December 12, 2019
Are We There Yet?
One of the best things to consider when looking over a year of writing is what we've learned. As writers, we're always learning new things. It's one of the elements of writing that keeps it fresh. So December is a great time to consider what you've learned over the course of the year and the resources you've taken advantage of. Learning and growing is as important to success as submitting your written material. Any author who feels they've arrived or no longer has anything to learn is a writer who has stalled. Writing is a journey, and we need to keep moving forward.
What Have You Read?
I love writing books. I own quite a few, and I've checked still more out of the library. The first book you really must have and really should read is your market guide. Many of us buy the market guide and use it to look at the markets, flipping quickly past all the articles at the front (and I have been guilty of that as much as anyone). But that can make you miss out on a lot of excellent learning. I remember the first time I ever actually read all the articles in a market guide. I was amazed at how much they made me think. I didn't agree with everything, and I didn't learn from every piece, but I did feel that my net gain from reading all the articles was considerable. Even when the book was simply reminding me of things I already knew, it sometimes gave me a poke in areas where I might have gotten a little lax.
Beyond the market guide, I often analyze areas where I really need to grow in the course of a year. Recently, for example, I've read books on mystery writing. Now, I've written dozens of mysteries for publication, but I felt like I needed some fresh perspectives, some new ways to look at this genre. And I grew considerably from the effort of seeing what other mystery writers had to say. Not everyone approached the plotting in the same way as I do, but there were definitely things we all did the same, so the experience was a mix of learning and encouragement. I found I approached my next mystery with a freshness that I hadn't known for a while. Learning can do that for you.
Who Have You Talked With?
Writing can be a solitary activity. In fact, it must be. I'm constantly amazed by the big authors who are pushed into lots and lots of promotional activity: book signing, speaking, and tours. I've done all of those things in very limited ways. They don't take up very much of my writing time. For big authors, these activities hack brutally into their writing time. In fact, some writers have to call a halt periodically to go and hide away from other humans and write. No matter who you are, writing forces you into a certain amount of solitude.
Even if the bulk of your life is fairly social, it's likely that much of that socializing doesn't do much for your writing. At one point, I actually told my daughter not to tell people that I was a writer. Telling people seemed to result in a lot of disheartening conversations. There were the
• people who didn't consider children's writing to be as impressive as adult writing
• people who considered writing to be a cute hobby
• people who thought they might write a book someday … when they had time
• or simply people who thought my being a professional writer should automatically mean I had a lot of time available to help them learn how to get published.
(Sadly, most people aren't trying to learn to write. They're sure they have that down, and it's only the cruelty of the submission process and their lack of "knowing the right people" that kept them from success.)
Those attitudes can rain on a writer’s parade!
That doesn't mean I never want to be with people. In fact, I love being with committed writers. I love talking about writing to people who are actually interested. I love helping others through the hard work of becoming the writer they want to be. I love learning from other writers. And I don't get to do any of that as much as I would like. But I am so excited about the opportunities I have these days. I can and do converse with other writers online. I can and do lead workshops on the areas of writing I know best. I can and do go to conferences and workshops where I can explore new areas. And every one of these opportunities results in a fresh burst of inspiration. I don't come away disheartened. I come away excited to get back to the keyboard and jump into something new.
So as you look over your year of learning, if you find you didn't interact with writers much, consider changing that in the new year. If it's financially feasible, consider at least one learning opportunity that takes you out of the house and into the company of other writers. Your local SCBWI branch may have events you can attend (often even without being a member). Or you might consider starting an in-person writing group in your area. Add in online opportunities like the ones we do here at ICL and you can get those bursts of encouragement, learning, and inspiration throughout the year. It makes a big difference.
Who Have You Taught?
When I was in grade school, I learned something amazing. If I taught someone about something I learned the subject better as well. Now, as it turned out, I had a little brother, so I got to do a lot of helping with homework, and that kept my skills sharp. Then in college, I continued that. Before exams, I would get together with others in the class for study groups, and I found that talking through my understanding of the material not only helped the other people, it helped me. Now, I don't always have time to go teach a writing class, but I do write about writing on a regular basis. And as I pick a specific subject and begin writing about it, any weak areas will begin to jump out at me, areas I hadn't even known were there. And that then forces me to invest in more research. In the end, I grow considerably.
If you really need to improve in any area of writing from craft to marketing to promotion, one sure way to help is to plan to condense everything you learn into a teaching moment. If you want to know more about platform, don't just stop at researching it. Instead go on to write about it for other writers. You can post a piece on the topic on your blog¬¬––or offer to guest blog for someone else, like ICL! You can submit the piece to a writing magazine or ezine. For example, Funds for Writers is always open to articles on markets or on promotion. With that, you get all sorts of bonuses: not only do you learn more about promotion by condensing and repeating what you find, but you can also add a publishing credit and get paid.
So as you look over your writing year, don't stop at what you've written and what you've sold. Dig deeper and begin examining how you've become a better writer. What have you learned? How did you learn it? And how can you plan for the next year to grow even more. Looking back helps us prepare for the next step. And we all want that step to be a successful one.
So how about you? How did you grow in 2019?
Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor.
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