Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Writer's Journey: One Step at a Time

Ever since I taught my first writing workshop way back (waaay back) in Newport Beach, CA, it seems the two most important questions I hear over and over are: How do I start? and, How do I get published? 

To answer those questions, I ended up writing The Essential Guide for New Writers, From Idea to Finished Manuscript.  My initial idea was to help new writers find their way through what can be a very confusing and conflicting process. Later on while I was actually writing the book, though, I realized that I also wanted to encourage writers at all levels to appreciate the writing journey itself. Not every book gets published--even those by big name authors, and I've never thought it matters one way or the other. To me, the ultimate prize is not a published book (although, yes, of course that's very nice) but what we learn by putting pen to paper: about ourselves, the world we live in, and what it means to be part of a community of creative people. Because at the end of the day, I sincerely believe it's not publishing that will change our lives--it's the writing.

With that in mind, here are my favorite steps toward achieving not just a published book, but a satisfying, purposeful, and fun direction that can last an entire lifetime:

  • Write every day. Freewrite. Journal. Describe the room you're writing in. Review a book. Practice passages of dialogue. Try poetry. The whole point is to make a daily habit of writing in your most authentic and honest voice. Don't worry about "where the piece is going"; just write it. 
  • Join a writer's group. Seriously, the friends you make in your writer's group will last you a lifetime, and in many cases can turn into the best friends you'll ever have. The secret to making it work however, is to join a group that writes in a genre similar to your own. Be choosy and trust your gut. If you feel your group isn't helping, move on, or start your own. Often it's a good idea to look for a group through a professional writing organization such as Sisters in Crime (mystery writing), The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, or Romance Writers of America.
  • Write what you love to read. And read a lot. Reading fills the writer's soul and is the best "homework" you can do.
  • Write a first draft straight through. No stopping. Just go. Don't worry about grammar, spelling, editing, whether you sound like you know what you're doing--no one does at first draft stage. If you get stuck, write "Stuff Happens Here" or "Need to Research" and keep going.
  • Read all the writing reference and how-to books you can. Call it "school." There are hundreds of excellent writing books to buy or borrow from the library. Read them, take notes, do the end-of-chapter exercises, and then read them again.
  • Take a writer's continuing education class. Any series of weekly class where you are accountable for turning in assignments is a great way to learn the art of manuscript submission, as well as how to take editorial direction. Explore different classes to learn different genres and styles.
  • Learn to add, cut, and toss. De-clutter on a regular basis. Read through your first draft(s) and don't be too harsh on yourself. Now's the time to have fun: look for connections in your story structure that you can keep writing about. Ask yourself if you have enough conflict, or maybe you have too much, and need to concentrate on just a few story problems. Are there some boring parts? Get rid of them. If you're writing nonfiction--do you answer all the questions a reader might ask or needs to learn?
  • Celebrate your strengths: strong verbs, an active voice, and a clear vision. Anything else--get rid of it. Use your computer's "search and delete" functions to eliminate unnecessary adverbs, overly-used "buzz words" and anything that tangles your sentences into knots. Go first for plain, strong, speech, and add the "pretties" later and sparingly.
  • Create style sheets. Want to know where punctuation marks go, or how to separate paragraphs of dialogue or description? Photocopy some pages from your favorite books and COPY what they've done! You'll have an instant and reliable reference right there at your fingertips. No more dithering.
  • Write your 3rd draft. Clean and clear. Make it sing.
  • Pay attention to your marketing: learn to write a query letter, a one-page, a multi-page synopsis. Use your "write every day" time to practice and write several and varied versions. Study the markets--they're all online.
  • Submit your manuscript. Go for it! Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Prepare several manuscript packages in advance so that when one comes back (which it will; no biggie) you can send another one out to someone else right away. You can do it!
Tip of the Day: Never rest on your laurels. Once you've reached the submission stage, keep going. Start writing short story, poem, or book #2, followed by #3, and even #4 until you hit pay dirt. The upside to all this work? Not only will your writing just get better and better, but somebody's going to want something . . . maybe even book #1 while you're marketing book #5! Whatever you do, always remember to enjoy the process and love your craft. That's the true meaning of being a successful writer.

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