Horns of a Dilemma

Posted by Derek Chamberlain on Wednesday, May 29, 2013 Under: On The Web

If you stop and think about it, as writers, there are really only two things we can do to improve our craft; practice, and study. Practice, is, of course, of great import, but I think it loses the paramount position to study because without knowing what you’re doing (which is the purpose of study) no amount of practice is going to make you any better. 


Now, that doesn’t mean that we should just buy all the books on writing and do all the exercises and prompts in them. For one thing, there are just too many of them, and not all of them are going to work with any single person’s style. For another thing, reading all of those books will take time away from the practicing part of the equation. So what should we do? Well, practice and study, study and practice. Take a dual approach to the problem. But, really, just studying writing isn’t really going to improve our writing beyond a certain technical level of competence. 


That competence is absolutely necessary, but competence alone isn’t enough. As I mentioned in my last post, what we need is the spark of imagination that turns a competent idea into an amazing story. And the second best way to do that is to study. Second best, because, obviously, the best is to actually go out and live an amazing life and do amazing things, and then come back and tell everyone about them. 


Failing the ability to do that, we can read books about people who have done it, or about the places we want to visit, sometime, in the by-and-by. The more we know about the world we live in, the better we can craft those worlds of our imagination, and, hopefully, the better we will be able to realise those worlds in our work. 


I hate to break out a crusty cliche like, ‘The internet is a great resource for discovering new things,’ but usually these things are cliches for a reason. Usually it’s because there’s at least a grain of truth hidden in them somewhere. Of course, sometimes that grain is the size of Everest, but we are usually all quite happy to ignore elephants in our rooms, so why not a mountain in our imaginations? 


Wikipedia is a great source, but everyone knows about that, and knows the risks and limitations that go with it. It’s a great jumping off point, but not a great place to ground your investigations. 


There are all sorts of free books available on Amazon or at Project Gutenberg. These are usually (read ‘almost always’) old, out-of-copyright books. But if your topic is historical, that’s fine. These books don’t necessarily have the most up to date information about the topic, but they do have the information that was common currency at the time they were published, and if you’re writing a fantasy or an alternate history, or just don’t really know what you’re interested in yet, then these old books are a great way to get information about any number of topics. They’re also a great way to get a feel for a period if you’re writing a period piece – read the books that the people of your period would have read.


If you are after a slightly more modern take on a specific topic, I can’t recommend a site called Questia enough. It’s kind of like an on-line library containing journals, newspapers, magazines, books, and encyclopaedias; all of them searchable either by key word, or topic. You have to pay a fee if you want to read the full text of the various articles and books, and they aren’t downloadable, but you can create your own bookshelves on their site, divided into projects. There are monthly, bi-monthly, quarterly, bi-annual, and annual payment options available. For someone like me who lives far from a useful library, Questia is like living next to a National Library that happens to be open 24/7 and has really helpful staff.


Another way to study if you’re trying to improve your craft, is, of course, to go back to those books you love and re-read them, but do it a little more critically than you did on first read-through. Look at them and try to see what it was about them that captured your attention, and what things irritate or annoy you now, as a more mature reader. Write all that down and think about it a bit. This is study too. Looking at those books that, obviously, were good enough to make it past the Gatekeepers’ filters and onto the shelves of bookstores, should provide you with some hints as to what you should be focusing on in your own writing. 


There’s always more to learn. That is both the greatest bane and the greatest blessing of the world we live in. There’s always more to learn, so don’t stop learning. Get inspired, and then go write. 

In : On The Web 


Tags: writing practice study wikipedia amazon questia imagination 
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Meet the scribbler


I'm a writer, editor, indie publisher, and dedicated Magic Spreadsheet user. Originally from Adelaide, Australia, I've been living in Japan since 1995. I've had a life-long interest in writing and in speculative fiction. My first book was published in mid-2014.
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