Writing is a muscle.
If you train it, it gets stronger. If you use it, it stays useful. If you don’t use it, it atrophies.
A lot of people think you train the writing muscle by reading books on writing or by editing. That is like a powerlifter who thinks he will lift more by reading books on lifting or going over his weight training notebook. If you don’t believe me, count the number of books on writing or lifting to the number of publishing authors or people in the gym.
Those are both useful activities in both cases, but neither is the principle thing.
A lifter stays in the zone on lifting by lifting. He becomes able to left more by doing a program of lifting that improves certain things one at a time. He becomes more able to perform by doing the same kind of lifting sets he would do in competition.
A writer stays in the writing zone by writing. A writer becomes a better writer by picking elements of craft to focus on while he is writing. He focuses on that element with a specific plan next time he writes. He also writes actual stories more than he does exercises. Only by doing that focused practice in stories, not exercises, does he integrate those lessons into his writing.
You gym rat friend has a schedule and a plan to maintain his muscles for lifting.
You need a specific plan and a schedule to improve your writing.
A plan is my second take away from completing NaNoWriMo. The first was that I could finish a 50,000-word narrative. Yet, here in February with no second novel and not a lot of progress on any novel or short story I am learning I need a plan.
NaNoWriMo is a stunt. It is the cereal from that old Disney movie, The Strongest Man in the World. The formula is a lab accident that can’t be repeated. It is like training from the Couch to 5K plan. It shows you that you can do it, but if you want to be a serious runner, you need something more.
What is that something more? Focusing on specific parts of the craft. These parts can be as complex as the stimulus, emotion, action, speech loop that takes up the longest chapter of Techniques of the Selling Writer. They can be as simple as the details of getting the balance of dialog tags. The trick is to practice them while writing a story you intend to sell.
Yes, you can do the exercises. Morning pages are always useful. Some writing exercises are warm-ups. Some are ways of isolating and analyzing a part of your form like fartlek. But most of the writing should be the analog of the long slow run or the regular pace run. It should be writing designed to pay the bills via sales on Amazon or building a reader base on your blog.
The reason writing stories works so well is something the military calls “train as you fight.” By doing the thing, you are going to be doing your best preparation for it. I had a great example of last Sunday morning. I had written myself into a corner in my current novel. The minor opponent’s army surrounds my hero. A previous plan will save him and reverse the allegiance of some people. The problem was, the minor opponent’s troops could not defeat, much less surround, my hero’s forces .
Yet, by continuing to write the stimulus, feeling, action, speech cycle I came upon my answer. On Saturday, I had my hero worry about the a terrain feature delaying migration of his tribe. He had used the same terrain to defeat enemies pursuing him a week earlier. It wasn’t much, and I did it to give him a moment of reflection in the cycle.
When I had the scouts report the minor opponent’s army approaching I realized I had solved my problem. My hero’s forces were still moving, and many men were not present. Now, instead of a pointless battle, my hero had to lead a scratch force and use every trick to win.
How many exercises would have found me the solution that writing story created?
That is what happens when you write. It is what happens when you use your muscle.