Monday, June 14, 2010

20 Writing Secrets My English Teachers Never Told Me

When I went to University and got my degree (English & Education majors, Communications minor. Notice a trend?), I labored under the impression that Life would be much like Academia.

Concerning things like social relationships, employment opportunities, financial responsibility, and nutritional needs ("You mean one can't survive on a diet comprising solely of Coke and Doritos?"), I confess to a certain naivete on my part -- a naivete that is to be expected of one in her late teens.

However, when it came to my writing, I wish my professors had done a bit more to prepare me for the Real World.

You see, in University, my writing endeavors went very much like this:

  • Receive assignment.
  • Research as necessary.
  • Write paper.
  • Submit paper.
  • Receive "A."
While in school, I worked as Managing Editor of the student newspaper, won a contest or two, and sold a few pieces to some magazines. None of these experiences did anything to alter my viewpoint that the life of a Working Writer wouldn't be significantly different from the life of a Student Writer.

How very silly of me.

You see, there is nothing like having one's writing be the primary source of family income to give the phrase "publish or perish" a whole new relevance.  Similarly, there is nothing like actual real-world experience to help one discover the secrets that power a career.

What follows are things I learned only after leaving the hallowed halls of higher education and entering the Pit of Despair -- er, the publishing industry.  Each one was a hard-learned lesson.  In some cases, the lesson is still gelling.  This is by no means an exhaustive list of such Writing Secrets.  It's a decent start, though. 

1. If you don’t love it, don’t write it.

2. Respect yourself. Respect your characters. Respect your readers.

3. Breathe life into your words. The writer helps words to find their soul.

4. Write every day. Stories are like boulders: It’s easier to keep them moving than to than to get them restarted after a stop.

5. Expect millions of readers. Be content to read your words alone.

6. Write like you mean it.

7. Write with intent.

8. Write until it’s finished. When you stop, your characters become trapped in amber. Wait too long, and the story’s heart hardens.

9. Your writing is like your child. The world will judge your viewpoints and attitudes from your words just as they will from your parenting. If you don’t like the assumptions being made – change your approach.

10. The first draft is never the final draft.

11. Words hold the potential of immortality. What you write may well outlive you and speak to future generations of readers. Every word you write should reflect your awareness of its power.

12. The edit will often take just as long as the draft.  Occasionally it will take longer.

13.  Winning a contest does not necessarily equal an immediate career boost.

14.  Getting published is not the writer's equivalent of a winning lottery ticket.

15.  If giving your work away, do so advisedly.  Writing for free does not always mean you're getting shafted.  Nor does it always mean you'll eventually get recognized or rewarded.  Know what you get out of the deal before you agree to it.

16.  Nothing fuels creativity like a looming deadline.  (Ok -- this one I DID learn in university.  And it still holds true...)

17.  Talent is not the determining factor of success.  Many many writers less talented than you will be published and find a following.  Accept this and move on.

18.  Networking with industry professionals is imperative.  If connecting with people does not come easily to you, study those who do it well and emulate them.  No one is born knowing how to market themselves.  This is a learned skill, just like all others.

19.  5 D's separate the pro from the hobbyist:  Drive.  Dedication.  Determination.  Desire.  And a slavish adherence to Deadlines.  If even one is missing from your make-up, you will not succeed.

20.  There is no such thing as an overnight success.  In publishing, every New Bright Light that enters your awareness represents a writer who has been polishing his or her craft -- sometimes for years -- in obscurity.

There you have it:  the Writing Secrets I never learned in school, humbly proffered for your consideration.  What are the Writing Secrets that you had to enter the Real World to learn?

7 comments:

Janet Morris Grimes said...

As always, just what I needed to hear. I feel so free. And cheap. But learning to change my focus and sharpen my negotiating skills.

Sometimes, I hate that there's no finish line. But then again, I'm thankful. I'd hate to cross it and think, "Well, I guess this is all there is."

Ami Hendrickson said...

Janet,

No finish line: just a series of new & exciting benchmarks stretching as far as the eye can see. Excitement, challenges, & inspiration await all intrepid explorers.

You'll make it! Keep the faith!

Adventures in Children's Publishing said...

Truly excellent article. I hope you don't mind if we include a link to it in our Best Articles This Week for Writers post on Friday. Great job!


Martina

Ami Hendrickson said...

Martina,
I would be honored to be included. Thanks for the kind words.
Ami

Kjb said...

Great!

Rochelle Spencer said...

I agree with every rule except rule #8. Sometimes I think it's okay to leave something unfinished, to mull over something or watch it morph into some fresh, exciting work.

A Pen In Neverland: Angela Peña Dahle said...

Mine are located on my blog. I love this post--love those 5 D's! Number 20--I've got my seatbelt on for this one, a safety net, and hopefully a load of other tools up my sleeve to survive this one! Thanks for the post!

www.a-pen-in-neverland.blogspot.com