Growing as a Writer

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I’ve been reading through some of my older pieces lately, and it’s got me thinking about how I’ve grown as a writer and how writers grow into their craft in general.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I know that practice has played a huge role in my own growth process.  I’ve been writing down my stories since the sixth grade.  Some of those early ones are pretty atrocious, let me tell you.  I got a bit more serious in high school, taking creative writing as an elective and actually showing some of my outside work to my teacher.  She was very impressed.  For a high school student, I was probably doing pretty well but I still look back at drafts from those days and cringe.

I continued to take my development as a writer more seriously in college, taking writing courses alongside my literature classes and trying to get insight for both.  My work improved a lot over those years.  The piece I’m rereading now actually dates from after I was out of graduate school, and the beginning of that piece makes me cringe too.  I haven’t taken any formal classes since then, but I can see the improvement as I read through this piece, and I can see it in other drafts that where written after this one.  I’m still improving.

So where does the improvement come from?  What’s letting me get better outside a normal learning environment?

Practice.

For writers, practice is the key to improvement.  Almost any author you ask will give advice that sounds a bit like “just keep writing” and there’s a reason for that.  If you keep writing and keep writing, and maybe even try some revision every so often and still just keep on writing, you’re likely to get betted.

Reading helps too, don’t get me wrong.  Without good examples, it’s hard to write well, but practicing your craft is also very important.

It’s also helpful to remember that everyone starts out awful.  Keep practicing and you’ll get better.

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Image Prompt 032 Response: Fairy Wall

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I chose the North Carolina photo for my prompt this week.  I know I took this picture on a trip up to Chimney Rock, but I can’t tell you for sure where it is.

Fairy Wall:

Cary poked his head around the side of the building to see what was in the back.  The little half-shed that probably sheltered the water pump made sense.  The story-and-a-half high wall with the upside down arch made him stop and stare.

“Cary, don’t go too far,” his sister called.  She was supposed to be keeping up with him this week.  They were on a road trip through North Carolina with their aunt and two older cousins.  Cary, the youngest by three years, wasn’t as thrilled about this as everyone else.  He had to sit in the very back of the minivan with no leg room and not much air conditioning.

“I’m just going to look at the backyard,” Cary called back.  If she knew he was just behind the building she shouldn’t come looking for him.

Cary walked carefully around all the spare lumber that was littering the yard.  The building was a tiny little general store type thing.  His oldest cousin had seen the sign and asked to stop.  They’d used the rest rooms and loaded up on drinks and snacks for the rest of the day.  His aunt had wanted to stretch a bit, so she told them to be back at the car in fifteen minutes.

Once he was past what looked like an abandoned barn door, Cary was able to walk normally again.  He was past all the dangerous rusty nails in the old wood and could hurry over to the tiny cinderblock shed and the wall.

The wall was made of natural stones.  Each one a different size and shape.  It didn’t even look like there was any grout.  They just fit together so well that they stayed exactly where they needed to be.

Cary ran is fingers over one of the stones.  It was rough and cool and felt exactly as he’d expected.  It wasn’t covered by moss or damp or anything.  It was just a stone, but Cary wondered how long it had been there.  Who had set it there.  Who had decided that the wall needed to be built?

He looked up and as far as he could tell, it wasn’t part of a wall.  It had always been this height.  The top was smooth and capped by flat stones.  It wasn’t a ruin exactly; it just didn’t make a lot of sense.

Cary edged closer to the well-house, trying to see through the gap made by the upside down arch.  There was a tree growing just on the other side.  Its branches reached out through the arch, but they didn’t go any further left or right than the width of the arch.

A glance at his watch let him know he still have ten minutes before he had to be back at the car.  He pressed on the roof of the well-house to make sure it was sturdy, and then hefted his foot up there so he could push himself up onto the wall where the bottom of the arch was.

Cary clambered up onto the wall, kneeling carefully on the slightly uneven stones.  They’d been worn away a bit and weren’t as smooth and flat as he guessed they were when the wall was first made.

When Cary looked up, his mouth fell open.  His eyes were so wide he could feel them stretching at the corners as he let his eyes rove over the scene before him.

It was like a tiny metropolis out of some fantasy novel.  There were little stone buildings and tiny cobbled streets.  There were tiny parks and something that looked a little like a clock tower that had no clock.  There was something sort of like a church, but there was a symbol he couldn’t quick make out instead of a cross at the top of the steeple tower.

At first, all he saw were the buildings, the streets, and the layout of the place.  It was just so much.  It would have taken ages and ages for someone to build something like this.  Just one of the little stone buildings would have been so complicated and taken so much work and attention to details.

It wasn’t until he’d already slipped off the wall, stepped past the tree, and knelt down beside the nearest building that he realized there were things moving in the tiny city.  And not just animals or bugs or something either.  There were people.  Tiny, perfectly-sized, scaled-to-the-buildings people.

Cary pinched the back of his hand.  This couldn’t be real.  He couldn’t actually be seeing this.

