Author Toolbox Blog Hop: Learning how to write

When I took a step back at the end of the 2017 to think about what I wanted to accomplish writing-wise in 2018, I reflected on the times I felt most excited about writing. As I was making my list, a specific trend emerged: I was most excited about writing when I felt I was learning the most about it. Whether it was through reading blogs in the Author Toolbox Blog Hop or taking classes with the Gotham Writers Workshop1, learning about writing inspired me to write more.

So I’ve decided to be more intentional in my writing goals for 2018. Yes, I have my word count targets, submissions milestones, et cetera, but I’ve decided to incorporate more writing practice into my, well, writing practice. As much as I like to think that I can learn writing simply by doing it—by writing short stories and novels and revising and rewriting and repeating the cycle over and over—the classes I took last year helped me realize the value of writing just to practice a particular element of storytelling.

For this blog post, I’ve decided to share the current iteration of my learning plan for 2018. This will likely change as I figure out what’s realistic in terms of daily tasks, but I’m excited for what I’ve laid out so far.

Part I: Back to the basics

I recently took a trip through memory lane and looked at essays I wrote through my undergraduate years. Aside from the numerous lab reports (all of which I’m really proud of; I put a lot of work into those and it really showed), there are only two, maybe three, essays that I felt were decent pieces of writing.

So I’m re-immersing myself in the world of expository writing. While this isn’t strictly improving my fiction writing, by re-learning expository writing I hope that I’ll be a more effective communicator overall. Plus, expository writing doesn’t have to be a bone dry subject. I’m taking advantage of MIT OpenCourseWare2 and will be going through the syllabus for the class Writing and the Environment3. It won’t be a perfect imitation; I have limited access to some of the main textbooks and I won’t have the same kind of collaborative environment found in a college classroom, but it’s a start.

And I’ll be spacing out the readings and assignments like I’m taking a real college class4. My first assignment is “due” next week. Hopefully by the end of April I’ll have a few halfway decent essays and have a deeper understanding of composition, all while learning more about environmental science.

Part II: Daily practice

As I mentioned earlier, one of the most useful parts of taking the Gotham Writers classes was having regular exercises that focused on a specific part of storytelling. The exercises would never go on for more than ten minutes, and though I very rarely incorporated what I generated in those exercises into a story, the practice pieces informed the stories I did eventually complete.

So I’ll be including short, ten-minute writing exercises as part of my daily writing routine. I’ll be planning out my exercises at the beginning of the week, writing down the daily prompts in one place so that I don’t have to spend too much time every day hunting for a decent prompt. This also allows me a chance to think about what story element I want to practice. This month is all about characters, so I’ve been compiling decent character-building prompts. Though I often make my own prompts (I’ve often found writing prompts to be largely disappointing; more on that subject in a later blog), I’ve found some decent character prompts through resources like Writer’s Digest5, Poets & Writers6, and Writing Exercises7.

Part III: Reading more intentionally

Every year I set my Goodreads challenge8 at 50 books, and every year I’ve failed to reach that goal. (To be fair to myself, if I actually took advantage of the “reread” feature on the site, I think I would actually reach the 50-book goal. However, I don’t think my annual reread of the Harry Potter series really counts; I want to read 50 new books every year.)

This year, my goal is still 50 books, but I’m also going to be more intentional with my book choices. As nice as it is to read widely, in genres I would normally have no business reading (the Outlander series is a guilty pleasure of mine), I also recognize that I must have a deeper familiarity with my chosen genre of literary fiction.

So this year I hope to focus on reading American literary classics, contemporary literature, as well as more nonfiction. In addition to being more focused in my choice of reading material, I want to regularly reflect on the books I read. I’ve done this informally for years, in my journals and in the odd book review blog, but I want to be more systematic about reflecting on my reading. Nothing too heavy, just answering questions like “What made the book an enjoyable read?” or “What did I not like about this book?” or “What do I think of the treatment of the subject matter?”

Why am I studying writing?

2017 was a mixed bag of writing for me. Some highlights of the year included taking classes with Gotham, volunteering to read submissions for a few literary publications, and starting to submit my own work to literary magazines I’ve been reading regularly. But I also failed in a few ways that were disheartening. I started several blog posts only to let them languish in my drafts. I wrote 40,000 words of a new novel during the first half of the year, but I haven’t added any more words to it since June. I missed deadlines for literary magazines. I failed the aforementioned Goodreads challenge. I failed all my NaNoWriMo and Camp NaNoWriMo attempts in 2017, whereas I blasted through them in 2016.

To me, my failures were all clues that something needed to change about the way I was going about writing, and figuring out the patterns of what excited me most has helped me decide what to change. Plus, there will never be a point in my life where my writing reaches “perfection”—whatever that is. Writing will be a lifelong pursuit, and I will be constantly learning new things in order to keep growing as a writer. This learning plan that I’ll be testing out this year will hopefully extend beyond this year, into the rest of my writing career.

What about you? What are you learning this year?

This post was written as part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop organized by the human dynamo, Raimey Gallant. Every month, authors at all stages of their career blog about specific resources/learning opportunities for fellow writers. To continue hopping through other great blogs in the monthly #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, click here.

