Throughout the last few years, I’ve been learning a lot. I’ve swallowed up pride, rolled up my sleeves, and immersed myself into the writing world, and after this year’s SCBWI Miami Conference, I thought I’d make a list of these “things” I’ve learned.
1. Write. This is a no brainer, but years ago, I spent so much time dreaming about writing and talking about writing without actually doing the writing. I came up with ideas and concepts and characters, but it all stayed in ideas, concepts and characters. Nothing got done. I wrote about other things, or I wrote in other ways, but I didn’t write my ideas, concepts, and characters into existence. I let them dissipate. Now, I sit my butt down and write. I make time for writing, somehow, someway, because it’s important. The more I write, the better I get.
2. Take a leap of faith. If I hadn’t taken a leap of faith this past summer, when registering for the children’s writing workshop through UCLA, I wouldn’t have been exposed to this amazing world of children’s writing (including YA), and I wouldn’t have realized how much I enjoy writing for this audience.
3. Revise. This should be another no-brainer, but I’ve only recently really learned how to revise. I mean really revise a creative work. The cyclical process of prewriting, writing and rewriting is crucial, indispensable. Like I tell my students, you can’t just sit down and write something and expect it to be great. It doesn’t happen. It can be good, even really good, but for it to be just right, you have to work it and rework it, like a piece of wet clay, until it takes on the desired shape. I’m heeding my own advice.
4. Be ready to work. It takes work, hard work, to write a story. It’s amazing work, yes. I love each “aha!” moment and I feel that giddiness and awe that comes when the characters and their stories fall into place. I love the feeling of realization that comes when a part of the plot or scene comes full circle and I fully understand what the character was trying to tell me. It’s exciting and absolutely rewarding. But it’s also a lot of hard work. For every “aha” moment, there are fifteen frustrating periods where I don’t know what the hell I’m doing or where I’m going with this or why I’m even bothering. (Okay, so I’m giving some arbitrary numbers here, but you get my point. Often, there are more frustrating moments than enlightened ones, but the enlightened ones make it all worth it.)
5. Following #4 above, know that if you want to write great literature, you’re going to have to put in grueling work. E.B.Lewis said something at the conference that resonated with me: we live in a society where we want straight A’s, but only want to do C work. This is true beyond the academic world (where I see it every day with students); this is true in everything we do, including writing. If we want something great, we’re going to have to put in a great amount of work.
6. Don’t give up. Kathryn Stockett, who wrote The Help, received 60 rejections before getting her book published. Jay Asher, who wrote Thirteen Reasons Why, was rejected twelve times and was close to giving up, but he didn’t. You get the idea. Keep at it. Sure, rejections hurt (I should know!), but they help us become better writers. Every time I receive a rejection, I take another look at my MS (or essay or short story or whatever it was that I submitted) and I revise. And I keep going. Eventually, something’s gotta give, right? Right.
7. Share your work. Really. You need other eyes to see your words and other ears to listen to your words. We don’t live in a bubble, so don’t write in one. One of the ways to improve is to share what we’ve written with others. In a class/workshop. In a critique group. To friends who like to read (and who can give good feedback, not just, “oh I like this” or “this sucks”). I did this for the first time (since I was an undergrad) four years ago, when I raised my hand in a memoir writing workshop and read aloud, in a tremulous voice, what I had written. It was like exposing my soul, but it was good. It helped. And now, whenever I can, I share my work. It makes me a better writer.
8. Read your work aloud. Really. Listen to how your words sound. I give my students this advice when writing academic essays, but the same is true for creative writing. When you read aloud, you catch glitches, awkward phrasing, mistakes. It’s a great tool for revising your work. If you can read it to someone (see #7 above), even better. I do this all the time.
9. Learn to take criticism. The biggest problem with new/some writers (and I’ve been here) is that they think their writing’s the best thing since, well, writing. They think they’ve got it right every time and that there’s little room for improvement. So when they go to a conference or take a class, and they share their work, they get downright angry when someone else tells them their work isn’t that great and, in fact, it kind of sucks (okay, not in so many words). But the reality is that I was this delusional writer. I hated criticism because I just wanted everyone to tell me how great my writing was. That’s no help at all! If I want to get better, I need people to tell me what’s not working so I can improve it. Of course, it’s also useful to know what does work so I can keep doing that, but I’ve definitely learned to take criticism (even brutal criticism).
10. Go to conferences, join organizations, and know the market. If you want to be a published writer, you have to know what’s out there. If funding permits, go to conferences and join organizations. They are direct links to craft and market and networking. And you have to know what’s out there in the genre in which you’re writing. I’ve done all of this, and I keep doing it. I keep attending conferences and I’m joining organizations and critique groups. I’m researching the market. I go online, read blogs by agents and editors in the genre’s I’m writing.
11. Read. This is a no brainer, and it always surprises me when I hear writers say they don’t read. For me, reading and writing have a direct correlation. You have to be an avid reader to be a good writer. Reading exposes you to other voices, techniques, styles, and skills that you might otherwise ignore. And this is especially important if you’re starting out and you’re still trying to figure out your voice and style. I started as a reader, and I will forever be a reader.