Because—it seems to me, anyway, after pondering their lists—there are really four basic activities that improve a writer's skills. Between Christie's list and Masha's, all four received mention in some form or another. Both Christie and Masha also credited some activities that were subordinate to the main, which is more the point of the original idea. I like to be excruciatingly thorough, so I'm going to do both.
The four things that help a writer improve in his craft:
- Reading and studying good literature.
- Tutelage and/or critique.
- Life experience.
"...she only demands from each of you either one thing very clever, be it prose or verse, original or repeated—or two things moderately clever—or three things very dull indeed, and she engages to laugh heartily at them all."Sorry, Emma.
"Oh! very well," exclaimed Miss Bates, "then I need not be uneasy. `Three things very dull indeed.' That will just do for me, you know. I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shan't I? (looking round with the most good-humoured dependence on every body's assent)—Do not you all think I shall?"
Emma could not resist.
"Ah! ma'am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me—but you will be limited as to number—only three at once."
Under the subheading of study:
- Re-reading. Not just once, but absorbing myself in a book until it's practically infused into my bloodstream.
- Reading conscientiously. Getting out of fantasy—and getting further into it. Regularly searching out classics. Looking for the best in any genre or category.
- Writing book reviews. This has forced me to read more widely and more actively. It also makes me more conscious of the books I choose (most of the time; wait till you see Wednesday's review), and allows me to see my own strengths and weaknesses in analyzing another author's.
- Private journaling. I have hundreds of pages of journals, most of them quite ridiculous (that's all part of growing up, right? Right?) and still add entries to a private journal when the mood strikes. Journaling allows me to be creative in new ways, or to blow off technique long enough to get some overbearing emotion out of the way. It's also provided countless hours of practice translating thoughts and feelings into words.
- Blogging. It forces me to write to deadline; also, to write to be understood by—and interesting to—others besides myself. Nearly seven years and over 950 posts in, I've probably got three or four thousand hours in this little site alone.
- Finishing those first novels. Not just starting them. It's important to learn how to complete a story arc. When I was nineteen, my mother ordered me to finish that story about M. the teenage ice skater, which I did, and but for that I might have never finished anything to this day. NaNoWriMo 2009 was good for me for similar reasons.
- Remembering I'm a writer, even when doing menial work such as emailing. Working for clarity, for good phrasing, and for interest and humor when appropriate.
- Having a wide variety of readers. That NaNoWriMo novel has been read by my mom and sisters multiple times, Lou twice, a round of beta readers, a round of gamma readers, two trained poets, and my in-laws. Of these, some read fantasy and some don't; some read juvenile fiction and some don't; some read novels, and some don't. Every reader has added something to the value of the work.
- Learning how to take criticism. How to pull the real implications out of a tangle of suggestions, which may in themselves be vague, confusing, or emphatically contradictory. How to distinguish between tough truth and dangerous conflict with the story's direction. This is one heck of a deadly fairy dance under the moon, and learning to do it properly is much of what proves your mettle as a writer.
- Suffering. Which develops empathy, range, and can also build wisdom. We don't get good at storytelling without persevering through and processing pain of our own, which is why—I'd posit—there are so few truly successful child writers despite there being numerous musical prodigies. For me it's been depression, terror, exhaustion, childlessness, conflicts, heavy internal wrestling over various political and intellectual issues, and just not being the most emotionally stable cookie on the platter.
- Religion. No, I'm not joking, or exaggerating, or claiming that religion inevitably makes better writers than atheism or agnosticism. In fact, my agnostic tendencies have worked positively against some of the artistic stunting caused by early, heavy influence of weak and moralistic Christian fiction. Being Christian, however, supports my sense of wonder, of hope, of love beyond sentiment and goodness beyond plain decency, which every great novel I've ever read, including the ones by atheists, has successfully mirrored somehow. Those things are, I believe, the core of whatever beauty exists in my own work.