Header image from Pixabay.

[1] Gotham Writers Workshop

[2] MIT OpenCourseWare

[3] Writing and the Environment, Spring 2005

[4] Google Calendar of W&E “due dates”; follow along if you’re interested!

[5] Writer’s Digest Weekly Writing Prompts

[6] Poets & Writers

[7] Writing Exercises

[8] My 2018 Goodreads Challenge

Published by Caroliena Cabada

Caroliena Cabada is a writer currently based in Lincoln, Nebraska. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing, Fiction, from University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her writing has been published in online and print journals and anthologies, and has been selected for Best Small Fictions 2021.

20 thoughts on “Author Toolbox Blog Hop: Learning how to write

  1. I think I’m going to take a couple of leaves out of your book and join some of these open courses you shared here. My most important goal for this year is to write every day and I too have always felt more motivated to write as I am learning about the craft. I think it’s been the primary determinant that made me a good student throughout school and university – the need to prove to myself that I can apply my learnings.
    And my annual re-reads are the HP books and Pride and Prejudice.

  2. I’m on the learning train too! I’m under no assumption that I will ever reach a point where I can stop. Good on you for taking a targeted approach. Have you joined Litsy yet? It’s great for recommendations. Let me know if you join, and I’ll shout you out to my following and get you a bunch of followers. 🙂

  3. Reading with intent is a great way to learn what works and what doesn’t. And rereading helps you to catch the flaws, the nuances, the brilliance and the annoying little lapses that you missed the first time around. My Goodreads challenge this year is 50 books — and some of them are rereads (books I haven’t looked at in at least five years, though I might read a couple of favourites too). I’ve reread a trilogy this month and wow! The things I saw when I read it again… Let’s just say that I found that I’ve grown as a writer and that I can appreciate this story more (the first time I didn’t get the ending 😉 ).
    Taking writing classes and studying different techniques will definitely up your writing game — I know it did me a world of good in 2016 and 2017.
    Then, when you’re ready, setting realistic writing goals and deadlines will make you more productive. We are all apprentices in this art, though we can have moments of mastery if we consistently work hard.
    Good luck!

  4. Sounds like you are tackling craft in a dedicated, class-like way. That is sure to help you improve. I especially like how you plan to read more intentionally. Once I started to do this, I started learning rapidly while also enjoying myself inside the stories of others. It’s such a win-win, especially if you know your own weaknesses and can see how other authors deal with those same things!

  5. I’m setting some goals for 2018 as well. Most of them geared toward expanding my readership on my blog, but I have some fiction goals as well. Best of luck

  6. Looks like you have a good plan in place. It’s great to find techniques that help you learn – you have to know what works for you.
    I’m working through the diyMFA book this year, and I’m also studying editing/revising techniques as I am prepping a manuscript for publication this year.

  7. I think constantly challenging ourselves to grow and learn more about writing is one of the most important parts of being a writer. This year I’m going to really focus on learning new techniques to speed up my rewriting process, as I want to maintain a consistent publishing schedule and that simply isn’t possible at my current pace.

    I also want to learn more non-writing things, as I developed a rather nasty case of tunnel vision in the past few months. Already working on that with some free visual arts programs run by a local nonprofit 🙂

  8. I love to study writing. 🙂 Last year, I struggled with writing, so this year I am doing a lot of what you’re doing and getting back to basics and practicing.

  9. I actually went back to school to get my MA in English Literature, and I also really want to improve the number of books I read. I’ve read three so far this month, so I’m on track to meeting my goodreads challenge! 🙂

  10. You shouldn’t look on 2017 as a writing failure. You gained experience, you’re a better writer now than then. It’s all good. Keep on learning and improving. The time to worry is when you stop caring and learning. Thanks for your insights and happy 2018 writing.

  11. I love the steps you are taking in writing this year. I feel any writing improves our craft. We learn from everything we do.
    I would love to try the 10-minute writer exercise. I would like to have a little more variety in my writing and I think that would be a great way to do it. Thanks for providing links to some of the prompts you use. I will check them out.
    Good luck with the MIT course. I am sure you will rock it.

  12. Caroliena: What a marvelous post — your dedication and heartfelt pursuit of craft are inspiring — love how you’ve looked back and thought hard about the why and the what for 2018!  Louise

  13. I love how you are changing up your focus for the year. I learned so much with regular writing exercises and yes, that’s the key. Keep writing. And keep reading books you would love to write yourself. I wish you the best of luck in the new year 🙂

  14. This is such a great post Caroliena, your goals for the year are really inspiring. I failed my Goodreads challenge last year too, but I’ve cut mine down a bit this year so I don’t feel overwhelmed and give up (I’m expecting my first baby in April so audiobooks will be my main reading this year!). I think going back to your college essays to see how your writing has developed and changed, and how you could use it to improve, is such a good idea, although I’m fairly sure I’d be mortified if I reread most of mine now! Best of luck with your goals, don’t worry if you fall behind with one or all of them, just pick up where you left off and keep going! 🙂

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