Recently, I was in a local bookstore chatting with the bookstore owner. She was complaining about a man who had come into the store announcing that he was the author of a book, and he wanted her to promote and sell his books. The bookstore owner was flabberghasted by the nerve of the writer who seemed to have no idea what his responsibilities were as an author.
This morning while reading one of the writer's blogs I subscribe to, I read a thread labeled, "Do I need to write a press release?" Made me wonder if any of the writers who regularly post on some of the blogs for writers, ever do their homework? There's more to being a writer or an author than writing.
Writing is a passion, a craft, an art, and an accomplished skill. While we may seem to be 'born to write', all truly accomplished writers have learned the skills and rules of their craft. Excellent writers hone their skills, edit, write and rewrite, and really good writers learn to select good editors.
Good writers read. Reading good literature helps a writer understand how to use language. Reading allows us to expand our knowledge, awareness, and reading exposes us to a wide range of good and bad writing, if we allow it to. At the end of the day, reading is my companion, and I am inspired by those who delve deeply into other writers for inspiration, understanding, or the sheer joy of immersing themselves in that writer's body of work. One good friend of mine is reading the complete works of Marcel Proust. Another reads and rereads the works of Jane Austen on a regular basis. I reread Man's Search for Meaning and Gifts from the Sea regularly, but Shakespeare and poets including Henry Vaughn, W.B.Yeats, William Blake, and contemporary women poets including Mary Oliver, Alice Walker, Wislawa Szymborska , Louise Erdrich, and Annie Dillard call me.
Poetry, mystery, history, psychology, spirituality and religion, even politics and geography call me to dig deep and read. Learning, ongoing learning is another aspect of becoming a good writer. We begin writing from that which we know, but our writing is enriched by what we add to the basic outline or inspiration of our work. As Louise Erdrich said flippantly or not in an interview when asked by the New York Times reporter, "What advice would you give to other writers", she responded, "Take notes." I carry small notebooks, large notebooks, spiral notebooks and bound notebooks, with me wherever I go. A small spiral tablet in the pocket of my jeans or a stack of index cards in my jacket pocket, provide me with the necessary paper to take notes, jot down an idea, record a thought or experience, or remember the name and author of a good book. Paper napkins, the back of a book jacket, or any other scrap of paper can hold a treasure of ideas and recorded messages from walks, talks, or musings over cups of coffee and bagels.
Copious notetaking and research is a major part of my writing experience. Whether I learned this from my long academic career, or whether this is analagous to bringing in the sheaves, harvesting the crops, and storing up for winter, for a writer, gathering ideas, thoughts, information about our subjects, descriptions for our settings, or photographs, sketches, and trips to refresh our memories are part of our writing process.
Writers each have a style that suits the purpose of doing the background and research to gird and enhance the quality of our work. Also true is that each writer has a way they work best. For some like writer, Anne Dillard, the process is disciplined and scheduled,
"A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections at a time."
Writing is a practice, and by that I mean if writing is to result in a finished product, it is more than the whimsical delight of putting pen to paper or tapping our ideas across a digital screen. Writing can indeed be a whimsical delight, however, it must go beyond and around that if we are to arrive at a destination. To get a book written and completed, then published and marketed, it first has to be done as well as it possibly can be. The practice of writing is written about endlessly. Everyone has an idea about how to develop as a writer. We are fortunate to live in a time when at least some want to support other writers develop, grow, and succeed in their goal to write and publish. One of the things we now need to do, is to unplug ourselves from the screen filled with blog after blog of advice, the writing group that endlessly critiques and challenges our writing spirit, and the endless number of distractions that may enhance your writing practice when done in small doses, but tend to become obssessions that take our attention, time, and body away from the task of writing. Writers write, and a writing practice is in large part about dedicating time, space, large parts of our life and commitment of body, mind, and spirit to the task and art of writing.
What does a writing practice look like? Mine consists of establishing a routine and a set of priorities for what I intend to work on. I make a list of priorities, and then build my day's and week's work around that. When I have a large project, for example a book, I set tasks and priorities for the long haul of the project.
While working on a big project, I always have a number of other projects going on. I learned a process many years ago about first making a list of those task, goals, and projects I want to work on. Next, I sort those projects according to the level of urgency or need. For example, if I want to enter an essay in a writing contest, I have an imposed deadline, and I work around that. In my writing practice, there has to be room for spontaneity. I might be more productive with larger projects if I weren't so enthralled by some of the more fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants projects that I tackle.
