How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

When I was in graduate school, one of the things I studied were role-playing games. (Yes, my university let me write papers on Dungeons and Dragons and all its intellectual descendants.) I learned all kinds of fascinating things, taking apart my hobby to see how it worked, and one of those things had to do with practice.

See, nobody practices RPGs. At least nobody that I’m aware of. It’s a kind of performance, in the academic sense of the term, but you don’t rehearse; you don’t do trial runs of having your characters spy on the bad guys or break into the ancient temple or fight the deranged god. There’s no separation between learning to play and playing; you learn by doing, and everything you do is official, is part of the story you and your friends are creating on the fly. If you set off the booby trap in that ancient temple, you can’t go back and try it again; you’ve got to outrace the giant boulder now rolling toward you.

To me, writing feels kind of the same way. Sure, I can always revise; if I realize that thing my characters did last chapter would logically result in them getting killed, I can go back and have them do something less dumb. But is that the same thing as practice? To some extent it’s a moot question: “practice” is a concept strongly associated with performance arts, music or dance, or competitive things like sports, where there’s a specific event you’re preparing for, at which point you will deploy the skills you’ve learned. Writing is more comparable to sculpture, say, or painting. It’s aimed toward a product, not a event.

But I’ve heard sculptors talk about practice pieces, things they make so they can work on a new technique or idea, with no intention of selling or displaying the result. I don’t tend to do that. If I’m writing a novel, if I’m writing a short story, it’s because I expect to try and sell it when I’m done. Even if it’s something silly that I’m doing for fun, I have a purpose in mind for it — posting it on my website or whatever. I almost never find myself writing anything “just for practice.”

That’s me, though, and I know other people are different. This is where the question part of the post comes in: do you practice writing? There are books and books and websites and websites out there full of suggestions for writing exercises, the equivalent of a sculptor’s practice piece, designed to get you focusing on description or dialogue or whatever. I just don’t incline that way myself; I’d rather focus on those things in the context of a full and theoretically publishable story. But other people roll differently, and I’d love to hear from those of you for whom “writing practice” is a useful concept.

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  1. 1. Benjamin Carnys

    Interesting post. I recently described the difference between scientific and fiction writing to a workshop-mate as being like the difference between building and sculpting. In scientific writing, a good portion of the work is construction using components with known dimensions. Fiction writing, for me, is more a case of finding the story somewhere inside the raw materials of the page, my mind, and the world around me. The fact that these things are different is what makes it possible for me to do both.

    I haven’t been interested in writing exercises either, but I wonder now how far the sculpting analogy might go. If I want to carve out my stories effectively, should I focus on particular techniques to improve my craft, or does my style demand a more holistic approach? I suspect that at present I still have so much to learn that learning-by-doing is still the best approach, but perhaps that won’t always be true.

    But, submitting stories being one of the acknowledged challenges for new writers, why can trying to sell a story be practice, too?

  2. 2. Marie Brennan

    Interesting analogy! I’ve done academic writing, and while there’s creativity that goes into that, you’re right; I can’t just make up components and stick them in. I have to work with what exists, the data and theories and so on. Fiction is much more free-form, though a given idea (block of wood/whatever material) may guide the shape I produce in the end.

    can trying to sell a story be practice, too?

    I would say no, for the simple reason that I think of practice as being “not for real.” Unless you’re submitting stories to magazines you’ll never sell to, for the purpose of learning how to put together a cover letter and so on — which seems a waste of time — then it’s for real, and therefore not practice.

  3. 3. Oz

    I do practice and I write practice stories.

    Stylistically, I have a bar I want to reach and I work to get there by trying out different things. Exercises and challenges from more experienced writers stretch my abilities. If I get something I can sell, great, but it’s not the goal.

    I’ve written short stories in the past where everything was crafted as it went and this month I’m writing first drafts with the critical faculties shut down (as much as I ever can). That’s practice, because the draft that resulted needs serious work, it was clearly a practice piece.

    I write short stories in worlds I’m building, play around with the rules and characters. I consider those practice pieces because I intend to write something longer once I understand the world well enough. This is clearly appropriate to genre work where the setting is a character in itself.

    But overall I agree with you that writing is doing. You don’t spend weeks and months doing the same basic movements over and over to train your muscles, as you would in say, martial arts or ballet. You learn by getting out there and dancing, making mistakes on the stage.

    Oz

  4. 4. Mris

    I think I’m thinking of a piece of played music as much more similar to a sculpture or a novel than you are, from the sounds of this.

    I sometimes will sit down at the piano with some new music and “see what comes of this,” work it through a bit, see if I like it enough to polish it further. And I do that with story bits, too: I sit down and poke at them, I see if they feel promising, if they feel like working with them a bit more is likely to go somewhere. It’s not that I intend for them to be scratch pieces, it’s that I’m okay if they are. I work better if I give myself the freedom to start something without knowing for sure that it will look to be worth my time when I’ve gotten a couple thousand words in.

  5. 5. Benjamin Carnys

    Well, come on, the other advice that new writers often hear is “get used to rejection” :) In practical terms, submitting stories starts out as practice because in the end getting the writer into the habit of doing so is likely to have been its primary value.

    I’d suggest that “not for real” is not a great definition of practice. “Primarily for the purpose of learning” might be better, because it allows that one might do things both “for real” and in the expectation that the greatest benefit will be to the next attempt.

