The Skill List Project: Reading Analytically

[Note: The following article was written in March 2011. It’s here because I’m migrating old posts from a different site to my current one.]

This is another post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. Last time around, we talked about Reading judiciously. At the end of that posting, I made the rash promise to show “judicious reading” in action: I’d pull apart a sample piece of writing to see what we could get out of it.

Theoretically, a writer should be able to learn from any passage of prose. We could, for example, look at the infamous Eye of Argon, a piece often mentioned when people talk about atrocious writing. “Eye of Argon” isn’t a book, but it has enough awfulness to fill a trilogy.

But let’s not take cheap shots at the work of an earnest amateur—heaven knows, I wrote some really wretched stuff when I was starting out. Instead, let’s look at an actual SF classic. To avoid violating copyright, I’ve decided on The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells, available at Project Gutenberg and practically every library in the English-speaking world.

A background note: the book was published in 1898. Wells had already written The Time MachineThe Island of Dr. Moreau, and The Invisible Man, so he’d laid the groundwork for…well…most of modern science fiction. (Yes, Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, et al. got the ball rolling, but Wells was like an interstellar portal through which science fiction jumped into whole new worlds.) On the other hand, Victorian readers had seen “England invaded” stories before—the late 1800′s saw a rash of “military thriller” novels in which Britain was invaded by Germany or France or some other bunch of detestable foreigners—but Wells was the first to use extraterrestrials.

Let’s see how he did it.

Reading Like a Writer

The book starts with a quotation from the astronomer Johannes Kepler:

But who shall dwell in these worlds if they be inhabited? . . . Are we or they Lords of the World? . . . And how are all things made for man?–

Never underestimate the effectiveness of a quotation, especially from a long-dead person with a reputation for authority. It makes you sound like someone who knows things; it gives you credibility. Now here’s the first paragraph of the actual text:

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.

What stands out most about this passage is its heightened language: the use of lengthy complex sentences and high-blown words like infusoria. This is over the top, even by Victorian standards…and Wells was perfectly capable of writing more simply. (Compare the above paragraph with the straightforward opening of The Invisible Man.) So what is Wells up to? And does it work?

I think Wells is doing several things simultaneously. First, he aims to establish an elevated tone for his story. At its heart, this is a book about invasion by Martians: a lurid topic, and there are plenty of lurid episodes as the action unfolds. Wells wants to avoid descending into lowbrow territory. He’s telling the reader, “This isn’t cheap titillation. This is stuff you should really think about.”

Second, Wells is introducing us to his narrator: a highly-educated man given to soliloquizing. You can’t tell from this single paragraph, but the book is told in the first person by a man who writes philosophical articles. You can see a hint of this in the sentence, “It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days.” These aren’t the words of a detached third-person narrator; they suggest a specific man looking back on his past. I also think Wells is setting up for a tone-of-voice transition over the course of the book—this man, who makes his living from being a public intellectual, is eventually going to be reduced to a craven fugitive hiding in wrecked buildings and scrounging for half-rotten food. By elevating the character at the beginning of the book, Wells can increase the depths of the character’s fall.

Third, and very importantly, the paragraph conveys a sense of menace. The Martians are inhuman geniuses who view humans as if we were bacteria. Earthlings are naïve and complacent, believing themselves to be smarter than anyone else. This is not going to end well for humanity. And of course, setting up a sense of foreboding is a tried and true technique for starting a story: you hook the reader by suggesting that something awful is about to happen. People will keep reading to see how it turns out. (I can’t stress enough how useful a sense of foreboding can be in stories where it’s appropriate. Make the reader shiver, even if the plot’s action starts out subdued.)

Finally, let’s go back to that bit about the Martians viewing humans as bacteria. The first time you read it, this just seems like a simple metaphor tossed off for dramatic effect. But once you know how the book ends (spoiler warning!), you have to tip your hat to Wells for mentioning micro-organisms in the very first sentence. Comparing humans to germs is a clever bit of business, and in hindsight, it means something much different than it seems initially. I love it when a writer gets sneaky.


I imagine most people reading this post have done this type of analysis before—you were forced to do something similar in high-school English class. But it’s one thing to look at prose when a teacher is asking you to jump through hoops for marks, and quite another to do it for yourself when you’re trying to learn to write.

