I was one of thousands of writers who descended on Washington, D.C., last week to soak up the wisdom of skilled – and successful – creative writers at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) 2011 Conference and Bookfair. I attended about a dozen sessions and had many phenomenal conversations with many compelling creatives.
I’ve synthesized the key points I heard throughout the conference into 7 key points, which are summarized below. Apologies to all of those great speakers whose wisdom I’m conveying without direct attribution. I’ll give you all credit in forthcoming blogs, when I break out these points in greater detail. In the meantime, enjoy, and please share your own thoughts.
- Write for yourself.This can sound like a cliché, but it’s critical. Imagining an audience and then writing purely to that audience will often lead to disappointment. But what does that mean, “write for yourself?” It means a successful writer writes first to please herself. If you don’t crave spending time with your words, you can’t expect others to feel differently. Of course, no agent or editor is going to be interested in a piece that is so navel-gazing that it’s inaccessible to others. But you can embrace the revision process to take the words
that speak to you and find ways to craft them to speak to a larger audience. And don’t limit yourself in this process; there are plenty of people who your words may touch who may not be part of whatever audience you imagine.
- Build an online community. Yes, yes, you’re supposed to blog, be on Facebook, tweet. When, you ask, am I supposed to actually write? It’s an excellent question. But despite the solitary nature of writing, it has always been beneficial to have a larger network of fellow creatives, whether in school or in a salon. You can form and grow a virtual salon through social media. Once you stop thinking of social media as a platform to market your work and instead as a way to put value out into the universe and receive value in return, you’ll start to see the benefits. Those could come in terms of support and encouragement, but they could also come in the form of professional opportunities.
- Build your platform. This in some ways is more important for nonfiction writers – an amazing novel will excite the publishing industry regardless of its source – but this ties in with the previous point regarding an online community. A “platform” can be seen as the potential to increase exposure for your own work. Agents and editors agree that writers are now expected to proactively market themselves. A writer who has a platform – defined here as connections, important to fiction and nonfiction writers – is a writer who will be more likely to get that first contract, and future ones.
- Don’t neglect research.This is true with the writing itself – your novel’s story may be fiction but your details of place and time must be as “true” as possible – but here I’m referring to your outreach into the publishing world. Does that
literary journal say on its web site that it’s not looking for poetry? Then why are you submitting a haiku collection? Does that agent focus on young adult fiction? Then why are you querying her about a nonfiction book chronicling your years as a groupie for Phish? If you do your homework before reaching out – take a moment to discover if that agent named “Robin” is male or female, to start – you’ll already have edged out the many writers who haven’t taken those basic steps.
- Be open to the wisdom of others. Remember the first point, where you’re writing to yourself? By definition that writing is going to be personal, a sharing of your heart. So does it feel good when an agent tells you he won’t circulate your novel until you change the ending? Or when an editor tells you that entire subplot with the minor character’s pancreatic cancer has to go? No. You probably won’t even like the removal of a semicolon on page 47. But you know what? Others don’t know your heart, but they may very well know a thing about writing, and about maximizing audience. If an editor sends you revisions and recommends taking a few days to scream and throw things before responding, take her up on it. One key to remember is that these agents and editors are your allies. It is in their best interest to ensure your writing be as good as it can be. Work with them.
- Be patient. Your novel is done. You managed to get an agent, and she got you a contract with a great publisher. Now you’re told your book is scheduled for publication in two years. What? The solitary writer, who chooses how to spend each day, can be forgiven forgetting that there are many other people out there following their own timetables. Yes, you spent two weeks polishing that query letter, and it will only take the agent a few minutes to read it. So why the wait? Well, perhaps if you end up signing with that agent, you’d like him to spend some time working for you, putting you ahead of a blind query letter. That delay in publication? Maybe it’s to allow time to edit the manuscript to perfection, to find the perfect cover art, to build buzz through galleys. If you are a writer down to your soul, you will be writing as long as you can express a coherent thought. So expand your time scale a bit, and know that with patience the high points you dream of will come.
- Keep creating. When that high point does come – when you secure that agent, when you sign that contract, when that book hits the streets – what then? It’s natural to have a letdown, to feel a loss, an emptiness. The longer you spent with that writing, the more profound the loss may feel. Start by being kind to yourself. Do you love movies and haven’t seen one in a year? Go to the multiplex. But also keep writing. The writing may end up trite. You may spend three months and find you’re in a dead end. But writing is like exercise. Step away too long and it’s that much harder when you start up again.
Is there something you feel was left out? Do you take issue with any of these points? I want to hear your thoughts. You can also check out Caleb J. Ross’ AWP blog, full of great insights (he’s channeled a lot in #2 above).
(Photos above taken by me a couple of weeks ago with my Evo while killing time waiting for a lunch.)
23 thoughts on “7 Steps to Writing Success”
I think these are great tips! The one thing I might mention is that online presence isn’t for everyone. If it’s something you can’t stand and it’s really grating on you, making it difficult to work then you might want to lay off a bit. If you love it though (which I do) it’s a great tool! Really nice list. Thanks.
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Thanks, Lisa! You’re right about the social media, it’s not going to work if you’re not into it. I’ll say this, though, I resisted Twitter until last fall, but quickly fell in love with it once I started. I’ve already met some great people through it.
I know a lot of creatives, not just writers but musicians, photographers, etc., who warn how easy it is to get sucked into social media and lose time to create, so that’s something I could have emphasized.
Thank you for this!
I have had to temporarily put my writing aside while I transition to a new career, but I am anxious for the next 6 weeks to be over so that I will be able to focus on it again.
I really enjoyed your tips, and will be back again!
Jenny, best of luck with the transition! I’ve been there too. 🙂
I miss going to AWP, I went every year for awhile. Was on a panel at AWP in Chicago a few years ago. I always find it energizing and exhausting at the same time–kind of like writing. These are all great points.
Charlotte, thanks for the note. Energizing and exhausting is a great description! 🙂
Wow, EXCELLENT post Patrick! I’m impressed. I have nothing to add, but I do want to share a link with you all that all writers should read:
“If you wont have a blog don’t bother sending us your manuscript”
The article talks about the increasing necessity for a writer to have a blog of his or her own in order to be more “marketable” in the eyes of publishers. Yet another reason why you should have a blog and build a platform as Patrick suggests.
Hi Ollin, thanks for the kind words and mega-thanks for that link. We have to take seriously the author’s insistence that blogs have moved from desirable to mandatory.
Thanks for the great advice Patrick! I felt compelled to share so I just Tweeted it. My dilemma is that I’m not sure who to blog as…Anne the business writer or Anne the aspiring author…or both! I’m trying to do both on the same blog.
Thanks, Anne, that’s awesome! Understand trying to do both on the blog, but you are one “Anne,” after all, so no harm in that.
you’ve got spunk, love that
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