Recently, the question of how I’ve improved my writing over the last few years has come up more than once.
I’m not saying I’m a great writer. (I mean, I’m cocky but I’m not *that* cocky.) The point here is that my work has improved over time – enough that when I look back on what I wrote a few years ago, I can see (once I stop cringing) how much I’ve learned since then. That can be encouraging when I’m facing the current wall of a story.
Here are the steps I’ve taken, along with a few recommendations that might come in handy for you.
Let’s start with the two things not included on this list that are nevertheless crucial (suggested by experienced writers everywhere, not me): reading and writing.
Like many writers, I read a lot – the equivalent of two or three novels a week – and I try from time to time to read something different. (For example, in addition to the usual lesbian romances or fan fiction I consume like potato chips, this week I’m also reading Jeff VanderMeer’s BOOKLIFE, a stack of role playing game guides, Victor LaValle’s EVE comics, and as I was writing this, SKYE FALLING by Mia McKenzie mystically appeared on my porch.)
It should go without saying that if I want to improve my writing, I should actually write, but sometimes I need to break out the cattle prod. Daily goals are usually reserved for specific projects since I’ve never been a fixed-minimum-per-day-every-day kind of writer, but whenever possible, I’ve got something in the works.
Some things worked better than others, and your mileage will most definitely vary, but these were my attempts to improve the quality of my writing. (This post will also serve as a reminder to Future Me about the things that worked, so I don’t go back to trying the things that absolutely didn’t.)
1. Stopped saying “aspiring writer”
This includes not berating the quality of my rough drafts. I’m also not allowed to downplay my work because it’s not as good as someone else’s, or publicly make excuses for earlier work that still lives in the world. Am I writing? Then I’m a writer. There’s no aspiration about it if I’m involved in the execution.
2. Allowed my work to suck “right now”
Every once in awhile, I’ll go back and re-read an older piece of my work. While I’m always pleased with the story I wanted to tell, I often cringe at some literary faux pas I committed because at the time I didn’t know any better. This leads to me wonder what it is about my current work that future me will find cringeworthy.
The result? Paralysis. Is the current word under the cursor the perfect choice? Does this even make sense? Could I do this differently and have the same effect? What should I be doing better right now – etc. Then I get zero wordcount for the day, which is The Worst Thing Ever (TM).
New goal: it’s alright to suck in the short term. Get the words down now before the story slips away, and wordsmith them to perfection later.
3. Attended a writing conference (LCLC)
One of the smartest investments I ever made was to attend my first writer’s conference, the Left Coast Lesbian Literary Conference in 2018. I’ve written about this experience before, but in this context I’ll add that it was extremely helpful to find out what kind of resource materials and references more experienced authors find valuable. The quality of my writing leveled up as a direct result of attending.
Some folks can’t travel, or find such an investment cost-prohibitive. (Also, most in-person conferences were canceled or virtualized in 2020-2021.) Fair points, so I’ll add that *online* conferences can offer similar experiences. Many conferences post their session videos after the fact, and these are invaluable as well.
4. Attended a writing academy
That same year (2018), I was accepted into the Golden Crown Literary Society Writing Academy, a ten-month intensive for writers who want to improve their work. The classes were streamed, the homework was submitted online, and a forum for my co-hort provided conversation and feedback. Published authors and industry professionals taught the classes and provided fantastic material with actionable paths to improving my work.
I highly recommend taking a series of courses like this. Some classes are more expensive than others, but even a $10 Udemy course (or a popular blog like Jane Friedman’s) will provide some new information that can help tighten or improve one’s work, and there are countless courses from Master Class and Writer’s Digest as well as free videos on YouTube.
5. Scheduled sessions with other writers
Other writers are an incalculable resource, not just for improving my writing, but for helping me understand I’m not alone. Writing is a lonely endeavor, particular when the only voices I have for company (besides my characters, of course) are my inner editor and my inner critic. Sprints (timed writing sessions with other authors) or write-ins (dedicated sessions with other folks to focus on particular projects, both online or in person) create mild competition and camaraderie to help get those words cranked out.
6. Used AI to review my work
Too many adverbs? Keep forgetting to remove passive voice? Too many clichés? These tools help trim all that fat, and though they don’t affect the story itself, they help tighten my writing quickly.
7. Written and posted fan fiction
I read almost as much fan fiction as I do anything else because I’m a nerd who loves a good story about characters I already know and love. As a writer, though, fan fiction is an incomparable sandbox. I can publish whatever I want, whenever I want, and get immediate feedback from readers.
Admittedly, the lack of gatekeepers means it’s a low bar to clear in terms of quality, but that means it’s also a forgiving medium. I can break all the “rules”: prologues, uneven chapter lengths, flashbacks, sexual content – whatever I imagine and want to execute, fan fiction gives me the latitude to do it.