Let me offer a set of questions suggested by what we just looked at. In any passage of prose, what is the effect of the tone of voice? What do you learn about the character and viewpoint of the narrator? What mood is established by the content (apart from the bare narrative facts)? Is the writer playing tricks you can learn from? If you look at questions like this, you can learn a lot from both good and bad prose.

The Skill List Project: Reading Judiciously

This is another post  in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. Last time around, we talked about Reading Voraciously. This time around, we’ll look at reading judiciously: the skill of reading in order to learn from other writers.

Reading Like a Writer

In an essay in About Writing, Samuel R. Delany offers a list of observations containing the following (p. 127):

5. It is almost impossible to write a novel any better than the best novel you’ve read in the three to six months before you began writing your own. Thus you must read excellent novels regularly.

6. Excellent novels set the standards for our own. But bad novels and bad prose are what teach us to write—by setting strong negative examples. You must read both, then—and read them analytically and discriminatingly.

As writers, we have to develop the skill of reading with doublethink—reading for enjoyment, but also reading in order to dissect, learn, and occasionally steal. We have to do both simultaneously. If we just enjoy, we miss the chance to figure out how the writer provides the enjoyment; if we just dissect, we become one of those irritating people who watches magic tricks solely to solve how the trick is done, thereby missing the magic. Such people may succeed in extracting formulas and techniques, but they blind themselves to the art…and the heart.

Paying Attention

So how do you learn to read like a writer? For me, it’s a matter of paying attention to the actual words on the page, not just the ideas and images that the words convey. For example, get a book that you think is particularly good and look at the opening page. What’s so good about it? What does the author do that grabs you? What are the exact words that create mood, establish setting, introduce characters, and whatever else the author is doing? Why do these particular words work? Are the sentences long or short? Is the vocabulary complex or simple?

Read the passage several times. What stands out? What grabs your attention? What resonates? What flows?

When we’re reading purely for enjoyment, we tend to zoom along without awareness of word choice, sentence construction, and paragraphing. We also zoom past important structural details like chapter breaks, sections within chapters, and authorial insertions. (I use the term “authorial insertion” for any inserted tidbit that’s outside the actual narrative. For example, chapter titles are insertions—real life doesn’t come with headings. Some books also put the date/time at the beginning of each chapter, or the name of the viewpoint character. Insertions may also include quotations or other interpolated material placed at the start of chapters and/or sections.)

To read like a writer, you have to ask, “What is the author doing here, and how does it affect the reading experience?” In a story that works, how does the author make it work? And in a story that doesn’t work, what does the author do wrong?

As Delany noted, reading bad prose can be illuminating. Get a book you didn’t enjoy and read a few pages several times. What’s wrong with the writing? Are there words that stand out as inappropriate? Is the flow confusing? Does the rhythm of the prose trip over itself? Is something wrong with the plot or the action? Do the characters seem unbelievable…and why? (And why does it matter? Lots of effective writing contains unbelievable characters. You’ll never meet someone as smart as Sherlock Holmes, as evil as Hannibal Lecter, as ultra-competent as Batman—but we can still love reading about them. Why do such characters work despite, or because of, their unbelievability?)

By reading bad books, we learn what fails and what we have to avoid. By reading good books, we learn how high we ought to set the bar. Both sides of the coin can inspire us. We yearn to be as good as the best; we look at the worst and say (in Spider Robinson’s immortal words), “By Jesus, I can write better than this turnip.”

But How Do You Actually DO It?

How do you dissect a passage of prose and learn from it? At the risk of falling flat on my face, next time I intend to take a sample of writing—preferably something out of copyright—and I’ll try to show how I would read it to learn something about writing. If anyone can think of a passage I should look at, by all means suggest it in the comments.

In the meantime, if you have helpful stories about learning from good or bad writing, please share them with us in the comment section. (Every writer in the world needs inspiration!)

The Skill List Project: Reading Voraciously

This is another post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. This time around, we’re looking at the hugely important skill of reading voraciously—reading widely in order to expand your horizons.

