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

20 responses to “Harry Connolly: The Loneliest Student (Writing as a Subject of Study)”

  1. That part about describing it to your wife, and realizing the answer as you speak reminds me of this technique I heard about a while ago. It’s called “Rubber Ducking”. Basically, you get an inanimate object and you explain your problem to it. People have found that it helps them come up with a solution. It worked a little for me (I used a yellow, rubber Psyduck).
    Great post.

    • My wife is a confirmed extrovert and I’m an introvert. As it is, I don’t talk to her nearly as much as she’d like. If she caught me chatting up the glow-in-the-dark skull on my desk…

      I don’t even want to think about it.

    • I love that term: rubber ducking! I remember the technique taught in one of my many psych classes (I have a graduates degree, so a LOT of classes) but I never heard it described that way. Very awesome 🙂

  2. Really valuable advice on learning. It ties in with what I read in the first chapter of my Psychology textbook. (I’m a mid-fifties returning student going for my Bachelors in English with a creative writing emphasis) I think that the section where you wrote about improving your writing through reading can help me turn my otherwise frustratingly-as-hell literature class into an active exercise in how I can improve my own writing. Thank you!

    • You’re welcome.

      ::bows head in acknowledgement::
      ::stabs chin slightly on pen in shirt pocket::
      ::eyes well up with tears::
      ::runs out of room holding tiny, inky boo boo::

  3. The posts on this blog are always worth reading, but this was just fantastic. I really like the way you’ve made the source material available (thank you!) and shared how you’re using it. We all read the books, we all ‘know’ what we should do, but finding a path to polish, if not perfection is not very systematic for most of us, and we waste time and stories getting there. Thanks so much for making it more reachable.

    • I’m glad you find it useful.

      Personally, as I study writing and seek better ways to do things, I keep noticing how individual it all is. A blog post that does nothing for one writer changes everything for another. It’s all about where we see our deficits and how we come at our challenges. So thank you.

  4. Love it! I’m often appalled at writers who don’t “read like a writer,” who don’t keep a step ahead or review what just happened. How did she do that? etc. There’s so much baloney in the writo-blogosphere doing wannabe writers absolutely no good. All that “7 Ways to Sit at your Desk for Greater Muse Control” or whatever. I noticed immediately that this isn’t one of those template blog pieces, so good! I feel like dwelling here awhile. Thanks for this original piece, Harry.

  5. As a retired English Teacher, let me just say that this sounds like the old drill and repeat that was originally successful in American schools. I know it helps to have different teaching techniques, but I would be willing to bet that the lowest achieving students back in the day could kick our student’s butts now.

    • It’s not quite drill and repeat, more like “drill and repeat, in a spaced out way, with other nuances.”

      If you’re interested, I really do recommend the book. It’s terrific.

  6. I don’t know if this is relevant or not, but whenever I do that thing where you march into a room full of purpose only to immediately forget what it was you went in there to do (we all do that thing…. don’t we? It’s not just me is it?) the one thing that always, ALWAYS works is for me to go back and stand in the same spot where I first decided to do the thing I just forgot. No idea why that instantly makes me remember again, but it does. The human brain is a weird and wonderful thing, isn’t it?

    • Wendy, I’ve always heard that it’s the psychological effect of passing through a doorway that makes us forget why we entered a room. That’s why going back to “first position” (as it were) works so nicely.

  7. Ok, wait, on the same day I stumble across an interview over at io9 by Harry Connolly and then a post by him on Chuck Wendig’s blog? “A Key, an Egg, an Unfortunate Remark” is so going to be bought by me. An older female protagonist in an Urban Fantasy? Hell yeah! I shared the interview on my personal FB and had a great conversation with other authors about it, one who even had an older female protag but her agent told her to make her younger. Sad really.
    Hope your book is a great success, I reckon it might change a lot in the writing world if it is.

    Anyway, great post! I should really try some of the stuff you suggested. Like not running to the thesaurus at the first sign of not finding the perfect word immediately.

    • Holding off on using the thesaurus has been surprisingly effective. And thanks for the kind words.

      Hmm. My comments from the other computer must still be pending.

    • How awful! I would think an older protagonist would be fine. I guess it must really matter who they were hoping to target/sell to? But even then a good story and good character–wouldn’t matter the age. People adjust. I can’t imagine a reader tossing the book aside when they got to the age of the character.

      Actually I can. And it’s funny in my head:

      Jane stared at her driver’s license and counted her birthdays. Yep, still forty-eight.

      *twenty-year old reader drops book and screeches. “My god! I’ve been reading about an *old* person. I say, good day, book.” Kicks book. “I said GOOD DAY!!”

  8. SO excited to see Harry as a guest blogger here! More to love in one place- YAY!!

    This is good stuff, I especially like the self-testing/application part as I’ve found that to be helpful in a whole host of situations, not just writing.

    Thanks for compiling these tips Harry, and now I’m going to take an adoration side-track to say I think your Twenty Palaces series is FANTASTIC. I enjoyed every minute of Ray Lilly and look forward to reading your newest. Good fortune and thanks for the amazing stories!

  9. “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 try to do this all the time. Practice matters and when you apply something you’ve just read about to your everyday life, you learn it for real.

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