Harry Connolly: The Loneliest Student (Writing as a Subject of Study)

Harry Connolly’s an awesome dude — I had the pleasure of including one of his stories in an anthology I edited, Don’t Read This Book, and he’s a real talent. Harry’s out there kicking ass with a series of new novels, and so I’m happy to host him and his thoughts here.

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I’m coming to the end of a long (long) blog tour, and I’ve spent most of it talking about how we write, how we can improve our writing, and the way to analyze stories.

But terribleminds is already full of good writing advice, so I knew that I needed to dig a little deeper when Chuck offered to lend me his space.

Then I saw his pair of posts about talent. I’ve got my own rather unflattering view of talent as a concept, and I agree with Chuck that the best thing any writer can do, no matter where they are in their career, is to study writing as though there’s no such thing.

With that in mind, I want to talk a little bit about the way we study, and the best way to learn.

Recently, I came across a book called Make It Stick: the Science of Successful Learning, by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel (hereafter “BRM”) which gathers up a crapton of recent test results in clinical psychology to lay out what the latest research says is the optimal way to study in order to master a subject.

I know, I know. There are always books like this, and if you’re in education you probably see them zoom by more often than 18-wheelers on an interstate. But, it’s a respectable press and the reviews were solid, so I gave it a try.

And not just for myself. In addition to being a writer, I’m also a homeschooling parent. So, not only have I been trying to adapt the lessons in this book for a lazy, immature student who resents the time that study takes away from computer games, I’ve had to do it for my teenage son, too.

The book is geared toward people in college or beyond who are studying complex academic or vocational subjects; it doesn’t specifically address learning the arts. That complicates things, because writing is full of good/bad/better choices rather than right or wrong answers. Still, I found much that was applicable.

First we should look at Bloom’s (revised) taxonomy of learning, which you can see here on Wikipedia. The most basic layer at the bottom is simply knowing something. Above that, understanding it, then being able to apply it in new situations. The level above that is split in three: Analyze, Evaluate, Create.

So, for instance, if you were to ask me how Seattle can have such mild weather when we’re at the same latitude as the northern part of Maine, I’d tell you that it’s because of our “Oceanic” climate and mountain ranges. Boom, I’m at the lowest layer of Bloom’s taxonomy for that question, but sadly I can’t go higher to actually explain it. I know it has something to do with the jet stream and the Cascades, but the actual mechanics slipped my mind long ago.

The reason why I’ve forgotten is where we hit the first technique that BRM recommend: self-testing. In fact, according to the studies they’ve looked at, high stakes testing designed to measure how much students have learned is not an effective way to teach, but low-stakes testing where students are asked to recall what they’ve learned is an excellent way to reinforce that learning. “Testing interrupts forgetting” is their conclusion.

And it’s not just pop quizzes from teachers, either. Self-quizzing is the basis of study and learning. Trying to find the perfect word for the end of a sentence? Research suggests that making an effort to recall it before looking it up in the dictionary (rather than looking it up immediately) will make the word stick in the memory better.

Research also suggests that lessons that do not require much effort leads to forgetting them quickly. Reading text in a difficult font or that’s slightly blurry leads to better reading comprehension than text in a clear, comfortable font. Being forced to make that effort feels like an impediment to learning because the student experiences it as uncertainty, but studies have shown that, however it may feel at the time, it’s the best way to retain knowledge in the long term.

To apply it to writing, I have stopped being so quick to grab the thesaurus when I know the word I’m about to type is the wrong one. I use it when I have to, but first I spend a minute trying to come up with the right word on my own. Yeah, it slows me down in the short term, but I expect to need it less as time goes on.

Also, when I’m reading, I stop every couple of chapters to review (like study guide questions in school textbooks). What’s happening with the plot? What thematic elements are emerging? What stakes are the characters facing? What tricks is the author using to speed or slow the pace? And so on. If I feel the need to look back at the text to check the way the paragraphs are structured, or to see if there’s a recurring color or image motif, I’ll test my memory first.

