Figured I'd best not wait for Friday morning, since I'm running about five hours behind most of you. Twelve hours behind some. I didn’t think to lay in any special coffees for the event, but I’ve brewed up a pot of my regular stock: Chock Full o'Nuts. Chock Full o'Nuts does not contain any nuts, as far as I can tell, and is supposedly a New York tradition. I hate New York City, but the coffee’s good. Got a variety pack of Bigelow teas here as well, though I don't know how they are. British writer Karen Traviss once said all American teas taste like gnat piss (though she didn't clarify how she knew that with any accuracy). As for noshes…. Well, it was my night to cook, which means there's left over pizza. Your choice of vegetarian or double pepperoni (they got a little heavy handed with the cilantro on the veggie this time around). And a couple of unopened bags of Pepperidge Farms cookies (the gingers or the milanos; don’t touch the Bordeaux, those are Valerie's).
Did you hear about the pianist who would never practices scales unless there was a paying audience in attendance? No? Well, there’s a reason you haven't. Such a creature does not exist. Musicians practice weeks for every minute in the concert hall. Actors spend months in rehearsal before taking to the stage. Dancers exercise for hours every day. Painters fill sketch books by the gross lot with lines and details and cover acres of canvas board with experiments in shading and blending pigments. While writers …. Outside of the classroom or workshop, writers as a general rule tend to regard practice as something they've outgrown or moved beyond. The fact is writers need to practice their craft just as seriously as any other creative artist.
At one level, of course, all writing is practice. And it can be argued that each successive draft of a manuscript is a form of practice. But practice practice -- as in the concert soloist beginning every rehearsal with scale exercises -- is something writers avoid.
I've mentioned before attending Oregon Coast writers' workshops conducted by Dean Wesley Smith and his wife Kristine Kathryn Rusch. You don't see Dean's name on the shelves very often because he's a ghost writer, and Kris uses a half dozen pseudonyms, but between the two of them they have published a hundred novels and uncounted short stories. They take their craft very seriously. And one thing they both do -- and advocate -- is practice.
Dean practices things he can not do that others can. He reads voraciously, but does not think about how a writer tells a story while he's reading it and while he notes cool or interesting things while reading, he doesn't dwell on them. But if, six months later, he remembers a particularly vivid moment or an exchange of dialog or a theme or a mood -- he goes back and finds that passage (or that whole story) and deconstructs how the writer did it. Then he practices -- doing the same thing with no other purpose beyond getting the steps and the rhythm of the process down. (When I was there last he was trying to capture Bill Bryson's ability to evoke an entire culture with two lines of dialog.) His exercises focus on the nuts-and-bolts craftsmanship of storytelling.
Kris teaches lessons that are every bit as concrete but focus on the mental and emotional source of the story. One night we were asked to describe in at least 2000 words a place we hated. Not hated a little -- like train station restrooms -- but really, deeply, personally hated; in detail, in a way that would make the reader hate it as much as we did. (I wrote about the room in which my mother died.) The next night we were to write another 2000-word description, changing not one thing in the setting, from the perspective of a person who absolutely adored the space. The third night we had to write a short story that took place in that setting. The same with sex. She asked each of us to write about losing our virginity -- recalling our emotions as well as physical experiences as honestly and accurately as we could recall (no, these stories were not shared with the class). The next night we wrote the scene from the other person's perspective (and every class at least one joker asks "what if there was no other person?"). The third night we wrote an erotic love story.
Do I still practice these techniques? Yes; these and others. I will take a picture from a magazine and write descriptions -- changing nothing, but told from the perspective of the mother who saw her son killed there, the old man who as a boy met the girl who would share the rest of his life there, etc. I experiment with the voice and style of other writers -- trying to find something I can take as my own (or proving definitely that there's nothing of theirs I can make mine). I have scenes, vignettes, bits of dialog, that will never go anywhere or be read by anyone. My notebook equivalents to the artist's sketch book or the violinist's finger exercises.
How about you? What do you do to practice your craftsmanship? How do you stretch your storytelling muscles? What techniques help you limber up and get in shape for writing your breakout novel?