Never forget why you’re really doing what you’re doing. ~ Derek Sivers
An athlete spends time training to strengthen muscles and improve endurance and agility. Musicians spend countless hours in the pursuit of making music flow from their instruments. Even with a natural knack, it takes performance/visual artists years of practice to reach a certain level of expertise in their field. It’s foolish to think that becoming a good writer will take any less of a commitment or sacrifice for the craft.
Whether you’re a beginning writer or one with a list of publishing credits, there are two things that should be done every day to improve your writing:
Read for pleasure, in and out of the genre you write in. Read and re-read the masters and those works that thrill you, those books that grab ahold of you and make you wish you could write like that. This kind of learning creates a subconscious feel for pacing and flow and the power of words, and will eventually pour out naturally in your own writing.
Just write. You know this, I know this, and the greats practice this without fail. Set a daily or weekly word count goal. Play with words. Write in snippets, sonnets, scenes. Finish what you start. Commit, and write every day.
What good writers have over beginning writers is a head start on time spent on the craft plus a testing of commitment and the willingness to sacrifice – they’ve added to their busy calendar the time to do such things as:
Read to learn. Be conscious of what you read and how it makes you feel. Try to determine what an author did to pull you along, to make you turn those pages. Why do you love some characters and hate others? Take the time to break it down.
Join a writing group, spend time with other writers especially those with more experience than you. The old saying “Iron sharpens iron” is true. You will be encouraged in your writing journey and inspired to write.
Join a critique group when you’re ready to share your work. This is something that has to be done at some point. Putting yourself “out there” can be difficult, but it’s necessary to get feedback on your writing (from other than family or friends) in order to improve. And learning to critique the work of others will help you in recognizing the problems in your own writing.
Attend classes, workshops, and conferences. Eventually, most writers have to sacrifice not only time but money to see their writing improve. Target your writing weak spots, network with other writers, and learn the business.
Getting better at anything requires practice. Be an athlete-artist. Commit yourself to your craft and follow the path to better writing.
What commitments and sacrifices have you made to improve your craft?
After taking several months off from blogging, I’m back with a few questions I’ve had to answer for myself. Why blog? Why Not to Blog?
You do not have to blog, and if you don’t have much interest in the form, then please don’t pursue it. As with any form of writing, it takes a considerable investment of energy and time to do it right and get something from it. ~ Jane Friedman
Reasons for blogging vary from one person to another. Apart from any business goals of selling yourself and your goods or services, there are a few basic reasons to blog:
We all want to make a difference. Sharing knowledge or experience is one way to do that.
Some people have a lot to say. Blogging is another way to express themselves.
We all have a desire and a need to be heard. Done in the right way (and with the right intent), blogging can be a good outlet.
Initially, my purpose in starting this particular blog was to give my 12-year writing project a home and to encourage others to face their fears. AJ Jackson – the fearless private investigator and repo-mama from This New Mountain – has impacted me from the moment her red-headed spunk and energy rushed into my life more than fifteen years ago. My reasons for contributing to the blog-o-sphere were a natural by-product of my relationship with her. Later, including posts about writing style and writing as it pertains to memoir also seemed a natural addition to the blog. I am still (and forever will be) perfecting my writing skills, and I’ve felt the urge to encourage writers on their own journeys whether toward publication or “perfection.”
Why Not to Blog?
Again, the reasons not to blog (or to stop blogging) depend on the individual, but there are some standard things that come with the territory.
Blogging takes time. There’s the planning, the research, the writing, the proofing. Even just coming up with ideas to write about can take up hours every week. Do you have this time to spend?
Blogging takes commitment. Even if it’s once a week or once a month, keeping up a blog is one more thing to add to the To-Do List. How committed are you willing to be?
Blogging takes energy. Okay, it’s mostly brain energy. But you do have to drag yourself to the computer, then to the bathroom, then to the computer. And what about all those round-trips to the refrigerator and the bowls full of peanuts, pretzels and chocolate to carry back with you. That’s got to count for something, right?
Blogging can be a distraction. Blogging can keep you from something more important such as family commitments, health goals, or other dreams and creative pursuits. Will you use blogging as an excuse not to do some other thing?
It’s a physical fact that adding one thing to a finite space results in less space for something else. In deciding whether or not to blog, we each have to weigh our personal desires and goals against the added commitments and the affects blogging has on other more important aspects of our lives.
For me, I’ve decided to keep blogging. I’d like to continue encouraging writers to pursue their dreams and push through any fears that might be holding them back. But I’ve also come to realize I need to implement some major changes in time and goal management (a topic for another post).
Why do you blog? Have you found that the good outweighs the bad?
Are you shy? Are you an introvert? If so, you understand the horror that is public speaking. As a child you pretended to study the book on your desk so the teacher wouldn’t call on you in class (even though you already knew the answer). You stammered or stuttered or sweated your way through the dreaded oral presentation – and you still do.
