The Courage to Go Your Own Way
People often ask successful writers “how do you do it?” as if there is a special roadmap that will always take you from wanting to be a successfully published author to actually being one.
It is always interesting to hear the process by which authors get from desire to reality. But one thing you’ll notice if you read a lot of these stories: though there are often similarities between writers’ journeys, they will never be identical matches. That’s because learning to write and be published is a bit like tossing a puppy into a pond. At first the puppy will flail around a good bit, instinctively doing some things right to keep his head above water. And the puppy is smart. Over time he’ll do more of the things that work well and fewer things that get water up his nose. And he’ll keep up in this vein until he reaches shore. Writers do that too.
Time to Evaluate
No matter where you are in the process, there are still things you are doing right (things that maximize your chance for success) and things you do wrong (things that make it harder to succeed). Right now is a good time to look at the things you are doing and evaluate whether they are helping or hindering your writing success. This hard look can include obvious things like “telling yourself that grammar doesn’t matter as most readers won’t notice” and less obvious things like “letting everything in your life push writing to the bottom of the importance ranking.” Consider how you spend your time, for instance. Does Facebook time offer you a chance to stay connected to friends and family or a chance to put off facing the blank page of your writing? The answer may be, “it does both.” Then you’ll have to learn how to let it do one thing but not the other.
Some things are both bad and good. And social media is a good example. When writing, it’s easy to write a page or two and then take a quick peek at email or Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook. This takes up my time so that’s bad. And if there’s actually something happening on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook, it can suck me in and I lose a lot of writing time, which is very bad. Shut down your WiFi connection before you start writing (no giving in to temptation!), you may lose less time to the Internet but also may tend to encounter a lot more “stuck” moments.
Personally, these Internet peeks away offer a tiny mental reset that, for me, at least, actually keeps my writing flowing. And if I shut off the Internet, I will need to reset in other ways like getting another cup of tea, cleaning, etc. And some of those alternate ways can be every bit as time consuming as my peeks at the Internet. The reality is that frequent mental resets are important to my writing process, but they must be monitored constantly to keep these resets from costing more than they give.
Many of the things that we do are like that. Let me offer another example. Often people will tell you not to edit as you go. It’ll knock you out of your flow. It will put you in an eternal loop of fixing and re-fixing. And those things can be true. But starting each writing period with a little light editing can also be a way of getting you back into the story. Trying to jump in cold each time you return to a work in progress can be daunting. Doing some light editing of what you’ve already written can help you over that hurdle, as long as you’re careful to keep it under control.
But You’ve Heard…
This brings me to another important point that I tend to harp on regularly. The world (and certainly the Internet) is full of advice and even pseudo rules. Never use passive voice! Never use “very!” Never edit in the middle of a work in progress! Don’t outline! Always outline! It can be very confusing. But all advice and pseudo rules come from someone trying to share things that worked for them or helped them over a problem.
I do the same thing (though I try not to). One of the pseudo rules I favor is “don’t create goals that are dependent on other people.” I say this because when you make goals like “get published by the end of the year,” or “get an agent,” then you feel like a failure if you don’t meet it. But there may be legitimate, non-failure reasons you didn’t meet your goal, reasons completely dependent on other people’s behavior (namely the specific needs of editors or agents). So I try to encourage people away from behavior that may be discouraging.
But for some, these kinds of goals are very motivating. They like visualizing themselves with a book in their hands, and it becomes the energy that fuels them to work the steps needed to move closer to that goal. For those people, setting goals that involve things that are out of their control still works brilliantly even with the potential drawback. So really, every “rule,” even the ones I espouse, should be run through a very special filter. “Does this work for me?” Because the set of rules that work for you will be very specific to you, your writing process, your temperament, and your specific life circumstances.
The courage to go your own way is tough. I had a writing friend who I first became aware of when we were both making (and designing) soft toys. I admired her work a lot. I thought of her only as a soft toy designer. But years later, she set aside that career and took up a new one: writing. She wasn’t young, but she changed course and began writing. And she was absolutely brilliant at it. In fact, one of her short stories for young adults was a core text I often used when teaching for the Institute. Her talent with sensory detail was really remarkable. She wrote novels and garnered a lot of attention. She isn’t with us any longer, but in her lifetime she did two completely different things and did them brilliantly. To do that, she had to be brave. She had to ask herself if she should set aside this thing she did very well in order to do this scary thing that might not work out at all. And she had to face that question at an age when most people believe they simply cannot change. But she did. Her name was Kezi Matthews and if you get a chance to read one of her novels, I recommend them. You’ll learn a lot about voice, mood, and sensory detail from her work.
So what are the things you want out of writing? Look at how you might be standing in your own way. Consider changes, but do it carefully, knowing that sometimes the things that seem like negatives actually are serving hidden purposes. But as you make change and try new things, especially as we head into the new year, know that wherever you’re at in your life, it’s not too late to do something brilliant.