I write this hoping that there will actually BE a new year. After all, there are those who maintain that the world is ending not just soon, but specifically tomorrow. They base this belief on an ancient Mayan calendar (which some have observed bears more than a striking resemblance to the top of a gigantic Oreo cookie).
But on the off chance that the Mayans got it wrong – which could be a simple matter of the slip of some poor stonemason’s chisel – I’m going to hold on to my characteristic glass-half-full attitude, and put forth some ideas on how you might want to approach next year – or at least whatever portion of the year remains before our cosmic Oreo is completely consumed.
I’m big on new year’s resolutions. I don’t know why, since I’ll admit I’m not that great at actually following through on them. But I think there’s something strangely satisfying in the act of at least making the list, of attempting to get our ducks in a row to face our next trip around the sun. It gives us a general direction to follow, before life presents us with the inevitable fork (or other piece of cutlery) in the road. It’s sentimental, I know, but I really do like entering each new year with the mindset of starting fresh, of picking something to focus on and saying, “THIS is the thing I’m going to do this year.”
And I think this can be a particularly helpful exercise for writers. Why? Because being a writer is hard. We face many obstacles and distractions. So I thought I’d try to help carve through some of them, by offering ten items for you to consider adding to your own Post-Mayan-Apocalypse To-Do List (or, PMATDL). Let’s begin.
1. Read more.
I know, this is pretty basic. But haven’t most of us lamented at some time or other that we simply don’t have time to read? That’s not good. In fact, it’s a showstopper. As Stephen King puts it:
Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
But Stephen doesn’t just scold us. In his book On Writing, from which the above quote is drawn, King points out that if we always keep a book handy, there are plenty of opportunities to read, as long as we learn to take satisfaction “in small sips as well as in long swallows.” Whether you’re a fan of King’s fiction or not, it’s hard to argue with his logic.
2. Complain less.
I noted above that being a writer is hard. Yeah, but here’s the thing. So is being a plumber. Or a brain surgeon. Or just about anything other than being a Jersey Shore cast member. Nobody’s got it totally easy, and – more important - nobody really wants to hear how hard your life is, particularly when it comes to being a writer. After all, this is something you volunteered for, not something you’re being forced to do (even if you’re the type who considers writing to be your “calling”).
On top of that, don’t forget that the people you’re complaining to are also your potential readers. Who wants to buy a book from a big old crybaby? Do you really want that to be your platform? (Keith pauses to make a mental note to add “Stop saying that godawful word platform” to his own list of new year’s resolutions.) But the most compelling reason to complain less is that it gives you more time to write.
3. Back up your computer.
If you’re not already doing this, put this at the top of your list. We’ve all heard the horror stories, and it’s way too easy to assume that those terrible things only happen to other people. Sorry, but it’s all too likely that there’s some nasty computer gremlin out there with your name on his list, and he’s coming to get you. Be ready.
And it’s so easy, there’s really no excuse. I’m a big fan of Carbonite, which has been a lifesaver to me and my family multiple times over the years. But there are other solutions out there. Look for the ones that back up your data automatically without requiring you to remember to do anything – this eliminates both the hassle and the excuses.
Don’t put your hard work at risk, folks. Back it up. Do it now – I’ll wait.
4. Try something new.
A great way to conquer literary inertia and expand your horizons is to try something that is outside of your current realm of experience. Like what? Like anything – this really is an open-ended resolution. If you always write in the third person, try writing a chapter or a story in first person. If you’re a present-tense junkie, try writing something in past tense. If you’re a pantser, try plotting. If you’re a plotter, try writing something by the seat of your pants (which is a really odd metaphor, the more I look at it – but I digress…). Experiment with a different genre or style, or try making your main character the opposite gender from what you normally write. You get the idea.
Or experiment in other ways. Change the physical act of writing, by sitting on a yoga ball, or trying a standing desk. Change the process you use, by trying some piece of writing software, or writing an outline, or adopting some new writing methodology like the hero’s journey, the snowflake method, the three-act structure, etc.
All of these fall into the “you never know until you try” category, so unless you feel like you’ve got this whole writing thing completely nailed (in which case, I suspect you don’t waste your time reading blogs like this), try injecting some new blood into the way you write. You may be amazed by the results, or you may confirm that no, that particular approach is just not a fit. Either way, you learn something. And learning is good. Always.
5. Build a skill/fill a gap.
Not sure where your gaps are? Then stop and mentally replay the excuses you make most frequently, about stuff you’re not good at, or don’t know how to do. Then do something about it.
