Years (and years) ago, I danced. One of my teachers liked to remind us again and again (and again) that just because we’d arrived in the advanced levels didn’t mean we were allowed to slack off. And she also made sure to stress again and again (and again) that should any of us go far enough as to get a job in a company, our dance education was not even close to being over. Just because we would have a contract, just because we would have acquired the label of “professional”, just because we would be getting paid for our work did not mean we were “done”.
She advised us to continue taking class, to continue learning and striving to improve our technique at every opportunity. Because even though we would be professional dancers with our shiny new contracts and salaries, it didn’t mean we wouldn’t be dropped like a hot rock if we didn’t achieve the potential they’d spotted in us when they’d decided to take us on. If we didn’t continue forward with the mentality of students, we’d never rise through the ranks of the company. If we didn’t keep working, we’d stagnate. We would simply… stop.
Now, of course, I’m going to swing this thing around and make it all about writing.
I have one book published. I’ve had several short stories published. I’m about to see my second novel released later this year. But by no means does any of this indicate that I’m anywhere near complete with my writing education. Every story, every chapter, every page is about acquiring more knowledge, breaking bad habits, tightening up punctuation, grammar, prose, dialogue, characterization, foreshadowing… The list goes on (and on).
When I finished my first book, when I saw it on sale, when I saw that people were reading it, I felt a bit of pride, but that pride came more from having finished something than from thinking I had produced a great and stunning work of literary genius. Because, well… it most definitely wasn’t. (That’s right, Quenby. SELL YOURSELF.) Instead, I look back at that story and realize how far I’ve come in a year (and a few months). My writing is tighter now. It’s better. But it’s still not great, and nowhere near where I hope it will someday be.
Because as long as I’m still here, still able to type and make up worlds in my head, I am still trying my best to improve. I want every story I write to be better than the one that came before it. To do this, I have to study. Not like sitting down with homework and assignments at the end of every day, it’s much looser than that.
The first thing I do is read. A lot. I find out what works in other people’s books. I find out why it works. I find out how to apply those elements that work to my own writing.
Another way I’ve learned is from critiquing other people’s work. Not just reading for the pleasure of reading, but reading and breaking down those stories into their barest parts, and figuring out how to rebuild those parts into something even better.
And finally, I’ve learned so much by simply continuing to write. As much as I can, even if it’s nothing more than going over plot points in my head while driving to work.
Because when a body stops moving (or when a dancer stops taking class, if I want to jump back to that example) the muscles begin to atrophy. The technique gets sloppy. The flexibility is lost and joints get tight. And it’s the same with writing. If I don’t keep working at it, through reading and critiquing and writing, I’ll lose what meager talent I have at this whole writing gig. And so I have to remind myself that I am still a student and I am still seeking to improve myself. No matter how many books I may publish, no matter how many stories I may create, I am still learning.