For a second, he thought he heard his sister calling his name, but then one of the little people looked up.

Cary held very still as she gazed up at him.

When she started yelling, he sat back on his heels, startled by the noise.  It sounded like words, but not in a language he knew.

He watched as more and more of the tiny people flooded through the streets toward him.

Image Prompt 031 Response: The Spaces Between

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I tried to incorporate both images this week as an extra challenge for my twenty-minute sprint.

 

Title: The Spaces Between

She existed in the spaces between things.

She was there where the seas met the land, washing back and forth across the sand and rock and slowly wearing away at it all.

She was there when nature was reclaiming a human structure, blurring the line between built and grown.

She had always been there.  It wasn’t until recently that She questions where She was or how long She had been there.

Not until She met a girl.

She had always been, this was very true, but She had never been seen before, never been met before, and never met anyone before.  She’d never paid any attention to the humans, only the boundaries they erected and the spaces they opened for her.

She’d been enjoying the slow cheap of nature over a set of wooden steps cut into a hill.  It was a slow process, but She took great joy in each infinitesimal piece of the world that was opened to her as the transformation from newly constructed stairs to overgrown relic occurred.  The stairs were almost entirely hers when She was first seen.

“I’ve seen you before,” the little girl said.  “You were at the beach when we went.”

She was at every beach, so this was probably true.  She did wonder what the little girl was talking to.

“Can’t you hear?” the little girl asked.

She focused her attention on the girl.  Long hair was plaited into two twin braids that hung down the back of the small human.  The girl wore colorful rubber boots that came up to her knees, purple leggings, and a flowing green shirt.

“Is that a no?”

She tilted, curious about this tiny human.

“So you can hear me,” the little girl said confidently.  “You could answer you know.”

Answer?  She had never conversed with another living creature.  She knew language.  She knew all language.  It was around her all the time.  She could not help but learn the meaning of the words the humans used all the time.  She did not even know if She could speak, so She simply tilted in the other direction.

“Maybe you can’t talk then,” the girl said thoughtfully, squatting down to look at the third stair.  “You’re pretty though, and you always feel nice when I have to move through you for some reason.

She wasn’t sure what to make of this little girl talking to her.  How was She even visible to the child?  No human had ever acknowledged her presence before.

“I was hoping you’d be a fairy or something,” the little girl said.  “Someone I could talk to and confide in.”

She swayed slightly.  She didn’t know what to do about the girl.  Was it dangerous to be seen?  It was for many animals, as well as many humans.  Should She trust that She was safe being seen by the girl?

“I guess I could still talk to you,” the little girl said, “even if you can’t talk back.”

She waited, and listened, and marveled at all that the girl had to say.  And then She began to wonder about herself.  The girl talked about being from somewhere and having parents.  Where had She come from?  Did She have parents?  She couldn’t remember anyone else like her.  It was just the animals and the humans, who were just another kind of animal.  There was no one else.  It was such a solitary existence.  She’d never realized that before.

The girl kept coming back.  Every afternoon, the girl would stop at the stairs and speak at length about her day or week or something that was bothering her.

She didn’t understand it at all, but the girl’s voice was soothing enough, and there was no sign of harm coming from their interaction.  Unless self-reflection could be considered harmful.  She had been doing much reflecting on her existence and where She had come from.

She still moved in all the places between.  She still lurked in the places the humans had forgotten.  She still sought the future that would hold the world safe, but every afternoon, when the little girl came, She would listen.

She thought there was something to learn from the girl.  Some lesson or meaning.  It made her think of the human saying, truth out of the mouths of babes.  The girl was quite young, her vocabulary not fully developed yet, but She felt the little girl spoke in truths in a way that few humans did.

So She listened, absorbing what the little girl talked about each afternoon and slowly beginning to understand the deeper meaning of words and their ability to convey far more than their typical meaning.

Image Prompt 030 Response – Professor

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I chose the picture of ASU’s campus in Boone, NC for my twenty-minute sprint this time around.

 

Professor:

It was starting to get dark by the time Kelly was done with all his classes and office hours for the day.  At least it was Friday.  He had four dozen student papers in his bag that he needed to work on grading this weekend, but he was done for tonight.

As he walked down the steps, he took a moment to admire the bright yellow of the tree in front of the English building.  The fall colors were in full swing, and brought with them all the tourists that loved to take pictures of them along the parkway.  Kelly just tried to avoid all the places the tourists were this time of year.  They brought traffic and overworked service people, and Kelly wasn’t a fan of either.

Kelly headed down the path toward the library.  He’d managed to snag a house only blocks from campus.  It made it so much easier in the winter when the snow kept cars and busses safe in their garages.  Plus he didn’t have to buy a parking pass.  He assumed he was making up for that with the price of the house.  At least he was a home owner now and no longer paying the exorbitant rents they changed near the university.

He was walking up the steps to the library when someone called out his name.  Kelly turned to see one of his graduate students hurrying to catch up to him.

