Two weeks ago I received a wonderful, thought-provoking comment on ”Last Night I Dreamed I Was Drowning” (the Friday Poetry for that week). Appletaile asked a question that I thought I should address in a full blog post rather than just in a comment, so here we are!
"I was wondering: do you just... practice writing? Is there something that I can do to get better at it, other than sitting down in front of my computer or notebook? ... You see, whilst I do enjoy writing a lot, I feel like I don't really improve as much. (And I'm too scared to go to creative writing club at school.)"
May I disclaim: whenever I reference "writing" in this post, I'm talking about all aspects of writing—novels, poetry, songs, short stories, flash fiction, whatever. It's not an isolated thing for me; what I learn about writing is applied to everything I write.
I think I have talked about this too many times, but in case I haven't made it clear enough: yes. I do practise writing. All the time. Always. I am constantly on my computer. I take my notebooks wherever I go. I've been known to borrow pens from strangers in cafes. When I'm not writing, I doodle character sketches, listen to writing podcasts. Everything I do is somehow tied to writing.
That being said, getting better at writing is not as easy as simply sitting down in front of a computer for an hour a day and pouring words onto a page. If it were like that, quite frankly, I'd be Tolkein by now. (If only, if only.) There is a certain aspect of mindfulness about it—a milestone you're trying to reach, a goal you're trying to accomplish. It doesn't have to be specific, but it does have to be there. You must go into everything you do knowing this is an opportunity to hone your craft.
Also, I'll repeat it again, though you’ve heard it so many times before: read. Read everything. Read good things and bad things and things in between. I do believe there's a place for pleasure reading and a place for mindful reading. Pleasure reading is exactly what it sounds like: read because you love it, to lose yourself in a different world. That can have a tangible, if unconscious, effect on your writing. But sometimes you must take it a step further and go for mindful reading—the sort where you look for specific techniques in the text that you want to use in your own writing.
When writing the first draft of Frozen Hearts, I would bookmark certain passages in the books I read, and later go back and see where I could apply those techniques in certain scenes. Little things—gorgeous descriptions, realistic dialogue. Big things—a scene where a character had died and the author made me cry. I wanted to know how I could have that same effect, pack that same emotional punch. I looked for books or music or poetry that truly spoke to me, discovered how to apply them to my own work.
Finally, you mentioned that you were too scared to go to the creative writing club at your school? Well, go anyway.
Perhaps it sounds harsh, but you should never turn down an opportunity to get better. Whether that's joining a club or critique group, buying a writing book that's on sale, or attending a talk on writing, those missed opportunities add up. Even if you're scared to death, you will never be the only nervous one there.
If you must, hold yourself accountable—tell a friend that you've signed up for the club and make sure they know to drag you to its location on the right day. It helps to have other people making sure you're doing what you promised yourself you'd do.
Those are my most important tips when it comes to writing: learn from the masters, but also learn from your peers. Let writing filter into everything you do. If you truly love and are passionate about it, that can be the most rewarding thing you can do for yourself to hone your skills. Don't be afraid to soak up everything—there is always something new to learn!