What writers can learn from football players and musicians
What does it mean for writers to ‘practice’? What, exactly, is it that we’re practicing?
Before we crack on with today’s newsletter, just a quick reminder that I’ll be chatting with award-winning author and screenwriter Lauren Beukes about writing, how she uses her journalistic skills to help her research her books, the impact that moving to the UK had on her writing, plus much, much more!
I have to confess that I’ve often felt slightly jealous of athletes and musicians. Whenever I see the amateur footie players at our local rec, or watch the team training on Welcome to Wrexham, I feel a little pang of envy as I watch them dodging around cones to improve their agility or practice taking shots on goal.
I feel the same way about the practice that musician do. I’ve always had a love for scales and arpeggios, even when I was learning to play myself. There’s something satisfying about nailing a Mixolydian or a Dorian scale, particularly at speed.
Athletics and music aren’t the only fields where training is clearly defined, of course, but they are such beautiful examples. No one expects Paul Mullin to sit about on his arse all week only to head off to the Cae Ras stadium on a Saturday afternoon and score three goals to put Wrexham AFC on top. No one seriously believes that Lady Gaga doesn’t do voice training and warm-ups to keep her vocal cords from blowing out in the middle of a gig.
Yet so many writers seem to think that writing is just and only that: Writing. How often have you seen someone tell a blocked writer to just get on with it? “Start writing and it will flow” is not uncommon advice given to people who feel stuck, but I think it’s extremely bad advice. No one tells an underperforming football player or musician to “just play”. So why is “just write” so often seen as the be all and end all of writing advice?
No, I think we writers need to develop our own training regimes, ones that do not involve writing.
But what about morning pages? What about short stories?
If you’ve ever read, or even heard about, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, you’ll have heard about ‘morning pages’, aka the practice of writing three pages of any old crap first thing in the morning. The idea is to loosen up your creative wheels, get them nicely oiled for the creative day ahead. Other people recommend writing short stories, particularly flash fiction, as a way to practice writing.
I think the problem with morning pages and short stories is not that they are a bad thing for writers to do, indeed, they can be incredibly valuable. But that they put the cart before the horse, and they don’t encourage the practice of the very basic skills upon which good writers build their craft.
Morning pages and short stories are a form of writing. And, to go back to my football analogy, you don’t train by only playing games. You have to work at the fundamentals before playing football itself can become a useful part of training. That means ball control, agility, speed, strength and endurance. And that means time spent in the gym, running, doing exercises on the field, working with your team mates, your coach, your physio. You have to get a lot of skills and physicality in place before you can benefit from playing practice games, whether they are five-a-side or full team friendlies.
Jumping straight into morning pages is like jumping straight into a five-a-side match before you’ve even learnt to kick the ball.
So what training should writers do?
If we want to be the writing equivalent of Paul Mullin or Wrexham AFC Women’s incredibly talented striker, Rosie Hughes, then we need to put in all the hard graft that they do before they even touch a ball. Here are some of the things I think are important for writers to practice regularly:
A huge amount of writing is description, but how can we describe things if we don’t properly look at them?
Writers who don’t observe in detail are bound to write in clichés. If you want to write powerful and compelling descriptions you have to pay attention to everything around you.
Walking through the park the other day, I found myself looking at a huge copper beech and trying to describe it in terms that didn’t include phrases like “spreading its arms” or “shading the ground like an umbrella”, because frankly I think we’ve all heard those before. Coming up with something a bit more inventive may take time and thought, but that’s literally our job.
It’s not enough to just say how someone looks, we need to talk about how they feel. If your character’s brows furrow in concentration, how does that physically feel? Do it now: furrow your brows. There’s a sensation of tension in the forehead, a slight squinting of the eyes, and a tightness around the nose. How does that work as part of your description?
Physical and emotional feelings are tightly intertwined, although we too often focus on just the emotion rather than the physicality. Instead of describing someone as disappointed or implying disappointment by saying that their shoulders slumped, think about how this feels, about strain in the back of the neck as the head falls forward, or the crushing feeling in the abdomen as the torso collapses down.
Thinking about how we physically feel helps us to describe people’s emotions in ways that are more visceral and immediate, and that will help us connect with our readers more effectively.
Dialogue isn’t just people transferring information to one another, nor is fictional dialogue a simple transcription of what people would ‘really say’. Dialogue lives in a strange liminal space between reality and unreality, so when you listen to people talking you have to listen between the lines to work out what they are really saying.
Deep listening takes focus and concentration, but we’re not always in a position to be able to do that. I work from home, so I rarely get to see people talking to one another where I’m not also involved in the conversation. Going to a busy cafe and eavesdropping could fix that problem, as would watching fly on the wall documentaries.
4. Read/watch intentionally
Over the last few years, the way that I read has changed. I’m much more intentional when I read now, paying attention to how other writers describe things, how their turns of phrase change meaning or set the atmosphere.
At the moment, I’m reading a lot of light, fluffy novels such as romcoms, and although I can devour these books rapidly, they are teaching me a lot about describing sensations. I didn’t expect to learn that from a typical beach read, but it has been fascinating (and emphasises that we shouldn’t just a book by its genre).
I’m also spending as much time as I can watching and rewatching the first five minutes of TV shows to see just how much information a good writer can cram in, and what happens when that doesn’t happen.
For an example of this, take a look at my analysis of the first five minutes of Sex Education. See just how much info Laurie Nunn communicated about characters, goals, themes, relationships and opposing forces in such short span of time. It’s an absolute masterclass.
5. Read books, watch webinars, take courses, listen to podcasts… sceptically
There’s so much expertise out there about the craft of writing that you could immerse yourself in it 24/7 if you wanted to, and you’d likely never run out. But it’s not all good stuff, so you are going to want to be picky. Take what you need, take what makes sense and leave the rest. Don’t get caught up in someone else’s assumptions for how writing works.
6. Take notes
Note taking is essential. You’re not doing any of these things to pass them time, you’re doing them to learn, to improve your skills, and set solid foundations for future work.
Repetition is also important. When you find something that resonates with you, that you find useful, go back to it several times, reread it, redo it, rethink it.
The whole point of doing any of these exercises is to internalise good practice and train your subconscious to be thinking about all this stuff in the background as you go about your writing. Creativity isn’t entirely a conscious process – you can consciously choose which words to write, but you can’t consciously choose which words spring to mind in the first place (otherwise the thesaurus wouldn’t exist). Engaging in this kind of training will help your subconscious to become more imaginative and original, and that will express itself in more fluid and more inventive writing.
Now for another confession: I do not currently do all these things. I do some of them, but I don’t do them enough. Both this newsletter and Word Count act, to some extent, as a more haphazard training program in that I do read, watch and listen to a lot of stuff about writing from which I draw what I feel are important lessons. And I do think that my writing has improved because I’m here, doing this stuff.
But I want to do more structured training and do it on a much more regular basis. I also want to do it with you, if you’re a premium subscriber. Once Ada Lovelace Day is out of the way, I’m going to come up with some ways that we can, together, work through a training program that will help us improve our skills so that we can all be more like Paul Mullin or Rosie Hughes.
Why Aren't I Writing? is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.