Thank you to Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents: Editor’s Blog for the idea for this post. Chuck features “a recurring column where writers at any stage of their career can talk about seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning.” This is a brilliant idea, because the #1 thing I have learned is:
1. We can learn from writers at all stages, not just from published authors, editors, and agents. I have learned the most about my own writing from participating in a critique group with my fellow unpublished writer friends. Amazingly enough, almost everyone stumbles over the very same issues. After helping your friends work through their sticky spots, you’ll be able to spot these same problems in your own work, and you’ll know how to fix them. Which leads directly into #2…
2. Make friends. Sure, the actual process of writing is solitary, but the profession doesn’t have to be. Go out there and meet other writers. Form critique groups, take classes, e-mail authors whose work you admire. It’s so incredibly helpful and uplifting to have a group of people who are going through the same issues you are, and who can relate to your work, your angst, and your obsession.
3. Write a complete first draft before revising, and for the love of God, don’t show anyone your rough first chapters! Readers are so helpful once you have a first draft and you know your story. But when you’ve only got 20 pages and a hazy idea for a plot, your book could still go in any direction. It could become something completely different, and you won’t know what it is until you get there. So get there, then share.
4. It’s OK to follow tangents. I’m a firm believer in tight plots and flabby first drafts. For that first draft (the one we’ve agreed you won’t share), feel free to follow any plot twist that seems interesting and let your characters have free reign. You never know where they might take you–a single twist in the plot or line of dialogue might change the course of the entire novel! Once you’ve got the whole first draft down, you can go back and trim the fat.
5.Work at your own pace. Some books take a month to write, some books take twelve months, and some take twelve years! There’s no standard and there are no rules. We’ve all uttered the desperate wail, “Why is this taking so long?”–especially if we know other writers who are querying agents or reviewing jacket art. When you begin to despair that you’ll never reach the end, step back and remember why you want to be a writer in the first place. You love writing, right? So enjoy it!
6. Breaks are good! We writers can often been pretty militant by nature. We must write an hour a day. We must forge ahead even when we don’t feel like writing. We must set goals and stick to them. These are good “musts” to follow, but we must also be nice to ourselves. If you’re frustrated and down, take a break. Take a day off, a week off, a month off your book–but not from writing. Work on something completely different. If you’re writing a high-fantasy novel about fairies, shoot off some essays on modern technology. If you’re writing an investigative biography of Jim Perdue, give slam poetry a shot. Get some distance, then come back to your book refreshed and excited to get to work.
7. Start a blog. A blog is great for networking (hello, agents!) and provides instant gratification. If your book is taking forever (see #5 above), you can develop a readership by writing witty and entertaining blog posts. And if you’re a perfectionist who has trouble letting go of your work, blogging will help you muster the courage to get your writing out there–you want to keep your blog up-to-date, after all. With every post it gets easier to press PUBLISH.