[Update: Now I am! But this post, written in 2007, still holds true today.]
Aren’t I just guessing at what’s required to make it in this business? Some days I just don’t know. But here’s what I do know, for sure: I know what can kill a drive, what has held me back and tied me up in knots. So that’s what today’s post is about.
The 7 Deadly Sins of the Unpubbed Writer:
1. A weak concept. Let’s write a book about a guy and a girl and a dog, and love and a peach pie. And maybe an eye patch. Or not. A STRONG concept will not only increase the likelihood that you’ll be successful in the end, but it can actually help you to finish your wip. How? It’ll inspire you to sit and work on it for hours at a time. Like a body, prone and needing CPR, your manuscript needs your help. If you love it–really, really love it–and see value in it, you will keep breathing life into it until it starts breathing on its own.
2. No deadline. My kids’ school has asked my hubby and me to write a song as their new anthem. Cool, eh? They asked two months ago, and we’ve yet to work on it. I was joking with the secretary about it recently. “You should give us a deadline,” I said. “It’s all right,” she said, “you can’t rush creativity.” I smiled, shook my head. “Oh, you’d be surprised.” As someone who’s had the benefit of the hot-iron push of deadline, I’m here to tell you that it’s a truly motivating factor. But how to impose a deadline on yourself when there isn’t anyone waiting for the script on the other end, prod in hand, check in the other? You just do. You entrust an editor-like authority to those who understand your desire to reach The End–like a critique partner or buggy sister–and then let them use a pseudo-prod to bother you regularly. You mark your calendar with your deadlines–“finish part 1″…”wrap up first draft”–and you reward yourself when you meet the mark. Push yourself, and let others push you too. Don’t let your wip become an unsung song.
3. A bad critique group. Having a bad critique group can set you back even further than having a bad agent, because a bad group might mean the script is never finished in the first place. What makes for a bad group? No one knows anything more than you do. Snark (not Miss) tops the agenda at every meeting. Advice flies faster than the Wicked Witch’s gaggle of monkeys on a bad day. You edit your manuscript to please three people and set off three more. You wind up feeling utterly depleted, confused and strangely addicted to the experience–because you’re writing, after all, maybe more than ever, and people seem to want to read what you’ve written and– Stop. Set yourself free. Find some writers who you can trust and who can truly teach you something. About how to tell a good story. About the craft. About the business. And then learn and grow so that you can be an asset to them as well.
4. Relying overmuch on anyone but yourself. Even the best critique group in the world cannot write your manuscript for you. They cannot get you an agent, an editor, a contract or a check. Don’t expect them to, even if they have connections. Your writerly friends cannot and should not be expected to pat your hand and soothe your ego every time you hit a snag; there will be lots of snags, and you will burn out your valuable allies if you burden them with every one. So you dig deep. You take what you’ve learned and you find a way to become your own toughest critic and best cheerleader. And when things are very rough or when you have some joy to share, then you reach out. Writing can be a lonely occupation, but it will be less so if you listen first and foremost to your inner voice and the many voices of all the characters sprung to life on your pages.
5. Flying blind. I wrote my first novel-length manuscript without doing any craft work. I had James Frey’s How to Write A Damn Good Novel, II (not I) on my bookshelf because I felt cool having it there. But I didn’t crack it. I had books on publishing children’s books on my shelf too, but I’d never done much with those either. What I had was ego. I thought I knew how a story would unfold, so I let the characters take me on a wild journey. I learned, through writers’ loops, that I was a pantser. Cool, I thought; that’s my style, it’s how I’ll succeed. Or not. Because even though the agents I sent my script to liked my voice and many of my story’s elements, the plot itself was about as holey as a nine-year-old-boy’s socks after a season of baseball. (You know what I’m talking about.)
I have craft books now–30+ books on novel writing and screenplay writing: books to inspire, to churn ideas; to help with editing and block; easy-breezy reads and bicep-straining tomes–and I’ve read all or some of most of them. I try not to overdo it. I try to reach for these books only when I know I need the help, because I’m fearful of overwhelming the creative side of my brain with Too Many Rules. But the thing is, you need to know the rules if you’re going to play the game to win. Sure you can play the game without rules–you can even have fun doing it. But don’t be surprised if, at the end of the day, you find yourself swinging that bat alone, the others up and quit on you, sick of saying, “No, no! Second base is THERE!”
6. Not doing the hard edit. No one likes doing major edits. Wait. Can’t it work if X? Don’t you understand that his motivation is Y? Okay. It’s your story. You either see the need for work or you don’t. But if you have three people telling you they don’t understand your protagonist’s motivations, or that there’s no chemistry between a pair of would-be lovers, or that the plot skips like your dad’s old Star Wars album after you left it to bake on the dashboard of your car (oops), then you should really think about listening. And cracking one of those editing books. And doing a Hard Edit. You might not want to do it; in fact, you’d be a rare breed of writer if you did. You might even believe it would be easier just to quit and start another story all together–especially if this advice comes once you’ve finished a full draft. You might even be right. But if you love your story as you should (see rule 1), then you shouldn’t give up on it at the 11th hour. No one said this was going to be easy, and if they did you should go on and hit them with a cream pie or something. Right in the eyeball.
7. Quitting. I was torn about whether to list this one as “Not Believing” or “Quitting,” but really these vices go hand in hand. If you don’t believe in your story or your abilities as a writer, you will be more inclined to quit before you’ve finished your script or done the Hard Edit. If you feel you have compelling reasons not to believe in yourself–say you’ve received a rash of rejections lately, and none of them were favorable–you STILL can’t quit. Sorry; I’m not going to make this easy on you. It just means you’ve fallen victim to one of the deadly sins. Maybe you need more craft work or a new critique group or a better concept. Figure it out and keep going. Because EVERYthing you learn, EVERY critique you’re able to ingest without defense and grow from, EVERYtime you alone push yourself out of the dumps and carry on with your script, you become a better, stronger writer.
You cannot quit. You cannot. Not as long as you believe in your story and feel its pulse beneath your fingers. You cannot quit as long as you feel the drive in your gut to tell the tale. Because it will eat away at you if you do–until you dust off your notes and your keyboard, and try, try again.
I may not know much, but I know this.
Write on, all!