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Read Like A Fighter

It's funny how the experience of reading a book changes when you become a writer. Myke Cole, author of the Sacred Throne trilogy and the Shadow Ops series, compared it to a boxer watching fight tapes. They study their opponents, watch how they move, what they do and how they manage to be successful.

It's the same thing with reading.

Not that other writers are opponents, but you begin to study them. You don't get lost in the story so much anymore and instead find yourself analyzing what they're doing on a technical level. You narrow your eyes at the page, pull the book closer and scrutinize sentence structure, word choice, pace, syntax, tense, point of view. See what they're doing, figure out their strengths and weaknesses so you can apply those techniques to your own writing to hopefully increase your chance of surviving in the ring (of the Being Professionally Published Championships).

Take THAT, you filthy wannabe

Depressing as it may be to realize you will NEVER AGAIN enjoy reading a book for the sake of reading a book, you can find comfort in knowing that this is a normal step in the process to becoming an experienced (and more importantly, better) writer. It means you're thinking, analyzing, understanding what you're doing and what you need to do better. Being able to know when and why something isn't working for you is an important skill. Identify the problem and come up with a solution. Then you have to be able to apply this your own work; be willing to trim the fat, cut the bulk, kill the younglings...or is it darlings?

This is hard to do because writing is a lonely endeavor, rife with crippling self-doubt as you sit hunched over the computer wondering if that idea is any good and knowing that it isn't and that you're nothing but a big, fat phony. We work hard to create our stories and we want to share them so sometimes the allure of getting positive feedback right away is too strong to resist and we show our hideous, unpolished work to some gullible sap...I mean, friend...before it's ready.

But this is the important part: the difference between being someone who writes and someone who is a professional writer is the ability to force those words out, let them cool, then go back in with an electric carving knife ( or chainsaw, depending) and make it right before sending it out to the world. This doesn't mean you have to cut everything all the time. Sometimes you just have to polish a certain part, maybe choose a different word or change the structure of a sentence. Maybe you need to rewrite half the book. Writing is rewriting, as they say.

Now I know what you're thinking: Who the hell is this guy to tell me about being a professional writer?

And yes, I'll admit that as of writing this post I'm currently not published, but I'm hoping that changes, and soon. The thing is I understand that I won't get published unless I put in the work and force myself to grow. I'm constantly doing research, reading articles, listening to interviews, watching lectures, attending conferences (studying fight tapes...see what I did there?). It's hard, it's frustrating at times, and it leaves you feeling painfully vulnerable (I have to assume that last bit because I HAVE NO VULNERABILITIES). So to your question I say: Fake It Till You Make It.

By learning to dissect others' work, I've become much better at doing the same to mine. And it's helped tremendously. For example, I've found that I tend to write my first drafts like I'm directing a film. I see the scenes in my head in explicit detail: the cool camera angles, the flashy editing, what colors fill the frame and set the mood, who's standing where, if they pick up a glass from the counter or shut a window, which direction each character looks when they speak. When going from one scene to the next I describe how they get in the car, which turns they take and where they park, what the outside of the next building looks like. All this stuff makes it to the page (or computer screen) as I just get the words out. And all of it usually bogs the story down. It's in the subsequent drafts that I have to cut these things that don't provide anything to the story or move it along. And sometimes I don't have to cut so much as reshape. Then through all that I find just the right bits that get across my point and keep the prose flowing. I'm doing that even as I write this post.

So what's the solution?

You see, I don't have to describe how the characters travel for the reader to follow the story. I can just move on to the next scene and the reader is right there. This happens more often than you might realize (or maybe you do realize and this is old news and you're just the best at EVERYTHING).

For example, imagine you're reading a book and come across the line "They got off the plane and made their way through the crowded terminal."

With no other detail I'm willing to bet you have an image in your head. You know what color the walls are and how high the ceiling is, you know that there are fast food vendors and magazine kiosks nearby, and you can probably hear the din of conversation and muffled voices over the intercoms. All that without expansive detail added to the prose. People are good at filling in the blanks and this is exactly why they say everyone reads a different book. Each person imagines their own details to fill in those blanks without even knowing they're doing it, and that right there is how you get the reader to engage with the book.

Now I have to admit that I didn't come to see this in my own writing without a little bit of advice from someone in the industry who knows what the fuck he or she is talking about. And I only showed this person my manuscript because I'd spent months revising and polishing it. Because that's the catch to this whole thing: at some point you're going to get to send your book out for others to see. But it's up to you to decide if you just want a quick pick-me-up from friends (who are going to tell you whatever you wrote is great anyway) or if you really want to produce the best possible book you can and hopefully one day get paid to do it.

Work hard, be honest with yourself...and get in that ring.


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