finding my swimming pool
I’ve been re-reading The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle (which I originally wrote about here), and was struck by an anecdote about the Z-Boys, amazingly talented skaters from southern California who honed some of their skating chops by roaming drought-struck suburban neighborhoods and finding empty swimming pools to skate in. Like futsal for soccer players (which Coyle also writes about), the swimming pool sessions gave the skaters the means to practice at the edges of their abilities in concentrated bursts, with a high degree of focus.
Coyle goes on to give an example from the literary world: the Brontë sisters, and all the stories they wrote as children in the shared fantasy world of Gondal (often using characters lifted pretty much wholesale from their own favorite authors) — which makes me think of Thieves World and other shared universes. So that’s one possible path for developing writing skill in collaboration. But I’m also interested in those swimming pools. What is the literary equivalent, that will quickly get a fiction writer skating out at the edges of her abilities, pushing what she can do with prose?
It may come down to a few simple things, some already well known. The scene is the capsule that contains many of the things a writer needs to be able to do well, so focusing there seems useful. In a scene, you ground the reader in your imagined world through sensory detail; you reveal character and move the plot forward through action, reaction, and dialog; you draw the reader in with the voice and language you employ. Probably other things, too, but that’s a pretty good list to start with.
So deep practice for a fiction writer could look like immersing oneself in a scene, working and reworking it in a short burst of extremely focused attention, going back over it and looking at it from a different angle, word by word, phrase by phrase, and sentence by sentence. Since a scene is usually around 800-1,200 words long (your mileage may very), it’s something that can be drafted in one sitting, so it fits that part of the skater/swimming pool model.
How can we build in the “at the edges of your talent” part? Some of that may happen naturally as the writer narrows her focus down to ONE scene, trying to make it fire on all cylinders before moving on to another one (as opposed to doing a crash-through draft and then coming back to fix things).
Maybe there are additional restrictions one could place on the scene-for-practice, like using a specific character or writing in a specific genre or using a particular setting — perhaps going for options you wouldn’t normally choose, specifically to get yourself out to the edges of your ability.
As a result of all this, I’ve started writing one scene first thing in the morning during my regular writing time. Since I’m still doing the planning work for the next novel project, I’ve been playing with whatever comes up, and will post a few samples here as I go.