The Practice of Fiction Writing and Retellings

Originally published on 3/8/2016

I've done a lot of reading on the topic of skill acquisition. Something that comes up an awful lot in that area is practice. Deliberate practice is the core of the "10,000 hours" thing you here mentioned when it comes to expertise. At the other extreme, it's often surprising how competent you can become in 20 or 40 hours of deliberate practice at many skills.

What that entire continuum acknowledges is that the only way you actually get better at something in a substantive way is to actually do it. Even "innate" interest/talent, if never exercised, leads to no really improvement in skill. It's important enough that it's Principle #6 in our 7 Principles at 7 Interruptions.

What's interesting is that fields that really understand practice like sports, music, medicine, law, emergency services, etc. put significant portions not just of educational time, but of paid professional time into practice. And, pretty much every creative pursuit puts practice at its core.

When you take up painting, music, or nearly any other art/craft I can think of, it's pretty much expected that not only will you spend a significant portion of your time in practice. And, I've been thinking a lot about what that practice looks like and how it differs from what I see when it comes to learning to write fiction.

The practice in nearly all creative/craft fields have a major thing in common when it comes to WHAT you practice in your beginner and often well into your intermediate or advanced phases. That commonality is that you don't produce anything worthy of being viewed as final product. Sure, your friends and loved ones may still appreciate the gifts or performances, often in the name of being supportive or because an object made with love can compensate for poor craftsmanship to all but soulless sociopaths.

But, when you start painting, you're going to be painting bowls of fruit or mountains and streams, like thousands of painters before you. When you start making pottery, you're going to make some lumpy mugs and plates. When you start playing Irish traditional music, you're going to start with some easy polkas and jigs that everyone else learned before you. When you start playing golf or basketball, you're going to do the same drills that beginners have done since those sports were invented. And, an awful lot of what you'll make or do in the early phases isn't even something you'd give to someone who loves you.

Somehow, though, much of the way writing fiction is taught is different. While my English degree wasn't specifically focused on writing fiction, I did spend some time working on it as part of the program. And, nearly all fiction "practice" basically comes down to some coaching/classroom instruction and then sending the students out onto the basketball court to play a game.

Not all creative writing instruction does that. The poetry writing classes I took followed the patterns of other arts and crafts and my practice was writing sonnets, haiku, ballads and pantoums just like generations of writing students before me. Only after a few semesters of imitating the forms and writing of experts did I end up in classes that sent me to more "open fields".

Where are the equivalent of painting bowls of fruit when it comes to writing short stories, novellas and novels? And, is the lack of them part of why I have always felt a bit adrift when it comes to trying to write novels?

I've read tons of explanations of ways to write novels and lots of exhortations TO practice. My favorite semester of writing fiction included a class that had a mandatory word count that got me writing daily (something I want to get back to because of how great it was). But, all of that writing was pretty much a "go and write something" kind of practice, with no structure to it.

So, what would be the fiction equivalent of painting bowls of fruit look like?

The answer, I think, lies in "retellings". Take classic short stories, novellas and novels and re-write them. Not verbatim, obviously, but, take the characters, plot, scenes, etc. and write them again.

Of course, anyone who's studied literature knows that, to some degree, this is what all storytelling is already. Whether there are only 3 stories, 7, 12, 50, or a few hundred stories that keep getting re-told, even things that are seen as original are derivative in some way.

The more literal retellings are pretty common too. Take a look at these lists of books, movies and TV that are very literal retellings. Some change the setting, the genre, the character names, etc. and some change very literal, but all take at least their plots from existing works.

This has me thinking about doing exactly that to build my skills in writing fiction. Rather than facing the wide-open field and the pressure of whatever I write belonging in my "real" novel, I'm going to write a completely practice novel, one that's a copy of a great existing work. And it's going to be crap. Because, why wouldn't it be?

My plan is this:

  1. Choose a book that has Cliff's Notes.
  2. Buy that yellow guidebook.
  3. Using the outline in the Cliff's Notes, write a new book that follows that plot, those scenes, those characters, maybe with a more modern setting.
  4. Repeat.

"But, J, you'll be doing a bunch of writing that won't end up in a real novel", you might say. You mean like how I spend hours playing my mandolin to an audience made up entirely of basset hounds? Or that artists draw hundreds of sketches that are never seen by anyone? Or how athletes play tons of scrimmages that "don't count"? Yep, just like that.

Now, it may turn out that one of those practice novels might be worth reading, just like some of the paintings of bowls of fruit end up on the walls of friends. But, if my experience practicing other skills is any indication (and this entire essay is based on the idea that it should be), there's a LOT of practice that SHOULD end up in the shredder.

None of this solves the problem of making/finding the time to actually do the writing, but I'm kind of excited to dive into doing some retelling as practice.

P.S. Yes, I'm aware of NaNoWriMo and similar. There's obviously no reason this approach couldn't be done under that framework, but nearly everything I see related to NaNoWriMo is about writing *your* novel. The one you've been wanting to write. That's right back to the idea of just jumping to painting your original masterpiece. Sure, there's the general acknowledgement that the novels produced are rough drafts at best. But, there's still a big emphasis on the practice being about writing entirely original fiction.

P.P.S Yes, I know about fan fiction and, basically, it's the same idea: take characters from an existing work and use them in yours. Fan fiction based on TV/movies/etc has never appealed to me. I don't entirely know why. But, picking great literature as the base appeals more, in part because I'm choosing something generally acknowledged to be well-written, which cannot be said of much of the TV/movies that serve as the inspiration of fan fiction. But, no judgement from me if that's what you want to do.