As I am jet-lagged and in another country, this week’s post is neither on children’s lit. nor fairytales but rather the medium in which they’re told: Writing.
I was out to dinner recently with a friend of mine –who is an aspiring screenplay writer– and we spent the entire conversation talking about writing and current projects. Several times during that conversation, we sat back, sighed, and said, “I needed this.” Like it was some long-overdue therapy session. That’s exactly what it was though. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that only writers understand the clairvoyant writing process.
“It’s all back of the brain.” I gestured.
“It is!” Sam said. “But it’s also this weird process of not knowing what it is you’re writing.”
Someone who isn’t a writer wouldn’t understand why you don’t know the people you made up. That’s because they aren’t people we made up. They just kind of showed up one day.
So, aside from not knowing your own imaginary friends, what does it mean to be a writer? It begins with finding time. Jessica Love, a panelist at 2016’s AWP is the breadwinner of her family, going to school for her MFA, has children, and still managed to write two novels. Someone asked how she was able to do all that and write. Her response? She finds one hour, or writes a page, or one hundred words every day. If you want writing to be your job, you need to treat it like a job which means writing every day. Some days it’ll feel like work, and it is work, so it’s ok if it feels that way. J.K. Rowling writes for eight hours a day. Warren Adler wakes up at five every morning and writes until 10. Henry Miller’s personal writing routine went from the morning through the afternoon. Personally, I write for four or five hours, any more and I’m wiped out. This brings up two things:
Miller said, “Don’t empty the reservoir.” I read this in an article I failed to email to myself and I haven’t found it since but, Miller said this in regard to writing. What he meant by, “Don’t empty the reservoir,” was don’t write until you’ve worn yourself out. Like I said, by five or six hours I feel like someone has drained all of my blood out of my body, or like someone set my brain on a treadmill. Miller believed that by stopping when you have just enough juice left, you were leaving more room to create. This is why I say writing is a muscle. Sometimes we push ourselves too hard, using too much weight or doing too many reps and the next day you’re so sore you can’t go to the gym —you’ve emptied the reservoir.
Then there’s the opposite: Writing whenever you’re “inspired”. In an article written by Kevin Kruse of The New York Times, he writes J.K. Rowling’s top 3 tips for writing. One of which is: “Writing is work, don’t wait for inspiration to write.” Rowling said if she waited for inspiration she would have written a page and a half in twenty years. You can’t expect to get a six pack going to the gym once a week and doing twenty crunches. It takes discipline to write each day and for just a little longer than you did last week. Work up to a level you wish to be at and then keep with it. With that being said, even normal people have days off. It’s also important to remember that you should love what you write. Maybe not all the time (probably not all the time) but don’t forget to have some fun! One of my favorite ways to have fun with my characters is taking them out to coffee. It’s a scenario in which I not only imagine the kind of conversation that would ensue but how would an invisible woman react to someone seeing her (me) and asking to talk with her in a Starbucks? What kind of face would she make, feelings would she have, would she reply? Would she bolt? Those kinds of prompts are how I have fun while writing and they help me discover my character.
After you’ve finished your body of work, there are some questions you need to ask yourself. The first: Is this agent-ready? Many new authors look for agents to represent them and their work. Agents aren’t a must, but they’re helpful. An agent will take care of the business side of things and help you get your work publisher-ready. To snag an agent, you’ll need to write a query letter. Query letters are propositions for representation. In the letter, you’ll usually tell them a bit about yourself and your book, mentioning any authors they’ve represented that you’ve read. This shows an agent you’ve done your research on them, rather than spammed a bunch of agencies with a copy and pasted letter. Agents like to feel special so make sure your letter is tailored to the specific (note the word specific) agent you’re querying. Think of querying an agent like a long-term relationship (because ideally you want it to be one): you should both want the same things for your novel, similar interests in genre, and you want your personalities to mesh. If you’re not agent-ready but you’ve read and re-read your novel dozens of times, lend your manuscript to what we in the business call Beta Readers. A Beta Reader is someone who reads your work while it’s “in beta” (in the process of getting its kinks worked out). This reader can be anyone you know and are comfortable giving your manuscript to. Word to the wise: I know authors who have been rejected by agents simply because no one has read their manuscript. I highly recommend doing this after editing your novel.