Reading For the Love of It

From time to time, I see diatribes from writing teachers who say they have students who don’t read—students who say they desperately want to be writers, but who simply don’t read books or writing of any kind. Apparently, this problem is rife among would-be poets: they want to write poems, but feel no need to read poetry by anyone else. In fact, these would-be poets seem pained by the very notion of reading either the classics (“Too old and boring”) or more contemporary work (“Too mundane or convoluted”).

I’ve seldom run into would-be SF writers who don’t read SF. However, I’ve met many beginners whose reading is very limited. They only read Heinlein…or they only read Tolkien and books exactly like Tolkien…or they can’t bear to read anything that wasn’t written in the last two years.

It makes me shudder. How can you write if you don’t love reading? And how can you love reading if you turn up your nose at 99% of what’s ever been written?

Of course, no one has time to read everything. Long ago, I faced up to the fact that there are countless good books, new and old, that I’ll never get around to reading (not to mention numerous books that aren’t good but that I should still read for cultural literacy—Twilight, I’m looking at you). We all have to be selective, and it’s tempting to stay inside our comfort zones: only reading books that are similar to books we’ve enjoyed in the past.

But that’s not loving books. That’s loving the memory of books—nostalgia for the way some book once made you feel. Loving books means being excited that you might make a new discovery. Your reading might grow.

Loving books means keeping an ear to the ground (e.g. through blogs, web sites, social media, and other sources of book reviews) in search of suggestions for what to read next. Loving books means checking the “What’s New” shelves at your library. Loving books means deliberately expanding your horizons beyond SF: mysteries, li-fi, romance, wuxia, science, history, politics, religion, poetry, plays, essays, and experimental none-of-the-above. Loving books also means reading outside your own subculture: books by people from different countries, different times, different classes, different ideologies, different sexual outlooks. Loving books may well mean strolling through the library and picking things off the shelf at random.

Inevitably, some of what you pick up won’t be rewarding enough to justify a large investment of time—you may read ten pages, then put the book down. That’s why I think it’s important to make a habit of going to the library; if you insist on owning every book you read, you’ll only make safe choices for fear of wasting your money. Writers really really have to break every habit of playing things safe.

Grist for the Mill

Why read outside your comfort zone? First, because there’s a lot of great stuff out there that you won’t find otherwise. Second, because it’s bad for the soul to refuse to read something merely because it was written in another country, or because it’s about people who believe things you don’t. Walling off your mind is another terrible habit you have to break.

But most of all, reading widely gives you material to write about. Years ago, I was a judge for the Sunburst Award, a prize given annually to an outstanding Canadian SF book. We judges had to read every fantasy/science fiction book written by Canadians that year…and the experience made me aware of how much different people brought to the table. Some writers quite obviously knew nothing outside their genre—the only material they had inside their heads was the same old stuff, used and re-used by other writers in the genre for the past umpteen years.

The most interesting writers, however, wrote about things I’d never seen before. The winning book dealt with violinmaking, and the process of canonizing Roman Catholic saints, and puppetry, and Commedia del Arte (as well as time travel, magic, and magic realism). In other words, the book had breadth and depth. The writer knew things I didn’t, and he put them on the page. That gave the novel a fullness and remarkable solidity…as opposed to the shallowness of so many other contenders.

The moral of the story is simple: writers ought to know stuff. They ought to know a lot about a lot of things—not just the stock material that’s been used in the genre for decades. You have to read widely, not just inside your favorite stomping grounds.

Other Suggestions?

I’m going to stick with reading for at least one more blog post, because I want to look at the skill of reading as a writer (as opposed to reading as a reader). Specifically, I want to talk about methodical reading, aimed at learning how to write better.

In the meantime, I’ll once again turn the podium over to you. What kind of reading do you think is important? What are the pros and cons of breadth of reading vs. concentrating on a particular genre? Do you have any tricks for finding good books outside your comfort zone? Have at it!

The Skill List Project: Punctuation and its Discontents

This is another post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. This time around, we’re looking at punctuation.

Chunking and Timing

Like grammar, the point of punctuation is to help you and your readers make sense of what you’re saying. In particular, punctuation splits up strings of words into chunks; each chunk should have some kind of unity, whether it’s unity of purpose, meaning, imagery, or something else significant. (For the geeks among us, punctuation marks are akin to HTML tags: they block out the syntactic and semantic elements that go together to make up the whole.)

