I’ve dreamed of being a writer since the 4th grade. I think that would have been 1986, or there about. But I didn’t actually do anything besides jot down stories and ideas once in a while until 2006. That was the year I quit my job, became a stay-at-home mom, and moved two hours away from friends and family. Even then, I entered the pursuit of literary endeavors blindly. And I must say, pretty naively. There are a few things I would love to have known in 2006 that took me years to learn, so maybe this list will help any newbie writers, or not-so-newbie writers, who happen upon this post.
1 – Make Writing a Priority
I’ve talked about this several times, but most recently in a blog post here. You have to make writing a part of your life, your schedule, just like your family, your job, school, whatever it is that makes up life for you. If you want to be a writer you have to find room to write. And I’m not one of those “write every day” people either. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t do something related to my writing career, but I don’t write every day. Sometimes it’s as simple as connecting with other authors on Twitter, reading a blog post on writing advice, promoting someone else’s book, or reading a YA novel.
You have to decide this dream is worth something to you, and that’s not measured in books sold, dollar signs, or accolades. I haven’t made a penny or sold a single book yet. But the keyword there is “yet”. The dream doesn’t come true without the hard, hard, exhausting and never ending work. The idea that you have to pay your dues first is very, very true. And even once that dream is “real” the money and fame might not be. It’s going to have to be an important part of you to keep going.
2 – Own It
Do you write? If the answer is YES, then you’re a writer. Own it. You’re not an aspiring writer: you’re a writer! It doesn’t matter if you’re traditionally published, an Amazon ebook writer, fan fic or WattPad writer, or just a writer who puts words on the page but hasn’t found your avenue of publication yet. You write = you’re a writer. It doesn’t matter if you’re terrible or fabulous, fresh and new or cliched, traditional or groundbreaking. You’re a writer. Don’t let anyone take that from you.
And never be ashamed to declare it proudly. I spent years too embarrassed to tell people I was a writer. Mainly because I had mentally tied the idea of success and legitimacy to the idea of being an actual writer. It took me a while to accept that if my fingers flew across the keyboard placing black words on a white page, I was in fact a writer. And a hard working one at that. There was no need to be embarrassed because I had no outward signs of achievement yet. I write; therefore I am a writer.
3 – Accept That What You Write is Crap
Not very confidence inducing, am I? But you need to accept this. Especially in the beginning. Even the best writers produce some pretty awful first drafts. And second, and third . . . That’s why writing is a process. You may write a beautiful first draft, or maybe it’s simply word vomit with a little structure. Either way, it’s on the page, and that’s a start.
Most people aren’t born amazing writers. Even those that go through creative writing programs in college don’t always pop out a best seller on their first go. It takes practice. Critique. Swallowing your pride and working harder. Then more writing. More critique. Repeat. Repeat. Writing that first draft is often the fun part. Fingers flying, words flowing, ideas bursting from your head faster than you can tap letters on the page. But writing is also in the nitty-gritty hard work of revision and reading the same words again and again and again.
But don’t be embarrassed by that word vomit either. We all have it. Whether it’s an entire first draft or just a few chapters that stubbornly stick between the slats of our imagination and won’t slide through into words. DO revise your first draft before you seek out betas. DO continue to learn how to be a better writer and apply that to your work. But DON’T give up because that first go isn’t a shiny golden baby, but rather a wrinkly, pale, yet somehow lovable one. Ugly babies often grow into wonderous humans.
4 – Never Stop Learning
I don’t care if you have an MFA, you can always learn more about writing. And if you’re like me and have an associate’s degree in a field unrelated to writing, there’s a lot to learn. I always did well in my English and writing classes, so it’s not like that aspect was a challenge for me, but there were definitely things about grammar, punctuation, and writing that I never knew or had forgotten. (And probably still don’t know.)
But brushing up on the basics isn’t enough. There are as many different writing styles and approaches to craft as there are writers. Read the novels of writers you admire, check out blog posts and articles about how to write better, and read books on craft. There’s always something more to learn, and sometimes you just need a reminder of something you’ve heard a hundred times but can’t quite seem to apply to your own writing.
And yet, that’s still not enough. One of the most important parts of writing—and a part I feel is too often neglected—is learning as much as you can about the identity of the character you are writing. If you’re an Own Voices author, then you have a lifetime of experience to fall back on when writing a character that represents your identity. But if you’re not, you’ve got a steep learning curve to catch up and be moderately effective. If you’re not Own Voices, you will never be the best person to write that story, so it’s going to take you a lot of extra work to still be an acceptable person to write that story.