If you feel you’re ready to get the ball rolling, the next best question to ask yourself would be: Is this my best effort? If you feel your book is agent-ready but not your best effort, you probably need to do some rewriting. Your best effort should be synonymous with “agent-ready”. I once worked for a literary journal as an associate editor and my senior editor and I would say that we wanted a person’s best work. I realized though, if you’re a perfectionist, your best work is the horizon; something you’re constantly striving for; a moving finish line. There is always something to fix, always something different (about you as a writer or your work) but, your best effort is easier to reach because this is the best you can do on your own, right now. I also like using the phrase best effort because your first novel shouldn’t be your best work. That means you would have peaked at book one. I don’t think anyone wants that. If you’ve managed to get to the state of your best effort, then I’d say you’re agent-ready. Don’t think once you land an agent they won’t go over your piece and want to change things, though. They will. And so will your publisher once you get one, which brings me to my next topic: self-sabotage.
Self-sabotage can be procrastination, feeling so nervous about something you don’t go, or making up excuses to get out of doing something you originally wanted to do. I was fourteen when I got my first agent and I called off the process because I was afraid I wasn’t profound enough to be a good author. I almost didn’t go to AWP last year because of self-sabotage and it doesn’t end there. Self-sabotage also has a friend: Imposter syndrome.
Imposter syndrome involves feeling like you’re a fraud. You feel like you’re a fraud because you’re not good enough or you haven’t been published. The first panel I went to at AWP was for imposter syndrome. One of the authors on this panel, Aubrey Hirsch, lead us through her personal experience with imposter syndrome.
“At first it was because I wasn’t published and then I got a short story published in a journal and I thought to myself, ‘Ok, I’ve been published in a journal but I haven’t had my own major publication.’ Then I got a collection of short stories published and I thought to myself, ‘Ok, I have that but I don’t have a novel. I can’t call myself a writer until I have a novel out.’ Do yourself a favor and just erase that line. If you’re anything like me, you won’t reach it.”
If you’re talking yourself down when it comes to your craft, you either feel like an imposter or you’re self-sabotaging and the only way to get rid of those thoughts is to train yourself to stop entertaining them. In the art world it’s important to be your number one ally. Which isn’t at all easy. Especially not when people consistently berate you for what you do (or tell you to get a real job, or laugh at you). Once on a plane someone said to me, “No offense, but what do you plan on doing with that?” Um, be awesome. Duh. Whenever someone patronizes Samantha Dunn with the question of, “Have I heard of you? Have you written anything I would have read?” Her response is: “You haven’t heard of me? I’m a big f*cking deal.” I’m not suggesting as writers we make sure others know how great we are but I am suggesting we be confident. We have to love what we do. Not just what we write, but being writers. In an article on her top five writing tips, Laini Taylor says, “Be an unstoppable force.Write with an imaginary machete strapped to your thigh. This is not wishy-washy, polite, drinking-tea-with-your-pinkie-sticking-out stuff. It’s who you want to be, your most powerful self. Write your books. Finish them, then make them better. Find the way. No one will make this dream come true for you but you.”
As writers, we live in a tunnel of rejection. Fortitude is something we must tattoo on ourselves. Resilience is key which is yet another reason why we must love what it is we do; if we don’t, we’re done for. It’s important to know that not everything you write is publishable and, from what I’ve read, getting your first novel published doesn’t usually happen. But it just takes one yes. It may be your first novel that lands you an agent and that will eventually give you your first published novel. Rowling had thirteen rejections until she got her first yes, Golding’s Lord of the Flies was rejected by 20 publishers, and Irving’s novel on Van Gogh was rejected 16 times in which one person wrote it was, “A long, dull novel about an artist.” It went on to sell 20 million copies. Those are the rejections, here are some rewrites: Rowling rewrote the first chapter of Harry Potter fifteen times, I know another novelist who rewrote her entire novel twenty-seven times, and I know yet another novelist who rewrote her entire novel thirty-five times. This is a job of scabbed knees and bruised egos. It’s important to pick yourself up but more so, it’s important not to take any rejection to heart. If you can continuously believe in what it is you’ve written, you’re on the right path because you never know what it is you hold in your hands.
Before an author gets a novel published, however, they usually have smaller publications. Submitting short stories or poems to journals, magazines, blogs, and the like will help you on your journey to becoming a writer. Getting something published in one of these mediums has not only helped authors shape their voices, but they’ve also given authors small victories to talk about in their query letters. In this way, writing really is like a job. Typically, a writer publishes in several journals and magazines before becoming a published novelist. This isn’t a bad thing. As a matter of fact, publishing small before publishing a novel not only helps you to win small victories, it also helps you gain a readership.
