Here are some easy actions and activities than can sharpen your skill set. Most are free. All you need is willingness and an open mind.
1. Attend a live reading! Hearing an author read their prose or poetry aloud is a special treat—and it helps you, a writer, hear emphasis on words or dialogue that’s not possible on a printed page. Many writers like to begin with an anecdote about the story, and that’s an added bonus. In my neck of the woods, we have a 30 year tradition called 2nd Saturday Poets, but we also have library readings, poetry slams, book talks at bookstores, visiting author series at the university. Attending shows your support for the local arts scene. We all want to support the arts, right?
2. Read your work out loud. This is a follow-up to the above. Reading aloud helps you hear the rhythm of the writing. If you construct short sentence after short sentence, a live read will help you hear if your prose imitates Hemingway’s or if it sounds choppy and monotonous. Reading aloud also helps catch awkward lines and clunky dialogue.
3. Try out an online class. There’s a plethora of learning happening in cyberspace, so you never need to leave your house or get out of your jammies to polish your skills in characterization, active scenes, or figuring out what the heck is subtext. Professional organizations (RWA, Sisters in Crime, Pennwriters), writing services and private editors (ahem!) offer courses that run the range from one day to months. Give one a whirl.
4. Free Write. A free write is an informal gathering of writers who meet to practice their writing, often through guided activities and prompts. In 2011, I helped to facilitate a monthly free write at the county library. We met for three hours and combined prompts, sharing and quiet writing time. It was great fun to write on the spot, and to see how others responded to the same prompts and guides.
5. Join a supportive group—a face to face group, an online forum, a Facebook writers group. This is to combat the whole “writing is lonely” thing, but also to give you a peek into how other writers operate. Talking shop or talking out problems can rev your creative engines, or make the struggle seem less isolating. And if there is good news, it’s always nice to have a cheering squad.
6. Deconstruct movies and TV shows. Learn the meaning of a “cold opening” or a “meet cute.” Watch the clock and see how a TV drama breaks off at commercial (as you would with a chapter ending) or how a 2-hour movie will have a significant plot development every twenty minutes. Imagine this TV show or movie as a novel and how it would be narrated, plotted, and told.
7. Choose a favorite author. Think about why you like what this writer does—what in your chosen author’s body of work speaks to you as a reader. Jot down a few memorable scenes or favorite plot developments. Analyze—what’s so special about this writer’s work? What pulled you in? What did you admire? What was your emotional reaction?
8. Challenge yourself and try to write something new: flash, poetry, a memoir piece, a story told in second person. Do this every few months.
9. Think of a book you hated from school. (Mine would be Wuthering Heights. Blech. What do people see in Heathcliff? I don’t get it.) Read it now, with an open mind. What did you dislike about it when you were younger? Do you still dislike this now?
10. Get into the habit of running the Spelling & Grammar function when you shut down your work-in-progress for the day. Notice what pops up—typos? Sentence structure problems? Fragments? Improper word choice? Pay attention to the habitual problems in your work. Sometimes all it takes to repair a bad habit is to recognize that habit exists. Spell & Gram is a free, easy, and readily available resource to help you find those habits. Make using it your new habit.
11. Read every day.
12. Write every day.
Best of luck in your writing endeavors in 2012!