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Always Be Learning


Lawrence Kasdan once said that "being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life." Perhaps some writers don't have to work as hard at learning and studying as I do, or as hard as I strive to, anyway, but it's something I think is important for writers of all skill levels. We can always get better and that's because we can always be learning.

I go out of my way to discover what works for other writers in their process and understanding of the craft so that I may adapt it into my work. I might not take everything they have to say to incorporate into my writing routine, but I definitely take their words and use it to refine and hone my process. That way I can be a better, more effective writer, whose craft gets better on a consistent basis. 

But how do you learn? 

There are many ways to do this. Obviously, there are books of untold quantities on the subject and I've read many of them. Last week I mentioned Robert McKee's Story and it's something I'd recommend for everyone. But Stephen King has a book On Writing.  Vonnegut discussed his writing process in many of his books. I've read about the writing process of everyone from Ernest Hemingway to Terry Brooks and almost all of them have taught me at least one thing I can adapt into my method of writing. 

But reading about the craft of writing isn't the only way to take that in. There are countless lectures on youtube, podcasts, audiobooks, and other ways to put that input into your brain. Try this one:




This is the first (well, the second) part of a 14 part lecture series from Brandon Sanderson. In fact, this is his entire 321 class on writing from BYU. Every class period is recorded and put on here. It's illuminating. Granted, for many of us this will seem like nothing more than a refresher course, but we need refresher courses, too. Sanderson also works on the Writing Excuses podcast, which is another great, bite-sized resource if you can get over the sometimes patchy audio quality. 

You can use just about any author or writer and type the following into Youtube's search bar to find great lectures: "Woody Allen on writing" or "Patrick Rothfuss on writing." Or Chuck Wendig. Or Ursula K. Leguin. Or Rod Serling. Or anyone, really. A lot of these videos are shorter. If you need a creative shot in the arm, I've found these are perfect, bite-sized bits of writing guidance and learning to kick my brain off.

There's another way, too, and that's by talking to other writers. Asking them about their process. You can even learn about your own process just by explaining it to another writer. This is part of why it's so important to be a part of a writing community in your local area. You need to be exposed to people who can talk to you about what it is your doing and they need to be able to respond in a way that will help you. It's why we have conferences for everything that requires craftsmanship and creativity. You need that sort of interaction, whether it's one on one or a lecture setting, it's something you need.

But going out of your way to learn about writing is only half the battle. We don't want the craft of writing to disappear up its own asshole, as it were, by only studying how to tell a story. You need to be consuming stories. Devouring them. All kinds of stories. You can't dive into a hole of one favorite genre or one author, you need to expand your pool to include things you'd never expect to read. Since last year, I've been focused on reading things outside of my wheelhouse for at least half of the time. The other half I dedicate to reading the work of my peers or work that specifically influences the projects I'm working on. But when you read, you need to evaluate the story, the words the make up the story and the way the author puts things together. You need to read with a critical eye in an effort to understand why the author is doing what they're doing. The more you read, the more you'll learn about how to do the same for yourself. You need to understand why they chose one word over another, why one scene came after another, why one character behaved the way they did. Because it will make it easier for you to do the same in your work.

But reading stories isn't the only way to experience them. Listen to people around you as they tell stories. Watch how a comedian might construct a punchline in a story. Watch good movies. Some of the best storytelling in the last hundred years has been in the cinema, why not learn from that medium as well? The work of great filmmakers has taught me the importance of juxtaposition of images in my prose to tell something greater than I'm describing. It's taught me a lot of other things, too. But there's no harm in seeing the moving parts of those kinds of stories work. It's vital. 

Take a look at great adaptations of novels on film as well and deconstruct why the story had to change to fit the medium the way it did. Read and watch L.A. Confidential or The Shining or Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban or The Maltese Falcon or Gone With the Wind or a hundred other great books turned movies. 

But you can't disappear into the works of fiction completely, either. You need to learn from history and the world around you. You need to learn about it and experience it. Make observations. Ask yourself questions. One way I maintain part of this connection is the religious intake of the Stuff You Missed in History podcast. And I add non-fiction pieces to my reading list, whether that's a biography or a history book, or even just articles on topics I knew nothing about in the realms of science or politics or anthropology or mysticism. You want to cast your net as wide as possible. 

It's homework. Every night.

And you can't slack. If you skipped your homework while you were in school, you weren't going to get a passing grade, if you skip it as a writer, your stories aren't going to pass muster. If you want to be a writer, you're going to have to work. All the time.

As for my writing, I've got a new piece at City Weekly in print about piracy.  There was also a new review of A Children's Illustrated History of Presidential Assassination at the Reading for Sanity blog. 

I've got a lot of new things coming soon as well. I'll be doing much more regular work at How Stuff Works in the realm of history, and I'm very excited about that. I've got more Star Wars analysis coming out all over the place, too. I also spent the weekend sending out queries for three different manuscripts I've prepared for publication. I've already had a couple of nibbles, so fingers crossed that all works out.

As a reminder: The Aeronaut and Escape Vector are still out and still need your purchases and reviews. If nothing else, they can use you telling people about them. If you want signed copies, visit the shop here on this page.

Also! here's the full list of "rules and guidelines" I've been collecting over my years of studying writing advice and process

As far as my work outside of all this: There's a lot of great stuff on Big Shiny Robot! and Full of Sith for you. 

And please, please, please don't forget to check out any of my books, drop reviews of them on Amazon or Goodreads, and follow me on twitter and Facebook!

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