platform allows me to write consistently and about multiple subjects. I’ve produced more ‘Travel Log’ columns than anything else due to my recent years of travel, but I also cover mental health, the writer’s craft (like I’m doing right now), etc. This blog is a tool I use to not only keep my writing skills sharp, but also to explore different ideas and subjects while I keep those skills sharp.
You can use an old-fashioned spiral notebook and pen to jot down and polish your work if you aren’t comfortable drafting on a computer. The only key here is that you must practice regularly. Writing is an art, just like painting, music, sculpture, and the corny puns I love so dearly. Just as a musician practices at length to develop the skill to skillfully translate written notes into a breathtakingly beautiful and boldly bountiful symphony, so too must a writer repeatedly rehearse transliterating many a mind’s-eye image into magnificently molded myths.
Talent will take you a good ways along the road, yes. But only with practice will you hone that raw talent into a true literary gift.
Practicing writing by writing is only one part of the effort. Once you’ve hit a level of skill where you feel your writing is starting to convey exactly what you want to convey, no more and no less, then you need to begin allowing trusted people to edit your work. I have to work as my own editor here (well, my teddy bear helps a bit, but he’s usually busy doing other things). I’m good, and I know it. I don’t believe in false modesty. I know where I’m good, but I also know where I’m not. I’m a damned good editor when it comes to journalistic writing, be it hard news or a ‘feature’ piece like this.
My weakness is editing my own fiction. I submit my fiction to my friend Jerry. Jerry is a brutal editor. He doesn’t care how I feel; he just cares that my novels are as professionally polished as possible. Jerry, however, doesn’t just criticize me, he coaches me, and that’s a key element you need to find in an editor.
There’s a huge difference between criticizing someone and coaching someone. A critic tells you what’s wrong. A coach tells you what’s wrong, what’s right, and recommends actions to get the ‘wrong’ on the right track and the ‘right’ to an even ‘righter’ place. A critic tears apart your life-long dream project; a coach will support the dream, even if they dismantle the physical work in order to guide you in rebuilding it better.
Writing is not easy. Honing your talents into viable skills takes hard work over a long period of time. However, if you are willing to work steady and play a long game, you can hone your craft to a level that stands up alongside your favorite novelists. With consistent practice and solid coaching, the journey itself will be an enriching experience that embellishes your work with heart, soul, and the gravitas of a person who knows what it is to strive for a distant star without giving up.
Before we meet back up to discuss fictional character development in Part 3, pick up a pen (virtual or actual) and start having fun. Try out whacky ways of weaving words while you whittle away whatever wild and wooly story idea you’re wrestling with. Enjoy the journey; even a ‘failed’ attempt now might be the key to inspiring a wildly successful attempt later. Pick up that pen, start writing, and get moving on your journey to do great literary things!
Check out my video on this topic at: https://youtu.be/kIN_CnUJ4yg
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