I have experimented with narrative (What I Have To Do), point of view (Of Oaths and Stone), scene development (Second Impression), timeline manipulation (When She Watches), and pacing (To Crave Your Blade At My Throat). I’ve even attempted to emulate more experienced writers to learn what I can from their voices and techniques.
Why is this so helpful? Because I can experiment in real time (readers will respond almost immediately to newly posted content) and know if it’s working or not, which makes it an extraordinary tool. Plot holes and inconsistencies are quickly revealed and can be fixed in a later update. Murky details can be clarified. The feedback loop between me and an engaged audience is powerful.
My next story, BROKEN, will be an experiment in exposition through dialogue, and I’m looking forward to the challenge.
8. Submitted work for publication consideration
Sooner or later, if you want to be published, you have to press submit.
Before my novel was drafted and sent to a publisher, I submitted short stories for anthologies and flash fiction for contests. Sometimes, the stories weren’t ready and were rejected. A few times, they were accepted, but either way, I made progress.
The practice gave me confidence, and helped tremendously when I submitted my novel CONSECRATED GROUND to Bywater Books. (Coming to you in Fall of 2022!)
9. Slept with a notepad
I started doing this a few years ago and now I do it wherever I am. I keep a notepad next to the bed open to a blank page with an already engaged pen resting on it. Now when weird ideas come to me at 3am (and it’s ALWAYS 3am), I roll over, scribble blindly and then flip up the page so the next idea has somewhere to go.
I can’t tell you how many times this has saved my sanity. Ever solved your story problem in the middle of the night and then forgotten it the next morning? That doesn’t happen to me anymore. Got a new idea that you don’t want to lose? Here’s my solution.
For you, maybe it’s not a notepad by the bed. Maybe it’s a handheld recorder or a tiny whiteboard or your phone already open to a text app. The point is to find what works for you, and make it a habit so those middle-of-the-night ideas don’t get lost.
10. Participated in NaNoWriMo
Every November, a couple hundred thousand crazy people around the world commit to National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). The goal is to write 50,000 words (longer than George Orwell’s ANIMAL FARM but shorter than Aldous Huxley’s BRAVE NEW WORLD) in thirty days. That’s 1667 words a day.
I’ve completed NaNo five times and I’m hooked. NaNo has taught me patience, discipline, fortitude and resiliency when drafting a story.
NaNo taught me that DONE is better than PERFECT. I don’t expect to write a complete story in thirty days. I do expect to take an idea that lives in my head and get it channeled through the keyboard. I learned that I can get my ass in a chair day after day and crank out words. Not necessarily good ones, but perfection isn’t the point.
NaNo also helped console me after my first novel rejection. In November 2019, I raised the bar and knocked out over 80,000 words in thirty days, proving to myself that I could generate a full-length story from start to finish. It gave me the will to keep trying.
It’s a fantastic tool for those who are interested, but if it sounds like an anxiety-inducing terror-fest, skip it. There are all kinds of ways to learn these same lessons.
11. Studied the craft
Character traits and development. World-building. Narrative. Plot structure. Conflict and suspense. Point of view. Dialogue. Description. Setting. Story design. Syntax. Editing. Publication.
I’ve read books and blog posts about all of these things and tried to apply what I’ve learned to my work. It’s a constant effort – there’s always some aspect of my stories that isn’t working well so I study what I can in an attempt to improve it. Then I practice in my short stories and fan fiction until I think I understand how to apply it to my longer original work.
Countless authors (including VanderMeer, as mentioned above, as well as Stephen King, Ursula Le Guin, Kristen Lamb, and James Scott Bell) have published books on the business of being a writer, and these are also helpful.
12. Beta read other people’s work
Sometimes, helping friends or colleagues as they navigate their work can be helpful for me. It took me awhile to learn to ask what kind of feedback people wanted about their work, but that too was a valuable lesson.
13. Written outside my preferred genre and classification
I write long form lesbian fiction and would happily write only science fiction for the rest of my life, but trying to write other lengths and genres has helped me see my preferred genre more clearly.
14. Paid an editor to read my work and offer feedback
The first time I heard an editor talk about how much she charged for the review of a full-length novel (somewhere in the neighborhood of $5000 US), I decided that was next to impossible and would probably never happen.
I’m glad I was wrong, and it wasn’t until I took a class on editing at LCLC that I learned how many different kinds of editors exist. I didn’t need someone to go through my word by word, checking syntax and punctuation. Instead, I needed someone to tell me if the overall story arc made sense, or if the characters were relatable.
It took awhile, but I found an editor who sometimes charges by the hour at a reasonable rate and sometimes by the project. This has made a huge difference, and my acceptance rate has increased as a result. Yes, this can be cost-prohibitive for some – but even when I’m broke, I figure out a way to make it work.
Your mileage may vary, but these are some of the things that have worked for me. More again soon. I’ve got a lot of writing to do – and A LOT more to learn.
Next week, I’ll send one of my short stories to the folks on my newsletter list as a thanks for supporting my work. It’s not too late to add your name! Join by Aug 30th to receive this month’s story.