I recently passed my 10-year anniversary of Writing In Earnest. I began the novel that became my first full manuscript after I evacuated to my in-laws’ house to escape Hurricane Ike, which hit the Texas Gulf Coast in September 2008. When I returned home, I committed to writing one full hour each day, which quickly turned into two to four hours of writing until, finally, I had a complete book.
It’s been a long road since then.
The road included seven manuscripts and multiple short stories; pitches, submissions, and rejections; finaling in various contests, including RWA’s Golden Heart; classes, conferences, and craft books; landing my dream agent; more submissions and rejections; co-writing three novellas; self-publishing that trilogy; and much, much more.
Although every writing journey has unique aspects, a 10-year anniversary demands that I share some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way.
1. Nothing else matters if you don’t finish the book.
A great story idea and a wonderful cast of characters, a perfectly structured plot, well-crafted scenes, etc. equal a Big Fat Zero if you don’t finish the book. And I don’t mean the first draft, though that’s very important.
To me, a finished book is one that’s ready to go to your beta readers or critique partner or be submitted to an agent/editor or even published. Dig deep, write, edit, and finish the book.
2. Know why you’re writing.
At first, I wrote for me—just to see if I could write a whole novel. Then I wanted people to read it. And now I want to also make money so I can pay my bills and keep writing. As my goals have changed, I've needed to shift which aspects of writing I'm focusing on.
If you’re a hobbyist in the writing world or crafting a single family memoir, some of the intense write-or-die advice doesn’t really apply to you. But if you need to eat on the money you make writing, you might focus less on the sweeping epic you dream of writing and more on rapid release shorter works.
It all depends. Be clear about why you’re writing so you know which advice to take and which to take with a grain of salt.
3. Learn your craft.
Too many writers think they already know how to write, since they read a lot. Funny, because I never once thought that visiting my massage therapist once a month qualified me to get a therapy table, charge customers, and start rubbing backs. Substitute your own analogy, and you understand what I'm saying.
There are authors, good authors, and great authors. Do everything you can, within your resource limitations, to become a great author. If you write fantastic books, readers will keep buying what you write.
4. Story beats prose.
However, don’t focus so much on crafting words and phrases that you lose sight of being a wonderful storyteller. Our brains are wired for story (see Lisa Cron), and that’s what people ultimately want. It’s why novels that aren’t all that well-told still sell when a great story underlies the less-than-spectacular prose.
Of course, putting together a wonderful story and well-crafted prose makes for a standout combination. Don't forget: Story beats prose.
5. Find a writing community.
We say it all the time on Writers in the Storm, and we promote it by bringing writers together for conversation, but it’s important to be in community. Not only will you feel a sense of belonging and experience encouragement, you learn from other authors. I’ve learned as much from conversations with other writers as I have from classes, conferences, and craft books.
Join a chapter in your genre, connect online, and/or form your own group. But find a writing community.
6. Put your work in others’ hands.
This is one of the hardest things to do at first! You’ve spent hours and hours and hours on your novel, and now you’re going to share it with a beta reader, a critique partner or group, contest judges, an agent or editor, or your own family member.
What if they hate it? What if they red-pen it everywhere? What if they just don’t get you?
It’s tough, but if you want readers who pay, you have to be willing to start with readers who don’t pay who will give you honest feedback.
7. Don’t listen to everybody who critiques your work.
That said, not everyone who critiques your pages has the same quality of feedback. Be choosy about who you send to, consider their viewpoint, and then make your own decisions. At the end of the day, it’s your book.
You need to be very, very open to critique, but also willing to stand your ground when your story’s integrity is at risk.
8. Be an entrepreneur.
If you’re like me, you’re thinking: But I don’t want to be an entrepreneur, I just want to be a writer!
Sorry to break it to you, but I fought this for far too long. I’m saving you the years of grief I experienced, resisting the inevitable. If you’re writing in the 21st century, you’re a business.
You can be self-published or traditionally published, agented or unagented, and still you are a small business responsible for your own career, marketing, and finances. Learn what you can about running your business well.
9. Embrace your own writing process.
Writing advice based on a particular writer’s process abounds. Write every single day. Write first thing in the morning. Plot first, then write. Don’t plot, just write. And on and on and on.
Reality check: Successful authors run the gamut on how they actually manage to go from story idea to book-on-shelf.
Go read about various authors’ processes and try things out, but don’t feel like any one particular approach is the be-all-end-all. The only thing they all have in common is they finish books (see Point #1).
10. Remember, writing is a journey.
As I write this post, I’m in Knoxville, Tennessee, a destination that took over 13 driving hours to reach. My journey involved some great roads and scenery and some not so great moments where I wanted to pull to the side of the road and give up.
Most journeys are like that, with ups and downs. So is writing. I’ve learned that I will have super-highs and dispiriting lows, but neither represents the whole journey. Don’t get too caught up in the mountaintops or the valleys. Most of the way is a steady drive, and you’ll get where you want by focusing on the destination.
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What have you learned in your writing journey?
Julie Glover usually writes cozy mysteries and young adult fiction. But she recently branched out to co-author the Muse Island Series with Kris Faryn, which begins with Mark of the Gods, under the pen name Jules Lynn. You can visit the series website here, follow the Facebook page here, or head to her Jules Lynn website to learn more.