I know you’ve heard this many times before, but if you want to excel at your craft, READ, READ, READ, and WRITE, WRITE, WRITE. Then repeat.
But that's not quite all.
I've learned more from reading books in the genre in which I write than I have from every workshop, every class, course, conference, seminar or video I've taken or watched put together. And I truly believe that if I did ever read a “how-to” book, I would be able to add that to the list as well. However, reading "how-to" books just doesn't work for me in particular. Why? Well, we all learn just as differently as we write. Our brains simply don't work exactly the same way.
I discovered this fact myself while sitting with my three children around the kitchen table, attempting to help each with their homework. When I realized I had to explain the same problem and how to solve it in a slightly different way to each of them before that light bulb clicked on in their heads, a light bulb in my head clicked on as well. We are all unique inside and out, and the way our brains process information is no exception.
More to the point, and believe me when I say this, we should never stop learning. Never stop improving and honing our craft, no matter how good we think we are. Ask any established author, even one who has written and published more than 50 books, and I'm willing to bet they'll tell you they still learn something new with every book they write. I mean, pick up one of that author's earliest books and give it a read. Then pick up one of their latest and compare the storytelling and writing skills. You'll quickly see what I mean, I promise you.
The moral to this story is that you can't simply keep writing as you always have, never allowing yourself to soak in the knowledge along the way and expect your writing to continue to shine book after book. You know that saying, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results," don't you? Well, that kind of applies here as well in an obscure sort of way.
And in case you didn't know, that saying originates from mystery author Rita Mae Brown in her 1983 book Sudden Death.
So, that last book you wrote was good, but did you feel it was the best you could do? That there's absolutely nothing you would change about the storytelling or the writing? Honestly, I don't know any author who wouldn't go back and change something about each story they've written. We're never fully satisfied, after all. We never see our work as perfect. And of course, nothing and no one is perfect in any case, so don't even try to achieve perfection, or you will go insane because perfection (or as close as we can get to it) is all in the eye of the beholder anyway.
What do I mean by that? Well, just ask yourself why that last book you read, the one you had a hard time finishing, the one that didn’t hold your interest, got so many four and five-star reviews. We all see things differently and add in our life experiences, our morals, our upbringing, and a myriad of other factors, and well, doesn't it make sense that each reader would see that story and those characters in a different light? It's the same as taking in information of any kind. What I see and hear and feel will be slightly different from what you do. That's just the way it is, and that doesn't mean that either of us wasn't paying attention. And never forget that you can't please everyone no matter how hard you try. But that's not the point I'm making here at all.
What I'm saying is that if you're going to do something, if you have a passion for writing, for telling stories, I would think you'd want to be the best darn storyteller you could be. And striving to continually improve as a writer is how you do that.
So, ask yourself how you learn best and make time to do just that. Soak in the knowledge that's all around you, whether it's reading other books in your genre or reading "how-to" books. Whether it's taking a workshop, a class in creative writing, or working with a mentor or book coach. Whatever works for you, do it. Make time for it. And don't just read or participate or simply listen but allow yourself to soak in the knowledge and then apply it.
Find what works for you and strive to make the next book even better than the last and the next even better than that. Strive to write compelling plots with no holes. For even pacing that carries the reader all of the way through, pacing that includes those tension-filled moments just where they're needed. Develop main characters so real that your readers believe they could reach out and touch them. Create a fictional world your fans can step right into without leaving their cozy reading spot.
And don't forget; if you do nothing else, at least be sure you continue to read, read, read, and write, write, write.
The next time you pick up a book to enjoy an escape of your own, reserve one part of your brain for sponging up all that knowledge. Learn from another author’s mistakes just as you can learn from their genius. How did the author get the hero or heroine out of such a tight spot? How did they pull on those heartstrings and get those tear ducts working or hit that funny bone so right? What was it that pulled you in and had you believing every word, feeling, living and experiencing every heart-pounding moment right along with the characters on those pages? Or how did the author not quite get any
one of those jobs done in your eyes?
Any author who writes books and tells me they don't read other books is very likely an author who doesn't do anything else in the way of learning and honing their craft either. Is that you? Do you want it to be you?
I hope not because your story just might be our next great read.