How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall?

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]

When I was in graduate school, one of the things I studied were role-playing games. (Yes, my university let me write papers on Dungeons and Dragons and all its intellectual descendants.) I learned all kinds of fascinating things, taking apart my hobby to see how it worked, and one of those things had to do with practice.

See, nobody practices RPGs. At least nobody that I’m aware of. It’s a kind of performance, in the academic sense of the term, but you don’t rehearse; you don’t do trial runs of having your characters spy on the bad guys or break into the ancient temple or fight the deranged god. There’s no separation between learning to play and playing; you learn by doing, and everything you do is official, is part of the story you and your friends are creating on the fly. If you set off the booby trap in that ancient temple, you can’t go back and try it again; you’ve got to outrace the giant boulder now rolling toward you.

To me, writing feels kind of the same way. Sure, I can always revise; if I realize that thing my characters did last chapter would logically result in them getting killed, I can go back and have them do something less dumb. But is that the same thing as practice? To some extent it’s a moot question: “practice” is a concept strongly associated with performance arts, music or dance, or competitive things like sports, where there’s a specific event you’re preparing for, at which point you will deploy the skills you’ve learned. Writing is more comparable to sculpture, say, or painting. It’s aimed toward a product, not a event.

But I’ve heard sculptors talk about practice pieces, things they make so they can work on a new technique or idea, with no intention of selling or displaying the result. I don’t tend to do that. If I’m writing a novel, if I’m writing a short story, it’s because I expect to try and sell it when I’m done. Even if it’s something silly that I’m doing for fun, I have a purpose in mind for it — posting it on my website or whatever. I almost never find myself writing anything “just for practice.”

That’s me, though, and I know other people are different. There are books and books and websites and websites out there full of suggestions for writing exercises, the equivalent of a sculptor’s practice piece, designed to get you focusing on description or dialogue or whatever. I just don’t incline that way myself; I’d rather focus on those things in the context of a full and theoretically publishable story.