Writers differ in style. Some writers work on one project at a time to the exclusion of all other writing projects. Others, work on a variety of projects at a time. In both cases, writers still have to deal with distractions and demands on their time, energy, health, and mental energy. Those of us who teach understand that the energy required of teachers draws from the same well that writers need to be able to write. Sabbaticals are good for giving writers time, energy, and focus to write. For others of us, we use our academic discpline and practice to devote ourselves to treating our writing as if it were a course we were teaching or a major project we were trying to complete. As I would lay out a dissertation, thesis term paper, or class syllabus/outline, so too I lay out my major writing projects. In addition, I have developed routines to take care of my health when I am working on a book. I plan my exercise, my meals, even times for having fun, and then I stick to routine.
Writers set priorities that take into account the other interestes and demands on their time. Each person has to determine what matters most to them. Family is important to me, and whatever I do revolves around the time I spend with my family and close circle of friends. Since I live far from people I am closest to, I travel a lot and I use technology to keep me connected when we cannot be together. Because I can write on the go (thanks to laptops and digital tablets), the writing life is easier than it use to be for travelers.
Other than family, since I have been a full-time writer, the priorities I set have to do with what to write. I have to determine what writing is worth my time and energy. Writers have to determine what matters most, and what is best for them at any given time in their career. Just because you are good at something and could do it, doesn't necessarily mean that project, job, or work is good for you. When I let go of doing things that are not supporting me, as a writer or as a person, I make room for doing what enhances and enriches me. For three years I published an online journal. I began doing it because I enjoyed it and wanted to encourage other women to write. When I stopped doing it, I still enjoyed it but decided it was not paying for itself, and I had reached the finish line for that particular project. Taking a freelance job that does not pay what your time and energy is worth, is not often a good idea. There are times when we take jobs for other than financial reward; we take a job because it is interesting or may open us to a new area. We use a job to help us hone our craft. There are many reasons to take jobs that do not pay well, but there will come a time when letting go of 'working for peanuts' will be the right choice.
Writers have to raise their expectations. Writers are not automatically entitled to success or to their books making it to the top of the bestseller's list. We writers however, have to raise our expectations in proportion to the level and quality of work we want to write. When our writing results in a book or piece of writing that we are proud of , when we have honed our writing skills and have dedicated ourselves to making our living as a writer, we then have to do what it takes to be successful. For newly-published authors (with either the mainstream publishers or as a self-published author), the work begins to distribute and market the book. Even best-selling authors like Anne Lamont and Louise Erdrich, have to go out on the road to meet the public and talk about their books in an effort to get people to buy their work. If you have published a book, that is your job as a writer. If you have an agent, publicist, or assistant, you will get some encouragement and help, but you still have to do the work. Walking into a bookstore and asking a bookstore owner to take a chance on stocking your books or promoting you, is not the way to go. Writers need to educate themselves on how the publishing business works, and how it is changing. Companies like Lulu and CreateSpace provide all kinds of support, information, and good ideas for helping writers promote their work. Before you complete your book, find out what you should be doing to help promote your book before and after it is published. Writer, Linda Formicelli and literary agent, Rachelle Gardner both have websites and blogs which provide helpful advice to writers. Writer, C.Hope Clarke, publishes a weekly newsletter with writing advice and encouragement, contests, and jobs. If you really want to become a successful author and if you want to sell your books, learn the ropes from those out there who know how to do it.
As award-winning writer Louise Erdrich noted, "Writers make few choices, really, about their material. We have to write about what comes naturally and what interests us." Writers write because they want to communicate about those interests and observations of life. I write because I hope something I have learned will help someone else. I write because I want to share the beauty of life, the hope that we can survive and accomplish a greater purpose, and because I just love the feel of words coming out of my fingers. If you are going to write and publish what you write, take on the responsibility of learning what you can about how to do it right. Writing is one thing I think we need to avoid the "learning the hard way" path. Learn from those who already traveled the path, and use your powers of discernment to discover what kernels of gold are to be found in their advice. Take responsibility for your own development and success as a writer, and keep on putting your work out to be read by others.