For the Daydreamers:
Improving your Craft Quickly(ish)
Tell me true: if you could find a magic pill that would suddenly make you really good at [insert creative field of your choice here], you would take it, wouldn't you?
I know I would.
As I discussed on Twitter yesterday, there are 4 stages when it comes to learning something new:
- Unconscious incompetence*
- Conscious incompetence
- Conscious competence
- Unconscious competence
Right now, I'm in stage #2 as I teach myself how to work in Unity and code in C#. I mean, I just wanna make video gaaaaaaames! Why is there so much I have to learn?!
Oh boy do I want that magic pill.
But something kinda special happened not long after I tweeted the above thread: I leveled up my skills.
How do I know I leveled up? Because some pieces finally clicked. Really basic, introductory pieces, but I felt that satisfying click! in my brain all the same, where I didn't need a tutorial or library book to do something.
And look, all I did was make a cube that could "spawn" itself infinitely and adhere to the rules of gravity. It wasn't anything fancy. But hey, that's more than I could do a week ago! And the excitement of that milestone kept me motivated as I moved onto studying the next skill.
And that excitement also got me thinking -- because of course, this isn't the first time I've taught myself how to do something completely new.
When I decided I wanted to be a published author, I had no idea what was in store for me. Clearly I figured it out, though. And interestingly, I've been following many of the same practices right now that I did back then -- and these are practices that have proven time and time again to work for me.
Now look, before I get into this I want to say two things. First: there is no magic pill, and anyone who promises you one (like a lot of writing books I see for sale on Amazon) is full of crap. Writing is hard; writing quality is even harder; there are no short cuts.
The second thing I want to say is that the tips I describe below are nothing revolutionary. It's possible you already practice some or even all of them. However, my hope is that seeing these tips laid out in a hierarchical fashion (I do love my hierarchies, don't I?) will help you fine tune what you're already doing.
*This is basically every mansplainer ever, amirite?
Step 1: Build your Foundation
I've talked about this before in detail, but it's one of those things that can never be repeated enough. You can't write a novel if you don't know the basics.
Oh sure, someone out there will argue with me. They likely believe they're the exception to the rule -- they read so many books! Or watch so many movies! They feel certain they can write a novel without ever actually studying plot or character arcs or world building or beyond.
And sure, maybe there are a handful of people out there with amazing raw talent who could write a masterpiece with absolutely no training. BUT 99.999999999999+% OF US CANNOT. Whatever we write will be a mess; it will not be publishable or even entertaining.
But ugh, Sooz. I'm reading your post so I don't have to study!
Nope. Unfortunately, this step cannot be skipped. If you want to improve quickly, you have to know the most basic building blocks of what you're doing.
No magic pills, remember?
Besides, how can you expect to write a character that propels the plot if you don't actually understand what "character motivation" means? Or how can you build a world that sings if you don't understand the meaning of infodump or pacing?
Even knowing what those words mean won't suddenly give you an amazing novel, but not knowing will most certainly harm your story.
Note: If you want some resources for learning the basics of craft, I will direct you to my website. I've written A LOT over the years, and it's all free. But, as I discuss below, don't ever rely on only one resource or one format. There are hundreds of books on craft, hundreds of workshops and Youtube videos and podcasts. Explore them all!
Now, if you're pulling out your hair right now and wishing for that magic pill, I get it. I really do. Like I said above, I am in stage 2 right now with learning Unity and C#. I have just learned just enough to realize how much I don't know, and the entire road ahead of me looks very daunting indeed.
But I've done this before, and always, always, I started with the basics. I spent months devouring every resource I could find on the craft of writing -- exactly as I'm doing right now with game design. Introductory terms, building blocks, how they work together -- you gotta learn it all.
And, while I personally learn all that new terminology and concepts, I also practice applying it. Which leads me to...
Step 2: Apply What You Learn As Often As Possible
While you're learning new concepts and terms, use that knowledge as often as you can.
Right now, as I'm learning Unity and C#, I'm going through tutorial after tutorial. I'm following along, mimicking what I see, and then trying to repeat what I just learned on my own. When I'm not working on a new skill, I'm thinking about it. I go to sleep and literally dream about colliders and Rigidbody and LateUpdate() -- and it's exhilarating
. Because I know my brain is working hard.
And the great thing about tutorials is that they allow me to learn + apply what I learn + repeat again and again.
When it comes to writing (or storytelling in general), tutorials aren't really an option. No one can walk you through writing a romantic comedy word by word. I mean, I suppose they could, but I don't think that would be a quick or efficient way to learn the craft.
Instead, with writing and storytelling, we apply what we learn by:
- Writing a lot
- Critiquing a lot
Step 2A: Writing a Lot
When I was first trying to write For Real back in 2008, I actually wrote
a novel** while I studied then craft. Then, whenever I learned something new, I would go to my current project and apply it.
