This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Jessica Monday) at any stage of their career can talk about writing advice and instruction as well as how they possibly got their book agent — by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning.
1. You just have to write. Sit down at the keyboard, pick up the pen, scribble on a napkin; it’s the hardest thing to do and the only one worthwhile. I have a folder where I toss ideas littered on scraps of envelopes and parking tickets. Writing the words out at the moment captures your mood and gives you an entry point to work with later. If you don’t write it, then you don’t have it.
2. Little ideas can always grow bigger. My book started as an idea for a newspaper feature. I was writing for a small town weekly paper in Wyoming and became interested in the story of a strange murder. A pair of writers, Michael and Kathleen Gear, advised me to try for a book, if, of course, I could find enough material. Over the next year I was like a squirrel collecting interviews and hoarding them away. After that year, I knew I’d accumulated the start of what I’d need to do more than a piece for the paper.
3. Writing takes time. I quit the busy newspaper business under the grand auspice of completing my book. That was a year and three months ago. While I know of famous authors who can churn out books in a few months or even weeks, creative nonfiction has evolved differently for me. Altogether I’ve been working on my book for three years and like Santiago in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea I see myself as having set my hook in a big fish and being dragged out to sea with it until one of us wins the fight. I was extremely naïve about how long the process would take from inception to something marketable. Not only the research, but the writing itself, agonizing over how to compile all of the information and working on the side to make ends. Writing is not for the faint of heart.
4. We must be persistent. Writing is like any form of exercise. You’re better off if you set a discipline and be prepared to pay dues. Make a time to write, even if it’s a half-hour, and treat it like a set appointment. Write it down on your calendar with a specific time and don’t make excuses to skip. Even if you don’t say it to yourself, when you tuck those few sentences or poem away to be finished later, make the time to finish it. If you want to discover your potential as a writer, don’t quit on yourself. Tell yourself working a little bit is better than nothing (because it is).
5. Find the power in your own voice. I had an English professor say it doesn’t matter how many times the sunset has been described in human history, how you describe it will be different. No one else sees the world exactly as you do. Give yourself the freedom to write whatever you think and don’t worry about what other people will think. Keep it to yourself until you’re ready to share; do whatever you have to do, but let those expressions unfold because they are unique to you.
6. Locate an inner mentor. Lately I’ve been hearing Richard Pryor’s voice in my head when I lose confidence in my work. His vulgar brazenness makes me laugh when I hear my meanest voice saying, “Oh this is such crap, why would you show this to anyone?” He also reminds me to finish writing. Find the end of a piece and you’ve begun to find yourself as a writer. That doesn’t mean that draft won’t be crap. Making a gorgeous, polished piece is the next step. But you have to write it all out before you can start revising and editing. So even if it takes years to finish what you start, keep writing and keep starting and use a positive voice to boost your self esteem. Start a million times and eventually you will finish one of them; it becomes so unsatisfying to never know the ending.
7. Write for publication. People often write for themselves in journals (which is proven fantastic for mental health and plain fun), but the ultimate goal of an artist is communication with an audience. I fought writing for publications because I worried it would take away from working on my book. Actually I found the other writing focused me because I was exercising my craft and learning more about writing; how to ask better questions, trying technique, reviewing my work and looking for holes. The added bonus is you’ll earn money for your work, which gives you more time to write other things. Practice your craft and you’ll have the best of luck in all your writing.
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Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:
- Writer’s block sucks. Here are 7 ways to beat it and be more productive.
- Agent Kimiko Nakamura puts out a call for new queries.
- How to Keep Writing in the Face of Rejection.
- Meet Eric Devine, author of the young adult novel for boys, TAP OUT.
- Sell More Books by Building Your Writer Platform.
- Writing women’s, romance, paranormal, mystery, YA, or MG? Query Rachael Dugas.
- Follow Chuck Sambuchino on Twitter or find him on Facebook. Learn all about his writing guides on how to get published, how to find a literary agent, and how to write a query letter.
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