The preceding paragraph demonstrates how this works. Each sentence (ending in a period) is intended to be a single unified thought. The semicolon in Sentence 2 breaks the sentence into two sub-thoughts that are related but semi-independent; the colon in Sentence 3 separates the statement of a thought from an explanation of that statement. The parentheses around Sentence 3 indicate that it’s a side-remark on the same subject as the rest of the paragraph, but looking at the topic from a different angle. The commas throughout the paragraph serve to separate phrases from other phrases, making it easier for readers to grasp which words go together as a unit. Commas also serve to separate elements in the list “purpose, meaning, …”.

Like all writing skills, punctuation usage has both a formal and an artistic aspect. There are ways you shouldn’t use commas, semicolons, etc. or else you’ll confuse your readers and make them think you’re a lousy writer. On the other hand, you also have plenty of freedom for artistic choice; this very sentence uses a semicolon to separate its two parts, but you could also make a case for using a colon or a dash. Each option might give a (slightly) different flavor to how a reader receives the sentence.

For formal details on how to use each punctuation mark, I’ll pump once again for The Deluxe Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. However, you might also check out style guides like the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage or (for us Canadians) the Canadian Press Style Book. These guides lay down consistent rules of usage. Some of their choices are arbitrary—let’s not open a flame war about the pros and cons of the serial comma—but for most writers, choosing a particular set of rules and sticking with it will do just fine. (Of course, some SF stories deliberately play games with punctuation to evoke alien ways of thought…but that’s post-grad pyrotechnics, and right now, I’m just talking about bread-and-butter punctuation skills.)

One thing that deserves mention: some novice writers mess up badly when they punctuate dialogue. They don’t pay attention to what goes inside and outside the quotation marks, how you separate dialogue from framing phrases, and so on. This is basic stuff where there’s very little wiggle room: the rules are well-established and pretty much cast in stone, so you look like an amateur if you get it wrong. Get a good reference book, read every word of the section on quotations, and follow the frickin’ formulas. This is not an area where you can just wing it, unless you’re going seriously po-mo. (P.S. If you don’t know what “po-mo” means, you’re not ready for punctuation improv.)

The Beginning of Rhythm

The artistic side of punctuation brings us to a subject we’ll deal with at length in a future post: rhythm. As far as I’m concerned, rhythm is as important in prose as it is in poetry; it’s just more subtle.

If prose doesn’t flow, readers stumble over the words. Either they have to go back and read the sentence again, or else they skip past the awkward bit until their eyes reach a more congenial phrase. You don’t want to train your readers to skip hunks of your writing. You want them engaged with every word, and that means writing with a rhythm that fits what you’re saying.

In some cases, you might choose long and languid passages; in others, you may want short and choppy. Whatever is appropriate or artistically appealing, punctuation is a crucial tool for shaping the timing of your words. Most obviously, periods break up your prose into sentences—lots of periods mean lots of sentences, which makes for a punchy effect. As for other types of punctuation, the old cliché says they tell the reader when to pause…and that’s true. Punctuation puts little pauses between words (like the ellipsis in the previous sentence), thereby giving you a tiny bit of control over the reader’s tempo. Just like a comedian, you can deliver lines faster or slower to produce a desired effect, using punctuation marks to influence someone’s reading speed.

This can, of course, be overdone. Woe betide you if you use so much punctuation that the reader feels manipulated. Apart from commas and periods, I try to avoid using the same punctuation mark twice in the same paragraph. This isn’t an ironclad principle, but it’s a useful rule of thumb. For example, if I’m tempted to use another colon in a paragraph that already has a colon, I consider it a warning flag: maybe I’m getting repetitive or overly convoluted. Most of the time I take the hint and find some other way to put my thoughts into words.

Other Suggestions?

Once again, it’s time to turn the podium over to you. Any thoughts or pet peeves about punctuation? How many exclamation marks can an author use before you start screaming? Talk that over, while I figure out the next skill that should be addressed. I’ve now covered the absolute basics—vocabulary, grammar, punctuation—so it’s time to move on to higher-level skills. Plotting? Characterization? Viewpoint? Hmm…

The Skill List Project: Learning to Love Grammar

This is another blog post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. This time around, we’re looking at another fundamental building-block of writing: grammar.

