Becoming a writer (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this post, I discussed activities one usually does individually to become a writer (reading, writing, rewriting/editing). Today, I’m back to tackle the activities that involve other people (training, spending time with other writers, business). Again, here’s my model for becoming a writer:

writingcomponentsWhen I started the process of writing my novel, I would have characterized myself as good at writing. Similarly, the first time my husband and I took a ballroom dance class, I went in thinking I was a good dancer. In both cases, I think it’s fair to say I had a natural ability. But I didn’t go from my first dance lesson to performing on Dancing with the Stars, and I would never have landed a book contract with the first draft of my novel (let’s hope I have better luck with future drafts!).

With ballroom dance, I had to learn about posture, rhythm, and movement. I had to learn the steps. With writing, I had to learn the guidelines (e.g., show versus tell). Some view these guidelines as overly restrictive (“there are no rules!”), but for me, learning them has helped me tell my story more effectively.

My thinking is this: people have been telling stories since the dawn of man, and along the way, through our collective wisdom, we’ve figured out some principles for storytelling. Why waste time trying to rediscover these on my own or pursue an alternate strategy that has a much lower probability of success? These principles are principles for a reason, they’ve worked.

So here’s what I’ve done to learn about writing and to promote myself as a writer:

1. Training

Prior to beginning my novel, my formal training in fiction writing consisted of a creative writing class I took my junior year of high school and then repeated during my senior year because I liked it so much.

Since I’ve rediscovered writing, I’ve found classes, workshops, and seminars to be a great place to learn about writing, especially after I’d done some writing on my own. In particular, I finished the first draft of my novel in July of last year, and in the fall, I took a six-week class on novel writing through Emory Continuing Education. Taking the class before I wrote the novel probably would have helped me to avoid some of the worst mistakes I made in the first draft (e.g., head jumping), but taking it after I’d been struggling for a while was gratifying because I could apply what I was learning in the class directly to my novel and see the improvement (e.g., replacing all the crazy dialogue tags I’d used with “he said”).

In addition to the class at Emory, I’ve attended workshops and seminars offered by two Atlanta-based writing organizations I belong to, Georgia Romance Writers and The Atlanta Writers Club. Also, I spent an enlightening weekend at the Tucson Festival of Books, where there were a number of sessions aimed at writers. Sometimes the workshops are duds, but overall they’ve been useful and a worthwhile investment of my time and money.

I’ve amassed a small collection of books on writing. My writing improved substantially after I read Stein on Writing by Sol Stein and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King (I noticed a difference and so did my writing group). Other books I’d recommend: Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, Stephen King’s On Writing, and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Day to day, I prefer reading on an e-reader, but for these references, I like having hard copies.

Along with training in the particular form you are trying to master (for me, novel writing), I would suggest pursuing training in some other art form to get you thinking about story in a different way and to help you recharge. I’ve been taking improv lessons for about a year and a half now (at Dad’s Garage and The Brink Improv). These have been invaluable to my writing mostly because what makes for an interesting scene in improv (an action oriented scene with strong characters who have an emotional connection) also makes for a good chapter in a book. Also, improv allows me to inhabit characters in a way that is physically intimate. My body becomes their body, my voice their voice. And with improv, I have the opportunity to play a lot of characters, explore a lot of different worlds, and to quickly see what works and what doesn’t in a scene. Novel writing is a much longer slog, but I take what I learn in improv and apply it to the novel (e.g., not resolving conflict too quickly, having characters do things instead of just talking about doing them, and being willing to adapt the story and let go of things that aren’t working).

2. Spending time with other writers 

Probably the single most important thing I’ve done to spur productivity on my book is join a writing group. I meet with a group of writers, who are working on novels of a similar nature, every other week. We trade chapters in advance of the meeting, send feedback, and then discuss the feedback at the meeting. This process directly benefits my writing because my critique partners tell me what they like and dislike about my manuscript. Also, things get written because I want to have something to send to the group. There are indirect benefits as well. Notably, critiquing the manuscripts of the other writers in my group has helped to become a better editor of my own work.

I’m lucky to live in Atlanta where the live literary scene is thriving, giving me the opportunity to attend literary events and hang out with other writers at least once a week. As is probably evident from the length of these two posts on how to become a writer, I love talking about writing! For the most part, writers are interested in having conversations that I think might bore my other friends (What? You don’t want to hear me vaguely describe my plotting issues?). The Atlanta lit scene, in particular events like Write Club Atlanta, Naked City, Carapace, and Stories on the Square, made me want to be a writer (something about the applause a person receives after sharing a story). And now that I’ve become a writer, I go to these same places to find my role models. I also attend the monthly meetings of my local professional organization, the Georgia Romance Writers, where there are a ton of published authors writing in my genre. The great part about belonging to these communities is that I have people to consult when questions arise (e.g., how do I decide what editors to meet with at writing conferences).

3. Business

This is the part of becoming a writer I dreaded most. It’s not enough that I write, I have to market myself? That’s so corporate and icky and antithetical to my art. Okay, I never call it my art. And as an economics major in college, I discovered I’m not really anti-corporate. The ickiness is fear. How do I convince people to like me?

The most useful resource that I’ve come across so far in helping me develop my author platform (author speak for marketing strategy) is Kristen Lamb’s Rise of The Machines: Human Authors in a Digital World. There’s a ton of useful information in this book on engaging with social media, but the thing I appreciate about Lamb’s approach is her focus on human connection. Reading this book changed how I interact with people on Facebook and Twitter, and it gave me the courage to restart and sustain this blog. Because it’s necessary as an author, especially in the genre I’m writing in, to have a social media presence.

I’ve already mentioned the two local organizations I’m a member of in Atlanta: Georgia Romance Writers and The Atlanta Writers Club. I’m also a member of a national professional organization, Romance Writers of America. These organizations offer workshops aimed at professional development, and they also organize writing conferences where attendees have the opportunity to meet with editors and agents. I attended my first Atlanta Writers Conference this past May and had my query letter, synopsis, and first three chapters critiqued by an agent. She gave me clear feedback on areas where I could improve, and implementing the changes she recommended took my manuscript to another level.

Other aspects of the business side of writing I’m currently working are setting reasonable goals and sticking to deadlines. For me, that’s meant making progress on the novel and continuing to develop my social media presence. For other writers I know, it’s balancing working on novels and shorter fiction pieces. Whatever the goal is, it’s good to have a plan.

So that’s what I’ve done over the past year to become a writer. I don’t claim to know everything, but I’ve been intentional about this process, so hopefully what I have to share is useful to others embarking on this career.

If you haven’t read it yet, check out Part 1 of this post. 


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