Tuesday, April 25, 2017

How (Not) to Sabotage Yourself as a Writer

By Kristen Young

So you’ve found it: that one, perfect idea for the next international best seller. But no matter how hard you try, you just really, really struggle. You might have a mental image of the ‘ideal writer’ - an arty type sipping lattes and pounding away on their laptop in a cafe, or a prim and well-dressed woman sitting at her window, looking out over her immaculate garden as she produces reams of romantic prose. But life isn’t like that at all. How on earth do people actually get this stuff written?

From distraction to perfectionism, we authorly types have a million ways to sabotage ourselves.

So how can we avoid the pitfalls, and get those burning ideas from our heads to the page?

1. Writing, like faith, requires discipline.

For my faith to keep growing and maturing, I need Christian disciplines like reading my Bible, meeting up with fellow believers, praying, and so on. It’s not always easy. I’m easily distracted by the important little tasks that need to be done. But if I want to nurture my understanding and faith in Jesus, then I need to be disciplined in how I learn from him and grow.

In a similar way, writing won’t just ‘happen’. It’s one thing to wait for inspiration to strike. But if we only write when we feel like it, we’re never going to get anywhere. Like all disciplines, it needs a commitment. A commitment to get it done. A commitment to do it well. A humble commitment to learn and grow where needed.

2. Set times for your writing, and give yourself space

For most of us, writing is something we achieve around the edges of real life. In between kids, work, housework, appointments, somehow we still have that desire to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).

It’s better to get 50 words done rather than none, but if you’re going to finish that project, you’ll have to set aside specific time to write. It might be 5:30am before the kids get up. It might be that lunch break on Tuesdays when your co-workers go out. It doesn’t have to be an entire day. But if you really want to finish, you will need to turn down other commitments. Wear noise-cancelling headphones if you have to. Use those half-hours of peace to scribble down as many words as you can.

3. Start thinking about it the night before.

If you don’t have entire weeks blocked out to write that project, it helps to ‘prime’ your brain before you sit down. Start thinking about your writing hours or even the day before you actually write. Work out the kinks and roadblocks in your head. You could have conversations with yourself:

  • “If my protagonist does this, what will happen?”
  • “What is the big idea of this chapter? What do I want to say?”
  • “Who is going to step in at this point?”

Doing this is a great way to get your brain in gear before you put those words on paper. I’ve had much better writing times when I’ve thought through the chapter the night before I sit down. It’s so much easier than looking at that blank page and freaking out.

4. When you finish, walk away for a LONG time.

Trust me on this one. Please.

Writing an entire book is a marathon effort. So you deserve to celebrate when you type THE END. But the way to celebrate is *not* by sending off that manuscript to dozens of agents and publishers, or by instantly uploading it to Amazon.

Yes, it’s the most brilliant thing you’ve ever written, and yes, you are just overjoyed to have an actual book in your hot little hands. But please, back away slowly from that Submit button. You’ll thank me later.

Here’s the bit that might be hard to take: Put it aside for at least a couple of months.

Yes, you heard me. What do you do for those months? Write something else. Write a sequel. Write a completely different story. Load up the next draft in your arsenal. But DO NOT SUBMIT STRAIGHT AWAY.

You need to come back to that manuscript with the eyes of a stranger. Right now, you’re too caught up in your own plot to be able to see what you’re missing:

  • The flat spots in the action. 
  • Fractured descriptions. 
  • Flowery language that should never see the light of day. 

Come back to that manuscript when you’ve forgotten it a little bit, and you can be a much better judge of your own work.

Then hone it. Get it edited by an objective editor. Work that baby until it’s so finely tuned it grips the readers from page 1. Only then do you submit it to your heart’s content. You might actually get a more positive response when you do. Better indie book sales. Better responses from agents and publishers.

Believe me. I’ve learned that one the hard way.

5. Things take a lot longer than you think they will.

In our instant society, we expect everything to happen yesterday. But the writing world isn’t like that.

Things go slowly - especially if you’re aiming for a traditional publishing career. The publishing cycle is like an ancient clockwork beast that takes a long time to wind up. Be prepared that it will take you more than three months to be a bestseller. Not only does it take a while to produce a good traditionally published book, the reading public is hesitant to pick up on new readers. It may take until the third or fourth book before they sit up and take notice.

Being an indie writer is a great career choice, and a lot of writing I love comes from indie writers. But I’ve also read some stuff with massive plot jumps and completely incomprehensible paragraphs. Or should I say, ‘tried to read, and dropped at the first chapter’. I wanted to like it. Really, I did.

Just like we don’t re-visit a restaurant with dodgy cuisine, readers won’t revisit a writer who hasn’t taken the time to develop a good quality product. Now I’m not talking about the occasional typo here. Typos are common - even in traditionally published best sellers - so don’t freak out too much. But when a story has been rushed to market, it’s more likely to contain some hasty errors that could have been eliminated with a slowly-slowly approach.

Ask advice from others (not just your family). Does this writing work? Is it interesting? Where can I improve? You are your own boss, which means you’re creating your own brand. Make it a quality brand, and you’ll have a long-term career. But remember that creating trust in your readers is a slow process. It takes time to build and hone.

6. Don’t give up.

Please don’t. Books change lives. They inspire, challenge, thrill and transform us. A well-written book is so worth the pain of giving it birth. So don’t give up. It may take longer than you expect. It might come through painful feedback and struggle. But the end result can be better than you ever dreamed.

You will be rejected. You will have moments of anger. You will experience those dark clouds that tell you that you are the worst writer ever. Don’t listen to them. If God really has given you those books to write, then he’ll help you get them out there.

Struggle through those fantastic ideas. Improve them. Shape them. Then unleash them on the world when they’re the best they can possibly be. Those writers who were rejected multiple times didn’t just keep sending the same old Manuscript to other agents. They improved them. They reshaped them.

Eventually, someone listened. And we’re so glad they did.

About Kristen Young 

Kristen Young is the author of devotions and non-fiction books for youth, published through Fervr and Youthworks press. “What if? Dealing with Doubt” was shortlisted for the 2105 Sparklit prize for best Australian Christian publication. Her YA speculative fiction series is currently in development.

1 comment:

  1. Great advice, Kristen. Love the picture of the harried writer--I feel just like that some days!