Cross-Train Your Writing

Zombie Camp
Zombie Camp

Are your editor’s fists clenching each time she red-inks the same freaking suggestions on your work? Does your brain have nasty, inexplicable desires to do housework at the same point of every story? Have you locked your shortcomings away in a steel coffer that you’ve buried in a deep, dark, back corner of your soul? For the sake of your career, you should cross-train your writing.

At this point, I should probably bust out a stadium’s worth of sports metaphors and get all Successories on you. Or wave some pompoms and cheer to get you hyped. But I’d hate myself in the morning and you’d never call.

So let’s assume you’re already hyped. You’re a freakin’ writer, dammit! You’ve got the gigantic jewels to face this career head on. That fact alone awards you the “Too Awesome For Shawarma With The Avengers” card in the game of “What the Hell Am I Gonna Do When I Grow Up?” So bear with me while I bust out this little gratuitous definition:

Cross-training refers to an athlete training in sports other than the one that the athlete competes in, with a goal of improving overall performance. It takes advantage of the particular effectiveness of each training method, while at the same time attempting to negate the shortcomings of that method by combining it with other methods that address its weaknesses.

I know, I know. I’m sorry. It’s totally cliché to have a definition early on. But to give credit where credit is scored over 700, it says some really damned relevant things:

  • A related activity other than your writing…
  • Improving overall performance without pills or supplements…
  • Take advantage of the effective bits of each activity’s training methods…
  • Patch up those hidden shortcomings with skills learned in the secondary activity.

In other words, to improve your writing, get away from your desk for a refresher course in story and character creation. I don’t care if you call it professional development, or a hobby, or keep it to yourself as a dirty little secret. You owe it to your career to train your writing muscles a new way.

To put my money where my flapping yap is, here are a few that I use regularly:

  • Take an Acting Class. By far one of my favorite refreshers, acting classes provide a safe place where you can work alongside others to explore character development. The weirder and more emotional, the better! I will never forget the stunned looks on people’s faces after I unleashed my inner werewolf and snarled my pack’s mantra at the other acting students. It was pure storytelling because for five whole minutes I was in the head and body of a tribal werewolf. Plus, can I just say, “Zombie Camp?”If your time is valuable, this option is usually only a couple-hours-a-week commitment. Don’t retreat into the “I’m a shy writer” shell and hire a private coach. The class has zero weeks of rehearsals, zero weeks of performances, and no paralyzing stage fright. You get to play in a safe classroom space with other imaginative people. You know what my writing career loves most about this option? If you talk to the teacher/coach ahead of time, they are almost always willing to consider a custom lesson for the class. If your story needs to explore a non-human psyche, ask the teacher if that’s a theme they’re willing to trot out. Then open your damned mind and pay attention to the other students (as well as yourself) as the ideas blossom. It’s like a bucket of werewolf gold landing at your feet after the full moon.
  • RUN a Role-Playing Game. Hang up your Judgy Pants. This is a fantastic social experience focused on telling a story in a group. Let’s be real… movie nights don’t help your writing career. Sure, they help your soul when you need a non-productive refresher, but what does your plot get from sitting in silence with other people while watching someone else’s story? Not a kafarking thing.

    When you run a role-playing game you help your friends (i.e. “the players”) develop their characters while you write the main plot and protagonists. WHAM WHAM WHAM! Then suddenly your players tell you about their characters’ histories, and SLAM BAM, you’ve got subplots. Suddenly you’re flexing those storytelling muscles weekly. If you’re new to role-playing, find a gaming system that’s light on rules and heavy on telling the story. As an added bonus, you get to spend time with people you like playing Margaritas & Monsters. (Holy crap, I’m going to write the rules for that game.)

  • Review Someone Else’s Work. I have only just discovered this little gem, but it’s a sparkly one. You see, I’ve noticed that when I open a book with the intent to review it, my mind kicks into full-on analysis mode. I focus on questions like: Why on earth did the author make that decision? Does anybody actually talk like that? Wait, huh? What’s in it for that character? How does THAT work? What the hell does this work’s theme say about our society? What did the book mean to me overall? You get the idea.

    On the surface, I get more from the author’s writing. Yay! More importantly, I’m training my brain to think about all of the parts of the story. Woo hoo – Leveling up my brain! But there are under-the-surface benefits too. Like getting my name out in the literary world. If you write a review that helps people, and it gets noticed, it’s really freakin’ flattering when a publishing company sends a review copy of something similar. And, let’s not overlook the dirty little secret: it’s totally a work-related justification for your reading habit.

  • Travel. When I can afford it, nothing kicks my creativity’s butt into gear like travel. Face it; most of us are shackled by our daily routines. Is there anything that poisons your imagination faster than the morning commute? Don’t drink the bitter almond-scented Kool-Aid! I give you permission to give yourself permission to experience an entire world of new things.

    Fortunately, you don’t need to go halfway around the globe to awaken your wonder. How many times have the people in another state (if you’re in the US), province, or territory seemed utterly alien? My quiet little “don’t rock the boat” Midwestern Wisconsin upbringing looks at the sunny Californians and has a little jealous moment rejoicing in their apparent optimism and willingness to try new things. Talk about a no-passport-required journey into the unknown!

There they are – my top personal choices for cross-training my writing skills. Is this your exact list? No. You’re probably totally judging me for the role-playing suggestion. Fine. Don’t roll the dice in order to experience the endorphin rush of leveling up. But dammit, you read this article because your editor has started drinking over that red-ink-resistant habit you aren’t breaking. Yeah, maybe for that reason. Or maybe your plot is so freaking stuck that the Dyson in the corner just proposed a shag in the living room. Most likely you kept reading because there’s a little monster living in that dark corner of your soul, and it keeps digging up your shortcoming and spitting them out into the light.

You should pay attention to that little monster. He may have big teeth and red eyes, but he’s wearing cross-trainers.

. (trying this one on for size)