Now and then, I meet a multi-published, award-winning author whom I haven’t read before and ask, “Which book of yours should I read first?” They rarely suggest their debut book. Quite often, they’ll say something like, “My first books were okay, but I really hit my stride with [fabulous book title].”
If they suggest the debut, it’s often because that was the sixth book they actually wrote or they spent six years writing and rewriting it.
What happened between Before and After? They learned stuff. Stuff like:
- Story structure that made the novel flow better
- Character development that made their protagonist and antagonist more convincing
- Prose and grammar skills that made their writing compelling
- Personal insights that clarified which genre they should write and the theme their books convey
- Time management that helped them turn out more consistently good stories
Given how you’re reading a writing blog, I assume you also want to learn stuff. And that’s great. But how can you do it? How do you make sure your stories just get better and better?
1. Craft books.
We live in an amazing time when there are so many great books about the craft of writing. You can find information on story structure, writing approaches, point of view, specific genres, and just about anything else you can think of.
Make it a goal to read at least a couple of craft books each year. Be selective, because you can get so swamped with information from these books that you feel paralyzed about writing another word.
A few of my personal favorites:
- Wired for Story by Lisa Cron
- Write Your Novel from the Middle by James Scott Bell
- My Story Can Beat Up Your Story by Jeffrey Alan Schecter
- The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi — a must-have
Since I’m currently penning a mystery, I recently took an online course on Autopsies for Authors. Although my family and friends didn’t fully enjoy my sharing postmortem trivia at every turn, I found the course fascinating and gathered information to incorporate into my story.
Whether it’s craft, marketing, or specific topics, excellent writing courses are available through several sources, including Savvy Authors, W.A.N.A. International, Lawson Writer’s Academy, and RWA University and RWA chapters. Look around, ask around, and find what you need. Someone, somewhere is teaching a class that will improve your writing.
Conferences package all that education into a compact amount of time. Whether it’s a local chapter conference or a week-long writing workshop, such events allow you to focus on your writing in a way that isn’t as likely to happen in your house. Where distractions pop up like house elves begging for socks, and all a decent person can do is oblige.
Take advantage of intensive opportunities to improve your writing and industry know-how. Attend RWA National or take a Cruising Writers retreat. Find conferences in your particular genre, like ThrillerFest or SCBWI. Check local sources for day or weekend events worth attending. You’ll return with increased knowledge and enthusiasm for your writing.
Speaking of conferences, that’s also a place to foster community. Much of what I’ve learned about writing has come straight from conversations with other writers. Some have background in an area I don’t, others are farther along in their journey and have great mentoring advice, and plenty are in the pre-published trenches where I am and have insights as well. Not only does community support us personally (and emotionally when we feel like shredding our work in progress because we’re convinced we suck); community educates us.
Make use of writing chapters you can join. Find beta readers and critique partners. Get online and chat with other writers, specifically asking questions of people who know things you want to know. As long as you’re not a wild-eyed stalker about it, most people are happy to share what they’ve learned. Comment on blogs like this one, and you’ll find that conversations start up and become friendships. Create community.
I’ll be straight, y’all—writing contests are a hit-or-miss activity for learning. Some contests I’ve entered have given me wonderful feedback, and other times the results I got were less than helpful. But when I've received effective critique, it’s been well worth my effort and entry fee. Once you’ve fostered that community mentioned above, ask others about the quality of a particular contest and which ones are worth entering.
Generally speaking, contests with trained judges and/or specific judging guidelines will offer better feedback. Contest feedback helps to clarify what captures a reader’s attention, where your strengths and weaknesses are, and who your ideal audience might be.
But also volunteer to judge some contests. You learn an awful lot by critiquing others’ entries. What common mistakes do you see, that you should then avoid? What keeps you turning pages, and how does that inform your own characterization and pacing? What feedback would you give others, that you really should give yourself too?
We have all kinds of ways to keep getting better as writers. But the way you get those readers who say, "Her books just keep getting better and better" is to never stop learning. There's always something else you can discover to strengthen your storytelling and writing skills.
Which learning tools have been most helpful in improving your writing?
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WITS Readers! We hope you are enjoying Julie as much as we are because you will be seeing a lot more of her. She is our latest resident blogger-in-charge here at Writers In The Storm and we're delighted to have her on the team. Help us show her some love, down in the comments!
~ Fae, Jen, Laura and Sherry
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Julie Glover writes cozy mysteries and young adult fiction. Her YA contemporary novel, SHARING HUNTER, finaled in the 2015 RWA® Golden Heart®. When not writing, she collects boots, practices rampant sarcasm, and advocates for good grammar and the addition of the interrobang as a much-needed punctuation mark.