Post #32 – Memoir and Fiction, Writing Alchemy – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler
“Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” – Vince Lombardi
Man or woman, if you’re of a certain age, you know the name Vince Lombardi…even if you don’t follow football. His was a household name in the late 1950s, throughout the 60s and into the 70s when he achieved legendary stature.
My parents followed professional football on television, and even though I was only nine in 1960, I knew Vince Lombardi was the formidable head coach of the Green Bay Packers.
When I came across the quote above and wanted to use it in relationship with writing and our practice habits, I decided I should know just how legendary, how formidable this Mr. Lombardi really was. A quick check on Wikipedia told the story: As head coach from 1959 to 1967, he led the Packers to five league championships in seven years–including three in a row in 1965, 1966 and 1967–and if that wasn’t enough, his team won the first two Super Bowls. He died of cancer in 1970 at far-too-young age of 57.
But here’s the stat that impressed me most: Lombardi never had a losing season. He was not a brilliant but erratic genius who racked up highs and lows. This was a man who was a strong, consistent winner. He was a leader, which is why I want to focus your attention on his quote. Let me repeat it: “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” I added the italics.
So what does this mean to us as writers…as memoir writers, novelists, poets, scriptwriters, non-fiction writers? How do we embrace his words and make them part of our writing regimen? I’ve been giving this a lot of thought. We need to be deliberate in our practice and focused. Sounds reasonable in theory, but how do we make our writing practice deliberate, focused? Well I thought about that too. And I have a practice prompt to suggest:
Make a list of writing challenges, weaknesses and bugaboos. Maybe you think your characterizations are superficial. Perhaps your openings aren’t page turners or your endings fizzle. Or maybe you need to overcome your reliance on lazy adverbs (see Stephen King’s On Writing if you don’t know that I mean). We’ve all got things we can work on to improve our writing. Be honest. Be ruthless.
Create a schedule for practice. Once you decide how often you will practice and for how long, organize your list of challenges. If you plan to practice twice a week for 30 minutes each session, then assign one of your challenges to that week. If you don’t think two sessions on, say, openings is enough, then extend your practice session into the next week. And so on. There is no right answer–no minimum or maximum time you must practice. In fact, the easier you are on yourself in the early stages the better because you’ll improve your chances of sticking to the plan and actually practicing. No it isn’t the time you spentd; it’s whether or not you follow through and practice regularly.
Strive for perfection. This is the step that requires the most work from you. If you’re going to practice writing opening lines, you need to know what your goal should be. What does a good opening line look like?
- Reading can help a lot. Study memoirs, novels, just about any writing for how the authors handle their opening sentences, opening paragraphs, even opening few pages.
- The Internet these days is a fabulous resource. I Googled “writing opening lines” and came up with 95 million hits. I looked at the first two resources–Fuel Your Writing and The New York Times–and found both useful.
- If you’re tackling a challenge as big as plotting or dialogue, you may want to take a class or read several books on the topic. Have a model of perfection (or near perfection).
- The point is to go into your practice with some sense of what you are trying to achieve. You’re not trying to write opening sentences. You’re trying to write opening lines that will make readers want to read on. That’s a big difference.
Be focused and deliberate. I believe that the best way to practice is to limit the number of variables you have to manage simultaneously. It’s hard to focus on character development if you’re also trying to get the dialogue just right and worrying if you have told a good story. So the best practice is that in which you eliminate everything except the subject of the practice session. And I have a couple ideas for helping you do this:
- Narrow the scope for each writing session. If you’re working on character development. Don’t start out trying to write a story with rich, three-dimensional characters. Write a simple character sketch. Keep it simple. In fact, each practice session, until you’re ready to move to a new topic, you could work on the same sketch, just keep enlarging and enriching it. Maybe you start with the physical attributes of a character in one practice session. The next time you look at quirks, ticks, things unique to your character. And later you get into personality, motivation and behavior. Don’t worry about creating dialogue for your character. Don’t try to place her in the context of a story.
- Tell yourself at the beginning of each session exactly what you want to achieve during the session. If you’re working on sensory description, for example, tell yourself something like this: I’m standing in my garden; I want to enable my readers to smell what I smell in the air around me. You could also say I want my readers to feel they are standing beside me experiencing this garden as I am, but remember my suggestion above to keep the scope narrow. This would be a good practice exercise but only after you have worked on all the senses and are ready to blend them. So have a focus of your practice session…and go slow.
- Our Writing Alchemy system of Deconstruction and Construction trains you to concentrate on each of the essential elements of writing one at a time. We’ve been teaching our workshops for three years now and we’re offering sessions through Story Circle Network (we still have slots for the spring offering of Writing Fast, Writing Deep (Introductory Quick Start). And our book Writing Alchemy will be out in April.
- If you need to work on plotting, theme and message and other issues related to your storytelling, then again try to eliminate as many of the variables as possible. If you want to practice developing plots, then don’t spend your time trying to think up characters and places. Rely on other resources to fill in the variables that don’t directly involve plotting. Pick up a magazine and look for a story you can “steal” for your practice purposes. Look for character names, places, etc. It’s the plotting that is the focus of your practice. You can even take characters and a scene out of a novel and write a new plot. What Matilda and I do is use our StoryMap: The Neverending Writing Prompt(tm). You’ll have a whole town of people, places and things to use in plotting your stories. Make up a quick scenario and then focus on writing a theme and message. Next session work on plotting. And if you want to really carry your original storyline forward, move into character development, emotions, dialogue and more.
I hope this starts you on the path toward “perfect practice.” Remember, the smaller you start–the narrower the scope of your task–the easier it will be to focus all your energy on being as perfect as possible.