  6. 6. Alan Kellogg

    What story? RPGs are not about what has happened, RPGs are about what is happening. They are about the now, the immediate. As your character you relate what you are doing, not what you have done. When you say, “I concentrate on my Silent Steps as I cross the nightingale floor.” that is you in your game role doing that.

    Start thinking, “This is here, this is now.” Start thinking, “I have not yet succeeded or failed, my fate is my own.” Start thinking, “Before tales can be told of this it must first occur.” Start thinking like that and see how your approach changes.

    As the battered and bleeding corpse disappeared into the darkness of the chasm the old guide shrugged his shoulders. He turned back to his mule, and leading back up the trail he said, “I keep telling them, and they keep on ignoring me; greasy fingers trumps ancient prophecy every time.”

  7. 7. Mary Robinette Kowal

    Actually, I do practice though not as much now as I did when I started.

    For instance, one technique is describing scenic locations. When I first started, I would sit down and spend a page or so describing the area that I was in without worrying about character or plot or any of those things, just the elements that I was physically noticing.

    To get deep penetration third POV down, at a workshop the instructor had us write about a recent hour in our lives in third person, without concern about plot. Again, it forced me to focus on that technique without having to worry about story.

    On the weekends, (though I’m out of practice now) I did a flash fiction challenge with friends where we had an hour and a half to crank out a finished story from a trigger. It forces you to think about plot without giving you time to slow down and let the inner editor panic. It also trained me to write fast, clean first drafts.

    I’ve taken third person stories and re-written them as first, to see what would happen.

    I’ve played with authorial voice, deliberately, to see what happens if I have a visible narrator.

    I was an art major and one of the things we do is learn to to hone our techniques without worrying about the art. I don’t see any reason that writers can’t and shouldn’t do the same.

  8. 8. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    When I teach fiction writing, it’s all based on practice, really. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms though. Or maybe what I’m having students do is explore and discover their strengths and try new things, which comes under the heading of practice I think. But for me, I dont’ tend to write what practice things. All of it is more on the lines of the RPG approach. On the other hand, I perceived some things as practice after the fact, if that makes sense. Skills build and hindsight says something was practice even though I didn’t know it at the time.

    Hmmm. Interesting topic.

  9. 9. S.C. Butler

    I think I started practicing writing in first or second grade (I don’t really remember when I started composing full sentences any more). It’s all practice, I think, unless you’re one of those lucky people who can write a publishable piece in a single draft. That ain’t me, and probably never will be.

  10. 10. k8

    There’s an interview with Paul McCartney where he talks about how he and John Lennon felt really bad for George Harrison when George first started writing songs for the Beatles. As McCartney put it, he and John were writing so many songs together that by the time the Beatles got big, they could tell which songs worked and which didn’t, which songs were stronger than others. George, on the other hand, wasn’t nearly as prolific nor as experienced. Thus, the first songs he brought to the band were not bad, necessarily, but they were very formulaic rock n roll songs that didn’t have the complexity or strength of the stuff Lennon and McCartney were putting out by that point.

    He got better, and ended up writing some of the best Beatles songs. But it’s true; if you listen to/watch early shows, the songs by George sound almost like covers of other people’s stuff, while the Lennon-McCartney songs sound like the Beatles. Paul attributed that straight up to practice and experience that George eventually gained, but much more slowly than Paul and John.

  11. 11. Kevin

    Perhaps it reveals too much about my former level of geekery, but I have done practice runs in RPGs. Whole afternoons running strategies and test fights against the target of that weekend’s live-action vampire slaughter-thon.

    Or the week between D&D games crunching numbers daily, to see if we could take the next redonkulous fight in the Age of Worms.

    I’m a’gonna go write about Neandrathals now, and not write Vampire Porn for XP.

  12. 12. Adam Heine

    In one sense, everything we write is practice, since everything we write makes us better. But in terms of writing solely for practice sake, no, I don’t do that.

    Here’s what I do. A few years ago, when I decided I was for really real going to do this writing thing, I had two main story ideas to choose from. I deliberately chose the one I liked less because I knew the first one would be the worse novel.

    So the first novel was to prove to myself that I could do it, that I could write a novel. It was practice in that sense, but at the same time I always intended to try and sell it. I know full well that I can’t sell everything I write, but why not try? That’s why I don’t practice; I try to sell everything because you never know what’ll stick.

    And actually, I’ve learned a lot from trying to sell it, even though nobody’s bitten yet. So that’s practice too.

  13. 13. Joe Iriarte

    “It’s not that I intend for them to be scratch pieces, it’s that I’m okay if they are. “

    *nod*

    That’s me. I don’t practice writing purpose. But I do experiment with different things, to see if I like the results. And I’ve got some works that I realize, in hindsight, were practice pieces.

  14. 14. Karen Wester Newton

    This is an interesting topic. Actually, the art I have seen done most “for practice” is ceramics. I’ve seen potters create beautiful pots and then cut them open to measure how thick and even the walls were. Then they just threw the clay back in the barrel to create another pot.

    I think with stories (and even more now with word processors) you can practice by writing stories over and over with different goals—trying to make a character more sympathetic in one version, trying to crate a surprise ending in another. Words are every bit as plastic as clay.

  15. 15. James MacAdam

    Great post! The only writing “practice” I ever do is in the form of exercises intended to break up a wordjam in my head; otherwise, it’s all editing. Maybe a better verb would be “drafting”?

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Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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