Making Sense

Grammar prevents you from tripping over your own feet. The point of grammar is to make your words make sense. This operates on (at least) two levels:

  • For readers: Grammar mistakes are like potholes—they make sentences bumpy and hard for readers to follow. If a grammar mistake is serious, readers may even misinterpret what you’re saying; they have to guess who’s doing what to whom, and they may guess wrong. Even if readers can figure out what you mean, they’ll likely decide it’s not worth the trouble. Poor grammar is apt to make people think, “This writer isn’t very smart.” That’s seldom the message you want to send.
  • For yourself: Sloppy grammar often goes hand-in-hand with sloppy thought. If, for example, your nouns and verbs don’t agree, you may not be envisioning the scene very well; otherwise, you wouldn’t confuse your words. When you can’t state something grammatically, you probably don’t understand it well enough to convey it to other people.

Of course, fiction-writing is an art and you may occasionally make an artistic decision to use sloppy grammar. For example, dialogue between characters is often “ungrammatical”; few of us speak in well-formed sentences 100% of the time. You may also choose to use “ungrammatical” constructs for effect—sentence fragments, for example, can deliver a snappy punch when used at the right place and time. However, it’s easy to overdo such tricks unless you know what you’re doing. Even when you’re writing in an informal tone of voice, you almost always want your prose to run smoothly and hang together. For the most part, that means good clear grammar.

Infinitives and Gerunds and Participles, Oh My!

Is it necessary to know the technical details: the pluperfect tense, the objective case, the subjunctive voice (or is it a mood)? It’s not absolutely essential—some people may be able to write grammatically without knowing the terminology for the constructions they’re using—but what would we think of carpenters who didn’t know the right names for their tools? How much confidence would we have in a computer programmer who said, “I don’t really know the rules of JavaScript, I just kind of wing it”? And if a gardener never bothered to learn the names of various flowers, wouldn’t we think something was wrong? Wouldn’t we consider these people to be lackadaisical about their jobs?

Grammar can certainly be complicated—I studied Latin for five years, and nothing beats Latin for making you aware of what a mare’s nest grammar can be—but finicky details matter. If you don’t know what the subjunctive is, how can you use it correctly? If you don’t know what the pluperfect is, how can you write a flashback? Besides, writers should want to learn how words go together, even when the concepts are difficult.

There are plenty of good books to help you. As a starting point, there’s the Old Reliable: The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. My favorite version is the one with illustrations by Maira Kalman, but any edition will do. Every library has a copy, and it’s a quick read. Strunk & White isn’t perfectly suited to writing fiction—it’s aimed more toward essays and nonfiction pieces—but it’s still worth reading (and rereading) for its sheer common sense and levelheadedness.

The Elements of Style is a good start, but it doesn’t cover grammar in depth. For that, my favorite textbook is The Deluxe Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon, a compendium of her books The Transitive Vampire (on grammar) and The Well-Tempered Sentence (on punctuation). Not only does Ms. Gordon cover all the bases, her examples always make me laugh, in a Bulwer-Lytton Contest sort of way. (Sample sentence demonstrating the pluperfect: “She had never pondered anything besides her fingernails before she met the troll.”)

As usual, however, the only good reference book is one that you’ll actually use. Go to the grammar section of the library, see what books are available, and find one that appeals to you. Read it carefully, so you’ll never have to worry about dangling participles, misplaced modifiers, and all those other slip-ups that open up potholes in your sentences.

Other Suggestions?

Now once more, I turn the podium over to you. How important do you think grammar is, and how can you go about improving it? (Does anyone diagram sentences anymore?) In the meantime, I’ll start working on the next installment of this project: punctuation and other persnickety perils.

The Skill List Project: Vocabulary

The last time I blogged here, I started The Skill List Project: an attempt to list the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. Why? Partly as a way for me to think about the many aspects of writing sf; partly to tell would-be writers about skills they should try to develop; but mainly as a forum for anyone interested in fiction to analyze what specific skills are involved and how those skills can be improved.

This time around, we’re looking at the most basic building-blocks of writing: words.


Practically speaking, no one can know and understand all the words in English, especially if we include regional idioms and specialized technical vocabularies…but damn it, a writer should try. Writers who don’t know words are like doctors who don’t know anatomy.

