Friday, April 13, 2012

Another Reason Experience is Important for Writers

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

file9001259016672I spent the other morning at the DMV. The DMV, for my non-US readers, is the Department of Motor Vehicles. It’s one of those dreaded places here in the States—full of high counters and long lines.

My son was with me to get his driving permit. We’d arrived 45 minutes before the office opened and were already 5th in line. By the time it opened, the line wrapped around the corner of the squatty government building. It was freezing outside—a shock after such a balmy winte--and my son and I were moving around, swinging our arms, as we waited. His bouncing was probably nerves and mine was a futile attempt to keep warm.

We finally navigated through the different stations after a bad moment where we’d sat in “the wrong set of chairs” for what we were in line for. The DMV has always reminded me a little of Dickens’ Circumlocution Office. We quickly sat in the right set of chairs and my son took his test.

And, thankfully, passed it. But he wasn’t completely satisfied because he’d missed several questions and he’s a typical Type-A firstborn.

“Mom, I missed the stupidest questions!”

“I’m sure they weren’t stupid.”

“They were. One of them asked when roads are the slickest. I chose ‘after three hours of raining’ because of all the cars that hydroplane—the roads have got to be really slick then. But they said the right answer was ‘within the first 15 minutes of raining’,” he said.

“Ohh. Well, yes. They’re right. That’s because the oil rises up to the road surface and you skid on all the old oil puddles on the road,” I explained.

This didn’t cheer him up. “See! Even you knew it and you haven’t even studied the book.”

“But I’ve been driving for 26 years. I know it completely through experience.”

I think that’s one thing that sometimes gets missed when writers recommend frequent writing as a way to improve. What tends to get mentioned is the skill you acquire.

What I think practice and experience gets you are personal strategies for advancing a story and the confidence to complete one.

If you hit a roadblock, you’ll know the best way for you to handle it. For me, that means marking the scene with asterisks and coming back to it later.

You’ll know what to do when you’re stuck on a scene and you aren’t in the right mind-frame to write it. For me, this means skipping the scene and writing another one that’s better suited to my mood.

You’ll find the easiest method for you, yourself, to write a book…you’ll learn if you should outline, wing it, write in the mornings, write in the evenings, write during your commute. You’ll learn shortcuts, your strengths and your weaknesses. You’ll learn how to keep yourself motivated.

You’ll gain confidence that you can finish a book, submit it, and stomach the reviews, good or bad.

Experience is the only way to figure out what works best for us. It’s the only way to know how to make it through the obstacle course that each book presents. It’s the only way to deal with the end result of being published and having that book in the hands of the readers.

You can read manuals on driving and manuals on writing. But experience counts more. (And, I’d add, experience reading the genre that you write.)

It’s true that our writing improves each time we sit down to write and with each book that we finish. I know my books have stronger verbs, better dialogue, rounder characters, and more literary elements than they did when I started out.

That improvement is more intangible and murky, though, unless it’s directly compared side by side with other examples of my writing. What motivates me, usually, are tangible results. Motivation is a stack of finished books and my level of confidence— things I can easily see, easily feel.

It’s the knowledge of what to do at an intersection full of oil slicks when it starts to rain.

What does your regular writing habit help you gain?