Practice Practice Practice

There is a hackneyed joke about a visitor to New York asking a pedestrian how to get to Carnegie Hall. The pedestrian happens to be a musician, who answers, “Practice, practice, practice.” Any endeavor that requires development and competition, requires practice, be it Olympic swimming, gymnastics, fencing, concert piano or professional bowling.

“But wait,” you may think, “I want to write. That is not a competitive activity.”

Silly you, if you wish to be published within any medium other than your own notebooks, there is competition. The mail or email disgorges millions of submissions daily to stalwart souls who decide which piece to actually read to the end. That, Grasshopper, is competition, but it does not mean you must be perfect to be published. Like the hunters running from a charging bear, you need only be faster than the slowest hunter. When you submit, you are not competing with Stephen King or other writers in the New York Top Ten, but you must be above the cut. How you get there is the name of this piece.

There are far too many aspiring writers, and some who are not new to the pursuit, awaiting the perfect inspiration for the perfect beginning to the perfect story. I personally believe all babies are perfect, but every woman who blesses the world with them must endure labor or a caesarian section. So much less effort is required to produce a readable story, and you can get there without delivering a dozen or so off-spring. None-the-less, you need to invest time to develop your story. More importantly, you must invest time to develop your craft. And that is where practice is both invaluable and unavoidable.

If you wish to participate in marathons, or whatever sport, you must practice at it. So, too, must you write often and regularly. Your cycle will be regulated by the reality of life, but you won’t get any better at anything if you don’t practice at it. For the aspiring writer, and those coming out of hibernation, start/re-start with small projects. Pick a topic that interests you and write a 30 to 45-word paragraph. Give it an introduction, beginning, middle and end. Then reexamine each word you used, looking for a more specific one. Avoid the weaker words like “look” and “walk” and consider “peer, gaze, glance” and “stepped, ambled, dashed”. Use all the aspects of writing you already heard, ad nauseum, feeding the senses of the reader. This project doesn’t have to be aimed at any market or publisher, just write is as effectively as you can.

  • Share your paragraph with other writers, not your closest friends or relatives, unless they understand the pursuit of the craft. Discuss the piece for effectiveness, flow, and all the other aspects you’ve already been reading about in references. You are reading about writing, aren’t you? With writer groups, you are taking advantage of those who are on the same path as you but began earlier. Right? This is all part of practicing. You must demonstrate your improvement to your Olympic coach. The writers’ group is that entity. Don’t cheat your progress without the benefit of a coach.
    • By all means, use a computerized editor to help you find the grammatical and syntactical mistakes, but you will need the benefit of a discussion among other writers. That input is without equal among any typical commercial computer editor.
    • Continue to write just paragraphs until life allows you to grab more time. People set aside time in their hectic lives to jog, play golf, attend church, hike in the woods, and etc. So, there is a precedent for an individual to set aside time for a pursuit that is important to them. Make your commitment and schedule it realistically. J.K. Rowling was a single mother living on public assistance and writing on paper pads in long hand, when she began the Harry Potter series. You are only looking for time to write paragraphs─at first. For now, make the most of those paragraphs, even as you collect them in a drawer or on a computer file.
    • Select paragraph topics that focus within your area of interest. If you have a short story, or even a book-length story, in mind, use the paragraphs to create your first steps. Select paragraph topics that deal with the era, with the type of people, the country, major historical events, or a significant theme for your envisioned story. WARNING:  Do not waste your writing time and do not let it slip away. Spend your writing time writing, or at least reading about writing, but mostly writing. Practice. Practice. Practice. Did I mention that before? As you tighten the focus on your paragraph topics, think of them as building blocks. Develop a paragraph to explain the theme of your story, using the beginning, middle, ending structure. Do not abandon this structure. It is the musical progression practice of concert pianists.
  • Add to your building blocks with additional paragraphs describing your main characters. If nothing else, this will help you decide which characters are your main characters. Use building block paragraphs describing the appearance of your main characters, their history, and their personality as a reflection of their history. Scour the internet for representative images to add dimension to the ones already in your imagination, or fill in your blanks. Write another paragraph explaining how/ when/ where/ why they enter your story. Look what you have done, now. In four paragraphs, you have written the biography of your character.
  • A last set of paragraphs in this early phase should deal with the beginning of your story. Remember, these are simply exercise paragraphs. They are disposable. Write what is in your mind at the moment, but keep on target for each paragraph topic. Where are we? Who is we? What or Who are we worried about, fearful over, seeking? I guarantee you that your first paragraph will wind up in the trash heap after your story has progressed into chapters, but don’t be too hard on it now. Let the story flow. Set the stage using your first of story paragraphs as initial building blocks. Don’t be afraid to change the sequence of your early paragraphs. In fact, be aggressive with your placement of them and get the story going. Take it three to five pages. Set aside editing for now, read it for flow. Editing is for smoothing out the bumps. Editing is the essence of our craft, but don’t let that step keep you from building the rough draft of the story. Editing is where you chip away at the corners of the paragraphs and polish the sentences, so that the paragraphs are no longer blocks, but individual breaths in the life of the story.

Happy writing. You’re going to love the journey.

Published by Robert F. Lackey

Author of Historical novel series the Pulaski Saga. Favorite Quote: "Either write something worth reading, or do something worth writing." - Benjamin Franklin. Robert Lackey is a native of Havre de Grace, Maryland, by way of Leonardtown, Maryland, and Mt. Airy, North Carolina, plus thirty-five other brief addresses in the U.S. and Europe. Robert has been a writer, soldier, photographer, and administrator, but always comes back to his writing. Stepping outside of technical writing in 2005, he focused his alternate passion on understanding life along the canal near Havre de Grace, and the uniqueness of Maryland history. That passion for history evolved into the historical novel “Pulaski’s Canal”, set in 1841 Havre de Grace, published in 2014. He then continued the story within the ten-novel series: The Pulaski Saga.

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