For years, I did two kinds of writing. During the day, I wrote software documentation. At night, my alter ego came out (or, too often, just went to bed), and I worked on the mystery I’d been writing for years. Then, life–with its twisty-turny surprises rearranged things, and I stopped being a technical writer and switched over to writing a middle-grade mystery.
Among other things.
I’m in my forties. It took me a while, but I finally realized that “I can’t…” and “I don’t know how to…” are not phrases I want coming out of my mouth too often. Or making their way very far into my brain. I’d rather say “sure,” at least to myself, then go off and learn something new. Like writing a picture book. And writing some biography and history for early elementary-school kids.
Which is probably why I find myself doing a lot of what I call “sampling” this year.
Sampling is what I call the start of my learning process, each time I decide to check out a new form of writing. It’s really just a fancy word for reading, but reading of a very concentrated and purposeful sort. Here are the basic steps:
- Find out if there are specific examples of the form that you should look at.
This usually comes into play when you’re writing for a publishers that has a set format, or reading-level, they want you to match. These biography and history books I’ve been looking at come with recommendations for books I should read, before I start writing.
- Hit the library or bookstore and get a stack of books, either the recommended books or books that fit into the genre you’re exploring. Look for award winners and books that just catch your eye.
Pros and cons: The library has due dates, which can mean a structured schedule for you to follow or some hefty late fees! The bookstore costs more (unless those late fees really start to add up), but you get a few resources that you can hang onto for as long as you need and that you can refer back to as often as you need.
If you’re working in a longer genre–novels or full-length memoirs, you will obviously need to do this over time. If you’re checking out some shorter forms, like me, try to set aside a chunk of time to read through all your books at once. Things like language and structure will seep into your more quickly, I believe, if you read without interruption.
- Take some notes on the commonalities you’re seeing in the books.
I noticed today that the biographies I was reading all started with an active sentence about the subject, things like: Daniel flung the ax into the stump. May dropped the last of the blueberries into her basket. Character and action, in an immediate scene.
In the picture books I’ve been sampling, I’ve seen how short a time we have to set up the start of the story, and how many more words are given to the end crisis and resolution. I’ve found out that the pacing of the mini-problems each picture-book hero must face can be rapid—like a ping-pong battle, or slower—like a lilting folk song.
When I was reading magazine articles, as research for The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide, I was amazed at how few words the author had to spare for a hook. Oh, sure, I’d been told that, but I hadn’t seen it.
Where did I first learn this technique? From a creative writing teacher? From a workshop? Nope. I started doing this when I was a new technical writer, when I had an introduction to write and had to say something clear and (hopefully) intelligent about a product I knew very little about. I went to the shelves and pulled off other manuals and read through their opening lines, focusing on what that other writer had pulled out to highlight and what they’d left out as unimportant. I scanned the length of the passages and checked out the voice the author had used.
I know, believe me, that a novel–a picture book, a biography, a magazine article–none of these are software manuals. And I know that truly learning a genre takes much longer than a few hours trying to pull a recognizable structure out of a few pages of words. I also know, though, that that structure is a must-learn, no matter what type of writing you’re trying out. We’re not playing copycat; we’re not working to a formula. We’re learning to get the feel of the thing, both in our brains and coming out the tips of our fingers onto the keyboard.
We’re taking one of the many necessary steps to go forward into something new.