Ultimately, that meant the book was a giant MESS. I was constantly going back to strengthen a character arc because I'd learned about GMC. Or I'd go in and cull dialogue tags because I'd learned only "said" was okay!***
As such, by the time I finished the book, I was completely sick of the story from having redone it a thousand times. Perhaps more importantly, I had learned enough about craft to see that the story simply was not savable.
But boy had I learned a lot, and the next book I wrote in the fall of 2009? It was none other than Something Strange & Deadly
, which I sold to HarperTeen a year later.
**It was about a board game designer at Dragon*Con. How on brand is that?
**This is a rule I actually disagree with. But it's one of those that's important to know and practice before you break it. As are most creative rules, to be honest. Anyone who thinks they can break them without first learning and applying them is definitely in stage #1.
Step 2B: Critiquing a Lot
This step is the KEY to learning craft quickly. In fact, it is the closest to a magic pill you're going to find.
It's like immersion in language learning -- nothing will teach you a new language faster than being dumped into another country and forced
to figure it out. Why? Because you are immersed. You are constantly exposed to the new language, and there's no escaping it.
We want to recreate that with our writing craft through critiquing.
I don't mean critiquing other people's stories (although that can be part of it). I mean critiquing every single story you encounter.
Watching a movie? Analyze what you did and didn't like. Break it down and dig in. Use the terms you're learning, too.
Hallmark commercial? Figure out what instantly made you connect and sob.
Reading a book? Take notes on how the author frames dialogue. How they show a character through small, in-scene actions. How they sink deeply into POV. How they use language to paint a setting.
Wherever there is story, I want you to BREAK IT DOWN TO ITS MOST FUNDAMENTAL PIECES. Nothing will be safe from your atom-splitting ray gaze.
I actually talk more extensively about this approach here
. It is a skill you can learn now, but that will continue to help you for the rest of your life. By learning to analyze other stories, you can constantly push your own writing to the next level.
That said, I do
feel like I should warn you that the atom-splitting ray gaze can sometimes ruin your enjoyment of stories. I struggle to turn off my inner editor when I read, and I am a really
tough critic when I watch movies or shows. But I also realize that, even if I am picking the story apart and it doesn't work for me, there IS something that works for others -- it wouldn't have been published/green-lit/streamed if there wasn't. So now the challenge is finding what does
make the story work.
Okay. So you're now fully immersed in story by writing, critiquing, and studying. The last step is actually a sort of fusion of steps 1 + 2.
It is the extra special sauce that will really ramp up the speed at which you learn.
Step 3: Do not settle for just one.
When you are learning the basics, do not rely on a single resource. One book on plot isn't going to teach you plot and story structure. Four books on plot aren't going to teach you.
Four books + three online workshops + twenty-three Youtube videos + fourteen blog posts...Okay, we're getting closer.
You see, the more formats you can launch at your brain, the more it's going to absorb.Why? Because you're presenting the same terms and concepts in a hundred different ways -- so oh yeah, now the brain is really starting to understand.
I personally like to study my varied resources simultaneously. I realize that might be too disorganized for other people, but it has worked well for me time and time again.
What do I mean by simultaneously? I mean that I read/watch/study every resource I can find on a subject, but before I finish one, I pick up another...then another...then another. Then I circle back to the first and read more...go back to #2. #3. On and on -- a constant cycle of overlap.
So for example, right now, I have a text book on game design, two more text books on specifically
designing games in Unity and C#, and then two more books dedicated to coding in C#. I'm also taking two online courses, and
I've been following the dedicated Unity in-program tutorials.
It's a lot. I get that. But I have now covered the same basic introduction to game design concepts + using Unity + coding in C# six different ways
. I have repeated the same steps enough times to be able to do them without thinking.
So now I'm ready to move onto the next, more advanced level in the books I have + online courses I'm taking. And I will, yet again, overlap my studies with each, until the next round of concepts, terms, and steps are burned into my brain.
That's why I say above, go to my website
, but don't stop there! Find all the resources you can, and even if things get redundant, keep studying anyway.
IMMERSE YOURSELF IN ALL POSSIBLE WAYS!
My time for devoting to study is limited. Soon, I'll have to dive into the next Witchlands book and set my self-teaching aside. Before that happens, though, I'm going to learn as much as I can as quickly as I can.
And I'll do that
by learning the basics from as many angles as possible while immersing myself in game design through tutorials, practice, and constant analysis of the games I play.
For those of you trying to learn writing craft quickly, I urge you to do the same: learn the basics from as many angles as possible, and at the same time, immerse yourself in story by writing and critiquing. It will still take a lot of time to learn -- don't get me wrong. Writing a novel isn't easy, and the sheer act of putting words on the page takes most people (even the ones who know what they're doing) many, many months, if not years.
But don't look at that long road ahead. Look only at today and what you can tackle right now
You tell me:
What are your tips for learning a new skill quickly?