Writing Excuses 6.22: Continuing Education for Writers

Mur Lafferty, the Grand Dame of SF podcasting, joins Howard, Mary, and Dan to talk about ways in which writers can continue their educations. We’ve said time and again that nothing improves your writing skills like doing more writing, but there are some other things you can do so that your writing practice pays off faster.

We talk about writing workshops like Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp, Clarion and Clarion West, Writing Superstars, Odyssey, Taos Toolbox, and Launchpad. We also talk about podcasts like Writing Excuses (you might have heard of that one) and Mur Lafferty’s I Should Be Writing.

We also talk about information sources online like Turkey City Lexicon, Magical Words,  and Bookview Cafe, and of course we can’t let the episode end without touching on actual books writers can read, like Steven King’s On Writing, Ken Rand’s The 10% Solution, and Orson Scott Card’s Character and Viewpoint.

We wrap up with a reminder: learning a new thing will make writing more difficult before it makes it easier. Don’t panic. Don’t think you’ve broken your brain. It’s all part of the writing process. You’ll get your mojo back as soon as your brain finishes assimilating all this stuff you’ve just learned.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Rosemary and Rue: An October Daye Novel, Book 1 by Seanan McGuire, narrated by Mary Robinette Kowal

Writing Prompt: Someone wants to go to a writing workshop but gets held up by chicken and waffles.

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26 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 6.22: Continuing Education for Writers”

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with Mary’s summation toward the end of the podcast. I have spent a lot of time learning about writing while starting to become a writer and at first it made writing really hard because I couldn’t think about everything I was learning. However, as I have been in a creative writing class this semester I really surprised myself by how much of it I’ve internalized. When we are workshopping other people’s work in class dozens upon dozens of lessons from Writing Excuses and On Writing by Stephen King and all these other sources of knowledge have come back to me and I know what I would do as a writer to fix the problems that I’m seeing in other people’s work. That in turn, has helped me to be introspective with my own writing and realize that all this hard work learning has really helped me avoid making a lot of mistakes as a new writer. Hopefully I’ll be able to see that pay off in the long term as well.

  2. I like Howard’s idea about the three post-it notes. I know that I can’t really juggle more ideas than that in my head. So I’m going to grab some post-its and do that right now. Thanks, Howard!

  3. My voice teacher has always described four steps to learning something:

    Unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, unconscious competence, and conscious competence. The hard ones are definitely in the middle, where you’re stuck knowing you’re doing something wrong but haven’t fixed it entirely, or when things start going right and you don’t know why.

  4. @ Chris T.: I like the breakdown, but I’m not sure of the definitions.

    Your final goal in any pursuit should be extreme competence in which most of your skills are brought to bear naturally, without you having to think about it, but you are nonetheless ABLE to think about it, to focus your efforts on whatever needs the most focus at the moment.

    To that end you have to become conscious of what you do poorly, conscious of what you do well, and conscious of what you’re doing well without having to think about it.

  5. @ Howard Tayler:

    The definitions as presented to me were as follows:

    Unconscious incompetence – you’re doing things wrong, but you don’t know why or even that you’re doing them wrong.

    Conscious incompetence – you know you’re doing things wrong, but don’t have all the tools necessary to fix them.

    Unconscious competence – you’re doing things right, but don’t have full control over when or how you’re doing them right.

    Conscious competence – you’ve essentially mastered the skill and know what works in order to perform it well.

    I think these stages work with writing, given that writing isn’t a monolithic skill that is either done well or poorly. There are myriad sub-skills that an author needs to juggle in order to write, and you can be anywhere on the spectrum with one of said skills.

    For example, I can be great at plotting but terrible at creating compelling characters.

  6. @Chris T, you have the last two the wrong way round. Conscious competence in time passes to unconscious competence as you forget how to do things well, and just “naturally” do them well. Tiger Woods would have passed from unconscious competence back down to conscious “incompetence”, then been built back up by his teacher.

  7. When it comes to learning information it can be useful to write, by hand, down the information you want to remember several times.
    Writing, with a pencil, activates the place in your brain where you have your long time memory and will store the information for longer than just by reading about something or writing on a keyboard..
    Of course this doesn’t apply to writing tecniques but more general information “storage”.
    Hm maybe this was not the right place for this comment. Ah well, you may find it interesting anyway.

