Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor


Learn Something New Everyday

By Lazette Gifford
Copyright 2007 by Lazette Gifford, All Rights Reserved

This is an odd sort of workshop, but after spending several years in constant contact with new and upcoming authors, I've discovered the one tool they often forget in their work to become better writers.  They ignore their brains.

A brain needs to be fed to keep it supple and working at top efficiency. This means specifically feeding it with new and interesting information.  Visual stimulus is good, but you need to go one step farther and turn to something the brain is especially good at -- storing knowledge.

Knowledge is a writer's best friend, and something you should do your best to collect, whether you are in school or out of it.  Anything you learn will give you a wider perspective for your work.  Little things lead to big changes in your stories, and every layer of fact you can work with (even if you manipulate it for speculative fiction), will create better stories.

Learning something new every day is not difficult.  You aren't going to learn the basics of philosophy one day and tackle quantum physics the next.  Following the suggestions of this workshop, you'll learn little things each day to add to your vast warehouse of knowledge.

Step 1:  What to learn

This is not school.  You are not going to be forced to learn subjects that bore you to tears and make you want to burn every book just to make certain you never have to read about it again.  There will be no pop quizzes and no midterms.  You are not going to fail.

And best of all, you get to choose not only the subject you want to learn, but also the books, articles, and websites that will help you learn what interests you.

My personal preference for learning something new is from a book, and that's what I'll use as the basis for this workshop.  Books have several good points in their favor:

  1. Easy to mark progress
  2. Easy to set aside and pick up next day
  3. A large selection on very nearly any subject

Step one is to choose a subject.  It doesn't matter what it is.  Egyptology, ballet, horses, car repair: anything that interests you is an option.  One hint though -- for this type of exercise, it's often good to go with something you know little or nothing about because then you are open to brand new things, which is far more fun than reinforcing knowledge you've already gathered.  That's not to say you shouldn't read on subjects you already know if that draws you as well, but sometimes go for a brand new subject.

Step 2:  Picking the proper book

Let's say you've decided to learn something about Egyptology, about which you know very little except for a few names of people and places.  Terms like Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom really don't mean anything in particular to you, and you think you saw something about the invasion of the Sea People on a late night horror movie.

So, you head to the library or the bookstore and find the most detailed, complex book you can find, filled with fact after fact -- a treasure trove of esoteric information.

This may not be the best approach.

If this is your first look at a new subject, you might try finding a book written for young adults.  These books are filled with all the very basic information you'll want to learn, and written in a way that it is far easier to absorb on the first run than something fact intensive.  Not only that, they're short.  Short books with good information are fun.

Step 3:  Making it work

Now comes the hard part.  You're not going to learn anything by bringing the book home and sitting it on the shelf by your computer.  You actually have to read it.

The trick is to read only a few short pages a day.  Depending on the density of the book, that might be anywhere from five to twenty pages a day.  Reading nonfiction in short gulps can be both informative and entertaining.  Reading too much can sometimes overload the system and make it difficult to absorb any of the information.  Take small bites.  The book will still be there.

You will need a bookmark.  I have a daily desk calendar, and I often use the page from the day I started the book.  It's a handy guide to know how long I've been reading something.

Five pages a day is enough.  Most people aren't used to reading nonfiction as a steady part of their diet, and getting used to it may take a while.  In those cases, pushing beyond five pages can make this more of a chore than fun.

For some people, reading the material will not be enough.  Reinforcement of an interesting fact may require that you jot it down.   Keep a small notebook -- something you can have with you when you read -- and make note of anything you find interesting.  Remember, though, that this is not a class.  You don't have to memorize dates and names and everything you come across.

Taking notes is especially helpful if something you read produces a plot bunny -- one of those little ideas that start bouncing around in your head and demand to be made into a story.  Jotting them down where you can find them again later can be helpful when you are actually looking for inspiration for a new or ongoing story.  It's amazing how something that would seem totally unrelated to a current work can sometimes trigger the imagination and create a link.

Remember, you are not trying to learn everything on a subject in one day, or even one week.  You are picking up little tidbits of information.

So, how does this really work?  What good will it do you?

Human brains make odd connections and can come up with wonderful material for stories, but only if they have the base material to work with.  Reading fiction does not give you this same type of material since it's already been filtered through someone else's idea of how the information should be used in storytelling. 

You want to gather basic, first level facts and manipulate them in your own way.  And it doesn't matter what that information is because you'll find things you can use, and store the rest away for later stories.  The worlds you create for your stories are just as complex as the real world, only you may not have the information you need to relay the complexity to the reader.  Picking up little bits of reality like this will help you overcome that problem.

Go find a book.  Read five pages.  Write notes or don't, think about story ideas or don't -- it doesn't matter.  You are storing data away, and someday it will work for you, even if you don't realize it at the time.