Hubert O’Hearn has previously been featured on Reading Recommendations. He is a Canadian-born playwright and journalist who now lives in Ireland. When he announced his new The Writer’s Pro Shop Series recently I asked if he’d like to write a guest blog post to help promote this service that’s intended for writers at all levels in their careers. So, here’s Hubert!
The Writer’s Pro Shop Series. Why You Need It.
The Writer’s Pro Shop is a series of weekly writing exercises I am offering for free on the internet. Not only are these important skill development exercises on my own website (bythebookreviews.blogspot.com), I’m also allowing anyone with a personal website or blog to freely use this content just so long as it is properly attributed back to me. Everybody wins!
Why Did I Develop These Exercises?
Through my work as an independent book editor I have discovered that my writer-clients get stuck in patterns. They – and probably you – see their writing projects in only one perspective and so, when a need arises for a change to a scene or even a book’s overall structure arises, they literally do not know how to shift their minds to write anew.
Because of the above, I started using a modified technique derived from my work as a theatre director and acting coach. Actors too get stuck in their heads, to use the conventional phrase. They are reluctant to try something different when playing a part because what they have been doing feels safe. Familiar is safe, change is scary. Therefore I would challenge them with games, improvised situations, role switching, you name it, just to get them to see their character and scene differently and so jump-start the discovery process.
For writers, I would suggest similar exercises, short assignments related to the manuscript yet not necessarily a re-writing of a given scene or chapter. If there was a scene in a novel that involved two main characters having a conversation in a restaurant, how did the waiter observe that? Re-do a paragraph in the present active voice. If the dialogue was dull, write a four-way conversation with no ‘John said’ indicators yet have the four voices be individually identifiable.
Because these were exercises and not taking a sledgehammer to the walls of the novel (these techniques work perfectly well with non-fiction, drama and poetry too) my writers did not feel threatened; instead they were freshened. So that is where the idea for both The Writer’s Pro Shop and my Six Months to Better Writing subscription course began. Yet I wanted to take it a step further. I started to think of writing in terms of Sports Science.
What Does Sports Science Have to Do With This?
Let’s assume you have a favourite sport. Your favourite team or individual performer does not train by only playing practice games. That might be fun, yet playing the same way does not result in improved performance, or at least not efficiently. As the great golf coach David Ledbetter says, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent. Perfect practice makes perfect.”
I took a look at two games – golf and poker – for comparisons to writing. If you’re a golfer and you go to a driving range, are you like most people and just stand on the tee and hammer away at your dwindling bucket seeing how far you can hit the ball with each club? Do you ever try a new swing thought, stance, cut or draw, rhythm, or anything at all different from what you’ve always done before? Have you ever worked one-on-one with a pro? You can only see yourself from within yourself, whereas the pro sees all of you. Bear that in mind as we proceed.
Poker is another great metaphor for writing. It costs $10,000 to enter the Main Event at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. Anyone with ten grand can enter, and literally thousands of ‘anyones’ enter every year, which is why the prize money for the winner has risen to the multi-million dollar range. $10,000 is a pretty good number for a writer to consider. When you factor in the time you take researching and writing a book, plus formatting and marketing it, if you are going the independent route, you’re spending at least $10,000. Now, is that money going towards making you money, or is it adding to the prize purse of a marketer or Amazon/Kindle?
How is this relating to writing?
Writers are exactly like the golfer who just practices the same thing over and over, or the poker player who enters the World Series convinced he can be the next amateur to win the whole thing having done nothing to prepare other than being the best among a small group of friends. Both are making their ways, their habits of playing, permanent.
That, my curious friend, is exactly what with absolutely no exaggeration 99% of all writers do, which is why only about 1% of all writers make a living at it. They don’t work to improve their game.
Look at the practice range at the next major golf tournament on TV. What do you see the players doing? They are working with their coach, their caddy, even other players, getting swing tips and advice. At the WSOP, even someone who has won multiple winner’s diamond bracelets, like Phil Hellmuth, spends weeks before the event practicing specific situations that may come up during the actual tournament. Pro golfers and professional poker players alike are always looking for that little insight that will make them one-tenth of one percent better, because that 0.1% improvement is the difference between cashing a decent cheque or eating hot dogs for dinner.
