How Not to Play the Guitar – A Writing Analogy

Happy 2021! I’m sure by now you’ve thought about some goals you’d like to achieve in the new year. Whether those goals are big or small, it’s always good to have something new and exciting to look forward to as the calendar turns back to January.  

For many people, this may involve taking up and new hobby or learning a new skill, which can lead many down a fascinating rabbit hole of reading and research that may not be as productive as they may think.  

Let’s start with an example of this: You want to learn how to play the guitar in 2021.

A great goal. You’ve thought about playing the guitar for a while. You’ve seen people you know, and also famous people do it so effortlessly that you want to enjoy making music as much as they do. You go online and decide to buy several books about playing the guitar.

You wait for the books to arrive, eagerly awaiting the guitar-playing wisdom each book will reveal. Upon their arrival, you read three, and all three present different methods about how to play the guitar.

Now, this whole time, despite having the guitar, you haven’t picked it up once. Sure, you’ve looked at it, thought about playing it, but every time you read a book about playing the guitar and feel confident about playing, you still feel you need to find the “best” way to play.

And so, you read about playing the guitar. And the guitar sits there, alone, un-played.

Now, you’ve finished the books. You’ve highlighted paragraphs, bookmarked pages, told people about the books and how exciting guitar playing is…and suddenly you feel an unforeseen pressure. Not to pick up the guitar. It’s the pressure that with all the tips, tricks, tools, and methods you’ve just learned, your brain is suddenly overwhelmed. 

Now that thing you wanted to do, that wonderful music you wanted to create, your passion for actually learning is stamped out because you spent so long reading and not doing, and you psyched yourself out of it.

This can happen to aspiring writers, too. In fact, anything creative can have the excitement and adventure of discovery killed off by reading about it instead of doing it.  

I’m guilty of this, too.

I’ve written many screenplays and have dozens of screenwriting books. Each one has a different methodology of how a screenplay’s structure is composed. While the outcome is the same – a 110-page screenplay – the rules set forth by each author differ. Read a few of these books in succession, and you’ll be confused and terrified to break the “rules” you’ve read about screenwriting.

Put the books down.  

Do you have a story you want to write? Do you know the basics? Beginning? Middle? End? Do you have characters and a setting to go with those three pieces? A central conflict? If you do, great. Sit down and write it out. No books. No rules. No worksheets.  

Just story.

Now, as you expand and craft the story, if you need guidance about how to craft good dialogue or how to show and not tell, these are when those books can come in handy. They should be seen as reference guides to help your writing, not tutorials on how to write.

We are all storytellers. We know the basics. We’ve seen movies, TV shows, plays, short films, documentaries, and read novels. As a writer, your job is to take what you already know about how stories work and make it your own. 

Much like the guitar analogy, writers must do the work to get the experience. We all start as amateurs or beginners, but you will get better with time, patience, and actual hands-on practice. While reading about it or listening to interviews is fine, don’t let that take away from doing the work yourself. Those books and interviews will always be around.

Whether it’s writing, playing the guitar, sculpting, or running a marathon, take the time to invest your time in learning by doing. Future you will be grateful.

See you next week!

Are You a Writer Who Reads?

I love to read. If I see a book I think I would enjoy, I either buy it or add it to my wish list. My coworker buys me books for my birthday and Christmas. If there’s a topic I want to learn more about, I don’t Google it; I try and find a book about the topic instead.  Reading has always played a significant role in my life and my education post-school, and it’s an activity that I enjoy.

One of my favorite authors, Stephen King, has said: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” I have a feeling King knows what he’s talking about.

If you’re a writer, I encourage you to take the time to read.  Not books about writing, which I’ll talk about next week, but a wide variety of fiction and non-fiction books.  

Read Outside Your Genre

If you are an author who writes primarily in a specific genre – Young Adult, Romance, Thriller, Mystery, etc. – I encourage you to read novels that aren’t from your chosen realm. While it’s essential to know and understand your genre’s tropes, themes, and other elements, it’s equally important to see how different genres work within their various story conventions to see what you can learn. You can often glean some new bit of story structure or character development idea from a novel outside your chosen area of expertise.

Read Different Authors 

We often get comfy with a couple authors we enjoy and stick with them. Dare to pick authors you may not be familiar with and read their works as well.  Your favorite author isn’t going anywhere.  

Read Books from Other Decades

We are creatures of habit. Most of the time, if it’s a book that’s a current best-seller, or one on display at Target, it’s the book we grab to read. However, it’s also important to delve into the past and read authors whose work lives long after their passing. The classics have inspired authors for generations, and by looking at these works, you can learn new aspects of storytelling that you can possibly apply to your work.

Read History, Autobiographies, and Biographies

The real world can offer up some great story ideas, and you can learn a thing or two along the way. Real human beings, human behavior, and human drama can sometimes be more engaging and fascinating than fiction, and these types of books can give you a fresh perspective on topics you think you know about.

Read to Learn

As you read, observe how the author crafts their chapters, characters, and story arcs.  Look at how they format certain things.  For example, I’ve seen text messaging and phone calls formatted in many different ways in novels, depending on the author. 

If you found yourself up until 3 in the morning not wanting to put the books down, ask yourself why? What was it about the story, the characters, or the pacing that made you have to keep reading?  These are elements you can analyze and apply to your work as well.  

Always Go with Variety

If you’ve plotted out your 2021 reading list, consider adding books and authors you usually wouldn’t read. Maybe an author whose work you don’t enjoy, or one whose opinions bother you. Look at them less as annoying reading assignments and more like learning opportunities. Each book you open can inform your own writing methodology and how you create your worlds and story.  

And all you need to do is turn to Chapter One and start reading.

As a writer, how do you decide what books to read?  Leave a comment and let me know!