The more romantic writers (which is, to be honest, all of us) will tell you that writing is a vocation – an addiction, a compulsion, a calling. The problem isn’t not writing, it’s keeping enough paper in your burnished steel-and-copper Remington to keep up with us, lest we start writing on tabletop, curtains and our own skin. On the rare occasions writers’ block rises, then all that sunshine and magic fades away and we are bereft, useless and hollow, screaming our frustration at the sky.
This is true exactly forty percent of the time.
The rest of the time, writing is just a thing that you do. There are moments where it’s easier and moments when it’s harder. You have to write the good moments, the hot prose, but you also have to write the small difficult sentences and the bits where the characters hang up their coats. It took me a long time to learn that if I waited for the moments when inspiration struck like lightning out of a clear sky I would be waiting a while. Inspiration is one thing, but it’s the determination to get through the slog that is writing every day that marks a serious writer.
Like any job, however, there are ways you can make it easier on yourself by approaching it strategically. If you’re looking to get more serious about writing this year the following tips should help.
1) SET TARGETS (REALISTIC TARGETS)
Plenty of people have the notion that writers simply disappear into the woods for months at a time and emerge at the other end with a manuscript. The truth is – especially when it comes to first novels – most writing is done around jobs, kids, holidays, naps and hangovers. One of the problems I found starting out was that I was very hard on myself if it had been a couple of days since I had found time to write, and like a diet it became much harder to start again.
The best way to offset this is to set a weekly word count for yourself. Only you can decide what this is – it’ll depend on your schedule – but when you’ve hit that count relax and deal with the rest of your life. Once you’ve hit that limit, stop. That way you feel like you’ve done a substantial amount and if you want to write more after you’ve hit the limit, you’ll have to wait – making you desperate to get back to it. It may sound silly, but half of writing is playing psychological games with yourself.
2) READ (OUTSIDE WHAT YOU WRITE)
A young man from an out-of-the-way place is thrust into a battle against a dark being of great power. Battling darkness within him and receiving tutoring from a motley crew of talented misfits, he eventually finds the dark being’s weakness and destroys him at great personal cost.
I’ve just described eight different fantasy series there, including Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. I write fantasy and I read a lot of it too – it’s a good way of keeping abreast of trends and frankly I just enjoy it. But reading only within your genre – whether it be literary fiction, crime, science fiction or romance – can get very stale very quickly. Make 2015 your year of cultivating good reading habits and read outside your comfort zone. Every genre has something of value to offer – the tight plotting of crime, the world-building and intricacy of fantasy, the suspense and tension of horror. There are useful influences everywhere you look.
3) READ (ABOUT WRITING)
There is a certain amount of self-teaching involved in writing. At the end of the day it is a combination of practice and talent that gets you from an idea to a manuscript. However, you can and should get proactive about your own development. If you’re juggling a job or a family and you can’t take the plunge into a full-time Creative Writing Masters, there are plenty of shorter courses that can help you examine your own voice and style. We have lots listed in the courses section at Writing.ie
If your schedule is too busy for shorter courses, just pick up books on writing. Stephen King’s book On Writing is widely renowned as being essential reading for any nascent writer but there are also many more – here’s a link to Writing.ie’s tried and tested suggestions.
Watch interviews with famous writers – check out the National Emerging Writer Programme free videos. Look up podcasts. Read reviews of books you’re really familiar with to see if the reviewer picked out details that you didn’t. If you gain a new technique or even a scrap of self-awareness about your own writing then it was worth it.
4) GO TO EVENTS
I’d like to tell you that a chance conversation in the smoking area of the Cobblestone will suddenly land you a major book deal, but that doesn’t happen. Schmoozing and networking aren’t substitutes for good material. Going to events, however, is more about trying to pick up any advice or scrap of insight you can into the murky-from-the-outside world of writing and publishing – we always have a range of events, from book launches and readings to writer interviews listed here.
The events I attended in 2014 enlightened me about how to submit to agents and how trends in publishing are impossible to predict. I learned about famous writers’ routines and how they deal with the same problems that I have. I learned that famous writers have the same problems I have, which is probably the most reassuring thing I could have heard. You learn good business relationship etiquette, publisher predilections, what to do and what absolutely not to do.
They’re also fun. And when you’re sitting alone at your laptop being mocked by that dully-blinking cursor, you know that there are plenty of other writers out there feeling the same. That’s worth the price of a ticket alone.
5) LEARN HOW TO EDIT (OTHER PEOPLE’S WORK)
One of the most pervasive and unhealthy ideas I had about writing was that your first draft was your only draft. I’d get halfway into a short story and then jump back to the beginning, rewriting and rewriting without ever finishing the thing. That’s just not how it works. My first novel was accepted by an agent on its second-and-a-polish draft, by a publisher on its third-and-a-polish draft, and it’s the fifth draft that is currently being copyedited for publication.
This makes editing one of the most important skills a writer can have, but luckily it’s also the easiest to practice.
Join a writers’ group. Find an online forum. Create a DeviantART account and join their literary community. Offer to edit other people’s work. Aside from creating a bit of goodwill for yourself and winning potential editors later, often a writer is too close to their own work to edit it at first. Remember that you as the writer know exactly what’s going on, but that’s not to say a reader will. It’s mildly paradoxical that you need quite a large ego to be a writer in the first place (look at this world I created!) but you also need to be able to take criticism and weigh it objectively.
6) SUBMIT TO A JOURNAL
This is the year that you’re going to submit, if you haven’t already. If you have submitted to places, submit to more places (lots and lots of opportunities listed here). Your first rejection is the worst thing in the world. Your tenth rejection is a knife in the ribs. Your hundredth… isn’t that bad, you just keep going.
Everyone gets rejected. Maybe your work wasn’t exactly what they were looking for. Maybe they already have something similar from somebody else. Maybe the editor had a cold and just spilled coffee over their laptop and skipped to the next e-mail in the line. Spend a moment damning their oily hides, give why they rejected you the requisite amount of thought (often there will be feedback, often there won’t) and find a different journal.
Do everything you can to skew things in your favour. READ THE SUBMISSION GUIDELINES. I wrote a blog to this effect regarding literary agents where I put that phrase in capitals and I will continue to put that phrase in capitals until I stop wincing at some of my previous mistakes. The True Crime Journal may enjoy your turn-of-the-century romance story, but they won’t publish it.
7) PAY IT FORWARD
‘The rising tide lifts all boats.’ – Sarah Maria Griffin (@griffski, follow her on Twitter!)
I was lucky enough when I started writing that the people I met on Dublin’s literary scene were good enough to give me advice and, more importantly, encouragement. They didn’t have to, certainly – there’s no rule that you have to be a nice person – but it meant a lot to me, and if I get the chance I do the same.
So whatever you learn, share it. Keep a blog, or just find people who look vaguely worried at literary events and shake their hand. It will be remembered.
8) REMEMBER WHY YOU’RE DOING THIS
There are a thousand other jobs you could be doing. Jobs with better prospects, better hours, health insurance, attractive co-workers, and less chance of a lifetime of gnawing, unfulfilled misery.
But those jobs are for other people. You’re a writer. You will ignore the long lonely evenings, the frustrated mornings, the dissatisfaction and the obsession and the fear because you’ve had a taste of the glory. That feeling when you nail a perfect sentence, that moment when you realise that of course the plot had to turn like that. Those moments when you don’t feel you’re writing, you feel like you’re discovering. If you have that passion, that need, you’re going to do whatever it takes to get where you’re going. Because if you don’t write your book, that book won’t exist. And the world will be poorer for it.
(c) Dave Rudden