When we are new at something, sometimes all we can think about is that first goal. Learning to roller skate (blade!) doesn’t look that hard. If we can stay upright, feet on the sidewalk, body vertical, we’ll soon be doing figure eights and sailing backwards. The same goes for writing. When we sit down at the keyboard to write a story, we figure if we can get enough words on the screen, we’ll have a tale worth telling.
In some ways, we need this attitude to get started. If we knew we’d fall on our asses for the first twelve times we skated over a twig, a crack, our sister’s Barbie doll, we probably wouldn’t try. We need that initial belief in ourselves to put the skates on in the first place. The same is true for writing. We picture ourselves clacking away at the computer keys with lines of type building and building. It is the only way to deal with our initial fear.
However, how we handle the results of those first attempts can dictate success or failure. For many, a bruised butt and bloodied knees spell defeat. “I don’t want to do this! This is too hard” and they head inside to watch Saturday morning cartoons. Others wear their scabs like badges of honor and take a moment to reassess their goals. They realize they can’t jump from standing upright on skates to skimming down Devil Hill, carving eights in the liquor store parking lot, floating backward to the awe of the younger kids without blood and guts.
The same is true with writing. Although there are those who have a natural talent for the written word can sit down and write it without too much angst. But these are rare cases. Most of us may write a story that has many strong elements, but as a whole it doesn’t work. Not yet. And we need to reassess and learn the craft.
This is the make-or-break moment for most writers, the moment of looking at a piece of writing as it might be read by others, readers who do not live in the head of that writer. The ability to look at one’s own work with a critical eye does not come easily. It is a skill that is learned with practice, patience, and awareness of what works and what doesn’t. An expertise that evolves over time.
Just as a young roller skater learns the sidewalk is smoother than asphalt, a writer learns clarity is more important that an obscure turn of phrase, but to do this, both must be willing to see beyond their first goals. They must accept the reality that becoming good at something requires the understanding that learning is a process, that the large goal must be broken down into smaller goals because everything is more complex than we first perceive.
There is a difference in skating and writing. We teach different muscles to work harmoniously together. In skating we train our bodies and our brain too, but most it’s about legs and balance and reaction. In writing we train our brains–and our hearts.
How do we train our brains to write? We set up mini-goals, lots of them, beyond our first goal. Here are a few I believe in, though sometimes I find it hard to actually do them all!
Mini-Goals for Each Story
- Create content by taking notes, brain-storming, writing a “shit” draft
- Write a draft
- Do research to understand the world you’ve created or the personalities
- Think about story structure
- Make certain everything in a story serves a purpose (especially in flash)
- Be willing to delete that which doesn’t fit into the structure
- Go through the story to improve the language
- Make certain everything that needs to be clear is clear
- Make certain that verbs are active, that nouns are specific
- Proof-read carefully
- Set it aside (this is one of the hardest mini-goals because usually at this stage we are sooooooo excited about what we’ve created, we can’t wait to send it out)
- Reread and make changes after it’s been set aside
- Ask a trusted reader to read it (trusted: gentle, supportive, yet honest, honest, honest)
- Decide what notes you agree with and what you don’t and make edits
- Set aside again, at least an hour or two so that when you proof-read for the final time, you have enough distance to find now what your eye skipped over before
- Send out and cross fingers
Mini-Goals for Personal Growth
- Read widely and deeply
- Talk to others about writing
- Be open-minded
- Try new genres
- Be a mentor
None of this is necessary if a writer is writing only for himself. Just as skating up and down the block might make one child happy, putting together a story for fun can work for the “Sunday author.” But if your goal is roller-derby, you’d better to be willing to work. And if you want to be published? Guess what…
This article was first published at Flash Fiction Chronicles on November 22, 2009
These are helpful reminders, Gay, even to us who are converted and know everything about writing. (Ha!) With your permission, I'll make copies and give them to members–some pros, some neophytes–in the writing group I moderate. Many thanks.