Sunday, January 1, 2012

Twelve in '12: How to raise your writing game this year

Most people who find out I'm getting paid to write are like: 'Oh, you're so lucky.' And okay, there is a certain amount of luck that fits into being published. Maybe you write something timely without knowing it, or maybe you sub your sea-monster love story to an agent who is best pals with an editor who has been clamoring for a sea-monster love story. Maybe you just have a dream about sparkly vampires.

But before you can benefit from luck, you still have to write a publishable book. And luck's got nothing to do with that. I wish there was a secret I could share with you. Hell, I wish there was a secret someone would share with me, a failsafe way to guarantee publication for all of the 241 manuscripts living in my brain. There's not. Or if there is, the cool kids aren't talking. But there are a few things you can do to increase your chances. (And yeah, these might seem really basic, but you'd be surprised how many people I know who are committed to getting published but don't seem to be doing these things.)

1. Read. A handful of books does not count. Your nursing school textbooks do not count. Books you read in 1987 do not count. Most people probably need to read at least fifty current books in their chosen genre in order to assimilate what is successful in today's market.

2. Write. Every day, or close to it. It seems impossible, but it isn't. Once you get in the habit, it'll actually feel weird if you skip a day, kind of like sweating your ass off on the treadmill but way more fun.

3. Take a class or go to a conference, if you can afford to. I met my agent at the Oregon Coast Children's Book Writers Workshop. My Mediabistro teacher was an instrumental part of my first book deal. I'm just sayin'.

4. Read industry blogs--at least five but no more than twenty. Five is enough to at least keep you up-to-date on major happenings. More than twenty will cut into your writing time.

5. Make a twitter account and follow agents, editors, and authors you like. You don't ever have to tweet or have a single follower. You learn a TON just from twitter-eavesdropping.

6. Join a message board like Verla Kay's Blueboards. Want to know how to use 'who' and 'whom'? Want to know if kids still say 'fo' shizzle'? Want to know how long it takes Agent X to respond to a query? Someone knows, and that someone is on Verla Kay's Blueboards.

7. Participate in a crit group. Let's face it--your mom/spouse isn't going to tell you if your main character is an annoying Mary Sue or more shallow than a shot of tequila from the chintzy bartender. Find writers to swap crits with on the above message boards, or start your own group.

8. Nurture new ideas. Got horrible writer's block? Set your manuscript aside but don't reach for the TV remote. Brainstorm. Seek new perspectives. Start a new book. Most people don't sell their first manuscript, and if you've got multiple projects going you'll be less likely to get into that mindframe where your whole life seems to depend on whatever you're writing. (It doesn't.)

9. Write complete crap. My first drafts are a combination of a seventh grader's notebook doodles and the insane rantings of someone who doesn't speak very good English. I would never let ANYONE see them. But when you free yourself from the constraints of fixing typos and misspellings and whole paragraphs that, frankly, just don't make any sense, you'll be surprised how much you can accomplish. And you can fix it all later, when you're feeling polish-y.

10. Set small goals and reward yourself. Set daily writing goals in word count, not writing hours. When I look up at my whiteboard and see that after I crank out 2000 words I am off for the rest of the day, well, that's motivation. And remember: these are rough-draft, crappy, for-your-eyes-only words. If you revise and re-revise each sentence as you write you will never finish anything. Reward yourself every 500 or 1000 words with a quick check of email/twitter. If you feel the need to flip to twitter for each new tweet, you're better off finding a place to write without internet access.

11. Take a break. When you start to feel like working the express checkout at Wal-Mart would be more fun than writing, it's probably time to let your brain rest. Just set an end-date for your writing 'vacation' and if you still can't face that soul-sucking vampire of a work-in-progress then write something else. Like a different book, or maybe just a long rant about how writing is evil, but you love it anyway.

12. Don't forget to eat. And sleep, and pay bills, and exercise, and pet the occasional tiger. Don't forget to fall in love with that guy who is oh-so-not-your-type. In short, don't forget to live. The mundane stuff keeps you in clean socks and underwear (which we appreciate.) The magical stuff is great fodder for stories.

(I was way more scared than I look.)

Happy New Year! :)


  1. Great tips and Happy New Year!

  2. You definitely laid it out precisely. When you can check these things off, you know you are on the right path- it's a big commitment, but extremely rewarding! Great post- thanks! ~ Jess (Fairday Morrow is my main character, haven't quite figured out how to fix that!)

  3. Thanks Jess X 2

    The excruciating thing is you can do ALL of this and be committed and still never be published. I think commitment level needs to be as high as it can without being SO high that if someone doesn't achieve publication he/she will feel bitter or resentful. That's where a natural love of writing helps. If it's an activity you truly enjoy, then your time is well-spent regardless of the outcome.

    As far as your name: If you want you can go to your google account and change it, I think. Or you can choose Name/URL to post instead of google identity on most blogs and just type in Jess.

    But I kind of like that fictional people are commenting :)


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