5 – Don’t Let Your Mom Read Your Work
Okay, I’m being a little facetious here, but seriously, don’t. In fact, don’t give it to your husband, brother, sister, dad, aunt, cousin, best friend or the post man either. I know how exciting it is to have that finished manuscript in hand and want to share it with someone, but people who know you are not the best ones to share it with. Like I said, I’m kidding—a little.
It is okay to let family and friends read if you just need a meaningless ego boost so you can brave the idea of actually letting another writer take a look at it. But if you think you’re going to get useful feedback from anyone who actually knows you in the flesh, it’s unlikely. Maybe, just maybe, you know another writer, or your sister has a writing degree, or Uncle Buck published a novel, but even then, they may not objectively be the best people to look at your work. They love you. They’re going to see you every holiday, birthdays, and lots of places in between. They have a vested interest in your happiness. You don’t want that in a critiquer.
True feedback comes from people who don’t care if they hurt your feelings. True critique comes from people who write. We know (hopefully) what goes into a good novel. We have read many great books, and written our own (quality subject to opinion) and can see where you’re telling vs showing, or using too many -ly adjectives, or know a Mary Sue when she skips across the page. We know craft. Your mom doesn’t. And even if she does, she may love you too much to crush your dreams. Get yourself a dream crusher CP. They will only make your writing better.
6 – Find Yourself a Writing Crew
Writing is by nature a somewhat solitary endeavor. From my experience, a good majority of writers consider themselves introverts and reclusive. We’d much rather hold the company of our next manuscript or a favorite novel than hobnob with anyone anywhere anytime. But that can be detrimental to your development as a writer. And the good news for introverts? Most of the interaction you have with fellow writers is online! Yay for the internet!
I didn’t start using Absolute Write forums until 2010, almost 4 years after I started writing! Sometimes I look at that join date in my profile and think it must be wrong. It feels like some of those writers have been with me since the beginning. But that just shows the value of good writing friends: because I can’t actually imagine doing what I do without them, even though I did it for 4 years.
Twitter blipped on my radar in 2014, mainly because of a pitch contest. I came for the chance to pitch my book; stayed because it became one of the best ways to network with other writers. Even though AW made me feel less alone and I love my AW friends (they’re with me on Twitter, too), Twitter made me feel like I belonged! Sometimes it can feel like high school with cliques and drama and arguing, but I was in this big pool of thousands of writers who had opinions and ideas and talked about process and marketing and just everything! My knowledge grew by leaps and bounds just from exposure to people just like me (and many not at all like me) and the industry itself.
Your writing crew can teach you to be a better writer, teach you about the industry ins-and-outs, provide support for all those moments of what-the-hell-am-I-doing-anyway?! You need beta readers and critique partners, advice and moments of solidarity over just how hard this all is, and sometimes just someone to laugh with and relate to. Some people might think this is sad, but I barely talk to IRL friends anymore. Yet I talk to my online writing friends every day. It’s not sad to me, because I’ve found my crew.
7 – Be a Cheerleader
Being a writer is hard. I think many of us are prone to anxiety in the first place, but putting out something so personal into the world is double anxiety inducing. That novel, short story, or poem is a piece of your heart, your soul. It’s your imagination and dreams come to life in black and white—and sometimes color if you’re a picture book or graphic novelist. It’s months and months of late nights, neglected housework, and missed social engagements. It’s not just words on paper.
And that’s why we need cheerleaders. This kind of goes along with the above about finding your writing crew, but it’s more about what you can do. Maybe you don’t need cheerleaders, which is fine, but I think many people would give up if they didn’t have others cheering them on. And seeing the success of others can spur us to believe that yes, this too can happen for me.
There are many ways to be someone’s cheerleader. As a beta reader or critique partner, think about what the MS has done right as well as where it has gone wrong. Once again, not everyone needs this. I can get along just fine with a critique that shows me all my flaws but doesn’t point out my triumphs. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the compliments, but I don’t need them. Yet, in the beginning I think I did. Now I’m confident enough, but you might not always know the temperament of your fellow writer, so try offering positive feedback as well as negative.
