Step by Step

I was discussing my various goals as far as my writing goes with my husband the other day and he said I should lay it all out in a blog post. I’m not one for writing rules (guidelines perhaps but non-technical “rules” are stifling to my creativity) and I’m not even that fond of writing tips, so you can just consider this my observations and how they gave me direction – not that it would necessarily apply to you.

Step 1 – Write things: You can talk about writing until you are blue in the face, you can research the craft in infinite detail, you can scribble down character bios and plot ideas ad nauseum, but if you don’t actually start writing, you’ll have nothing to show for any of it. Pantsing or plotting, long-hand or typing, it doesn’t matter. Eventually, you need to stop talking and thinking about it, and just do it. You have to practice to actually get anywhere with your writing and that requires moving past the point of contemplation into realization.

Step 2 – Finish things: A million half-finished stories don’t add up to anything complete. Barb pushed this point for me. I had finished a few short stories and a novel when I introduced her to my writing but had otherwise left things languishing, in part due to lack of confidence and in part due perfectionist inclinations. She didn’t care if things were perfect, she just want to see them done and demanded exactly that from me. Without her push, this one’s more of a challenge for me, but I’m not about to forget that this is a necessary step. I’ve found other self-inflicted ways to enforce this.

Step 3 – Polish things: It’s important to learn the ins and outs of the craft so you can polish after you write. In order to achieve Step 2, you have to recognize that the first draft should not and will not be perfect. Editing incessantly while getting the story out is not an effective way of writing, either. Figure out what works for you stylistically, as well as where your weaknesses lie (too many “that”s is a big one for me) so you can watch for likely problems when you’re ready to edit (I put first drafts aside for three months or more before coming back to them with a fresh perspective.) All of this is useful – once that first draft is actually finished and you can work at making it go from a good story to a great story. Some people like to suggest their first draft is crap. I prefer not see it that way – that bothers me. It’s an ugly way of viewing your work and any story worth writing is not bad at any stage. When you seed a garden, your plot is not crap…your seedlings are not junk… but you still need to water and weed it before anything worthwhile will grow out of it. The same goes with your story.

Step 4 – Submit things: For real success as a writer, you need to be read. If you don’t want that limited to close friends and family, you need to get it out there. Submit to agents, small presses, bigger publishers or to self-publishing venues – whatever you feel will help get you read. Expect rejection and be prepared to let it roll off your back (or in the case of self-publishing, be ready for public critique that might be biased towards the negative because you haven’t been vetted by the gatekeepers. Those of us at the Guild are familiar with that one.) Then resubmit. Stay constant even when some of the feedback might be harsh enough to sting.

Step 5 – Build a fan base: This is where I’m at now, having submitted and been published. To be honest with you, because I’m pretty lousy at self-promotion (although not for lack of trying) I’ll probably be stuck at this step for a while (if not for good.) The challenge is to find new and innovative ways to engage readers and that’s just not my area of expertise. I also don’t have the money to invest in someone else’s expertise, but I plan on learning all I can and once the third book in my Snowy Barren Trilogy is out, I’m going to push hard for this step. If I can reach more readers I’ll have more reason for writing. That sounds like good cause for this objective to me.

Step 6: Achieve bestseller status: I pretty sure this is the ultimate goal for all writers. Not that the journey ends here, but this gives you the opportunity to have the greatest impact with your writing. It gives you name recognition, and this means you will be receiving requests from publishers to participate in anthologies (even with just a reprint,) invitations to guest at conventions, and even the chance to represent your favourite charities. It’s what ultimately brings more fame and fortune – and we don’t all get there. But it’s on my list of goals, and I’m working my way towards it.

So there you have it, my six steps to writer success, and I’m sure it may vary from person to person. Everyone hopes to fast track to Step 6 but few ever do. In fact, only so many make it there at all. In the meantime, I’ll just continue to work at the first five, hoping that someday my hard work will get me to where I want to be. After all, I’m a heck of a lot closer to it than I was a few years ago.

Keep at it…Ahem…

This has been a month of rejections for me, so far. Rejection is a part of trying to become a published writer, everyone knows that. Friends will try to encourage you by telling you “such-and-such was rejected X number of times before it was published.” That’s nice, but that honestly has no bearing on my success or failure. For every success story after multiple rejections you can reference, there are an equal number of people who struggled all of their lives to get some acknowledgement of their prowess…some recognition of their work…without anything significant to show for it. Even some of the legendary writers we consider truly successful died without seeing much if any of that for themselves.

One example? H. P. Lovecraft, one of the Masters of Horror, died nearly destitute. His name didn’t elicit the kind of recognition then that it does now. His works were only known in small circles through amateur press associations and essays he wrote for newsletters. He had diligent fans among those who did know his work and they made sure his work was published after he passed on. Discovering things like that is certainly not encouraging, to say the least. We writers would all like to think that if we are going to be known for our writing someday, we could at least be alive to see it.

Another example? Speculative fiction greats like Ray Bradbury and Frank Hebert struggled for years before they were published. And while both writers did eventually gain great recognition, Mr. Hebert’s break with Dune came from a small publisher who typically published non-fiction automobile maintenance manuals. He had difficulty getting much of the rest of his work published, and some of his work is only coming to light because his son is seeing to it that his stories are being published after his death. Try reading his dystopian novel, High-Opp, as a sample of something that was perpetually rejected. It’s a good book (although I would have liked to see a slightly different ending). Another situation that suggests this industry is as much timing, luck and trends as anything else

The way I see it, you can’t look to others’ successes or failures to govern what you do. Learn from other people’s mistakes? Sure, but when it comes to writing, submitting and hopefully publishing, you have to chart your own course. Set your own goals, keep going even when things don’t look so great and don’t let any number of rejections decide anything for you. Don’t gauge your success on any external forces or by comparing yourself to others, but rather by what accomplish in relation to what you have planned. Even if you get turned down now, you could end up being a writing legend someday (although you might not get to see it in your lifetime – boo 😦 .) What matters most is being able to look back and say “I tried.”