“Looks like you’ve got a lot of weekend work in there,” Jason said with a grin.

“Papers don’t grade themselves,” Kelly replied.  At least these were undergraduate papers and much shorter for it.

“Don’t I know it?” Jason replied with a laugh.  “I’ve got about sixty I’ve got to get done this weekend.”

“This is your first semester teaching?” Kelly asked.

“Teaching college,” Jason replied.  “I spent a few years teaching high school before I came back to school.”

“I remember now.  You were over in Raleigh then, right?”  Kelly had so many students it took a while to figure out which ones were which when they weren’t in one of his classes that semester.  He did better with the graduate students.

“Yeah.  I taught in a couple different schools there trying to figure out why I wasn’t satisfied.  Turned out I just wasn’t a good fit for high schoolers.  I do better with eight- or eighteen-year-olds.”

“We all have our niches,” Kelly replied.  He’d majored in education originally, and taught a variety of subjects in elementary and middle school before going back for a masters in English.  He’d taught high school for a couple years afterward to pay the bills while he worked on a few things and decided what doctoral programs to apply to.  He much preferred teaching at a university.

“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that,” Jason said.  “You’re office hours are the busiest I’ve ever seen though, so I’ve never managed to catch you.”

“I guess it’s good that all my students find me approachable,” Kelly replied.

“Yeah, I hear good things about you,” Jason answered, laughing again as they continued past the library toward King Street.  “You’re specialty is pedagogy, right?” Jason asked.

“That’s where I do my research,” Kelly agreed.  He tried to make it an applied science as much as possible, but occasionally he worked from pure theory to get a paper out.

“I’m planning to do my thesis on a pedagogy topic and I wanted to talk to you about being my committee chair,” Jason said.  “I know I’m catching you on your way home and on the spot and all that, but I wanted to ask you to think about it while I try to get on your calendar.”

“Sorry I never got back to you about your meeting request on Wednesday,” Kelly said.  He remembered now that Jason was trying to pin him down.

“I get it,” Jason replied.  “We’re all busy.”

“I’ll want to discuss your idea with you before I agree, so we’ll definitely need that appointment,” Kelly said.

“I’m open to odd hours and weekends if you are,” Jason replied.

“I’ll reply to your email,” Kelly promised.  “I have it flagged to annoy me about it tomorrow anyway.”

“So I’m not the only one who lives and dies by Outlook reminders?” Jason asked.

“Certainly not,” Kelly replied.  “The only people I know who don’t are the ones who show up late to everything.”

Jason laughed.  “Thanks for thinking about it,” Jason said.

“Of course,” Kelly replied.  There was no reason not to consider it since Jason wanted to work within his own area of expertise.

Rotating Projects

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Every writer’s process is a little different.  Some writers plan everything out in advance while others fly by the seat of their pants as they draft, and you can find a writer that falls everywhere in between.  Some writers edit and correct and adjust as they go.  Others get the entire story out in a single draft and then go back and revise, rewrite, cut, and add.  Some keep working on a single project from draft to final manuscript all in one go.  Others jump from project to project.

I try to reflect on my own process periodically so that I can see what’s working and where I might need to try something new.  Sometimes it’s worth moving yourself along any of the various process spectrums until you’re in a little different place.  Sometimes, this is a disaster and doesn’t help anything.  Sometimes it’s miraculous and suddenly increases your productivity.  And sometimes, you just have to do what you have to do. Continue reading

The Rewarding Part

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So, a few weeks ago, I put up a post about how editing is hard.  This wasn’t necessarily news for most writers, especially those who have taken the time to polish a piece for submission or publication.  It felt like news to me this time around.  Even though I’ve gone through the process many times before, and I have a book out, this most recent editing and revision pass has been excruciating.

But now I’ve gotten to the rewarding part.  I reworked over 300,000 words worth of variously revised chapters and scenes into about 132,000 words worth of beginning, middle, and climax.  I just have a few scenes worth of falling action and conclusion left.  I’m beginning to get excited about having a completed draft again. Continue reading

Image Prompt 029 Response – Snow

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I selected the Boone, NC photo of a wind chime for my image prompt this week.  Below is the result of a 20-minute sprint and quick editing pass for grammar and spelling.

Snow:

The wind chimes still made their soft tinkling noises as the wind blew through the little grass alleyway behind the apartment.  Snow was piled on top of the thing, but it didn’t affect the sound of the copper pipes that hung down.  It had been here when she moved in, probably forgotten by some past renter of the tiny little place with the barely functioning base-board heaters.

Angel turned away from the window, pulling the towel she used as a curtain back into place.  She needed all the insulation she could get.  She spent most of the winter curled up under fleece blankets or sipping hot chocolate.  She’d taken to making a single cookie just as an excuse to use her oven, which was a far more effective heater than anything else in the apartment.

It was starting to get dark, which made her worry.  Her little brother, Brian was supposed to have arrived an hour ago.  She’d been looking forward to a weekend with him for months. Continue reading