Ways to Study Craft

Right after I signed with my agent, I had a minor panic attack. Until that point, I’d always told myself that I loved writing and I always made time for it, but I’d convinced myself that I could walk away from it and think of it as a hobby. Signing with my agent made me admit that I was serious. Really serious. And admitting I was serious, meant that I needed to actually know what I was doing.

Because I definitely didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing.

And so it was AFTER I signed with my agent that I decided I should probably read a craft book. I picked up THE ANATOMY OF STORY by John Truby and started reading.

I don’t know if you’ve read THE ANATOMY OF STORY but it is DENSE! It’s so good and so full of really amazing information. But I could only get through a few pages before I had to put it down and let my brain take a rest. I still haven’t finished it but just reading the first half did wonders for my writing. (And yeah, I’ll finish it one day. I swear!)

I think really studying and analyzing story craft is so important. But it can feel daunting to do. And sometimes the resources people tell you to check out make no sense or they go against your rhythm. Sometimes, it’s all we can do to write, let alone study craft.

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BUT! You have to do it if you want to get better. So I’m going to talk about some ways you can study craft without getting an MFA or losing your writing time.

  1. Read a craft book. This is the obvious one. Maybe after you finish a draft of your new WIP, you can read a craft book while you let it sit before revising. There are so many different craft books. The dense ones like Truby’s. Short and snappy ones (I’ve heard great things about Take Off Your Pants!) The classics like King’s On Writing and the inspirational ones like Bird by Bird. Find one you enjoy! Or one that challenges you but in a good way.
  2. Go to the movies. For some reason, it is often easier to pinpoint plot devices in movies than in books. Maybe it is the visual aspect and the music that work together. But if you’re struggling with plot structure, I can’t recommend watching good movies enough. Pixar is a master of storytelling. Watch a Pixar flick to finally understand turning point, midpoint, dark night of the soul, and climax. Superhero movies will show you how to continually raise the stakes. Watch a chick flick to understand how to set up romantic tension. You get the idea.
  3. Read a book with a highlighter. I did this with Ally Condie’s Summerlost for the first few chapters (until I lost my highlighter and got so sucked in I couldn’t pause to stop.) But think about something you are struggling with and then go to a well-reviewed book in your genre and look for it, highlighting the passages that apply so you can see it and learn from it. With Summerlost, I was trying to see how humor is braided into a very heavy story to make it manageable for the MG reader. So I highlighted every instant of humor. It let me see how often it came up, but also how little space it took up on the page. It was super helpful. You can do this with show, don’t tell. Internalization. World Building. Backstory. Whatever it is you need to get better at.
  4. Go to a conference. I can’t recommend conferences enough. Size doesn’t matter. I attended a very small conference back in February and only attended one workshop and it helped me tackle a huge edit in my debut. You don’t have to break the bank. There are plenty of more regional and affordable conferences to go to. I personally love the Storymakers conference. Best classes and best price for any conference I’ve attended. The big national conferences can be good, but from what I’ve heard, they aren’t necessarily THE BEST. So don’t feel like you need to attend unless you really want to.
  5. Get on Twitter and follow your favorite authors and other writers. Writing Twitter is awesome and a lot of times writers will have really helpful threads on things you might be struggling with. Choose who you follow carefully if you want to keep it from being a timesuck. But there is a lot of really good FREE information on Twitter.
  6. Offer to do a lot of CPing and beta reading. Critiquing others work was probably the best thing I did for my own writing those first few years. Having to pinpoint what was working and wasn’t working in others’ stories allows you to come back to your story with fresh eyes and a better understanding of how everything works.
  7. Try to teach what you know. I’m a Pitch Wars mentor. And the mentoring process has forced me to nail down and be able to explain the parts of writing that can sometimes feel very fuzzy and ephemeral. I’ve had to think about it a lot so that I can put it into words instead of just feeling my way around it. That process has forced me to actually do a lot of analyzing and discover things about craft that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

So, feeling inspired to go study some craft? I hope so. What are some ways you study craft?

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Amanda Rawson Hill grew up in southwest Wyoming with a library right out her back gate, which accounts a lot for how she turned out. She now resides in central California where she is a gardener, chemist, homeschool mom, Yosemite explorer, and Disneyland enthusiast. She writes middle-grade fiction and is represented by Elizabeth Harding at Curtis Brown LTD.

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