Tag Archive for improvement

Use It or Lose It

Now that we know how to practice and how to get feedback, we circle back to practice, practice, practice.

You’ve all heard it before: use it or lose it. You’ve got to keep at a skill to stay sharp.

Every Spring before I get back on the bike, there’s that brief moment of readjustment before I hit my stride and really take off. I know several motorcyclists who took a decade or two off their bikes, then caught the bug again. They remember how to ride, how to shift, but the little things like looking through the turn (something you don’t have to worry about in a car) take conscious effort to bring back.


Not that we'd ever forget our first ride

I know several people who took martial arts as a kid or a teenager. Ask them to demonstrate a kata ten years later and they have no idea. Some barely remember how to throw a proper punch. It’s no different from people who took Spanish in high school, never had cause to use it, and now don’t remember a word.

It doesn’t take decades to lose it, either. A good friend and fellow karateka missed a lot of class time last year due to injury and a return to college. He remembers the basics, but when he performs one of the more recent kata for his rank, he’ll stop in the middle of it and get that blank “oh shit” stare as he tries to remember the next step.

Karate Moleskine

The knowledge is locked away, waiting to be rediscovered

My instructors use a phrase frequently: “Practice makes permanent.”

On the motorcycle or in karate class, muscle memory will often take over. I don’t think about shifting gears, it just happens. If I consciously think through the steps of a kata, my body will often be three steps ahead already. I’ve learned to relax my mind and let the body take over.

In a sense, this works for writing, too.

Staying in the habit of writing makes it easier to slip into the groove. Your mind knows “this is writing time” and things click into place. Some writers need a trigger, like a walk around the block or a song playlist. Others have a specific time of day to write, such as right before work or after the family goes to bed. Full-time writers may have a set routine; Richard Laymon said he wrote in the morning, had lunch and a nap, wrote in the afternoon, and spent the evening with his family.


Even brainstorming flexes the creative muscles

Practice brings routine. I ride the bike to and from work. I have class three times a week. I write… well, I’ll admit that routine is often shaken up by my schedule. But now that it’s warmer, if I sit outside with a cigar and the iPad I’ll be able to produce some serious word counts again.

Writing in a write-when-I-can method means taking a few minutes to shake off the rust, even if it’s just been a few days since my last session. I fiddle with iTunes, scroll through email, maybe open up Instapaper and see if there’s a short article or piece of flash fiction I saved. I have to find a trigger. If I sit outside on a warm night, though, all I have to do is light a cigar and connect the keyboard and I’m off to the races.

We learn a skill or take up a craft for a reason. Keep using it, keep learning, keep practicing.

Stay sharp.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

The Feedback Loop

When studying our own work, it’s difficult to be objective. Most of the time we’re either too easy on ourselves or too hard on ourselves. While the latter may be more preferable in some cases, it can still be counter-productive.

This is when it’s time to seek an outside opinion.

In riding a motorcycle, I simply have someone follow me. It may be my wife following in a car, or I may take a short trip  with a more experienced rider. When I took the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s riding class, our instructors watched us ride around the course and told us what we were doing right and what we could improve.

In karate, my instructors watch us in class and offer pointers. Even when they say nothing and move on to the next person, it tells us we’re doing just fine (for the moment). It’s also not uncommon for us to ask our fellow students to watch for something specific as we perform a kata.

Then we have writing, where feedback gets a lot messier.

Road Warrior

Yet we keep at it anyway.

First and foremost, we have to understand who we are seeking feedback from. Your mom, for example, is probably not going to give you an objective opinion. If that writers circle at the local coffee shop is full of romance writers and you ask for a critique on your splatterpunk opus, you’re not going to get an objective opinion.

Second, fans and reviewers are great, but don’t take their feedback individually. Know up front that no matter what you write, your work is not going to please everyone. You won’t even please all of your fans all the time! Don’t let a glowing, five-star review inflate your ego (too much), and don’t let a mean-spirited, one-star review shatter your hopes and dreams. Look instead for trends. There’s a big difference between one reader saying your protagonist is an unlikeable prick and half your reviewers saying they just didn’t care about your characters.

Third, not every editor is truly an editor. Examine their track record. Take a good look at what they’re asking you to change or what questions they’re asking about your work. Pay special attention if you’re getting the same feedback from several editors or agents during the submission process. I’m not just talking about laziness or inability, either. Some editors simply want to rewrite your manuscript the way they would have written it. This is your work and they should be helping you develop your voice, not molding you into their clone.

Fourth, stay out of the comments section on news and review websites. Seriously. It will save your sanity. Forums can be iffy, too, with their frequent circle jerk and sympathy threads. There’s a fine line between participating in a community and drinking their Kool-Aid.

Finally, it’s okay to pay an editor or book doctor. Not every rejection letter is going to come with comments and suggestions, so you may need to find an objective third party to help you out. Just be sure to get references first, and don’t be afraid to talk to their other clients. Just as anyone can claim to be an editor, any hack will be happy to cash your check in exchange for reading your manuscript.

Practice is critical, but nobody thrives in a vacuum. Seek feedback, but learn to separate the good from the bad.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

Practice (with Purpose) Makes Perfect

Practice is important, but just going through the motions is a waste of time.

