How to build a bigger boat

How to build a bigger boat, guest post by Chris Patchell

I was having lunch with a friend of mine, whose wife is a NYT bestselling author. This author had generously agreed to read over my first manuscript. Thank god, she loved the story. If she hadn’t, it might have ended my fledgling writing career right there and then. But there was one thing this friend said that caught my attention. He said after they had dinner with another aspiring writer friend, his wife had said that she wished she could marry my gift for writing a twisty plot, with his gift for character.
How to build a bigger boat, guest post by Chris Patchell
The inference was clear—I had some work to do. Many artists say that you must create a lot of art to become the kind of artist you want to be. And while there is no denying that practicing your art will help you get better, it is also true that experience alone doesn’t always result in excellence. As a writer, you must learn new skills. Many experts cite that doing the work is not enough. You need to put in focused efforts to grow your skills to become a master—or as one of my favorite classic movie characters, Sheriff Martin Brody says in the movie, Jaws, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
Deliberate practice is a concept that is well known to musicians. There are books and books dedicated to helping pianists master difficult techniques. But how to do that as a writer is less clear, so here are a few things I’ve done to improve.
The first thing I’m going to tell you is that you can’t boil the ocean. Setting out to try and fix everything you deem wrong about your writing style may frustrate you to the point where you’re ready to call it quits! How many creative writing students in college never write a single thing more after they graduate? Too many. I could go on at length about the things I think needed fixing in my first book. So, instead of endlessly nitpicking every flaw, find your great white shark. Zero in on one narrow aspect of your writing—a specific weakness that you want to improve. Seek out the people who will give you constructive feedback on that aspect of your style. Experts want to know what they did wrong so they can fix it and improve. Set aside dedicated time to work on exactly that. For me, it’s writing action scenes.
Find an author you admire who is a master at the skill you want to learn. I picked Blake Crouch. I read his action scenes. Analyzed them. Made notes about what he does and how he does it. Using my notes as a guide, I selected one of my action scenes and rewrote it. Then I got feedback from my writing group and revised it again. And again. Until it was better. Then I kept on writing action scenes until the style improvements became ingrained and the shark was slain.
I won’t lie. Deliberate practice is hard. Less enjoyable than the general feel of writing. But that’s the way it’s supposed to feel. It’s supposed to be hard. Awkward. If it wasn’t, you probably would not have identified it as a weakness in the first place. When I first started rewriting the action scenes for In the Dark, there were days when I would only get a paragraph or two written. The work was hard. Frustrating. Painful. But the result of that work was transformative.
If you’re like me, deliberate practice is not something that magically happens. Only through carefully designed exercises and focus do you achieve the kind of improvements you’re looking for. Every craftsman knows that the constant refinement of skill over time yields results.
So, when you decide to take on a shark, remember, you can’t boil the ocean. You get to target one great white per project, otherwise you’ll never finish anything. The discipline involved in deliberate practice will serve you well the next time you see the fin circling your boat and know you need to go on the hunt.

How to build a bigger boat, guest post by Chris Patchell
Chris Patchell is the bestselling author of In the Dark and the Indie Reader Discovery Award winning novel Deadly Lies. Having recently left her long-time career in tech to pursue her passion for writing full-time, Chris pens gritty suspense novels set in the Pacific Northwest, where she lives with her family and two neurotic dogs.

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  1. Thanks, Cheryl. Everybody wants to become great at what they do. So, whether you're a writer, a teacher, or a project manager, these tips can help you improve.


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