Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not telling you to eighty-six all the how-to books, workshops you’ve taken, columns you’ve read, etc. Knowing the rules can make a big difference in making your writing better, stronger, faster… You get the idea. But as I’ve pursued a writing career, one of the neon sign lessons that overrides most of the others is this one:
When new or aspiring authors have asked me how they can become a better writer, I tend to ask them a couple of standard questions before responding:
1. How many manuscripts have you completed? Not started, not trimmed into a neat proposal or synopsis, not partials you’ve submitted in a contest. How many full manuscripts have you written and prepared for submission to appropriate publishing houses?
2. What is your typical daily schedule (day job, family obligations, health issues, etc.), and how does writing fit into it? For some aspiring authors, even just an hour or two a day at the computer putting words on the screen can feel like too much to ask. But what is a reasonable amount of time and energy to invest in what you view as your passion/professional goal?
If the answer to Question #1 is anywhere between zero and three, and if Question #2 is met with a blank stare … the solution is an uncomplicated (albeit, likely unwelcome) one.
Put the words on the page.
It doesn’t matter if they’re stellar or if the plot isn’t exactly flowing. It doesn’t matter if more research is needed or if the word count isn’t right. The most important thing you can do to become a better writer is to write.
You know how your mom told you in your school days that practice makes perfect? Her advice didn’t miraculously become brilliant overnight. She knew what she was talking about back then. Yes, there are authors who sell their first completed manuscript … and yes, you could be one of them. But the reality is that most people who write their first book won’t contract it to a traditional publisher. Furthermore, most of those that are contracted and published stand a good chance of never selling a second one.
If you’ve decided to self-publish, the odds change. However, so does the expectation of effort, expense, time, and talent. To self-publish, you still need to plunk down in the chair, fire up the computer, and put the words on the page. All of them. Not just a few golden chapters. Then there will also be the necessity of hiring an editor … a cover designer … learning the how-to of preparing and presenting the manuscript to the platform you’ve chosen to get it out there to your reading public. And I’m dramatically over-simplifying the process here.
Still … in the “inspiring” last words of murderer Gary Gilmore before he was executed by firing squad … words oddly lifted by a Nike marketing executive in the late 80s when searching for a lasting tagline for their brand … JUST DO IT. Even if it’s not up to par, put the words on the screen. All of them. You can fix them later. You can’t perfect what isn’t there.
Here are some important tips to remember:
- The more manuscripts you complete – draft + editing + revisions + more revisions – the better equipped you will be for activities such as writing-on-demand, meeting deadlines, understanding your readers, and learning the rules (before you can break them).
- Even if you only have an hour a day, three days a week … use them. Don’t give in to the temptation to make excuses, to restructure your day to accommodate other things, to wait until you’re in the mood or feeling creative. If writing is going to be your business, you’ll have to pull on your big girl/boy panties and learn how to do it whether you feel like it or not.
- Countless writers spend an inordinate amount of time writing and perfecting those first three chapters that will accompany the synopsis when the proposal goes out. I once knew an aspiring writer who spent THREE YEARS on those first three chapters, working with various critique groups to get them “just right,” always with the idea of selling her book at the forefront of her efforts. When she finally met the editor who saw the beauty in those chapters, she wasn’t able to complete the book to the standard that the initial pages promised. Do the best you can on the contents of your proposal … but don’t forget that your target publisher is going to want to see the subsequent 60-80,000 words if you pique their interest. And they’d better be good ones.
The bottom line is that, if you’re racing into this writing thing with high expectations – or any expectations at all – you’re doing yourself and your book a big disservice. Instead, why not adjust your thinking so that it’s the actual writing you’re courting rather than the paycheck it may supply.
[Note: And the truth is … the paychecks aren’t all that impressive for a beginner!]
Just hone your craft. Learn as much as you can, and put it into practice at every opportunity. Write badly if you have to! As long as you write.
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SANDRA D. BRICKER was an entertainment publicist in Los Angeles for 15+ years where she attended school to learn screenwriting and eventually taught the craft for several semesters. When she put Hollywood in the rear view mirror and headed across the country to take care of her mom until she passed away, she traded her scripts for books . . . and a best-selling, award-winning author of Live-Out-Loud fiction for the inspirational market was born. Sandie is best known for her Another Emma Rae Creation and Jessie Stanton series for Abingdon Press, and she was also named ACFW’s 2015 Editor of the Year for her work as managing editor of Bling! Romance, an edgy romance imprint for Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas. As an ovarian cancer survivor, Sandie also gears time and effort toward raising awareness and funds for research, diagnostics and a cure.
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