I am one of those writers who would happily spend my days holed up in my dark, cozy cave, stories streaming from my fingers onto the keyboard, only coming out for chocolate and Mountain Dew. That’s my idea of a perfect writing life. No public speaking for me. No selling myself. But if a writer’s goal is to be published, she must satisfy some requirements and re-enter the light every now and then.
One of those requirements is a book event – in the case of my first one of a few weeks ago, that meant a discussion, a reading, and a book signing. (Just so you know, merely thinking of doing another one makes my hands shake and my stomach turn.)
I had done my research and knew how to prepare for the practical aspects of it: make notes and study what to say, bake goodies to share (brownies and cake), gather pens (for signing, just in case), as well as a bottle of water, bookmarks and business cards. I even showered and put on clean clothes – living in a cave can leave one dusty and rumpled.
But how does a shy, introverted cave-dwelling writer stand up in front of a group of strangers and sell herself and her book? The answer is…she doesn’t!
In my search for peace in this process, for a way to make it through the horror, I discovered two simple keys to survive a book event:
1. Don’t make it about yourself: Make it about the audience.
If you were in the audience, what would you want to know about a book and its author? Keep this in mind as you plan the talk.
- Include a brief introduction about yourself, where you’re from, how or why you started on your writing journey. The audience is made up of regular people (just like you, right?) and they want to identify with you.
- Talk about why you wrote this particular book. Out of all the stories you could have written, why did this one grab hold of you and not let go? Don’t be afraid to show your passion for the project.
- Many readers are also writers or they aspire to be. Explain what your process was like as you wrote this book – your day-to-day routine, research, the cycle of editing, your challenges and victories, how you put it all together. (My audience was especially interested in the fact that I color-coded the chapter outline of This New Mountain, cut it in sections, and laid the pieces out on the floor to decide what chapters went where.)
- In choosing what to read, what excerpt most exemplifies your writing but would also most hold the audience’s attention? Whatever you decide, keep it short.
2. Don’t make it about selling your book: It’s as simple as that.
- Selling a book would be great, but focusing on that could turn you into one of those sleazy car salesmen. You know, the ones with the fake smiles who circle round and round like vultures. Don’t go there, don’t even try – giving yourself permission to let go of this is enough to make a shy introvert dance in the streets (not really).
If I were to summarize what I learned from my first book event, it would be to respect your audience. Two simple keys helped shift my focus from myself to those who really mattered – the people who took the time out of their day to drive across town to hear an unknown author speak. And that made all the difference in my ability to handle the situation.
I’d love to hear about your experiences with public speaking. What is your advice to get past the “horror” of it all?
I wasn’t the first to suggest AJ Jackson’s “adventures” would make a good book. Nearly everyone she came in contact with said the same thing. One of the major appeals of her stories is that she’s a regular person in an unconventional job doing things most people would find uncomfortable, even frightening. Don’t we all wish we had that kind of courage?
When we first met, we both worked for the same attorney – AJ as a private investigator/process server, and I as a secretary. She came in several times a week to pick up and drop off documents, and while she was in the office, she shared her newest adventures. While I listened, I would shake my head and say things like, “you’re kidding” and “my goodness” and “that’s crazy” in response to her latest I-almost-got-bit story or I-almost-got-shot story or I-almost-got-[fill in the blank] story.
After one especially exciting storytelling session, I offered to write her book. She didn’t say “yes” right away. When she finally did tell me she wanted to give it a try, my stomach twisted in knots. Writing AJ’s memoir would be a challenge. First, this was not my memoir, these were not my memories. And second, I wrote fiction (specifically science fiction and fantasy) and not nonfiction. But I’d committed to doing it, so I pushed through my doubts and fears, and began a practical approach to writing my first memoir.
AJ recorded her stories on a tape recorder, then I listened to her voice and let it guide me as I retold her adventures. The next six years were one cycle after another of outlining, research, writing and rewriting – with AJ proofing – and then more writing and revising. I finished a first complete draft in 2006. A professional edit of the manuscript brought the memoir back into seemingly endless cycles of digging deeper, reworking, rearranging, and rewriting. After six more years, the manuscript was as ready as we could make it for publishing.
And that’s where This New Mountain is now, in the hands of the publisher and waiting for (what we hope is) just one more round of proofing before going off to the printer and then distribution.
Though I wasn’t the first person to say AJ’s adventures would make a good book, I’m pretty sure I was the first to offer to write that book. Without her example of a no-comfort-zone life and stepping out of my own comfort zone, I never would have had the chance to know the exceptional woman who is Vinnie Ann “AJ” Jackson or start on my own publishing adventure.
Have you ever stepped out of your comfort zone – and found a treasure because of it?