When I jump on the motorcycle, I can twist the throttle and go if that’s all I choose to do. In the “it’s just like riding a bike” sense, it’s that easy. Motorcycles want to go in a straight line.

Moto Photo 1

Hey, this is EASY!

Then come those pesky turns to mess it all up.

A rider needs to look through the turns. In regular riding, his knees should hug the gas tank. He should know when to roll on and off the throttle, how much brake to apply, how far to lean, and when to up- or downshift. It sounds like a lot, but in time it becomes natural, and when a turn doesn’t go quite as planned, it’s time to break it down and figure out what can be done better next time (especially if the rider just slammed into a tree on the corner).

This doesn’t take obstacles into account, either. Ride behind motorcycles long enough, and eventually you’ll catch a rider doing some lazy swerves back and forth in his lane, or performing sudden changes in his riding line. It may be simple boredom, it may be he’s trying to warm up or clean his tires, or it may very well be the rider getting a feel for his bike. Riders can run over rabbits and squirrels, but if a child or large animal runs into the street, the rider needs to have his avoidance technique down pat.

Practice, practice, practice, and study the result.

Karate works the same way. It’s not unusual to see someone just walk through a kata and throw some weak-ass punches. They may know “step into a front stance, throw a right front kick, shift 90° left, middle block,” but it doesn’t mean it’s going to look good.

AOKFFD - Kokutsu Dachi

Years of proper practice shows.

To improve our karate, we will examine our hand positions before and after techniques, or the angle or depth of our stances. We will perform our kata in front of a mirror or video camera. We ask ourselves if that last kick would have been effective, or what exercises might improve our speed, flexibility, and/or power. It’s not just about getting the technique out there, it’s about getting the technique correct.

And yes, this applies to writing.

Dashing off a draft, calling a work done and uploading it to Amazon isn’t doing the writer, the work, or the reader any favors.


A little tunage doesn't hurt the process

Writers study the craft by reading and rewriting their own work as well as reading the work of others. Word choice, narrative tricks, plot, and characterization are just a few of the tools a writer wants to master. All that grammar and sentence structure our English teachers forced down our throats? Yeah, kind of important, too. Know the rules, then know when to break them.

We have to examine our work with an objective eye. This is where reading a work aloud comes into play, or why some writers will set a draft aside for a few days or a few weeks before coming back to it. Any writer who believes their work is perfect isn’t looking hard enough.

So yes, by all means, keep punching those keys.

But punch them with purpose.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

Practice, Practice, Practice

It’s often said 10,000 repetitions leads to mastery. Practice something enough, you become good at it.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Every time I get the motorcycle out of the garage for the season, I feel better about my riding skill than at the same time the year before. Turns feel more graceful, shifting feels smoother, and I feel more relaxed in the saddle.

PicPlz Lenore

Lenore likes the way I handle her

Every ride is practice. I may take the long way home from time to time for fun, but it’s also an opportunity to put more miles under the tires and more time in at the controls. If miles are reps, then I’ve got some time before I hit 10,000, but I’m plugging away.

It applies to karate for sure, whether we’re talking about kata or specific techniques. My dojo stresses hard the importance of practicing at home, and when review rolls around, it’s easy to pick out the students who have been practicing and those who haven’t been. Some say those of us progressing through the ranks make it look easy, but they’re only seeing our class time, not the many hours we’re putting in at home on our own.

Shihan and I

Shihan Joseph Walker and I when I received my 1st degree brown belt

I’ve been spending more time on the weights and on the track than doing karate at home of late, but I still get my ass to class and get my practice in. Over the next two days, I plan to put in at least an hour each day as last-minute prep for a karate seminar this weekend. I don’t want to be a guy they pick out as not practicing my art enough.

It’s all about practice, practice, practice, and it applies to everything, even writing.

Yes, that’s right, you should be practicing writing. Though instead of 10,000 repetitions, you’re looking at a million words or so. The saying goes something like this:

Every writer has a million words of bullshit stuck in their head. Once he gets these million words out of the way, the real writing starts to appear.

I first heard this from Mike Baron at a comic convention, and it’s been attributed to Ray Bradbury and several other greats. Get your butt in the chair and get writing if you want to get better. Writing is a craft that can be learned, practiced, and improved, just like any other skill.

The Only Way to Write

It's cigar season again!

It pains me to look at my older work. Everything from my word choices to my sentence structure to my dialog just seems… raw. I have no doubt I’ve become a better writer over the years, and I think many of my colleagues and readers agree.

Every writer will tell a similar story. Ask Tom Piccirilli what he thinks of Dark Father sometime.  Most of us have trunk novels that we later came to realize are part of the million words we needed to get out of  our brains (I have two). Many writers who appear to have just arrived on the scene have a stash of cringe-worthy sales to now-defunct small press rags they hope will never see the light of day again.

Now, are these works really that bad? Not necessarily, but you get the idea. A writer’s craft changes and evolves. Some may contribute it to age, or maturity, or studying others’ works or taking classes, but it all amounts to practice. Keep hammering the keys until the words start to play nice. Write, rewrite, and repeat.

Which brings us to the only bit of writing advice that counts:

Put ass in chair.

I first heard it from Norm Partridge who said he heard it from Joe Lansdale. Whatever the source, you have to love its simplicity. Sit down and write. Practice your craft.

You can get better.

You will get better.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.