I’m back home after a terrific weekend at StellarCon, in North Carolina, and my mind is filled with thoughts on writing, on ideas for future Magical Words posts, and on my own work. I’ll get to some of these momentarily, but I wanted to say first that it was wonderful to meet and see so many of our MW regulars at the convention — definitely a highlight of the weekend. It was also a pleasure as always to have time with my fellow MW contributors (A.J., we missed you, and raised at least a couple of glasses in your honor). We had a great crowd for our How To Write Magical Words launch party Saturday night, and all of our panels were engaging and well-attended. Kudos to the folks at StellarCon, who put on a very successful con. Even my drive home yesterday was great — a storm had just swept through the Great Smokies. The ridges were newly frosted with hoar and snow, silver clouds draped over the peaks and shoulders of the mountains, and water was cascading off the slopes in broad, pale ribbons. Gorgeous.
We covered a lot of ground in our panels, but also in our group discussions of what direction we ought to take this site in the coming year. One of the points raised by Todd Massey and others, a point reinforced by discussions I’ve been having on my Facebook page and by questions in our panels, was that sometimes simpler is better. I know that in my efforts to present when I see as interesting posts, I sometimes get into issues that might be too esoteric.
And so today I begin a new series of posts on what I’m calling “The Basics.” I’ll cover many different subjects with these posts, but I’m going to start today with something that is both simple and counter-intuitive. Many of you who read our posts aspire to be professional writers. I would like to suggest that the way to start is to act and behave and think as though you already are. Professional writers do certain things that contribute to our writing and productivity and that help us in our relationships with fellow writers, editors, and agents. You should think about doing these things, too.
1. Butt in Chair. Yes, you’ve heard this one from us before. Again and again and again. But the truth is, nothing is more important. Writers write. Simple as that. Ideally you want to write every day, but that’s not always possible. Many of you have day jobs (and as A.J. pointed out on Friday, you should probably keep them). Many of you have families. It might not be possible for you to write everyday. That’s okay. You should at least set aside a regular time each week when you sit down at the computer and write. The more often you write the better, but setting unrealistic expectations for yourself can be more damaging to your self-esteem and creativity than not writing often enough. Pick a time to write, and do it every week. Increase it when you can.
2. Read. Almost every writer I know is also a reader, and you should be, too. Read in your genre and sub-genre. It’s the best way of learning the tropes and tone, voice and conventions that should inform your work, even if you’re taking those conventions and turning them on their heads. Read non-fiction. You’ll find ideas for stories and learn a ton of things that will help you with your stories. Read fiction outside of your genre, outside of speculative fiction. Seeing how other authors handle character, setting, narrative and other story elements will help you see what works and what doesn’t. In every way, reading will improve your craft. And if you’re not sure what novels to read next, I’m sure my fellow MWers and I can give you an idea or two…
3. Comport Yourself Professionally. This goes back to Stuart’s wonderful post about, for want of a better phrase, being nice. When you are at a convention hoping to meet and speak to professionals, you should show that you take your future career seriously. Dress appropriately. That doesn’t mean that your shouldn’t wear costumes. Costumes are great fun — Misty wore costumes all weekend and looked terrific, as always. But you should be sure that your costume doesn’t cross the bounds of propriety. You want people to take you seriously. You should also bathe and brush your teeth. This may seem simple, but believe me when I tell you that you can’t take it for granted. And when dealing with professionals, you should remember that lots of people are interesting in speaking with the guests. Don’t get me wrong: As someone who is often a guest at conventions, I love to meet and speak with readers and con-goers. But you should make a point of not monopolizing the time of the con guests. By all means, engage them in conversation, be friendly. And then thank them for their time and let others have their turn. Finally, if you are serious about networking, carry a professional-looking business card and plenty of them.
4. Open Your Eyes. I always have a notebook with me. In it I jot down ideas on everything from character names to narrative points and all in between. I find that I am constantly looking at the world around me and searching for new ways to describe the things I see. When I find them, I write this down, too. I describe landscapes, people, pretty much anything I encounter. And I tuck these things away in my journal and in my mind. Eventually, they will find their way into my stories and books. Learning to see the world through the eyes of a writer is an important step in becoming a professional.
5. Open Your Other Senses, Too. I often have to push myself to use my other senses, to bring in scent, touch, taste, and sound to my descriptions. But just as I have taught myself to see as a writer does, so I am now forcing myself to explore my other sensory perceptions, too. My journal is beginning to fill up with descriptions of food and smells, sounds and textures, and I will be a better writer because of it.
6. Keep Moving Forward. Ask Faith, and she will tell you that you are not a writer until you finish something — a story, a novel, something. And she’s right. I know so many aspiring writers who reach that tough section in the writing process and either retreat into rewrites or give up and start something new. Revisions are important; the new-shiny is a great part of writing. But writers finish what they start, and you need to keep moving forward with your Work In Progress. Writing isn’t easy; part of the process is fighting through the stubborn sections of a work, finding that solution to a nagging plot problem. Keep moving forward. Finish what you start.
7. Share Your Work With Others. Ask me, and I’ll tell you that until others read your work, you’re not an author. Writing is an interactive art; writing the story or book is only half the creative act. The other half is allowing it to be read by others — friends, beta readers, reviewers, utter strangers. Yes, it’s scary. It’s also enormously helpful. Move past the fear. You can’t sell anything until others read it. And even if you never want to sell anything you write, there is nothing more gratifying than hearing that someone who read your book was moved by it.
8. Appreciate What You Do. On the way home yesterday, I reflected on how privileged I am to make my living (such as it is) doing something I love, and how fortunate I am to have been befriended by people like Faith, Misty, Ed, Stuart, and A.J. I am blessed. And in part what I mean by “Appreciate What You Do” is to be grateful for every accomplishment, every milestone, no matter how small it might seem. Finished a short story? Fantastic. Savor that accomplishment. Sold a story? Wow! Celebrate that. But I also mean that, as I’ve said before, you should read your own work and appreciate the good qualities in what you’re written. Yes, you should read it critically, but you should also take pleasure in what you do well. Writing is too hard; take some satisfaction in what your accomplishments. Appreciate what you do.
9. Love it. Writing is not a great way to make money. It’s difficult to do at all and really, really hard to do well. And most of us are far more likely to pay attention to the negative feedback we will inevitably get, than to the praise. If you don’t love to write, you should find another way to spend your time. If you do love it, well, then put your butt in the chair and get started.David B. Coe