Mindful Practice For Writers: Five Tips To Get Your 10,000 Hours In

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 14.472% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

To master a skill, you must devote 10,000 hours to it – or so the theory goes.  But that 10,000 hours must consist of mindful practice, or else every fryolater slapping burgers at McDonald’s would be a master chef.  No, you have to concentrate purposefully on improving your skills, flexing different muscles to install new muscle memories.
So how do you practice mindfully as a writer?
Look, I believe in the 10,000 hours, because I’ve experienced both sides of it.  I wrote fiction for twenty years and failed at it, sinking a lot of my time into writing but without making much headway.  And then, after Clarion removed some much-needed blinders from me, I wrote purposefully and I started to sell lots of stories.  So while every writer is different (the trick to “writer’s tips” is understanding that they’re all about unlocking your inner efficiency, and so you should ruthlessly discard whatever sounds silly to you), I think I can tell many writers how to get those 10,000 hours in so they work.
1)  Write Short Stories, And Finish Them.
…at least for purposes of practicing.  Novels are wonderful beasts, but they’re sprawling things with hundreds of moving parts – and it’s difficult to get friends to read your 120,000-word saga and offer useful advice.  Whereas short stories can be finished in a week or two, they’re usually about simpler scenes, and it’s easy to get people to spend the forty minutes it’ll take to get through them: all things you’ll need.  You can write fifteen short stories in the time it takes you to write a novel, and get better feedback as to how the internals of it worked (because with a short story, people are more thorough about critiquing).
Also obvious, but some people never get this: finish those stories.  From a practice perspective, five half-written tales aren’t nearly as effective as one completed story.  You learn the full arc of a tale when you complete them – and more importantly, you can go to Step #2:
2)  Get Each Of Those Stories Critiqued By People Who Like What You’re Trying To Do. 
Particularly when you’re in the early part of your journey, there’s going to be a gap between “What you intended to do” and “What you actually evoked in the reader.” For most people, it’s impossible to tell where those gaps are without actually bouncing them off of other readers, and getting their feedback.
You need good readers, though.  Usually your Mom and your buddies are just happy to see you writing, and they aren’t overly critical in the way that they analyze it.  You need people who are willing to tell you, kindly but firmly, that this story totally didn’t work for them – and then break down what, exactly, what in your prose stopped them from reading the story you wanted to write.  (People who complain because you didn’t write the story they would have written?  You can dispense with them post-haste.  And you can’t rely on rejections, which are too often a mere “no” and hence offer nothing of use for you to go on.)
So find a good writers’ group (or just a group of writers) and have them break down your stories in depth.  Otherwise, you’re like a pitcher who can’t see where your ball is landing.  You need some feedback to work on your aim.
3)  Focus On A Different Technique With Every New Short Story.
If you’re reading a lot of fiction – and you should – you’ll notice the strengths of other writers. As your crit group savages your tales, you’ll notice weaknesses in your own fiction.  So to practice mindfully, write stories that focus exclusively on those techniques.  Think, “I’m not very good at writing stories without action sequences,” and then set out to write an effective story with no explosions.  Think “I usually white-room my stories, not putting much effort into setting,” and then write an evocative prose-piece that’s as much about the exotic bazaar it’s set in as it is about the people in it.
I can tell you what new technique I was trying to master in any story I’ve written.  For example:

  • ‘Run,’ Bakri Says” was me saying, “I don’t write action stories, so I should write a story that’s nothing but action from start to finish.”
  • Sauerkraut Station” was me saying, “I really liked the way Little House on the Prairie made a bunch of mundane activities like farming and house-building seem riveting.  Can I write a story in space that does the same thing?”
  • A Window, Clear As A Mirror” was me saying, “I usually have at least a little plot planned out when I begin writing.  What happens if I write a story with no ending point whatsoever, and just wander?”
  • My Father’s Wounds” was me, absolutely loving the way Steven Brust made magic seem mundane, and asking whether I could write a story that had totally human elements with a bit of magic in the way that he did.
  • Dead Merchandise” was me saying, “Wow, Cat Valente writes really dense prose that’s elaborately descriptive, and I’m so bare-bones.  What happens when I write something really visual with poetic imagery?”

Now, if you read those stories, you may note that they might seem totally different from the intent I started out with.  That’s what happens when you make a story your own: it drifts away from the original influences, and becomes this wonderful melding of new techniques and old strengths.  (Or it turns out to be a glorious failure – I have a couple of stories dead at first draft that expanded my skills, but weren’t good stories on their own.  That’s okay; the techniques I learned there came in handy in later stories.)
The point is, by experimenting with each of those stories, I practiced.  Some of them sold, and got good reviews.  Some of them got shelved.  All of them sharpened bits that were previously dull.  All of them made me a better writer – and quickly, because instead of spending months writing a novel that utilized some (or all) of these ideas, I wrote an easily-critted tale that could tell me whether I’d succeeded or failed.
4)  Do Not Write Scratch Pads.
Note that the “test” stories I wrote above were all published: one was nominated for the Nebula, two got “Recommended” reviews from Locus, the toughest reviewers in sci-fi.  That’s because even though I was trying new things, I still wrote these stories as though I intended to sell them.
Even if you’re doofing around with something that seems insanely out of your element, even if this seems absurdly stupid to try this crazy new technique, treat the tale as though you had a deadline and an interested editor.  Approach every story you write as though this is the big one – because it might be.  Who would have guessed that my 18,000-word Laura Ingalls Wilder rip-off would become my most beloved piece of fiction?  Hell, I thought it was unpublishable.
5)  Practice By Not Writing.
Some of the best mindful practice I got came from not writing, but analyzing.  It’s a lot easier to see how fiction works when your own ego’s out of the way – and looking at how tales work (and, just as critically, how they don’t work) expands the brain.  So a lot of your practice can, and should, be things like:

  • Critiquing other people’s stories.  (As a bonus, it helps you stay in that crit group.)
  • Being a slush reader.  (Breaking down out why six stories a day aren’t publishable makes you realize just how high the bar is in fiction.)
  • Reading with intent, which is to say reading your favorite author to go, “Why do I like this so much?  What really works here?”

You can’t write for four hours a day every day, but you can usually get a story read on a lunch break.  That’ll nudge you closer to your 10k goal.



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