When publishing a novel, it helps to bring a fanbase to the table. Your readers are what will help your novel sell. If you can tell your agent you have published in several journals, whether in print or online, this makes you more appealing as an author. Another great platform for writers is social media. Specifically, Twitter. I couldn’t stand hearing this the first time so I apologize to those of you who are thinking, “But I’ve gone this long without having one! Why now? Why me? Whyyyyyyyyy?” It’s the social media for writers. Twitter is the forum where agents, publishers, and other writers work to find and support each other. You don’t have to have a Twitter account but, having a following on your preferred social media helps build your fanbase and advertise your work. That’s the other thing with writing: you need to market yourself. Having a platform on which you can market your work will help your publisher see a path of success for your book. Of course, as artists we shouldn’t just talk about ourselves and what we have for sale. It’s important to support other writers with their work so be sure to use your platform to lift others up, too.
As creative people, it’s important to find and support each other. As writers, it’s also important to find other writers you get along with. One writer reading another writer’s work is much different than a reader reading a writer’s work. A reader doesn’t know the process and they also may not know what to look for in terms of what an agent or publisher would say in response to a manuscript. So, find your tribe. The easiest way to do that is by taking a creative writing class, either in college or as an extracurricular. Network. Be active in the environment you care about. Every year there are tons of weekends and conferences and workshops for writers. If you find a person you vibe well with, get their number or their Twitter handle. It’s so hard to communicate what it’s like being a writer and what the writing process is like so finding your people feels like a breath of fresh air. Think back to the conversation I had with my friend Sam. If writing is something you wish to do, it’s important to find others who live in the same world and will support you just as you support them.
We’ve worked our way from the top and have found ourselves at the beginning. So, how do we begin? You write a novel. When writing a first draft, it’s important to keep in mind that the only way out is through. Here are some of Writer’s Digest‘s five tips for writing a first draft:
1. “Write an outline.”
J.K. Rowling says, “Fail to plan, plan to fail.” It took her five years of plotting each of the Harry Potter novels before she got to writing Philosopher’s Stone. Obviously, planning works. Writing an outline doesn’t mean you’ll have to stick to what you say but it does help you formulate and see the general arc of your story. If it changes then it changes, but outlining your novel will also help to ward off the dreaded writer’s block.
2. “Think of your draft as clay, not as a sculpture.”
Or a block of marble. Your job is to just chip away at it. Find its basic shape. You don’t have to know what it wants to be yet, you just need to know what it feels like. Michelangelo said, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” A first draft is just getting to know what you’re working with. It won’t be until you’re done with your draft and take a step back that you’ll see what it wants to be. T.S. Eliot said, “It wasn’t until I got here that I realized where I was going.” I can’t think of a more appropriate quote when it comes to drafting. Each draft after your first is just refining what you’ve begun to chip away.
3. “Every time you think about how pedestrian and clumsy and downright awful your first draft is, remind yourself that no one else has to read it.”
On that note, don’t be too hard on yourself either. You are your worst critic so any time you have a small victory, especially one that involves your writing, remind yourself of it. Write them down. There’s also an app called Boost Your Ego where all you have to do is enter your name and hit a button and it’ll tell you nice things. Sounds pathetic, but when you’ve begun to hate your writing so much that you wonder if you have any good ideas, it’s a nice tool to have.
4. “Don’t let a lack of research slow you down.”
Writer’s Digest suggests in this article that you do enough research to get started, leaving a place marker (this author uses CAPS) for the details that need to be filled in with research. I’m writing a novel that involves proper identification of funerary traditions. Because my novel is based in a real place (Russia) I don’t get to “make-up” my own funerary traditions as that goes against a culture and against a religion. So, I used the method of ALL CAPS and wrote what it was I needed to research come my first phase of editing. As I mentioned earlier, the only way out is through and I maintain the fact that draft one’s only job is to get written.
5. “Set a deadline.”
Giving yourself a finish line helps when the process feels long. Do you ever have those moments with an essay and it feels like you’ve been writing it forever? With an assignment you know you won’t be writing it forever because you have a due date. Give yourself a due date and you won’t be writing your first draft forever. Once you’ve finished your draft, celebrate! Reward yourself because finishing a draft of a novel is a huge accomplishment. Be kind to yourself. Wait an allotted amount of time (I recommend two weeks because it takes one week for you to wind down and the next week to feel like a vacation! Unless you can’t wait two weeks) and then start draft two.
These tips are only the ones I’ve found, and they aren’t the holy grail of writing. It’s art. There are no right answers and everyone is different. Even authors share opposing advice. J.K. Rowling says it’s ok to have multiple projects, but Henry Miller disagrees. I know of one author who can write in front of the television in the living room while I need complete solitude and loud music. However, in the spirit of creative currency, I’m giving you what I’ve found in hopes it’ll help my fellow writers. To quote what a panelist said at AWP, “I’m not saying it’s our job to change the world and I’m not saying it’s our job to save people, but we can.”
Thanks for reading 🙂