At a minimum, knowing a word means knowing how to spell it. (Spell-checking software is nice for catching typos, but it’s far too stupid to rely on as a substitute for using your brain.) Knowing a word also means understanding the word’s usage…the “proper” usage, as well as all the unspoken accretions that the word has picked up over time.

A few decades ago, the term “usage” implicitly meant “proper” usage: the gospel according to “leading experts.” My favorite dictionary (The Houghton Mifflin Canadian Dictionary of the English Language, now sadly out of print) sometimes had a “Usage” discussion at the end of a word’s definitions. For example, here’s the one from “hopefully”:

Hopefully, as used to mean it is to be hoped or let us hope, is still not accepted by a substantial number of authorities on grammar and usage. The following example of hopefully in this sense is acceptable to only 44 per cent of the Usage Panel: Hopefully, we shall complete our work in June.

I love picturing a panel of experts voting on when a word is acceptable; there’s nobility in trying to hold back the tide of verbal sloppiness. Furthermore, writers should be cognizant of what usages are and aren’t “correct”—that’s part of our jobs. We can still abuse the heck out of words for artistic effect, but if we do, we should do it deliberately, not out of ignorance.

Suitability and Flavors

Beyond considerations of “proper” usage, there’s a broader question: When does a word fit in a particular context? Words may have identical dictionary definitions but different flavors. For example, consider “smart”, “intelligent”, “clever”, and “shrewd”. Each means roughly the same thing, but they leave the reader with different impressions. “Shrewd” comes with a hint of amorality or outright dishonesty; “clever” often suggests “too smart for their own good”; “smart” is usually said approvingly, while “intelligent” feels more neutral, but may also mean “book-smart, not people-smart”.

Good writers recognize such differences in flavors, and capitalize on those differences in order to nudge readers in certain directions. If I describe a character as shrewd, it predisposes the reader to wonder if the character is up to no good. I don’t have to spell things out…and indeed, I may be deliberately playing with the reader’s expectations. Whatever I intend, it’s important for me to know how readers are going to react to “shrewd” as opposed to any comparable word I might use. I don’t want the flavors of my words to clash with what I’m trying to accomplish.

This is why you shouldn’t blindly pull words out of dictionaries or thesauruses: the literal definition of a word seldom tells you the extra flavors that the word conveys to knowledgeable readers. When people use words they don’t thoroughly understand, it can be painful—just think of the way we wince when someone attempts to use slang that they don’t really “get.” You have to know a word inside and out before you use it…and you should know as many words as possible, so that they’re available for you to use if and when you need them.

(Of course, just because you know a word doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for a particular story. But that’s a topic for another day.)

How do you learn as many words as possible? By reading anything you can get your hands on…especially stuff that goes beyond your same-old-same-old, whatever that is. When you come across a new word, write it down. Write down the context too, so you’ll remember how it was used. Look up the meaning in a dictionary, but also check with your favorite search engine for other appearances of the word so you can see it in action in a number of contexts. Keep finding occurrences of the word until it’s no longer a stranger to you. That’s when you’re ready to use it yourself.

Other Suggestions?

I’ll talk a lot more about words and word choice in some future posting, when I get around to skills associated with diction. For now though, I’ll turn the floor over to you: what are some tips for improving vocabulary, and really getting to know new words (as opposed to just making a passing acquaintance)? In the meantime, I’ll start working on the next installment of this project: learning to love grammar.

The Skill List Project

I recently re-read Twyla Tharp’s book The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life.  It’s one of a set of books I read every now and then to raise my sights and make me more ambitious in my work. Although Tharp is a choreographer, the book is a great source of inspiration for writers and for anyone else who wants to keep the creative juices flowing.

One of Tharp’s many pieces of advice is to analyze your own skill set.  What are your strengths and weaknesses?  What do you rely on too heavily?  Where are you lagging and how do you elevate your game?

This got me thinking: what are the skills involved in writing and selling fiction (particularly science fiction and fantasy)?  Is it possible to make a list?  And whether or not it’s possible, am I impulsive enough to try?

Well, heck, why not?

A Definitive List of Writing Skills?

