Learning from Your Own Writing

My best lessons and indicators for what I should improve or refine in my work are sitting right in front of me, plain as day, in my last creation.

In my case, this means that directions for improving my writing can be found in the last piece of writing that I completed.

I’m in the process of reading Art and Fear, a book that my author friend Brian strongly recommended I read in order to process, prepare, and accept all of the changes, both fearful and exciting, that I am swimming through as I dive into the world of publishing.

To make the announcement official:

I have signed my contract to publish Moonlight and Oranges with Booktrope Publishing, a small press here in Seattle.  The book should be available in print and Kindle on Amazon.com in time for Christmas 2011.  Woohoo!

As the planning conversations for marketing and cover art and editing all pop onto my radar, it’s easy to feel that I don’t know how to sit down and continue my regular writing work, or even to feel calm enough to start writing again.

What really helps me begin is having a direction or goal to work on.  That’s why I’ve found it so helpful to follow Bob Ray and Jack Remick’s advice and begin a writing session with: Today I’m writing about… This startline hones my focus.

I realized that I’ve been growing dependent on the literary criticisms from my (wonderful) critique group.  The writers in my group are intelligent, kind, insightful, and interested in my literary success.  I really couldn’t ask for more.  But as wonderful as their advice is, they didn’t write my work.

They can give my wonderful suggestions, but I can’t live as though my writing would decay and grumble into gray chalky dust without their words.  This leads me to what I want to discuss today, learning lessons from our own work.

As I read over the draft of Forecast, my novel-in-progress for which I just finished the first draft, there were several places where I noticed the pacing had slowed.  I marked these, and for a while I felt troubled and frustrated by the lack of exciting tension in the scenes.  If I was getting bored, so would my readers.

Then I remembered a post I had read on www.storyfix.com about scene compression as a tool to tighten scenes and increase their punch.  I realized that of my scenes that dragged, they were either entirely unnecessary or simply need to be started further into the action so that the build-up wasn’t too lengthy.

I also have discovered that I need a goal in order to write strong, clear prose.  When I write without a goal, I can look back and see my writing meander, just as my mind was doing at the time, until it latches onto something of interest to it.  Of course, I can’t always 100 percent of the time write with perfect razor-sharp focus, but simply comparing work done under focused to that done with unfocused direction has made me more diligent about my mental preparation prior to picking up the pen.

This idea of learning from old work does not negate the necessity of reading and learning from craft books.  After I finish writing this post I’m not going to chuck all my craft books out the window and curl up with a bunch of my drafts and wait for them to whisper wisdom to me.  For starters, that would be crazy, and secondly, these two teaching resources have very different lessons for me.

Craft books teach me techniques, framework, and psychology for being a better writer.  Speaking of craft books, check out my new recommended reading list page.

My own work teaches me my own voice.  It shows me the parts of my artistic abilities that are weak, strong, or in need of special scrutiny and attention.  My work reveals my passions, interests, and the recurring themes that arise in my stories as concepts that haunt me.

This is a relatively new concept for me.  I would love to hear from other writers about your experience learning from your older work and what lessons you’ve gleaned.  For those of you who have never actively practiced this technique, what thoughts/hesitations do you have about it?

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