By Darlene Cah
One time, when I was working as a copywriter for a large publishing company in New York, my art director and I were looking at illustrators’ portfolios for a catalog we were producing. She had dozens of tear sheets from artist reps scattered all over her cube, on the desk, on the floor, and we sorted through, tossing them into piles categorized by the ones we liked to the ones we knew would not work stylistically for our project. That’s when I spotted someone I knew, but hadn’t seen in ages. My art director had put the sheet into the discard pile.
“Oh my God! I know him,” I said, “Wow! He’s as good as he was in high school.”
“Exactly,” she said.
Now, this artist is not a bad illustrator. In fact, he’s quite good and makes a great living in a very tough field. Having an agent is an accomplishment in itself. Though accomplished, his style had not evolved in any significant way.
Writers, too, need to grow, to bring the craft to higher levels, to improve, if you will. So how do we get better? How do we turn a good story into a brilliant story—or, at least, a better story?
Take a Class
Prestigious workshops and weeklong residencies, such as the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Sewannee Writers’ Conference, are fantastic ways to commune with fellow writers, get feedback on your work, be exposed to excellent work by renowned authors, and learn new techniques. Entry into these types of programs is selective. Other workshops, such as the Tinker Mountain Writers’ Workshop, offer a variety of courses for different levels of experience and excellent faculty, without the screening process. Whether submissions are needed to apply or courses are open until filled, workshops can be expensive, but in the long-run, may be well worth it.
Another option is to attend a weekend workshop. I’ve gone to the Hub City Writing in Place Conference nearly every year for the past eight years, and hope to attend again this summer. You can read about my Hub City experience from last year in Wiley Cash’s class. The University of Iowa offers a highly-competitive and highly-regarded MFA program. Not for the faint of heart, I would imagine. However, they also hold a Summer Writing Festival with weeklong and weekend workshops in a variety of genres. My friend, Greg, a poet, attended one of their weekend poetry workshops, and he raved about it.
If you’d rather spend your hard-earned vacation time soaking up the sun in Hawaii than sitting in a classroom with harsh fluorescent light, consider taking a college or university continuing education course. You’ll still have to endure the unforgiving lighting, but you might come out of a weekly class more enlightened. The work I submitted with my application to the MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte was written in a creative writing class at a community college in a tiny town in North Carolina. You might also find classes given by local writing groups, clubs, organizations, or even at high schools.
If you don’t have time to traipse off to a nearby campus, consider taking a class online. The first flash fiction class I took was a four-week web-based class. Our instructor sent us lectures and related examples of flash fiction. We submitted our stories based on that week’s lesson, and got to know each other through our comments and critiques. I don’t think that class exists anymore, but you can explore online classes at other sites, such as the Gotham Writers’ Workshop. I took a sketch comedy writing class in person at GWW when I lived in New York, and enjoyed it immensely.
In addition, you can always form or join an existing critique group. There’s nothing like getting feedback and support from your peers.
I’ve just singled out a few ways to continue honing your craft through education. There are many, many more workshops and conferences held all over the country and the world every year. Poets & Writers Magazine is a terrific resource for finding classes, residencies, publications, craft articles and much more. Which leads me to the next point…
Be a sponge. Learn from everything around you. Read newspapers, magazines, ads, online content, contest rules, disclaimers, the copy on your oatmeal package. And books, of course. See Brad’s post for great insight into Developing a Personal Reading List to further the craft. I’m not a big fan of books on writing, but the ones I love, I love with a passion: Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream, Anne Lamotte’s Bird by Bird, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft and Stephen King’s On Writing are among my all-time favorites.
Listen to music, to talk shows. Pay close attention to how people speak, their inflection, the phrases they use, the tone of their voices, the rhythm and cadence of the spoken word. Watch people. What does their posture say? Experience your five senses and write what you feel. Look at the world upside down, inside out and turn it all into words. A simple walk down the snack aisle at the supermarket can become a short story.
And now I’ll reveal the ultimate secret to furthering the craft of writing.
#1 by talesfromahungrylife on November 8, 2013 - 11:02 am
Personally, I find books on writing to be less helpful than reading a novel, newspaper article, or cereal box. If I can “hear” the characters’ voices or feel moved to action by the writer or copywriter, I have learned something about the power of words–and how to wield that power in my own work. Great post, lots to think about.
#2 by wordimprovisor177 on November 8, 2013 - 12:03 pm
I’m totally with you, Maria. The books I mentioned were the few that “spoke” to me. I tend to learn by jumping in head-first! I might get a few tips here and there by reading about writing, but it’s by reading fiction and screwing up my own stories that I learn the most. So no time at the keyboard is wasted time. Every crappy sentence and word choice is a lesson in writing. Thanks for your comment and the stories you tell. I’m looking forward to your book! 🙂
#3 by Susan McNabb on November 9, 2013 - 10:46 am
Excellent advice, Darlene! I’d also like to recommend mediabistro for online classes. A literary agent sent me there, and I loved my class.
#4 by wordimprovisor177 on November 9, 2013 - 12:48 pm
Good one, Susan! I forgot they offered classes, too. I love their site, and have used it to look for work for years. Which class did you take?
#5 by Susan McNabb on November 9, 2013 - 3:19 pm
I took Advanced Chick Lit with Kristin Harmel, and she was wonderful.
#6 by Teal Ashes on November 11, 2013 - 8:29 am
I appreciate the suggestions you’ve offered here. I think whenever we start feeling “comfortable” in our writing it’s time to evaluate how we can improve it. Not taking advantage of ongoing education in our writing craft is like wearing our middle school hairstyle and eyeglasses for the rest of our lives.
#7 by wordimprovisor177 on November 11, 2013 - 9:12 am
Thanks for your comment, Teal! I like using “comfort” as a signal to shake things up. Excellent idea. And no one should be subjected to the sight of me in my middle school hairstyle and eyeglasses! Of course, that might inspire a horror story.