Becoming a writer (Part 1)

In a recent post, I showed you how my writing has improved over the the past year, and now I’m back to tell you what I’ve done to hone my craft and to promote myself as a writer. One year into a career feels somewhat premature to be dispensing advice, especially since I have yet to achieve the traditional marker of success (i.e., publishing my novel), but I have insights into the process now that I won’t necessarily remember if I wait. So I’ll go ahead and share my thoughts, and hopefully others with more experience will chime in if they disagree with my approach or have things to add.

Initially, I was going to list all the activities I’ve engaged in, similar to this useful article on how to fake an MFA degree, but I noticed the activities could be grouped into six general categories. Thus, here’s my overall model for becoming a writer:

writingcomponents

You’ll notice that the first three (reading, writing, and rewriting/editing) are largely solo activities while the latter three (training, spending time with other writers, and business) involve interacting with other people to improve and promote one’s writing. I’ll focus on reading, writing, and rewriting/editing today and cover the others in a separate blog post (otherwise this will get seriously TL;DR).

I’ll note briefly here that these categories are not exclusive (e.g., spending time with other writers is useful for networking, which I would classify as doing business).

I also want to comment on my choice of the phrase “becoming a writer.” Coming from an academic background, I was hesitant to call myself a writer when I first started writing my novel. After all, I didn’t call myself a demographer the first day I walked into my PhD program when I knew little about the discipline of demography. I had to be trained, like first year medical students who go on to become doctors.

Now, I’m not arguing that formal training is necessary to become a writer or that anyone needs to achieve a certain degree of skill or accumulate a certain amount of text before they can call themselves a writer. As far as I’m concerned, everyone has the right to write, share their work, and call themselves a writer whenever they feel comfortable with the label.

But writing well takes effort, and writers have to decide for themselves what investments they want to make in the quality of their writing before it’s released into the public. I wasn’t comfortable calling myself a writer when I started my novel a year ago but am much more willing to identify myself as such now, the difference being I’ve invested a considerable amount of time in honing my craft and establishing myself as a professional.

So what did I do?

1. Reading

I decided to write a romance novel because I was interested in exploring the tension between love and lust. I arrived at this decision in March of last year. In May, another writer asked me who my favorite romance authors were, and the conversation took an awkward turn when I admitted I wasn’t sure if I’d ever read a romance novel (“Does Bridget Jones’s Diary count?” I asked). She graciously suggested a few authors, and I began reading romance novels at a rapid pace. And it was a good thing I did, because it turns out, I didn’t understand how romance novels work. In particular, I didn’t realize how sexy they are and that the plots tend to follow a similar structure.

The data available on my Goodreads account suggests I’ve read around a hundred books since last May. I read a mix of romance and literary fiction although the majority of what I read is romance. I read for pleasure, but I try to approach what I read from a critical angle as well. Before I began my own novel, I studied the structure of other romance novels. When I ran into problems with point-of-view, I reread some of my favorite novels to see how the authors handled third person. When I don’t like a book, I try to figure out what I dislike about it. Similarly, when I love a novel, I try to identify what attracts me. This process, coupled with daily writing on my part, has helped me to define my writing style.

2. Writing

Okay, so this is most obvious step to becoming a writer: sitting down and putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.

I jumpstarted my writing by participating in Camp NaNoWriMo in July of last year, completing a 50,000 word draft of a novel in a month. To accomplish this, I wrote roughly 1,600 words a day without engaging in any editing. There were a lot of problems with the manuscript I produced, but this was one of the best months of my life because I was able to let my creative brain run free and avoid the editing hell brought on by my perfectionist tendencies. That would come later…

Not only did participating in Camp NaNoWriMo help me produce a large amount of text in a short amount of time, it also made it easier for me to write short pieces. I learned how to sit down and write without constantly questioning myself. And I use this skill now in my rewriting process. I’ll throw out a section of the novel and set word count goals for a week or two to replace it.

To anyone starting out, I’d recommend a brief time where you focus on generating content without judging your work. Set daily word count goals you can achieve and watch your writing accumulate. Give yourself time to fall in love with this process because I’ve found it’s easy to feel defeated once you start critiquing your work.

3. Rewriting/Editing

Rewriting and editing are critical to the writing process, but I’ve included them as a separate category from writing because I think focused attention on rewriting and editing can improve one’s skills at a much more rapid pace than generating text alone can. Why? Because you have to sit down with your work and figure out how to make it better, and while you may succeed in making small improvements, what you end up with still might not be what you consider good. This is the point when you’ll want to consult outside sources (e.g., books on writing, other writers, editing workshops), which I’ll discuss more in Part 2 of this post.

For me, writing is fun while editing is uncomfortable, basically a lot of time spent trying to wrangle terrible sentences and paragraphs into submission. I remember spending about three weeks over the holiday season this past year editing a chapter in my novel that involved a lot of dialogue, physical action, and emotional reaction. Figuring out how to balance these things was painful, but when I emerged on the other side of the process, I had learned something valuable: how to write a scene that was scenic. And if I hadn’t spent a lot of time trying to improve that particular chapter, which I felt was at the emotional core of my novel, I think I could have written four or five novels without figuring out how to do this.

