As writers, we are bombarded with advice and information when we seek it for success in this fiercely competitive field. It might be to hone our skills, to solve a myriad of crafting problems, to write the perfect novel, the perfect story, to send out the perfect submission – if you do it a particular way, you’re sure to get results. Whether it’s seeking representation by an agent or finding a publisher, or deciding to self publish, or going on writing courses, or seeking advice on marketing ourselves, on how to make connections with those in the industry. On how we must get critical feedback and not take the ‘negatives’ personally. There is a whole market targeting us for our business, and proving in itself that that’s how hard a road it is, many writers writing ‘how to write’ books along with their novels. And finally we must be positive, if we work hard, we will get there…
And along the way we find many shoulds. And here are just a few that I’ve gathered over the last few years, since I’ve been on this difficult road we all share.
- We should do free writes every day in our writer’s notebook to flex the creative muscles. And if, like me, you get nothing much from this, then we’re not really freeing ourselves up, or opening up our unconscious or developing our creative voices.
- We should do a daily haiku poem. Yes, didn’t you know?
- We should write 1000 words a day on our opus whether or not we are in the mood or whether we have the time. If you have a day job, then you should make time early in the morning or late at night, otherwise we are not truly dedicated writers.
- We should follow certain rules that currently reflect what’s considered good writing practice. And woe betide you if you deviate from all this, as no one will take you seriously.
Some of these rules are:
A massive hook right at the beginning – readers must have this to want to read further.
Not too much description, readers apparently just want to get on with the story.
Short chapters – readers like to be able to put a book down at the end of a chapter, not in the middle of a long one.
Showing, not telling as much.
Less adverbs and adjectives, no long paragraphs or long sentences, readers can’t cope with them.
No passive voice please
Minimum dialogue tags, yet published writers get away with using masses of them.
Murder your darlings – those bits of prose you just love or hold meaning for you.
An ending that leaves some elements unanswered, as readers like to be teased, and after all, it leaves room for a possible sequel, and trilogies are in fashion.
- We should build up a writer’s CV, by winning prestigious competitions, or at least getting ‘placed’, and by getting a short story or two published in a respected literary magazine. Only then will we be taken seriously by prospective publishers or agents.
- We should do research on who we send our novel submissions too. We should read books from their lists to get an idea of what they publish. Only after making such a personal investment of this kind (of time and money) might we stand a chance if we decide, after all, that our work may be suitable, and despite the fact that agents and publishers are supposedly looking for something that stands out from the crowd.
- We should read books in the genre we write in to see what’s currently published. Why? Are we aiming to write what sells and join the rest, or are we aiming to write what we feel passionate about and faithfully hope it will sell on its own merit?
- We should join a writer’s group to share our work, to critique and be critiqued. This may be despite the group members writing in different genres and having very different styles and very different opinions. Hmm. Choose one with care and good relationships of trust, and you just may be on to a good thing. But I don’t believe writers actually need a group, you can be your own judge if you’re honest with yourself.
- We should go to book festivals or conferences to network with other writers. Why? Are they going to buy your book? Or maybe introduce you to an agent who will want to represent you because you’ve attended?
- We should at least join a writer’s forum for feedback, advice and a mass of information. But which one to choose, there are so many? And it consumes huge chunks of time which you could be feeding into your writing. And you’ll find, once again, so many people’s varying opinions to add to the confusion you may be feeling.
- You should be able to take feedback on board otherwise you are not a dedicated writer who takes their work seriously, but a sensitive amateur. Or you’re in some kind of denial or you think you’re already a genius who needs no help. Just who do you think you are, anyway?
- You should market yourself on social media – blog, twitter, facebook. The more the merrier. Yes, I know I’m blogging, but I thought carefully about it beforehand and decided to do it if I found I enjoyed it, which I do. So if you enjoy it, no harm done, but don’t let it detract from your writing.
- We should be able to take rejection on the chin. It’s our work that’s being rejected, not us – like there’s a huge brick wall between us and our writing. I don’t think so. So if you’re hurt by rejection, you’re being silly, too sensitive, you should be more like the Borg in Star Trek. Come on, toughen up! And remember J.K. Rowling!
But seriously, if we did all this, we’d be in danger of losing our motivation, our self belief, our own judgment and our peace of mind. We’d be bound to feel inadequate, frustrated and thereby become very unhappy writers, with our writing ‘troubles’ having no doubt multiplied with these activities, our ‘troubles’ dominating our lives.
As Stephen King says in On Writing – art is a support system for life, not life a support system for our art.
My own experience has been that in the first couple of years of seriously writing, being a conscientious and methodical type, I tried a lot of these shoulds. But bit by bit, after not getting very far with these endeavours, my enjoyment started to shrivel. I felt troubled. And I realised that yet again I was trying to prove myself through my new attachment, having already being down this route with visual art. However because of this familiarity I knew the pitfalls of being a creative person and I also had a slightly different perspective. Visual artists don’t really seek their peers approval, unlike in a writer’s group. Visual artists know they are doing their art, their way, their style, that they have learned their craft and anything else needed comes from inside them or from out there in inspiration land, and that its part of one’s personal make up. You can’t change your personal painting style just to please the current market (well, I can’t) so why should you expect this of your writing? Okay, there are limits, but you get my drift.
Steven Pressfield sums up how I feel about both my writing and my painting, in his book The War of Art:
‘The professional respects his craft. He does not consider himself superior to it. He recognises the contributions of those who have gone before him. He apprentices himself to them.’
‘The professional dedicates himself to mastering technique, not because he believes technique is a substitute for inspiration, but because he wants to be in possession of the full arsenal of skills when inspiration does come.’
Learning the craft and techiques of writing to me is the most important thing of all, because when that is flowing well, it makes room for the creative imagination to slide in more easily and make some magic.
So my message is (and I have to remind myself regularly) to beware of over-investing in becoming successful. It can make you vulnerable to self doubt, make you far too hard on yourself and can rob you of the sheer pleasure in writing. See rejection as a rite of passage, keep it in perspective – it’s just a book on a shelf/just a story in a book we’re talking about here, not your very life, despite it feeling like it at times. After all, writing is just part of our life, not the whole, and neither should it be. You only need critiques from a couple of people whose judgment you trust and who you know will be honest. Finally, I truly believe that if you dedicate yourself to learning the craft of writing (whether it be self-taught or through writing courses or workshops), then your writing will be of a good standard. The rest is down to luck. Yes, luck. That is the road we must travel.
(image courtesy of pixabay)