The next principle to good study is spacing out practice and what’s called “interleaving.” Basically, to really learn something well, it’s best to self-quiz with a delay between study sessions, so that we can call up and reinforce the knowledge we need to acquire. Also, it’s best to mix up the topic of study.

Therefore, instead of doing several problems on fractions, then several on decimals, then several on negative numbers, it’s best to switch between them. Again, this will feel as though the student is less sure of their knowledge, but mixing the study of math problems (or techniques of famous painters or basketball drills, or…) has proven to be the best way to retain the information, because it lets students compare and contrast problems and their solutions.

This one is harder to apply to writing. I write pretty much every day, and mixing up different sorts of scenes is perfectly natural. One day I’ll be writing a fight scene, the next a mellow scene between friends, the next a tense planning session. Variety is the spice of fiction, and it’s sort of built in.

Except when it isn’t, obviously. If I’m writing 20,000 words of action adventure to wrap up a book, I’m certainly not going to stop every other day to work on a contemplative or funny short story. I’m going to tear through to the ending with as much momentum as I can muster.

However, I am going to apply this principle to my reading. For example, if I want to study up on private investigator novels, I’m not going to tear through a stack of five of them any more. I’m going to mix them up with a police procedural, a heist novel, a romantic thriller, that sort of thing. According to this theory, I’ll learn more about PI novels by comparing and contrasting them with other subgenres than I will by studying them alone.

The final study principle that I’m going to discuss here is what the BRM calls “Generation.” Basically, it involves restating a new piece of knowledge in your own words, or tying it to previous learning, or tying it to your personal life in some way.

I use this trick every time I talk to my wife about a story problem I’m having. Just describing it to her usually makes me realize what the answer should be. Another way to use Generation comes with one of the questions I ask myself when I’m reviewing a book I’m reading: “What do I think should happen next? Where would I take the plot from here?”

Closely related to Generation and self-quizzing is what BRM call “Reflection.” When using Reflection, the student mentally reviews what they’ve learned and assesses how well they know the material. They also try to apply what they know to problems they might foresee.

This is something I do all the time. Before I wrote Child of Fire, I spent several weeks thinking about the best ways to combine crime thrillers with magic. It wasn’t necessarily fun work, but it was invaluable to the success of that novel. Lately I’ve been thinking about those cinematic action heroes that never speak and rarely change their expression. Personally, I find that sort of thing compelling as hell, so sometimes I spend an hour or so (usually during a long walk) trying to figure out how I’d make that work in text without using cinematic POV.

What I’m offering here aren’t tips for better writing; I doubt I could provide better than what Chuck regularly posts. I’m writing about study methods that will help create mastery more efficiently. That’s my goal.

Ob sales note: in the fall of 2013, I ran a Kickstarter for my new trilogy. It was successful.

That series, part apocalyptic thriller, part epic fantasy, was delivered to backers and is now available for sale. Book one received a starred review from Publishers Weekly and a favorable review on Boingboing. Check out the cover:

The Way Into Chaos Cover

You can find out more about that first book here, or you can read the sample chapters I’ve posted on my blog.

More recently, I’ve released the last of the stretch goal books from that campaign: a pacifist urban fantasy called A Key, an Egg, an Unfortunate Remark, which features a 65-year-old socialite protagonist who is equal parts Auntie Mame and Gandalf. You can read more about that book, or go straight to the sample chapters.

Thank you.

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Harry Connolly’s debut novel, Child Of Fire, was named to Publishers Weekly’s Best 100 Novels of 2009. For his epic fantasy series The Great Way, he turned to Kickstarter; at the time this was written, it’s the ninth-most-funded Fiction campaign ever. Book one of The Great Way, The Way Into Chaos was published in December, 2014. Book two, The Way Into Magic, was published in January, 2015. The third and final book, The Way Into Darkness, was released on February 3rd, 2015. Harry lives in Seattle with his beloved wife, beloved son, and beloved library system. You can find him online at www.harryjconnolly.com or on Twitter as @byharryconnolly