Always admitting that you’re fuzzy on some style or grammar issues? Learn the distinctions between “less” and “fewer;” between “that” and “which.” Figure out what the dreaded “passive voice” actually is. Always lamenting that you’re just not tech savvy? Figure out how to post photos in a blog or discussion forum. Learn how page-numbering works in MS Word. Finally figure out how to make your little avatar show up in a WU comment. And so on…
The cool thing is that all this information is readily available, and often for FREE. Some basic searches will typically generate relevant results immediately, and there’s a tutorial for how to do just about ANYTHING on YouTube these days. It just requires you to be a little inquisitive, and willing to follow some steps. Then bookmark the web pages that helped you, so that you can replicate the experience. You don’t even have to memorize this stuff, just take the Henry Ford approach, and make sure you know where to get the information you need. In that respect, there has never been an easier time to learn new skills. Take advantage of it!
6. Give something back.
Since we are writers here, I’m talking specifically about giving something back to other writers. There are so many ways to do this. Write reviews on Amazon for books you enjoyed. Mentor a writer who’s a few stages behind you on the journey to publication. Offer critiques to other writers (of course, ONLY do this in situations where your critiques are actually solicited, such as in a critique group or online forum).
Show your advocacy for a writer (or for a genre of books, or some literary cause) by championing them when you talk about books and writing – both in face-to-face interactions and online. We really have endless opportunities to help each other, if we take the time and make the effort.
7. Tell somebody what you’re working on.
I advocate this for a number of reasons. First, it’s easy to be shy (okay, hugely insecure) about trying to do this whole writing-a-book thing. I mean, who the hell do we think we are anyway, trying to do what The Great Novelists Before Us have done? The thing is, all of those literary giants started out as regular humans who thought they might try writing a book. Just like you.
Plus, you’ll be drawing a line in the sand. When you tell somebody you’re writing a book, they will not forget. They’ll ask you how the book is coming along. Frequently. This makes you accountable to actually write the damn thing, which can provide some additional motivation to get your butt in a chair (or on a yoga ball) and start typing.
And if you’re fortunate enough to have friends and/or family who are supportive, you may find that clearly stating this goal helps them become more understanding about your decreasing availability to join them in potentially fun activities that could distract you from the task at hand and eat up your valuable time. After all, you’ve got a book to write. Most people – at least in my experience – think that’s pretty cool. And it makes a much cooler excuse than “sorry, I just don’t feel like it” or “I don’t have any pants that are clean.”
Finally, this gets you in the habit of talking about your book, which is an absolutely freaking CRUCIAL skill for all writers who aspire to be published. Might as well start practicing now, because you ARE going to get asked: So, what’s your book about?
8. Re-read a book that was important to you before you became a writer.
I have always been a big reader, but I didn’t get serious about writing until I was in my late 30s. This means that for many of the books that shaped my life and molded my outlook, I’ve never really taken a look at how they were written.
This can be an illuminating exercise. Some books will hold up really well. Others, not so much. Either way, it’s a fascinating journey, and if you’re like me, there’s a long list of books that fall in this category, so your TBR stack of books just got joined by a TBRR (to be re-read) stack. Enjoy!
9. Read the book everyone’s talking about.
While I typically don’t like to get caught up in fads or trends, as a writer it makes sense to have an awareness of a book that’s currently setting the world on fire. But many writers do more than resist the trend – we openly diss that book. Sometimes without having even read it. That’s really unforgivable, yet it can be so tempting. After all, that author is making money hand-over-fist, right? So aren’t we poor struggling writers entitled to a little sour-grape-flavored griping?
Um, no. At least not until you’ve read the thing. And try to read it with an open mind – you may be surprised. I read The Help when it was the hottest thing going, and was completely knocked out by it. In addition to the subject matter of Kathryn Stockett’s novel hitting a cultural hot-button, the damn thing was just plain well-written and brilliantly paced. Which is something I’d never know if I hadn’t read it.
But even with books where the writing may not be to our tastes, there’s usually something to learn. Wooden prose or not, The Da Vinci Code made an impression on millions of readers. As a writer, I wanted to see firsthand how that happened. So you better believe I read it, and my hat is off to Dan Brown for pulling off such a plausible what-if story anchored by iconic imagery and symbols that are so universal that they make the story something almost anybody could latch on to and envision. Bottom line, when a book sells that many bazillion copies, the author has done something right, and – to me, at least – is worthy of study.
10. Tell the world about a book nobody’s talking about.
This might overlap with my “give something back” suggestion, but I’m always surprised by how hard it is to find people who’ve read many of the same books I’ve read. It’s a lot different than movies, because the sheer number of books published each year is so much larger than the number of movies released. That’s why even in books about the craft of writing, authors usually use movies as examples, because it’s far safer to assume that the reader has seen Titanic or The Firm than to assume they’ve read Updike or Austen.
Got a book that rocked your world? Talk about it. Do it at parties, on your blog or Facebook page, tweet about it, and review it on Amazon. Spread the wonderfulness, particularly if it’s a book that is not on many people’s radar. We each have the power to help change that.
So, what’s on YOUR list?
These are just a few suggestions. How about you? What are some other resolutions you think writers should make for 2013? Please chime in, and thanks for reading!
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