There is always more to learn

In the Librarians TV show Flynn Carsen says that. The character is a life-long student who loves to learn and while I don’t have the patience for that most of the time, I do appreciate the ethos. I want more than anything to feel confident I guess, and I try not to confuse that with being ’done’. It would be nice to be done, to say I am good, but I do know that there is always more to learn.

The WriYe blog topic asks what are my favourite books, courses, or websites that I like to grow as a writer. What has helped me the most?

I have to be honest I accumulate courses a bit like art supplies. I think it’s because I am always hoping for that ’magic bullet’ that will make me feel like I am good enough. This does lead to a lot of dead-end paths when I do eventually look at courses and realise that they aren’t all I hoped they would be. I always read the description, and I look at reviews, and I sign up with hope in my heart. Clearly the courses work for some people but they don’t always work for me. Whether that’s a problem with how the material is delivered, or that I am not at a place in my writing process where it’s helpful, I don’t know.

This is a very appropriate blog topic as this month, (October as it happens, I know this was September’s blog topic), I have been looking at my dozen or so accumulated courses and trying to gain the confidence from them that I sorely need. When I started at the beginning of the month I envisaged being the ’perfect’ student and going through the various courses systematically. Very quickly I realised that wasn’t actually going to help me. There are parts of courses I may return to in the future but as this ’prep for first draft in NaNo’ process, it just wasn’t right now.

I first started actively trying to ’improve my craft’ back in 2009 or thereabouts. Back then I stumbled across Holly Lisle. I am not sure how as I don’t remember but over the subsequent decade I have bought most of their courses. I have to be honest, not many of them really hit the spot with me. Some of them might yet come into their own so I am not bashing anything, just being honest. I think as the internet has grown there is a lot more out there these days, so I am interested to see what other people recommend. For now…

What do I recommend?

First – James Scott Bell.

There was a book series called ’Write Great Fiction’. I think there were 4 books in the series and he was one of the contributors. They were in the library and I always wanted my own copy. I have 2 of the books only so maybe I opted against the others for some reason? I forget. Anyway, he’s brought out a bunch of super helpful writing craft books.

Super Structure – is him bringing together a bunch of previous books I believe? It’s like the updated version and I would recommend. He explains things in a way that makes sense and it was also thought-provoking.

Using ’templates’ is given a bad rap. Somebody recently mentioned the NaNo HumbleBundle I think it was and how it had the Wonderbook in it. I remembered that I thought I had that and I opened it up to see I was only a chapter or so in. I read the page I got to and realised why I had quit. It was very rude about structure/tropes as not being ’true art’ and that just made me go ”nope” and close the book. Formulas aren’t something to adhere to like glue but there’s a reason most fiction can be broken down into something simple like the 3 act structure – it’s just part of how stories function. Understanding that, and then knowing when to break away etc. is IMO a good thing, not an inhibitor of creativity. I made so many notes from Super Structure and I really feel like it helped me with my plotting.

I also like his other books like ’27 fiction blunders and how not to make them’ or ’How to write dazzling dialogue’. In one of his books (I forget which one) he said about “questioning the first idea that comes to mind” as I am usually so guilty about this. How we imagine things is shaped by our experiences (of our lives / other media etc.) and so it can be like a regurgitation rather than going ”well why?” and challenging those preconceptions. I don’t know if I have been successful with that but it’s in the back of my head when world building now.

Second – Holly Lisle

I know I said above that I had found not everything I got from them helpful (at the moment) but that means some of it was helpful. So what?

How to Revise Your Novel – this is the singular most helpful of their courses IMO. I feel like I learned the most as a writer when I tore apart a first draft, analysed why it didn’t work, redrafted etc. and this course gave me the tools to do that analysis.

They have 4 ’big’ courses and the novel revision is the only one I would recommend. Something else I found super helpful was a ’bonus lesson’ called ”How to read like a writer” which gave instructions on how to analyse/break down a book you admire. This was, as I said, a bonus lesson on the ’Think Sideways’ course. Personally I wouldn’t recommend that course as for the most part I didn’t find it helpful (for me), but I did love that bonus addon lesson. I ran through it this month analysing a couple of stories I super admired and I felt like I learned a lot (so so many notes).

Create a Culture – this is another of their courses that I went through this month. I didn’t find ’create a world’ at all helpful, and I’m not at a point where I needed the language one so I can’t really comment on that. I don’t think the information in this ’Create a culture’ course is specific really to the course. It just throws out a lot of questions and things to think about to try and create what feels like a living/breathing world. I have seen books on world building on kindle that have the same kind of chapter headings, so probably cover similar ground. I definitely think some kind of ’checklist’ to provoke thought when world building is necessary and this is what I had, and it’s been good for me this month.

Last – Sarra Cannon

This is less about the writing craft and more about a) how to keep the butt in the chair to do said writing, and b) what to do with the book when it’s done. I have taken both of her courses HB90 and Publish and Thrive now. I resisted taking both for a long time because I wasn’t sure how much new information they contained. Truthfully I’m not sure if they did have a lot of new information but it turns out how information is packaged does help a lot. It’s a great resource and the community is nice.

You either vibe with a person or you don’t. I think sometimes what turns me off Holly Lisle’s courses sometimes is they are a strong personality, and I feel a bit… like I know my struggles are petty and pathetic next to people who have experienced real trauma. However, my problems are real to me. So constantly bringing up all these awful things and being like ’I survived this and unless you are in this kind of situation then just get on with it’ is quite… it makes me feel small and uncomfortable. Sarra Cannon has also been through a lot of shit but she is so sympathetic, empathetic and welcoming. I really get the feeling she is a genuine person who wants other people to be happy and that makes me view her warmly.

I watch Sarra’s YouTube videos over breakfast these days (I have YouTube on my TV now in my new house it’s so cool!) and it has brought a positive influence into my life. So I would recommend checking out her channel and the community even if you don’t get the courses, as she just does seem nice.

There’s a lot I haven’t mentioned which I do own. Other Holly Lisle courses, a couple from Cat Rambo, various paperback books in the cupboard that I’m too lazy to go and scan the titles of – BUT the point is I suppose if I don’t remember them, then how helpful are they?

My assessment is a little bit skewed I think because I have been doing NaNo since 2007. I have been writing stories since I was 11 (and dreaming of stories and scribbling since I was about 4 probably). So while I feel like my skill isn’t where I want it to be, there are a lot of things I know ’intellectually’. While I mentioned above that packaging does seem to matter, I guess it only matters if it ’clicks’, otherwise I just feel like it’s not new information, and therefore not worth recommending. I don’t always know where I learned things from. I’m 32, I’ve picked up a lot of things over the years.

In the end though I do believe that the real teacher is experience. There’s someone I’ve known for probably close to a decade now. They start a lot of stories, and ping-pong between them, but I think they have only written ’The End’ the once. They promptly said they hated that story and haven’t looked at it since. Finishing stories and then analysing them, learning from your own mistakes in essence, is IMO the best way to improve. Also if you can manage it then critique from others. I know what I mean when I write, so sometimes I don’t see where things aren’t clear/don’t make sense. The critique has to be constructive obviously, but a good beta reader is worth their weight in gold.

So yeah, in the end we can pick up information from anywhere, but the best teacher is ourselves and practice, and then analysing/seeking opinions on that work. Probably why I keep buying courses and hunting for that ’magic bullet’ as practice is hard work, and as I don’t have any friends to ask for help, it can feel impossible without that input from an outside perspective.

I guess that’s what we signed up for with this writing gig. It’s a journey, and there is no destination, just a life of learning. Good luck with it!