7 Things I've Learned So Far, by Matt Baglio

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers at any stage of their career can talk about seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning. This installment is from writer Matt Baglio. Matt Baglio is the author of The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcism (2010, Doubleday). The movie adaptation of the book was released to theaters on Jan. 28, 2011.
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This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,”where writers (this installment written by Matt Baglio, author of THE RITE: THE MAKING OF A MODERN EXORCISM) 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.

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Matt Baglio is the author of The Rite: The Making
of a Modern Exorcism (2010, Doubleday). The book,
which received a starred review in
Publishers Weekly,
is the true story of a parish priest in California asked
by his bishop to travel to Rome for training in the
rite of exorcism. The movie adaptation of the book
was released to theaters on Jan. 28, 2011

1. Motivate yourself. If you can do something else other than write then do it. Writers write for different reasons, but for me being a writer is a part of how I try to make sense of who I am and my place in the world. Either I’ve arrived at this process through habit or it was something innate, but either way if I tried to stop writing I’d be lost. So if you are having trouble motivating yourself to write, then maybe you need to start asking questions about what writing means to you. We all suffer from writer’s block or things like procrastination, but if a writer wants to be successful then he or she usually finds a way to sit down and do the work. If it’s a real struggle just to sit at your desk, you may want to reexamine your goals. There are much easier ways to make money.

2. Don’t take criticism personal. If you want to succeed as a writer then you should care about getting as much constructive criticism as you can. Learn to sniff out the crap and court those individuals whom you respect who will tell it to you straight—and then absorb what they have to say. Some of the criticism may not be spot on but it might help you in other ways, like inspiring you to think of your own solution to a problem. I never care when somebody doesn’t like my work. Instead I want to know why. You can’t please everybody, so you have to know where their criticism is coming from and what it was you were trying to achieve with your writing. Either way, you should take something away from it. I think this is why it helps if a writer can have a clinical side and separate themselves from their writing. It’s not about you.

3. Be critical of yourself. Every writer should have a built-in bullshit detector for bad writing. Most of this will come with experience or from reading as much as you can. But at some point you are going to need to step back from your work and be honest with yourself. Most often this comes during a second or third draft. But if you know something isn’t working then try to fix it yourself, rather than passing the buck onto your editor. It’s not their job to write the book for you, and it’s better if they don’t get bogged down by obvious problems that could have already been fixed.

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4. Be humble. Writing is a job, and one that usually involves collaboration. There are very few writers who are actual geniuses and even they had some help along the way. So don’t forget to be humble. Any successful writing career involves a little bit of luck and the help of a good agent or editor. Believe me, a humble attitude goes a long way in building and solidifying those relationships, which really count if you’d like to make this your career.

5. Don’t stay behind your desk
. When I got back into journalism, my whole approach to writing changed. Get out there and interview as many people as you can. Walk the streets you are going to write about, inhabit the places where your characters live. Most of us come from a specific background, so don’t forget to get out and do the research. More often than not you will discover a plot point or character trait that you could never have imagined on your own. Once you’ve done the research, it should be much easier for you as a writer to get out of the way and let the story tell itself.

6. Look at your writing like a business. If you want to be a professional writer then you need to start acting like one. Put in the time to read and work on your craft. This can mean going on trips that might be specific to a piece you are working on, putting off a vacation to focus on your book, or attending a lecture or class. It also means keeping regular hours, setting deadlines, and coming through. (Don’t think of writing as only words on the page, but all the other work that goes into getting those words there as well.) If you don’t put in the time and take yourself seriously, then why would you expect agents, editors, or publishers to? On the flip side, when you do have a little success, even publishing a short story or article, reward yourself for all your hard work.

7. Don’t be afraid to take chances
. If you want your work to really stand out then you’re going to have to leave your comfort zone and really push yourself. Some of us have small comfort zones, others larger, but whatever yours, if you want to succeed, you will have to bring something new and dynamic to the process of your writing. This could also mean emotionally as well. Some of us have a really hard time facing the dark side of ourselves in the mirror, but if you are unwilling to go there and explore that as a writer, you will be doing yourself (and your readers) a huge disservice.

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