Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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October 13, 2017

Why “Never Stop Learning” Should Be Every Writer’s Motto

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:

2. Classes.

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.

3. Conferences.

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.

4. Community.

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.

5. Contests.

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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About Julie

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.

Julie is represented by Louise Fury of The Bent Agency. You can visit her website here and also follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

40 comments on “Why “Never Stop Learning” Should Be Every Writer’s Motto”

  1. Dead on, Julie. I have an education budget every year, and I'm always on the lookout for new things. Most often it's the RWA conference with a retreat or two, and maybe a Margie Immersion thrown in.

    If I'm not getting better with every book, I'm going backwards.

    There are exceptions to youe 'better with age' logic, above. I can think of several authors who were brilliant in their debuts (looking at you, Johnny Grisham) who then gave in to the pressure to produce and there was decreasing quality as they went on.

    Hey, you going to be in Denver next year?

    1. I agree. But I wonder if some of those authors who "fall off" halt the learning process in favor of churning out more books. Not sure, but I wonder.

      And yes, I plan to be in Denver! I've got three conference/retreats on my calendar next year — Chicago Spring-Fling in April, RWA in July, and another fabulous Cruising Writers cruise in October.

  2. For answers to questions about anything remotely mystery related, I find the crimescenewriter group at Yahoo invaluable. Plus, you don't have to leave the house or spend money. Then there's the Writers' Police Academy organized by the founder of The Graveyard Shift blog, Lee Lofland.

    1. Ooh, that's great to know about the crimscenewriter group! And Writers' Police Academy is on my Wish List. I've heard awesome things about it from those who've gone. Thanks for adding those!

  3. Wonderful advice. I have a shelf full (okay, more than one) of books on the craft of writing, but only just last year went to my first writer's conference. It was invigorating. Even better, I was asked to be a mentor at the conference this year, which means I'll be attending for free. We may all be learning, but we shouldn't overlook skills we can teach. Not only does it open doors, it helps strengthen our knowledge.

  4. While reading this, I did what I've been meaning to do for a while, and bought a craft book on the new genre I'm working in. Good post, and a good kick in the pants.

  5. Ooh, I've read nearly all your recommended books except My Story Can Beat Up Your Story...will have to check that out. Spot on, Julie, thanks!

    1. That one is more for screenwriters, but I loved his take on the character arc through the book. That made a lot of sense to me and helped me clarify characterization. Hope you like it!

  6. I began fiction writing [romance] around the time I retired from a health/disability field, and continue to feel as if I'm struggling to 'catch up' with other writers I know! Sigh. And I have quite the lovely collection of e-books on writing craft - I've even read some of them. Normally I ponder putting the books under my pillow at night to see if that helps! But this fall I finally saved some $$ [retired on no pension, no assets] to take a writing course online. My oh my - I have had a number of a-ha! moments, with more insight into my newby problems of too much backstory, not high-enough stakes, mushy middles etc. Thanks for yet another very helpful encouraging post!

    1. You make an important point, Celia: Some learning formats will work for us more than others. Thankfully, there's great writing information and advice presented in various ways now, so you can often find the way that best works for you. Glad you're enjoying your online course. I'm looking forward to another one in November!

  7. This is so true Julie. Another great thing is with RWA a lot or most all of the chapters have online discussion groups where you can share information. Once you meet other writers you can learn from them. I notice most all of the RWA people willingly share tips and helpful advice. I wouldn't trade that cost of RWA for anything else.

    1. Very true. I was a reluctant RWA-joiner at first, but I'm sold on it now. I continue to be encouraged and excited about all that I've learned from other writers just wanting to be generous and give back.

      I'm sure there are other writing organizations that have been great for their members too; I'm just more knowledgeable about RWA in this regard. And it has been great for me!

  8. All excellent points! I love conferences and contests - when they provide usable feedback. I'm going to try a writing cruise one of these days.

    And, I also found the autopsies class fascinating and highly informative. My family - not so much.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

    1. LOL. Yeah, I kinda horrified my close family and friends with that death trivia. But we can get excited about it to each other! And I would love for you to come cruise with us.

  9. As anew math teacher I went to a conference my first year and never missed them after that. National, local, I learned so many new things that I never would have been able to incorporate into my classroom without making the effort to go out and find new "things."

    When I decided to get serious about writing, I started taking classes at my local college, found OCCRWA, went to a conference, bought books, read articles--and learned just how much I didn't know about writing a novel. Talking to writing friends is so important to find the best of the best since time and resources are always limited.

    So happy to have you with us, Julie! Thanks for a great post!

    1. Thanks, Fae! Yeah, it would have taken me so much longer to learn the things that got compacted into a conference or online class. Definitely a great way to improve your writing!

  10. I've used community and contests, the most. I have a few craft books. I haven't had the opportunity for classes or conferences yet.


  11. Great post Julie! And I have 3 of the 4 books you mention. LOVE James Scott Bell's books! I took a workshop with him years ago and it was packed full of info - plus he's such a nice guy.

    Learning is so key to grow as a writer - and it never ends, even after having published several books. One way I like to learn is read across genres and take notes in the books with pencil or in a notebook. I categorize my notes by setting, character, plot, language, etc. and refer to use techniques in my own writing. I love learning from the masters!

    Perfect example here - I am interviewing Dean Koontz (my author hero!) on the radio on Nov. 20th at 7pm with Authors on the Air, the night before his 2nd book in his Jane Hawk series comes out, The Whispering Room. https://www.blogtalkradio.com/authorsontheair To prepare for this hour and a half interview (eek!), I read this book and book 1, The Silent Corner. I was often reading in awe. He uses so many masterful techniques and broke rules doing it! From introducing strong characters half way through the book to writing in different tenses across characters. I also loved how he took incidental characters and used them to move the story forward and inspire the MC to take her next action steps. And his use of personification and setting is amazing. Was artful!

    So, this is just one more way to keep learning that I love.

  12. Hi Julie, I am looking forward to your future blogs. I have read many of James Scott Bell's books. He is amazing!

  13. I do writers conferences every year, LDS storymakers is my ultimate favorite. I always learn something new and useful.

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