A friend of mine began a Facebook post the other day with the words “A wise man once said that you’re never too old to learn.” It was completely ironic that she would post that, considering I had been thinking the same thing all last weekend at the 66th annual Philadelphia Writers’ Conference. Writer’s conferences, as you may know, are an excellent place for crazy people to get together and share what makes them crazy. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from going to more than my fair share, they also provide the prime setting to brush up on your craft.
Here’s the thing. It doesn’t matter how good of a writer you are. It doesn’t matter how many books you’ve published or how high they’ve risen on the charts. Every writer needs to go back to basics of plot and character, openings and tension once in a while. There are fundamental skills that make okay writing good and that make good writing great. Sometimes we fall into a rut, thinking we know all those things inherently and automatically bring them to fruition in our writing. But you know what? We don’t. If we did, we would have statues erected in our hometowns and our own sections in libraries. I don’t have my own section in the Horsham library, do you?
Anyhow, I’ve long held this belief that all writers need to relearn what they know now and then. That really hit home to me sitting in a workshop taught by Gregory Frost. Granted, the workshop was about writing short stories, which I do not, and I was only in it because I kind of love him a little—in a purely platonic, author-y way. I took a workshop that he taught many, many years ago, before I started publishing, and had this vague memory that even though he’s one of those gruff academics who doesn’t even remember what the concept of taking crap from people could be, he has a way of putting things that click with my writer’s brain.
Frost did not disappoint once again! I sat there, notebook in hand, jotting down note after note about the concepts he discussed—triangulated relationships between characters, blending the personal story in with the outer story, the importance of an opening line with punch—and along with those things I found myself sketching out ideas about how to unstick the tricky bits of both Saving Grace and Fallen From Grace, the first two sci-fi novels in my Grace’s Moon series that are coming out July 15th.
Now, I happen to think both of those books are pretty good. I’m a little biased, but they may just be the best two books I’ve written. However, as I sat there and listened to the concepts Frost discussed, I had epiphany after epiphany about how to make them better, how to make the characters pop, how to kick things up a notch by weaving in connections that are sitting there dormant in the story. I left that class awash in ideas.
Ideas I never would have had if I had rested on my laurels and assumed I already had the best stories ever.
I wonder sometimes if the thing that keeps us writers from achieving the heights that we were born for is the mistaken sense that once we hit goal number one, we can smile, brush the dust off, and assume we’re done. I suspect that too many of us fall into the trap of believing that just because we’ve accomplished something, we are done learning. The absolute opposite is true!
Plenty of professions have what they call “continuing education.” I am a firm believer that writers need to hold to that theory of lifelong learning too. None of us is ever so good that we can’t get better. Just like no manuscript is perfect after its first draft. We have to work to beat our stories into shape before presenting them to the world. We should be just as vigilant in honing our craft time and again. The sharpest sword still needs to find its way to a whetstone now and then. Taking writing classes or even reading craft books is our whetstone.
So to all the writers out there, I say keep on learning! Go back to school. Dig deeper into your writing to find where it could use some improvement. Listen to the advice of the learned and absorb what they have to teach. Trust me, your stories and your careers will be better off for it.
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