28 August 2014

Handwriting Matters

Most people I know, and I include myself in this, mutter about the state of their handwriting when giving someone a handwritten note, or a manuscript with scribbles all down the side of the page.

I've been known to rewrite short notes or a set of directions, especially if they're for someone else.

I'm sure at some time in the distant past I had reasonable handwriting. It was never wonderful, but at least it was legible. I recall 3-hour exam essays that looked better than my handwriting now. Of course, also like everyone else, I blame the computer for this!

Having said that, I wouldn't swap the wonderful convenience of Cut and Paste, or performing a quick Find and Replace and changing a character's name (and back again sometimes!) without even blinking.

However, I do often use pen (or pencil) and paper to write a scene, plan future chapters, or get the sense of how a character speaks by writing out scenes full of dialogue. There's something about physically writing that frees up the imagination.

On that note, here is an article from the New York Times I found interesting. It also reminded me the first thing I used to do when starting to study for exams was to write out my main revision headings and the important points within each, and use that as my revision. But then I was a bit of a girly swot!

21 August 2014

Getting Better All The Time

Becoming good at something interests me – you probably got that impression from the previous post.

Why does one person achieve success and another doesn’t? Why is one person excellent at a sport or occupation, while others are mediocre? What makes the difference?

I guess it begins with our individual motivation and desire to succeed at something. Like most people, I’ve watched athletes or musicians etc. and have been amazed at their skills, and wished I could do the same. The big difference is that my idle wish has never morphed into anything more than a frivolous fancy, at least not until I decided I wanted to be able to call myself a writer, and be proud of what I'd written.

It’s easy to look at a sportsperson, singer, musician or artist and think how lucky they are to have that talent; to be born good at what they do. But they weren’t.

‘If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.’ Michelangelo 

A number of years ago, I joined a badminton club. I’d always enjoyed playing and I wanted to improve. I played regularly (two or three times a week), with the purpose of improving. I played with, and against, better players and took part in the club competitions. I never became the best, but my game improved. That was my goal. We moved to a different part of the country and I wasn’t able to continue in the same way, but after a while we found some friends to play with once a week. We played mainly for fun. It was exercise and we enjoyed the evening out. I had a good time, but my game didn’t improve.

Thinking of that reminded me of years ago when I learned to type. The course involved some speed tests at the end, and so once I’d mastered the basics, I practiced hard to improve my speed. I can’t remember now what it was, maybe 90 words per minute, or even a hundred. These days  I use the computer every day, My typing speed is fast, but no faster than it was then, and possibly slightly slower.

My mother always used to tell me that ‘practice makes perfect.’ There is some truth in that, however, I don’t believe that all practice is created equal. Yes, I type every day, but my goal is writing a book, or an article or blog post, not improving my speed. When I only played badminton recreationally and not to improve, my game remained the same.

If we want to become excellent at something, or at least improve, we need to practice, but we need to practice with a purpose. That’s why goals are so useful necessary. They give us something to work towards, and results we can measure.

If we want to play a game professionally, an occasional fun practice with friends isn’t going to help us. We need more practice, lots more, and we need to practice with a purpose.

How much practice do we need to become excellent at something?

I’ve read a number of books on this subject and the consensus appears to be around 10,000 hours. That’s 10,000 hours of writing practice, or some other skill, with a purpose.

10,000 hours sounds like a lot (and it is), but let's convert it into more meaningful figures. If we use 40 hours a week as working at something fulltime, that is 250 weeks of writing, which is a little under 5 yrs.

That’s a lot of writing. And if you have a job and writing is part-time (say 20 hours a week) then it’s ten years of purposeful practice. Speechless yet?

On the plus side, improvement is an incremental process, so it’s not as if we’re beginners until we get to the 10,000 word mark, and then suddenly become amazing. We’re improving all the time.

Being excellent at something takes time, and effort.

It’s not just practice, but practice with a purpose. It should challenge us.  We should make ourselves work on the things we can’t do well, rather than paddling in the shallows of things we think we can do well.

Let's assume we're putting in our practice with a purpose! Is that all, when we've completed our 10,000 hours, will we be excellent? Is practice all we need?

All top athletes, musicians, artists need the right training. For writers, courses and books are a good start. However, once we’ve learned the basics we need more – we know about pace, point of view, tense etc. Now we need to know where we’re not applying these things in our own writing.

Athletes have coaches. I’ve never been a top athlete, but I’d guess the coach’s purpose (or one of them at least), is to give feedback. If the move or shot didn’t work, why not?  

What is the equivalent for writers? There is a point when we know the craft skills of writing, but we’re still a long way from excellence. Just as an athlete needs a coach to help them make changes or tweaks to technique or stance or training, so we need specific help. We need someone who also knows all the craft skills, and can tell us where we’re not putting them into practice in our writing. A writing group is excellent for this, they provide support, motivation and specific feedback. In addition to a writing group, once we’ve finished our novel then beta readers are invaluable. Writing groups and beta readers need to be chosen carefully. They provide different feedback and have different skill sets. Don’t forget professionals such as editors.  Mentors are popular in business groups and some organisations provide writing mentors, or subsidise programmes to link writers with mentors for a period of time. In this environment we can get feedback and support that is specific to us.

Building this knowledge can transform us and help us meet our own personal goals for success.

08 August 2014

What is Success?

Recently I’ve been considering how my writing goals have changed over the years. Like many people, I started writing the great novel. I got to about the 20,000 word mark, and realised my idea didn’t have the legs to be a novel. Around that time, I took a couple of writing courses and read a number of writing books. Through the courses, I met a small group of other writers who also wanted to be part of a critique group, and so I had the feedback I needed.  I left the 20,000 words of my novel behind, and started writing short stories. I really recommend this as a great start. It allows you to work through all those autobiographical stories and ideas in the short form without trying to force them into a novel, and you come out of the other side with new inspiration and characters to use, as well as improved writing and editing skills.

Short stories don’t take as long as a novel. You get to practice both the first draft and editing stages far more frequently.

After writing, editing, feedback and more editing, I began to feel I was improving, and so the writing itself wasn’t a big enough goal.

That was when I really started setting writing goals. Firstly, to send stories off to competitions. There were plenty of black holes when I never heard anything, or occasionally received a list of winners (my name being absent!). Mixed with that were a few modest successes. They were the highs, and on the back of those I changed my goals and sent stories to magazines. Later, there was the goal to write a novel – mostly to prove to myself that I could.

I gave this post the title What is Success? There is no definitive answer. Success is different to each of us, and it changes over time. 

What is your definition of success? 

BUT, the big question is - how will you know when you’ve reached it?

To know when we’ve reached our goal, we have to be able to measure it.

To say, I want to entertain people, isn’t specific or measurable. What do you mean? Do you want to read out loud to an audience? How will you know if your readers have been entertained? 

I recall reading a post from a writer outlining her goals, some of them were specific sales totals per month. At that time I was speechless (doesn’t happen often!) at her targets. I’m still a significant way from her numbers, but closer than I was last year.

Your goals will be personal to you. They might include a certain word count every week, sales targets, winning a competition prize, or a specific number of good reviews from people you don’t know. We have control over some of these goals, but others are out of our personal control.

Whatever way you envisage success, I think it’s important to know what you’re aiming for, and how close you are to reaching it.