So here’s the project I’m going to embark on.  Starting with my own ideas, and drawing on the expertise of others, I’ll take a crack at listing the skills that an sf writer should develop.

Let me lay down some ground rules:

  • I want to be fairly specific.  For example, I don’t just want to say, Must be able to write good dialogue.  What specific skills are involved in writing dialogue?  I’m thinking of everything from punctuating correctly (which seems to go over a lot of newbies’ heads) to actually listening to how people speak…from tailoring speech for individual characters to writing good “frames” around the dialogue (e.g. avoiding said-bookisms).  Let’s spell things out as best we can.
  • I want to suggest (or solicit) practical ways to improve these skills.  Sometimes this will be easy.  (There are lots of good books on punctuation; buy one and do what it says.)  Sometimes this will be hard: tailoring speech to individual characters isn’t just a matter of developing a good ear; it’s bound up with all the artistic mysteries of characterization.  Still, let’s see if we can come up with useful help for those of us who want to keep getting better.
  • I’ll always use the word “skill” rather than “talent” or “trait.”  This reflects my belief that writing abilities are learnable, not innate gifts that you’re born with or you aren’t.  Cognitive psychology has been studying expert performance for decades, and has found little evidence for inborn talent.  Instead, the people who do best in any field—from chess to sports, science, or music—are those who work hardest and smartest at getting good.  We don’t need “gifts” to succeed; we can always improve with the right kind of practice.
  • I recognize that certain skills are valued by some writers and not by others.  For example, I love first-person viewpoint, especially when the narrator has a quirky tone of voice; I will definitely put that on my list of desirable skills.  However, I’ve heard some writers call first-person “outdated” and “immature,” and I’ve heard readers say they want prose to be “as clear as glass,” with no “personality” intruding into “plain” descriptions.  Fair enough… but since I’m aiming for the most complete list possible, I’d like to include skills that are valued by a significant percentage of writers/readers, even if those skills aren’t universally admired.  (Hey, sf is a big genre—some people love when a book goes on for pages about a particular subject, while other people hate it.  Whichever way our preferences lie, we may still be able to learn something valuable by looking at the skills involved.)
  • I’d like us to chew on one area at a time.  For example, in response to this particular blog entry, I don’t think it will be useful if commenters immediately try to make their own comprehensive lists of skills.  Let’s keep our focus narrow, at least for the time being; let’s try for a little depth rather than broad shallow splats.

The Most Important Skill

So to kick off the discussion, here’s a question for commenters: What skill would you put at the top of the list? What’s the most important skill for a writer to have or develop?

Several answers leap to mind: discipline… curiosity… ambition… honesty… and of course, the ability to read voraciously.  These are all crucial, but for the sake of discussion, let me offer something a little more unexpected.  An sf writer must develop the capacity to respect and believe in imaginary things.

Look… I’m talking about writing fiction.  The people we’re writing about don’t exist.  Our settings may also be fictitious.  The events we describe may even be physically impossible.  Yet we have to buy into them completely, or our stories will be dead on the page.  If we don’t have belief and respect for what we’re doing, no other skill can compensate.

It’s a trick of doublethink: we know our characters aren’t real, and yet we have to feel they are.  We must do our best to be true to them and portray them honestly.  The same principle applies to the settings and events we deal with.

So how do we develop the ability to believe deeply in what’s not real?  I suspect most of us have that skill already—if you’re reading this blog, you’re probably drawn to sf and therefore to “unreal” things.  Like Mulder, you want to believe.

But there are still ways to improve your connection with fictitious people, places, and things.  How?  This trick of doublethink is something actors do all the time: they have to invest themselves emotionally in the realness of their characters, while simultaneously reciting prepackaged speeches as they stand on an obviously artificial theater or movie set.

How do actors do this?  To learn their techniques, why not read some books on acting, or even better, try some acting yourself.  For reading, a good starting point might be A Practical Handbook for the Actor.  However, there are plenty of acting-advice books out there; go to your library and see what you find.

To Infinity and Beyond

I now turn the floor over to you in the comments section: what do you think is the single most important skill for an sf writer?  Let’s talk about that for a while, and next time we’ll move on to the lowest-level basics—vocabulary, grammar, and punctuation.  (Ooo, I’m excited already!)