Fiction writing, like many other creative pursuits, is an artistic enterprise that involves a combination of art and craft. Talent alone can help you come up with a great concept or idea for a story. But to translate a brilliant premise into a compelling story, a writer needs to understand the mechanics of storytelling. Or, in other words, become a master of the craft.
In fiction parlance, craft generally refers to the use of techniques that aid storytelling -- plot points, subtext, a great hook, raising of stakes, building tension, exposition. Many of these can be learnt by reading extensively in the genre that you want to write. This will help you to identify the conventions of the genre and understand how different authors play around with the essential elements of telling a story.
However no amount of reading can help you improve your craft. Ultimately, it is all about practice, practice, practice.
The good part is that with every new short story/novella/novel/screenplay that you write you're working on your craft and improving your work. But how do you know for sure that you're progressing? One way to find out is getting feedback from beta-readers and/or members of your writing group. Better still, if you have an editor or co-author you work with on a regular basis, their feedback can be invaluable.
There is another way of improving your craft -- by participating in contests and challenges. Especially those that provide professional feedback.
I have been writing screenplays for several years now. But it's only recently that I started entering my work in contests. Of course not all contests are alike and most of them also charge hefty fees. So I went about doing some research -- I looked into their credentials, any info about their judging parameters, testimonials from previous contestants/winners, etc. My purpose was two-fold: one, to get feedback from judges of reputed contests and find out ways to improve my script; two, winning and/or placing among the finalists would be an added bonus.
I decided to go with Finish Line Script Competition which provided me with feedback that was on point. Their notes helped me to see what was not working in my story, spot the plotholes that I had missed and even point me in the right direction to help me rework my script. After reworking the screenplay, I resubmitted it to the competition which ended up placing as a first runner up. That was definitely an unexpected bonus and it boosted my confidence in my writing a great deal.
I have also discovered that 'writing challenges' can be a great way to improve one's craft. The NYC Midnight Challenge is one such program where screenwriters are challenged to write short screenplays of maximum five script-pages based on a genre/character/prop combo-prompt assigned to participants during a 48 hour period. Here the focus is on writing to a deadline and coming up with a compelling sequence of scenes. For me, this challenge offers me the opportunity to work out of my comfort zone -- writing horror for instance! -- and also benefit from professional feedback which the organizers provide to all participants.
Talking about challenges, the NaNoWriMo Challenge is around the corner. If you wish to set yourself a deadline and finish the first draft of your book, that's one challenge that you should not refuse. Would love to hear your thoughts on how you challenge yourself to do better.
Here are some not-to-be-missed "C" posts in this series:
C is For Cover Design by Sudesna Ghosh
Co-Authoring by Devika Fernando
Is your Writing Cliched? by Reet Singh
Conflicts, Character Sketch and Climax by Preethi Venugopala
C for Community by Saiswaroopa