Lana Storey

Deliberate Practice and Writing

A few months ago while driving home I caught part of a Freakonomics radio episode and I’m still thinking about it – specifically, how to apply it to my own writing and to my work with other writers. It’s called “How to Become Great at Just About Anything.” Link here: http://freakonomics.com/podcast/peak/.

The description of the episode reads:

What if the thing we call “talent” is grotesquely overrated? And what if  deliberate practice is the secret to excellence? Those are the claims of the research psychologist Anders Ericsson, who has been studying the science of expertise for decades.

Go have a listen or check out the transcript if you have time. The episode is excellent. Host Stephen Dubner interviews researcher Anders Ericsson and author Malcolm Gladwell, as well as a few people who have had success using deliberate practice to achieve inspiring goals, including Susanne Bargmann, a Danish psychologist who, in her 40’s, returned to her childhood dream of becoming a famous singer.

When I first tuned in, all the talk about practice reminded me of the theory that Malcom Gladwell made popular in his book, Outliers – basically, that it takes 10,000 hours to become great at something. It turns out that theory actually comes from this same research of Ericsson and his colleagues, but – and here’s the key – Ericsson says that it isn’t just the volume of practice that’s important – that is, that “there’s really nothing magical about 10,000 hours.” Instead, it’s “the quality and the nature of the practice” that matters.

First, there’s purposeful practice. “Purposeful practice is when you actually pick a target — something that you want to improve — and you find a training activity that would allow you to actually improve that particular aspect.” To me that sounds like writing with specific goals in mind, maybe taking a class, reading craft books, or doing revisions or exercises aimed at improving a specific aspect of the work. It’s the difference between just sitting down and writing, versus writing with the goal of improving in a specific way.

And then there’s deliberate practice. Ideally:

  • it includes working with an experienced teacher
  • you receive feedback so you know what kind of adjustments to make
  • it “involves well-defined, specific goals”
  • “it is not aimed at vague, overall improvement”
  • “it takes place outside one’s comfort zone and requires a student to constantly try things that are just beyond his or her current abilities”

Sound familiar? This is exactly the kind of work that writers can do with a book coach, developmental editor or mentor. Perhaps even with a critique partner, if you have a good one. But whether you work well with a coach or want to go it alone, every writer can take away important lessons from this research. Write with purpose, with specific goals. Get feedback from someone who knows what they’re talking about, if you can. Push yourself outside of your comfort zone and strive to improve. And always remember in the darkest moments of doubt to keep working. Practice and hard work do make a difference. A breakthrough is just around the corner, but it will only come if you’re doing the work.

Character as our Way into Story: A Gilmore Girls Case Study

From book coach Lana Storey:

Gilmore Girls got a lot of attention at the end of 2016 with its Netflix revival in November. But I want to take a minute to talk about the original series and how watching it at two different times in my life helped me understand how character really does function as our way into a story.

In her book, Story Genius, Lisa Cron writes that the protagonist is the reader’s “avatar,” or “the portal through which we enter the novel. Remember, when we’re lost in a story, we’re not passively reading about something that’s happening to someone else. We’re actively experiencing it on a neural level as if it were happening to us. We are – literally – making the protagonist’s experience our own” (p. 55).

Gilmore Girls first aired in 2000. I was 15, lived in a small town, and went to high school. Rory Gilmore was 16, lived in a small town, and went to high school. As far as I was concerned, the show was about Rory: her friend problems and boy problems and school problems and big ambitions. Her mother, Lorelai, was there only as a peripheral character. She talked faster and was quirkier and knew more about pop culture than any mom I knew in real life, but she was still just Rory’s mom. She had no real storyline or emotions or interests of her own, at least none that I could see.

Fast-forward 16 years to 2016. I’m 31, a busy mom of a daughter, and I start rewatching episodes from the first season. It dawns on me very quickly: Lorelai is 32. Lorelai is a busy mom of a daughter. Lorelai still talks really fast and is quirky and knows about pop culture but now I see she has work problems and guy problems and a complicated relationship with her parents. Lorelai has an entire storyline, personality, and life I never noticed before. I see that I’m not Rory anymore; I’m Lorelai.

After getting over the minor identity crisis that came when I realized sixteen years had passed in the blink of an eye and I was no longer the teenage character but the mom, finally I understood that the show really is about the Gilmore Girlsgirls, plural. It seems so obvious now, but back then I had become Rory so completely that I couldn’t step back enough to think about the concerns of the other characters. Now, with the benefit of perspective and a little help from Story Genius, I see exactly how important character is as our way into a story. Not only do we identify with the protagonist; we become that protagonist. I’ll never write my characters the same way again.

Have you ever had the experience of returning to a story years later and finding that you identify with a completely different character? Finding that your old way into the story is closed to you, but a new portal has opened, one you didn’t even notice the first time?