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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Workshop Wednesday - Charting Your Progress

When I studied fine art, it was so simple to keep up with where I'd been, where I was, where I was going. We kept portfolios of our work and our teacher would line up our weekly paintings and go over our improvements with us. All I had to do was set up two pieces and I could see where I'd improved.

When I rode, someone would tape me, and I could watch the playback and see just why a movement wasn't coming together. I could tell the horse wasn't responding, but I needed to see why that was my fault.

It's a more complicated process to track your writing, but it's an important part of a writer's self-education. The next few weeks, I want to talk about education and becoming a stronger writer. Today, I'll start with progress-tracking.

I believe that everything you write has the ability to make you a better writer, but you have to be conscious of what you're doing. If you - like so many of the girls I used to ride with - go around thinking "I'm fab" and you never reflect, you won't ever improve. You have to be able to take a step back from your work, and look at it with fresh eyes, own up to what you need to work on, and think about how you can take positive steps forward. It's like riding in front of a mirror - and oh, sometimes that was painful - and realizing, "Aha, I need to put my outside leg further back. My right hand keeps drifting. I should be more upright in my shoulders." You've got to ride in front of a mirror. But how? It's different for everyone, but here's what works for me:

- I re-read my old work. Not for fun, and not cover-to-cover, but I'll take one of my own books off the shelf, flip through, read a chapter or two, and jot notes. It's surprising how fast I have a list of things to watch out for in my current project: overused mannerisms; goofy punctuation things I thought were cute, but weren't; confusing sections of text; melodrama (I have to really watch that); that sort of thing. I also look for turns of phrase I really like, and write those down too.

- I like to write mock-papers as if I'm analyzing my own books for a class. (Because I'm a nerd) But in my head, it works, and it works best with older stories and books that I haven't thought about in some time. Most recently, I did it with Keep You to prep for the book club discussion of it, and it was a revealing exercise. I pulled out themes, searched for holes, broke down characters. My writing is always more thematic than I ever plan it to be. As I write, it's just a story, so it's cool to go back and find the under layers (next week I'll talk about how reading builds a subconscious mind that creates theme without you knowing about it). Doing this also helps me see the patterns in my writing...

- After nine books, I can look back at the things that are present in all my works, and from them, interpret what kind of author I am. This sounds so simple, but I've found that, at the beginning of the publishing process, I knew what kind of writer I wanted to be - now I have proof of what I am. Take out setting and fluff and individual quirks, and I'm passionate about a type of storytelling that can move between genres: I love writing about families, in all their forms; themes of family, justice, pride, flaw, and acknowledgement of evil are important to me; a love of English literature and fairy tales are the framework of my imagination, and these threads can be woven into any kind of tapestry. Now, I can say, with finality, that I write DRAMA. And drama can live in any genre.

Similarly, this kind of analysis could help someone decide what genre they want to try, or reinforce that they are in the right one.

- I've gotten in a habit of daily progress reports. At the end of every night, before I close down the computer, I record my favorite lines of the day, and highlight lines I feel iffy about. A few days later, I go back and look at them again, and cut what sticks out as weak, all the better to highlight the strong points. This process is helping me trim the fat, alter lines to make them more impactful, and hopefully, when it comes time to edit, there will be less revision involved.

Self-awareness is essential. You have to be aware of what you're actually producing, not just what you wish you were. Only when you admit where you are, can you hope to go someplace new. Looking at your own work through an honest lens is an important part of growing as an author. I haven't reached the top of my mountain - not by a long shot - but reflecting on what I've written so far is helping me navigate the routes ahead.

And what helps guide us on these mountain trails? Books. Books, books, books, and more books. We'll talk about the importance of reading next week.

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