I’ve got some good news and some bad news.
There may be formulas and guidelines and outlines and plot lines to consider when writing, but when it comes right down to it, writing success appears to be a hodgepodge of individually-curated advice and tips suited for the specific writer in question. There is a never-ending supply of contradictory camps and fervent advocates of one sort or another. Do this. Do that. Don’t do that. Do this. Have a newsletter, engage on social media, have a platform, blog, pants-it, plot-it, write in the morning, write at night, set a goal, don’t set goals, carry a pen and paper, screw it: use a cell phone, don’t use technology, use technology, do interviews, don’t do interviews, blog every day, shoot for every hour, then write in your sleep, have your own room, write anywhere, drink coffee to write better, drink wine to write better, adverbs! exclamation points!!!, critique groups, critique friends, no critique-ing nothing, edit while writing, finish writing then edit, etc. It’s exhausting.
I find myself swirling in it. What do I know? I don’t hold the official “Author” title, yet. How is a developing writer supposed to sift through the conglomeration of the “should do” pile?
Then I had the great fun to attend an event hosted by our local chapter of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA). I sat at a table with a few other attendees and ate a carbohydrate-loaded meal of goodness while an author talked about his book and answered questions. Every fifteen to twenty minutes, the authors switched tables. All in all, I heard from six authors. Six different authors with six different books and six different approaches. Six authors who enjoyed different parts of the process and for different reasons. Six authors who were motivated by different sources. Six authors with different backgrounds.
One loved Goodreads, another cringed. A couple were writing in genres different from the ones in which they started. One author dragged her agent along with her to venture into a new territory for both of them. A couple of the authors edited while they wrote, one wrote chunks and then edited. There were quite a few pants-ers in the group.
It’s possible, and I’m just throwing this out there, that each writer is going to have a set of strategies that works for him or her. It will borrow from ideas and examples of others; it will keep and toss based on experience, and it will evolve relentlessly. Sure, there will be markers along the way. You can’t escape good syntax, strong dialogue, and good grammar. Read more and write more come up in just about every discussion on how to be a better writer – no shortcuts there. But when it comes down to the “what to do after I put my butt in the seat,” it appears that the general consensus is: there is no consensus.
We want one, don’t we? A magic formula. A slick answer. An unflappable approach. (A reason to use “unflappable” in a sentence.) An algorithm for locating our audience. A google search for “muse.” A reason to expect that we are, unlike others who are floundering, following predetermined steps that will absolutely lead to brilliant success in publishing.
There isn’t one.
And that is great news.
It means that as a writer you can live your life away from the keyboard while you pursue a storybook ending. It means that you could be doing it backwards, and it could still be brilliant. Or it could be a mess. It means that, in addition to read more and write more, you can add “live more.” It means you can pick and choose from the buffet of how and why and where and when you write. It means that success can’t be measured in followers and Facebook friends and retweets and likes. It means that progress doesn’t come from algorithms and newsletters and editing. It comes when the writer finds another part of the combination that works for his or her situation. Progress comes from failure. It comes through trial-and-error. It comes from distraction (sometimes, not always). It comes in moments of reckless intellectual abandon – those moments of daily humdrum-ness that spark ideas and connections and personalities because for once your brain has been given a chance to relax and explore.
It’s not easy to be so open. We want a guarantee that if we read more and write more and social media more then we will achieve writerly glory. But, there is no guarantee. It’s going to be hard. The trial-and-error and failure method for figuring out the combination that pushes you forward is not easy or glamorous. That’s the bad news. That every other author has had to figure it out and has managed to do so, despite so many possible combinations of success, is the good news.
So be critical of every piece of “must do” advice that distracts from reading and writing. It’s not all for everyone. At least six fabulous published authors confirmed this idea when talking about their projects and approaches.
(And for those who may be wondering, here are the books and authors that I met who inspired my reflections…
…and I wanted to read them all by the end of it.)