One part of the rewriting/editing process I found frustrating initially was the difficulty I had setting goals and tracking my progress. Unlike writing alone, where I just had to meet a daily word count, rewriting and editing involved subtracting and modifying words until I thought the improvements I’d made were “good enough.” Talk about vague! Now I’m trying to adhere to a strict rewriting/editing schedule (e.g., tomorrow I’m scheduled to rewrite chapter thirty-two of my novel), but I’m not sure this would have worked for me when I first started the editing process. I needed protected time to figure out how to write and what constitutes my style (I’m not done with this, BTW).

The rewriting/editing process is where I’ve felt the most defeated, but it’s also where I’ve experienced my greatest victories. There’s nothing like starting the day with a chunk of text that kind of pisses you off and ending the day having turned it into something witty and emotional. I love sending my writing group chapters I feel confident are the best I could write at the moment.

And that’s why rewriting and editing are so important, because the best thing you can write is not necessarily the first thing you’ll put down on paper but admitting that can be hard.

I’ll be back soon with Part 2 of this post, detailing how training, spending time with other writers, and focusing on the business aspects of a writing career were essential steps on my journey to become a writer.

In the meantime, if you have any advice on becoming a writer, please share it in the comments. I’m especially keen to hear your insights on the rewriting/editing process.

Reconnect with things you love and find yourself

It’s hard to become not something when you’ve been that something for a long time. It’s hard to break up with your first career. For the record, it wasn’t demography, it was me, and I hope someday we can be friends.

But for now, like the fallout after my first serious romantic relationship, I’m left wondering what went wrong and whether I can ever commit myself to something again. Can I say with conviction that I’m a something like I stated I was a demographer?

I’m not not a demographer now. I still know a lot about demography and am intrigued by demographic questions, but I’m not practicing. Thus, the label chafes a bit.

The process of redefining myself started months prior to my departure from academia. It was during the crying time that I began to search for something that I could become. I looked back to what made me happy before I started down the road to academia and pinpointed college as a time when I shut down my creative endeavors and lost touch with a fundamental part of myself.

Writing was the first way I reconnected. In the spring of 2012, I started attending one of Atlanta’s storytelling shows, Carapace. I wrote stories about my life and performed them. I shared my failures, my triumphs, my insecurities. I’d always seen the past as a fixed thing, but storytelling taught me that the past was much more fluid. I could choose how to tell my story. I’m choosing how to reveal it to you now. I’m empowered. I’m a storyteller. I’m a writer.

I’m an improviser. I asked for improv lessons for Christmas in 2012. I felt stupid putting it on my list, scared of revealing this desire to my family. Fear has held me back from a lot of things. In college, I would practice sometimes with Ohio Wesleyan’s improv troupe, the Babbling Bishops, but I was too afraid of rejection to audition to be a member. In my first improv class at Dad’s Garage, the instructor asked whether any of us hoped to perform improv on stage someday. I didn’t raise my hand because I didn’t want to admit I had that goal. I didn’t want to fail. Luckily, improv is a great way to learn to accept failure, celebrate it even. I failed, I learned.

I perform with two improv troupes now: Shark Party and !mprov (pronounced Bangprov). I’m writing a mathematical romance novel. I’ve performed at many of Atlanta’s great live lit and storytelling events including CarapaceNaked City, Stories on the Square, The Iceberg, and Write Club Atlanta.

I’m an improvisor, a storyteller, a writer, but it’s difficult for me to define myself by activities that don’t pay. I’ve long judged art as an impractical pursuit while secretly wanting to be an artist.

After I started writing my novel last July, I would get depressed whenever I went to a bookstore. Shelves full of books that inspire wonder in my reader self spell doom in my writer self. There are already so many books! (And loads more that never got published.) Why would mine matter? What contribution could I possibly make?

I’ve always been more comfortable as a big fish in a small pond.

Approaching the problem from a demographic angle helped to quell my despair. Yes, book writing is a risky endeavor. The numerator, the number of people who are super successful, is small. The denominator, the number of people who pursue it, is large. I may never get published. I may never make money.

But there is something to be said for being part of the denominator even if I never make it into the numerator. Writing a book is hard – plugging away at it every day, trying to keep the story consistent, wondering if I will ever finish. So while shelves stocked full of books intimidate me, they also give me hope. If millions of people have chosen to do this despite the difficulty and succeeded,* then maybe I have made a good choice – not necessarily because my book will have a big impact but because it brings me joy. I’m part of the community of writers, storytellers, and improvisers who pursue these often monetarily unprofitable endeavors because they enjoy it and because they can entertain others by doing it.

I’m an improviser. I do this for myself. I do this to make people laugh and make people feel things, sometimes things that scare them.

I’m a storyteller. I do this for myself. I do this in hopes that sharing my burden lessens the weight others carry. I do this so we all fell less alone.

I’m a writer. I do this for myself. I do this because I think falling in love is one of the best things in life and romance novels allow the reader to experience these emotions vicariously. I do this because I think love and sexuality should be celebrated.

I’m an artist. I create things. I do this because it makes me happy.


*Google estimates from 2010 indicate close to 130 million books exist. Regarding my use of the word chosen, presumably a small number of authors did not choose to write books but were forced to. Some might take this footnote as evidence that I’m still a demographer. I probably am.