What Most Writers Do is What You Shouldn’t Do
Most writers – and this definitely includes many of the greats – use the same inefficient technique for improvement. They write an article or a book, it doesn’t sell, so they write another. They may read a book about writing, or some interviews, maybe listen to an editor like me, then go and write another article or book (or play, poem etc.). Rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat …
What makes no sense to me is why anyone would go through a process that can take years or decades before it makes a positive change in a writer’s skills. Go spend that $10,000 on scratch tickets, because you’re playing the same odds and you’ll save yourself a lot of time.
The Writer’s Pro Shop Exercises: Perfect Practice Makes Perfect
This is why I have built this series of exercises. I know that you need to work on specific parts of your game. You need to make your strengths – let’s say you’re brilliant at dialogue – powerful strengths, plus we’ll use what you’re already strong at to improve the areas of writing you’re weak at.
Now, there is a flaw to all this! I would be dishonest if I said The Writer’s Pro Shop is all you need to succeed. The flaw is that you’re like the golfer who works out and practices with a mirror or video camera, guided by a coaching manual or DVD. You really aren’t getting direct feedback and commentary from a pro. You really do need to work one-on-one with someone you feel comfortable with and who knows what they’re talking about. But I’ll save my strong suggestion that you sign up for the Six Months to Better Writing course until the very end of this article. So let’s just ‘q.v.’ that one for now.
What I have done in the Writer’s Pro Shop is develop weekly writing assignments that you can easily adapt to a present project, or use generally to improve your skills. It is really based on not anything so technical as improving your grammar or expanding your word choices. Using our golf metaphor once more, those factors are club selection; we need to work on your swing and visualization.
Visualization is everything in the Writer’s Pro Shop Series. We write what we observe, after what we observe runs through the colours of our imagination. So, let’s observe differently. It will be easier for both of us if I show you what I mean. Here is the first exercise I give every client, from absolute newbies to seasoned professionals:
On the internet, find a photo of a painting that interests you and draws your attention. The only restriction is that it must contain at least one person in it. Download the photo, then write 500 words of any story you feel emerging from it. Do not concern yourself with a beginning or end. Just write what you feel. This is not for publication, so allow your instincts room to play.
Do you get it? To write more artistically, think like an artist. To short-cut the process, that exercise makes you look at a piece of reality that a painter has already seen as art. Then we move on through areas like:
• Character development
• Finding the crucial detail
• What voice to use
• Making a plot logical, yet still enthralling
And (using my TV pitchman’s voice) many more!
Speaking of TV pitchmen, you do need to work one-on-one with a coach like me. I’m not a big believer in writing workshops. I don’t take them, I don’t lead them, frankly I avoid them. I find that their time is too compressed and they tend to break down into something akin to a herd of rutting stags clashing horns. They may be great vacations and you may have a couple of great takeaways in terms of tips or friendships, but as a career developer ….. meh.
Six Months to Better Writing, my course, uses the same exercises as The Writer’s Pro Shop, except I adapt them to suit your specific needs. Also, you get direct commentary every week from me on your assignment, along with the next week’s assignment that frequently builds off the work you have already turned in. Sixty bucks a month, quit any time, or stay longer than six months. Plus I limit the number of student/clients I work with to 24. Any more, I’m a factory and the only good writing that came out of a factory was Cannery Row.
Thoughts? Comments? Suggestions?
If you want to get in touch with me about either the Pro Shop or my course you can email me here or by using the contact info below. Regardless, thank you for reading this. That’s all we writers ever ask for: Someone to read our stuff.
Be seeing you.
Hubert O’Hearn is the author of two books, an independent editor, and a professional book and music reviewer. He also is the designer of the Six Months to Better Writing Course, working one-on-one with writers drawn from the entire range of experience. For comments or queries he can be reached at email@example.com)