Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Don't Waste Your Time with Courses: Put them to work!

I began my day by writing a sex scene. I don't write erotica, and the scene is not part of a work in progress. It's homework for an excellent course by Max Adams. (I've taken almost all of her courses, and they have provided me with amazing value as I've sought to improve my writing.)

I'm a big believer in continuing to study writing, for writers of all levels. Obviously, the right teacher in the right course can help developing writers to master the skills needed to find success. But, just as classical musicians continue to study with coaches and instructors even after they have become renowned soloists, I see a benefit in even experienced writers seeking out teachers who can introduce them to new ideas, identify weaknesses, and prod them into doing better.

Courses and workshops can provide the impetus to become more productive (meaning raising quality as well as wordcount), but this is not always the case. In fact, I see many writers of talent and ability gliding through courses as a means to avoid writing. It can become one more of those insidious distractions that Kristan Higgins calls “writerly activities.” Doing exercises, absorbing lectures, and engaging in class discussions is real work, but it doesn't mean anything unless the lessons are applied to manuscripts intended for publication. With that in mind, I'd like to suggest a few rules for those who want to keep their coursework in balance.

  1. Spend as much time on your work in progress as you do on your class activities. For intense courses, this may be difficult to accomplish for any given 24 hour period. It is best to make an estimate of the length of time–3 days, 5 days, a week, a month—within which you want the times to equal out before the class begins. Then, you need to track the time the time you spend working in the class and keep your commitment to yourself.
  2. On any given day, apply a lesson from the class to your work in progress. This doesn't have to be a lesson from the same day. In fact, it is generally difficult to apply to many lessons over a short period of time, and that can lead to a disorganized and fractured approach to composition. But keeping a focus on the true purpose of the course through direct activity will help you to get more value from the instruction and will help you avoid consuming more courses than you can use.
  3. Get out of your comfort zone. It's good to select the course that is not directly related to your effort and that you have doubts about from time to time. Certainly, if you want to master plotting, it's good to take a course that deepens your knowledge and sharpens your skills in that area. However, if you are repeatedly taking courses on one subject, it's good to ask yourself why. It may be better to head into an area with the possibility of fresh ideas, mistakes, and failure.
  4. Keep a list of key ideas from a course and make sure you try them out in your work sometime in the future. I suggest actually creating a handwritten (with full sentences), and checking off each item once you feel that you have achieved mastery in the works you're writing for publication. You may even want to put the items on the list onto specific calendar dates to remind you to put them into effect. Too often, only a few ideas from a course work their way into practice and many that might have real value are forgotten within days of the completion of the course.
  5. Take a vacation from courses if they are getting in the way of your writing. Courses can be as big a distraction as video games or television or social media. Now, none of these are bad in and of themselves. In moderation all of them can enhance your work. But they can also claim too much of your time. And courses, in particular, can provide and unwarranted righteous feeling that an hour wasted watching American Pickers can't. That's what makes them dangerous.

Obviously, I don't want to discourage people from getting the real value that courses offer. (I expect to take several courses this year, and I'll be teaching fifteen courses and workshops myself.) But, the writing must always come first. Remind yourself that you are primarily a producer of art (or entertainment or content or whatever you choose to call it), not a consumer. And allocate your time and attention appropriately.

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