5 Easy Steps to Improving Craft

One very important aspect of The Writing Life that we’ve been talking about this month (IMHO) is getting better at what we do.  I like to budget special time for “Improving Craft” into my daily writing schedule.  So I have come up with 5 easy steps to grow as a writer:

  1.  Read.  Not a problem!  Writers love to read, and that’s probably what made most of us want to become writers in the first place.  Some of the authors I admire include Dolores Johnson, Kris Nelscott, Phyllis A. Whitney, and oh gosh, oodles more.  I only list these few select ones because of points 2, 3, and 4 below.
  2. Analyze what you read.  Here comes the “work”–but it’s fun!  We get to re-read our favorite authors and try to figure out how they’ve made us love their work. For instance, what I love about Johnson’s dry-cleaner series is the wonderful way she presents humor.  What I love about Nelscott’s Smokey Dalton series is the way she uses historical elements.  What I love about the Whitney books is the way she builds atmosphere.  I find examples of what I love and then ask:  how do they DO that??  How can I do it too?
  3. Learn from Admired Writers’ advice!  This includes workshops, classes, mentoring, and yes, more reading.  Not all advice is right for everyone, so take care in choosing a trusted source.  Since I admire Nelscott’s work, I applied to one of the rare mystery workshops she offers–and was lucky enough to be accepted!  I also admire Johnson’s work, and I participated in a critique group with her for several years before she passed away.  (See points 1 & 2.)
  4. Study how-to books.  It’s not always possible to work one-on-one with an Admired Writer, but thankfully there’s a plethora of craft books to study.  Everyone will have a unique list of resources that have impacted them profoundly–often, it’s a matter of timing, or maybe of methods.  Here’s my list, and the reasons why these examples helped me:
  • Writing Popular Fiction, by Dean R. Koontz (because he’s a long-term bestseller at writing popular fiction, and the basic concepts haven’t changed)
  •  Writing the Blockbuster Novel, by Albert Zuckerman (because he was a top agent for bestseller Ken Follett and knew what elements sold books at the time this book came out–publishing has changed, but not the elements of good storytelling)
  •  The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery, by Robert J. Ray and Jack Remick (because my writing time was–and still is–very limited, and I needed to know how to construct a mystery piecemeal and still get it done)
  •  Writing Mysteries:  A Handbook by the Mystery Writers of America, edited by Sue Grafton.  This was my first introduction to how to write a mystery, and it opened my eyes to the wide range of topics, and Bonus!  It includes an article by Phyllis A. Whitney, one of my favorite storytellers (See points 1 and 2.)

5.  Listen to reader feedback.  Join a mystery book club (you get to read, find new authors, and, well, see points 1 and 2).  Mystery readers are happy to tell you in no uncertain terms what they like and dislike about stories and characters and settings.  Sometimes you will also learn about procedure from experts at club meetings and some of their pet peeves to be sure to avoid.

It all boils down to point #1, reading.  Improving our craft can be a lot of fun, and I’m always looking for new methods and new authors to learn from.  After all, if we don’t get better, we have nothing to write that anyone wants to read!

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8 thoughts on “5 Easy Steps to Improving Craft”

  1. Sue, great list. I agree wholeheartedly about reading. So often, I hear people who want to write say, “I’m so busy with the writing that I don’t have time to read.” Well, if you can’t read, you’re writing is going to suffer. Because you aren’t going to see what works and figure out how to apply that to your own life. And listening to readers is huge. I’ve talked to a number of police professionals with a huge list of pet peeves regarding reading police procedure, and I’ve tried very hard to avoid those things in my own writing.

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