Social media is another great way to offer encouragement. Like and/or share a blog post, leave a positive comment on a Tweet or Facebook post, and offer congratulations at agent signings, book deals, and signing events. Share in the excitement and happiness for your fellow authors, because they deserve the celebration now, and it makes you feel happy and excited too. Besides, they’ll be there for you when you have something to celebrate!
8 – Take Criticism (and rejection) Like a Champ
If you want to succeed in writing, you will have to learn to take criticism. And yes, no matter how experienced you become, criticism can still hurt. I’ve been writing with the idea of achieving publication for more than ten years now, and hearing that an editor “didn’t connect with my character” or that a beta felt a line in my book was sexist or that my critique partner thought a sub-plot was too unbelievable still stings pretty bad. You labor and love over every character, every plot, every paragraph, hell, every word! Criticism can feel downright personal.
But it’s not. So stop. Step back from the critique in whatever form it comes: beta or CP critique, agent or editor feedback, book reviews, or online comments. STEP. BACK. When you’re too close to your work, it is hard to think objectively. When you’re upset about a comment, it’s almost impossible to think objectively. STEP. BACK.
I’ve seen it many times. (I’ve done it a few times myself.) A critique hurts and you seek to defend yourself, or maybe strike back at the critiquer, or even find other voices that support yours so you can feel like you’ve done nothing wrong. But you’re not helping yourself. In fact, you’re actively harming yourself. I’m not saying that every critique and comment is valid, but I will tell you that every critique and comment is valid for the person who has given it. They’re not out to get you. Try to look through the lens that they are viewing your work; listen to what they have to say and weigh it as objectively as you can; do seek other opinions, but make sure they aren’t just people who will agree with you, but rather people who have a similar lens as the original critiquer.
Obviously I’m talking about a lot more than comma placement or “tell vs show” here. Sometimes critique can be as simple as that. And sometimes it can be about harmful representation for which you are not the best person to decide if it is or isn’t. But you have to learn to be objective, put aside your hurt, and evaluate the critique for what is best for your novel—and most importantly—best for your readers.
9 – Don’t Query Recklessly
Querying itself is as much an art form as writing. And jumping into it head first without learning the art can damage your chances. That doesn’t mean if you make a mistake or a query faux pas that you should pack up your lap top and throw in the towel. I’ve had some pretty egregious mishaps myself (like the time I used the wrong name for an agent) but I still managed to find an agent who loved my book.
Good news: there’s a plethora of querying advice on the internet. Google, as always, is your best friend, but to get you started, below you will find a few posts I wrote about querying that link to my favorite posts and articles about querying. Yes, it’s a lot of reading. Did you think this would be easy? It’s not. Not only do you need to read all that I wrote, and all that other writers and agents have written, but then you have to decipher what is best for you. Because everyone has different advice. And then figure out what’s best for the particular agent you’re querying. Because they each have their own likes and dislikes. Which means more research. Oh, and you’ll need to research which agents would be a best fit for you and your book. That’s more research.
You owe it to yourself and to that book you spent months, sometimes years, writing and polishing. Querying can take as much time as the actual writing. But you want to do it right, not quickly.
Queries! Queries! Queries! – Part One: Researching Agents
Agent Research: I forgot to tell you something!
Queries! Queries! Queries?? – Part Two: How to write a query letter
The Query Process: It’s Own Brand of Crazy
Newbie Post #12: 5 Silver Linings in Those Rejection Letters
10 – Give a Hand Up
As we move through our journey as writers—whether our goal is publication or just the joy of writing—be willing to give a hand up. That’s how our writing community grows and progresses. Chances are you’re going to be given beta reads and query critiques from other writers, especially in the early years, so you have to be willing to do the same in return. In the beginning, it’s a trade of scratching each others’ backs, and you get the added benefit of learning a lot about what will work for your own writing by reading and critiquing others. But as you become more experienced, you can offer a valuable helping hand to beginners.
And this goes for book promotion and book reviews as well. An author’s bread and butter can very well depend on how many reviews they have on Amazon or how their sales did that first week after release. We have to be willing to support our writing community in anyway we realistically can. It’s instinct to keep your eye on the prize ahead, but I also like to keep an eye and a hand out for those climbing behind.
So that’s about it. Truth is, you may have to learn these things firsthand for yourself. But at least if you read this, you know to be looking for those learning opportunities. And maybe you’ll catch on just a little faster than I did. Good luck!