How to Learn this Art

The Basic Learning Activities

You are going to learn this art the same way you do anything else, by:

  • Doing (writing consistently)
  • Observation (experiencing other stories)
  • Reflection (asking questions about your experience and coming up with answers)
  • Discussion (running your reflections past others and hearing theirs)

I want to offer just a few tips about each.

Tips on Doing

Doing is fairly straight-forward. But sometimes we give it short shrift. So here’s what I’ve found is necessary.

  • Set a weekly schedule for writing. You will NEVER make it in this, or any business, without doing the work. I find I have to have at least 7-15 hours a week or I don’t progress in any writing project.  You’ll probably have a full-time job. This means you might have to simply wake up earlier in the day. Remember, Mary Higgins Clark, the huge Bestseller, wrote her first novels as a single mother by waking up early and getting in 1-2 hours per day in the morning. Read her biography, you’ll find it both entertaining and enlightening.
  • Debrief each project, which means you take some time at the end of each project to ask yourself what you learned and write it down in your writer’s journal. It might take only one hour, but you will increase your learning many times over. You will also remember what you learned better, which means it’s more likely to be there when you need it.

Tips on Observation & Reflection

Observation seems straight-forward, but it’s not. You don’t just want to read, watch, and listen to other stories and then move on. No. After you’ve experienced the other story as a reader, then you want to reflect. Reflection is simply asking yourself questions and trying to find answers.

So what will you ask?

Here are my recommendations. First, you should ask the big questions, the questions that keep you focused on the purpose of stories:

  • Where was I interested & what made it so?
  • Where was it unclear in the writing or the story & what made it so?  There’s a difference. Unclear writing means you can’t make sense of the sentence. Unclear story means you don’t know what’s going on, who you’re reading about, or why you should care.
  • Where was it unbelievable & what made it so? This is where the story becomes hokey and you see the man behind the curtain.
  • Where was it boring & what made it so? This is where you begin to skim or feel like you need to push on.

You can ask these questions of the whole story in general. Or you can ask them of specific parts.

However I offer this caution: do not read with red pencil in hand. Do not read to critique. You want to experience the story as close to how a normal reader would the first time through.  And so keep the questions in a drawer until you’ve experienced the story as a reader. Only then will you pull these out and ask them. Or, if the story was too unclear, unbelievable, or boring to get through it once, then these are questions for when you give up on it.

Next, two other questions have proven incredibly helpful to many authors. These questions, of course, focus on the five parts of story–setting, character, problem, plot, and text. And they tie back into the emotional effects.

  • What patterns am I seeing? For example, you might say, “this setting was so real and fascinating to me. What was the author doing that was so effective in drawing me in? Is there a pattern in how she introduced these details or which ones she chose?” Or it might be focused on something else like suspense: “I felt such incredible anxiety. What was happening in the plot to make it work? What pattern am I seeing in similar stories?” There are patterns in plot turns, introducing characters, beginnings and endings, scenes, characters we love and hate, specific problems, etc.
  • How did the author handle this specific aspect I’m interested in? Here you’re simply trying to see what the author did. You’re taking it apart. It may not tie strongly back to an emotional effect, but you use it as a model. The bestselling author Bernard Cornwell explains here how he used this question to learn the structure of novels. The only caution here is the same one I give in the lesson on rules vs. objectives: writing stories is a complex art and there are many right solutions, so don’t be led to think the one you discovered is the only one.

You’ll come up with your own questions. But remember to start with the emotional effect and then focus on the parts of the story.


There’s something about having to explain your ideas that clarifies them. But when you have someone reviewing them, checking them against their observations and reflections, you’re more likely to spot holes in your thinking or come to new insights.

My only tip here is to always go back to the effects you experienced. As writers we often come up with explanations, theories, and rules that don’t fit with the facts. Always check your ideas with the facts of the experience. And keep it focused on the effect. Your reflections should always be explaining how the various factors of the setting, character, problem, plot, and text lead to clarity, belief, or the emotional effect itself.

BTW, part of discussion is hearing what others have to say. And there are a lot of authors who have written their insights down. In the next lesson, I list the books I’ve found useful.


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