Monday, March 31, 2014

Why You Should Get Back to Basics in Your Writing

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Years ago I attended the annual SCBWI Southern Breeze Springmingle conference in Atlanta, where I signed up for the all-day intensive plotting workshop with Scholastic editor Cheryl Klein. There was a funny moment when we were both standing by my writing book at the conference bookstore, and she looked at me and said, "This is yours? Weren't you were in my workshop? Why were you in my workshop?"

Which brings me to today's topic.

Just because you know something, doesn't mean it's not a good idea to brush up on the basics or explore how other writers handle a technique.

My days can get a bit busy. When they do, I look for ways to trim down the To-Do List, and sometimes that means I disregard my own advice and skip steps I know I need to do in my writing. Like do a scene goal check, or an edit pass to shore up dialog, or write a book map before I dive into revisions.

Every time I skip such steps I regret it, and it causes me more time in the end because I didn't follow the process I know works for me.

Five Benefits of Getting Back to Writing Basics

1. It helps you focus on a technique or specific aspect of writing

Workshops, conferences, and reading about writing helps remind me of the steps I might be tempted to skip when I get busy. Sitting in on a session about ten ways to create characters lets me focus on my characters for an hour and think about what I've done with them. Have I fleshed them out enough? Did I push myself to make them as compelling as possible? Could I do more with them or are they solid as is?

Even something as simples as reading a blog post allows you to pause and consider if you're building your writing on a strong foundation, or if you slapped together a weak frame that will hurt you later.

2. It gives you insight into how others handle that writing aspect

Everyone has their weak spots, and those are great areas to study and brush up on the basics from time to time. Hearing how other writers approach that aspect provides opportunities for something to resonate with you in a way that strengthens your weak areas.

A visual learner might attend a workshop that uses a lot of charts or graphs and finally "get it," or someone who absorbs better through reading might see the right blog post with the right examples that makes a technique clear. You never know what might click for you, or what might inspire you to try something new that kicks your writing up a notch.

3. It lets you look at a writing technique in a different perspective

One of the things I enjoyed about Klein's workshop is that she has a literary style, and the books she acquires lean toward literary fiction (no matter what the genre). Her approach looks at deeper thematic elements of the story, the big philosophical questions a plot-driven gal like me only explores up to my metaphorical knees.

This different style made me look at my own work in that light and I was able to pull some wonderful aspects from it for my current WIP. I'm never going to be a literary fiction writer (nor do I want to be, that's not my style) but I do want to bring out the richness of my story to the best of my ability. Bringing in a different perspective allowed me to do that.

4. It helps you grow as a writer

There's always something to learn no matter what stage you're at. What we write, how we write it, what we want to say with our writing changes as we grow as writers and as people. Seeing what others are doing with our medium keeps us informed about the possibilities in our art form. It gives us ideas on what we might try, new genres or stories to explore, new techniques, or new ways to approach old techniques.

Doing the same thing all the time encourages us to be lazy not push ourselves as artists. But it's when we push ourselves that we find the best parts of our stories.

5. It's fun

If you're a musician, you go to concerts and hear other musicians play. Dancers see ballets, film makers go to the movies, so why wouldn't writers hear other writers "perform?" Sure, we read, but there's also an educational side of writing that's just as much fun. Hearing a master of the craft speak can be as inspiring to writers as musicians who hear a world-renowned sympathy play.

I love talking with other writers, discussing writing and story development, and hearing other authors and editors speak. It energizes me, even when it's on a topic I've taught workshops on myself. It's just plain fun.

Every writer is different, but we all bring something to the world of writing. Learning keeps us growing as writers and keeps us pushing the limits of what we can do.

How often do you brush up on the basics? Do you study craft for fun or just to learn something that has you stuck? 

Looking to improve your craft? Check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. I read this just in time to get heartsick.... Hahaha!!! I miss writing everyday, good article. BTW the book is already helpful and I'm only in 15 pages.

    1. Oh good, hope that holds. Heartsick? Oh no!

  2. Hi Janice
    I'm brushing up every day, both here and on other blogs. I went to my first book-related workshop a couple of months ago, but it was for marketing rather than the actual craft of writing. I do long to attend a writing workshop or retreat, but I think I may have to wait until I'm earning a little more from it.
    I particularly liked your second point. As a teacher i've been to plenty of training sessions and I almost always get the most valuable stuff from other people on the training. Sometimes it can be something as simple as a comment that completely changes the way you approach something, or gives you a new perspective on something you thought you had sorted.

    1. I always learn something no matter what workshop I'm in or blog I read, even if it's just how I'd approach the same topic. Go in with an open mind, come out with new ideas.

  3. I learn something new every day, and I'm always open to learn more. That's actually one of my favorite parts of writing. I got my print copy of your book and can't wait to dig in and learn more!

    1. Thanks so much! Life would be pretty boring if we weren't learning.

  4. I'm always studying the craft, hoping to learn more. I want to still be learning how to make my writing even better on the day I die.

  5. I attend conferences regularly (I'm even going to one this Saturday) and I'm also an MFA student. Because I want to keep growing as a writer, the challenge is knowing what feedback to take, and what to leave. The course work also has me reading and critiquing a lot more--which is a good thing--but sometimes I'm concerned that I'm not devoting enough time to my current WIP. But like Michael said, sometimes I'll get that nugget--something I've heard before, but now understand in a new way.

    1. That can be tough for sure, but that's one reason why it's helpful to have information from lots of sources. You have some context for what works with what.

  6. I LOVE Cheryl Klein! I have her craft book, and I love listening to her podcasts. Yes, I agree brushing up on basics is always good for the writely soul ;D