  8. I’m glad Mighty Murr could make it onto the podcast and this was a good subject. My niece and I were talking just last night about “real writers” vs “fake writers”. Because my niece writes, some of her friends have started writing too. One of her friends seems to be writing because it is the cool thing to do and not out of a passion for the craft or the art of storytelling.

    That’s okay, not everyone needs to be a writer. But my niece and I both agreed that you can tell those that really want it from those that don’t. Continually seeking out ways to learn and improve your craft is one sign of that passion. It will show in your writing. Being humble enough to admit you’re weak and seeking out help leads to strength.

    Yet another great podcast guys. Thanks for putting these out for us.

  9. I would love to see a podcast on the subject of how to write author’s bios. They are often a requirement when submitting short stories to anthologies. Thanks for all your work.

  10. Another fabulous podcast! Excellent!
    I think most aspiring writers would benefit from a podcast on how to write a scene. It seems aspiring writers seldom discuss this, but based on what I’m seeing in my own writing and that of my group members, I think we (aspiring writers as a collective group) need some specific instruction on it.

  11. I loved the podcast for this week, and loved Mur being on the podcast as well. I think Howard hit the nail on the head about writers being able to practice the right things, and Mary’s follow-up on recognizing mistakes.

    Thanks for covering this topic, very valuable indeed.

  12. Ah, to add a podcast resource for writers since it was asked a bit earlier: http://www.storywonk.com has a daily podcast run by author Lani Diane Rich and Alistair Stephens. I’ve been listening for a little while now and it gives a lot of helpful writing tips. I think they’re running special topics for NaNoWriMo now, so it might seem a little crazy for people just jumping int, but their archives have a lot of helpful topics.

  13. @Ed

    When I was a student we had a guest lecture on the brain (human physiology) by a professor who said it and explained the process. Unfortunately I don’t have the detailed information at hand, but I have noticed the effect. Although that’s subjective information, so sorry.

  14. @Ed:

    I never quite thought of it that way, but I can totally see how unconscious competence would be an end point to learning. Maybe my teacher wasn’t paying enough attention when he learned those stages, but I totally bought his explanation as well.

  15. I can’t edit, but I’d add that the Wikipedia page mentions the fifth stage, or reflective ability, as a similar step to what I described, wherein you’re able to contemplate what exactly you’re doing right and can see even further room for improvement. (Because let’s be honest, no one ever reaches a point with a skill wherein they’re absolutely perfect.

  16. Another amazing podcast! I was wondering if it’s possible for you guys to do an episode on magical realism? How do you differentiate magical realism from urban fantasy?

  17. I recently participated in a critique group at WorldCon and it was tremendously helpful. Many of the things I knew needed to be fixed were brought up, but also some basic things I thought I was doing well that I wasn’t. It was eye-opening and (after my initial self-doubt) spurred me on to get better and keep working at it. It’s the reason I started doing the prompts and commenting here, started my writing blog, and forced myself to write more than I have before.

    But more than anything, it helped my realize how much I need to have alpha and beta readers provide an outside, objective view and help me improve as I go. Waiting until the end is helpful, sure, but I’d rather start being aware of these things sooner so I can incorporate them into those first drafts.

    Also, I had some fun with the prompt and just being absurd. Beware those chickens and waffles!


  18. Yay for October Daye – especially since Mary got me hooked on them in the first place. Am currently listening to One Salt Sea in the car (will be a long time – but I read it when it first came out, so I’m just luxuriating).

  19. Hey,

    In my day job I’m a programmer. In our business we have a conference called No Fluff Just Stuff that travels around the country to peoples cities since as working programmers we generally don’t have the time to travel across the country to attend a conference. The conferences run Friday Saturday and Sunday.

    I wondered if there was a similar conference for the writing world.

  20. Mary’s summation near the end is one of the most encouraging things I’ve heard yet. I feel exactly as she said — the more I learn, the more I think that I just can’t write fiction. What she said makes me realize that these are tools that I simply haven’t internalized yet. Maybe I’ll never be able to write fiction, but I don’t feel that it’s hopeless. Great podcast.

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