Today I’m digging into a harder question, one I honestly don’t have an answer to, but maybe will develop by the time I reach the end of this post: Can anyone learn to become a successful writer?
Unfortunately, that statement doesn’t serve this thought exercise. For the sake of argument, I’m going to posit that a successful writer is one who has (a) published (be is self- or traditionally) and (b) has some sort of reading audience and (c) has a plan for increasing that audience (aka author platform).
First of all, what is author platform? If it’s part of our definition of a successful author, we should have at least a general grasp of what it means. I’m not going to define it here because Kristen Lamb does such a good job of it in her book, We Are Not Alone: The Writer’s Guide to Social Media. But I will say, a platform is something you stand on, right? It’s a place you go to be elevated so people can see you and hear you. It’s something you develop to be listened to, to reach out to others and, hopefully, make a few connections, gain a few readers, while you discover some amazing new authors to support and read as well. For an excellent series of posts by the master herself, start here: The Most Powerful Social Media Tool for Building an Author Platform-Part 1.
So, can anyone learn to be this kind of author? One who writes books, has people read them, and has a plan for writing even more books and getting even more people to read them?
I did. We can start there.
I’m not all that and a bag of chips. I have a whopping two books published with a small press and am on pins and needles waiting to hear if I’ve got a third contract coming my way. I’m happy with my sales, but I want them to be even better. I have a plan in place to make that happen. So, in my mind, I’m the kind of author we’re talking about today. And I definitely learned it. This shizzle did not come naturally.
So what did it take for me to learn how to become a writer?
- There was a lot of rejection. A lot. There was a lot of criticism aimed toward my lovies (my books). I can’t even tell you how many times I wanted to go all mamma-bear on my critique partners (i.e. scoop my lovies into my arms and roar at any who dared point out flaws).
- At some point, every new writer will learn that their writing is crap. It’s what you do after that that makes or breaks you. Do you scoop up the crap, put it on a waffle cone and try to sell it because no matter what others tell you, your writing is chocolate ice cream, dammit, not crap? Or do you ask questions of your critics? Questions like, are there any useful nuggets in the crap or is it all crap? Do you have any suggestions for me to improve my crap? Can I see some of your writing, so I know whether I can trust your opinion of what is considered crap? And so on.
- Successful writers are ones who are willing to examine their crap and go back to the drawing board (is anyone else imagining a gorilla painting with its poop right now?). Successful writers will adopt a humble approach to criticism, learn to accept the valid points, learn to consider all the points, and be willing to devote much time and effort to learning craft.
- I used to knit. I loved knitting. Before I fell in love with writing, I would knit for hours while watching TV. I can’t even count how many sweaters I made, how many hats, scarves, gloves, blankets, baby jumpers. I loved each piece so much that more often than not, I would undo parts that weren’t right and do them over. If you’re a knitter, you know how difficult and frustrating this is. I did it. Every time. I had the determination required to make my knitted pieces beautiful to my own eyes, sometimes even to the eyes of others
- I treat writing the same way. It’s never easy to redo something. It’s never easy to slay a darling. But you must. You must. Or your work won’t be great. It might be adequate, but it will never be great.
- Time (I’m still cooking, but thank heavens I’m no longer poisonous–if you have no idea what I’m taking about, see Part 1)
- It took me 4 years of working at writing at least 40 hours a week (most of this was while working full-time on a PhD degree) before I got a contract with a small press. In that time I wrote 5 books, some of which were crap. Redeemable crap, but crap. For me, it took time to hone my craft to the point I was comfortable sharing it. For some it might be one year, for others 10 years. Everyone’s different. But I would be seriously skeptical of the quality of a first book turned loose in the publishing world without at least a year or two of revising and craft-honing under the author’s belt.
- I’ve mentioned in earlier posts that for me, traditional publishing gave me validation and confidence. Some might get validation through critique groups (I have one of these too). Some through social media friends who serve as beta readers (Got me some of these as well). Some through a writing class or by finalling in a contest. I think everyone needs validation from some source before putting their work out there for people to buy and read. It’s to protect you as the writer from embarrassing yourself and to protect the reader from spending money on something that is a cone of crap disguised as chocolate ice cream. If no one is validating your writing, it might be time to return to some craft books and find a critique group.
- Family Support
- Writing takes a lot of time. And effort. And concentration. If I didn’t have a supportive family (a husband cheering me on, a mother willing to babysit while I go to crit group, a sister-in-law who takes my 4 yo swimming so I have a couple hours to write, etc.), I would not be where I am today.
- I think if you don’t have this, it will be obvious to you. You will get frustrated by criticism and rejection rather than be motivated by it. You will weary of writing instead of needing to write like you need air. If you have passion for writing, I suspect you have talent for it as well.
Some things that weren’t required and shouldn’t be required to become a writer:
- Unless you choose to spend money on editing, cover art and other self-publishing paraphernalia, the old adage “Money flows to the author” holds. I did not have to pay a single scent to get my books published. I voluntarily paid some contest fees, and of course, you have to pay the obligatory $35 for a copyright. If you’re serious about building an author platform, you’ll fork over the cost of a decent website (or make a free one on WordPress). So, yes, I had a few expenses that were within my family’s budget, but I paid no money to my publisher. If you have an agent or publisher asking for money, you are in the wrong place.
- English as a first language
- One of my dear friends, Ksenia Anske is a talented writer of urban fantasy. Her first language is not English. Ksenia has an excellent command of the English language, but in my opinion, it’s her heart for story telling and her unique voice, leant to her by her unique cultural and life-experience background, that sets her writing apart. Heart and voice. That’s what matters. Not the precise usage of the English language or whatever language you’re writing in. You have to be a competent communicator, but storytelling is not the same as writing a book report or passing a language exam. It’s something altogether different, and when done right, it’s a beautiful thing to witness.
- College classes or a degree in writing (says the career student, LOL!)
- It’s never a bad idea to educate yourself on whatever it is you hope to do well. But you don’t need a degree in English or literature to become a writer. That’s not to say you don’t need to study. You DO NEED TO STUDY. Read books on craft. Read books in your genre. A lot of them. A TON of them. Do that, and you’ll be able to tell a story just as well as the English major who dissected Shakespeare for their dissertation.
- There are some wonderful free resources online for helping you learn how to master craft. One of my favorites is the Writing Workshop, a free Yahoo group that delivers excellent content for writers. There are also paid memberships to writer-advocacy groups like the Romance Writers of America (RWA). I belong to RWA and have gotten a lot of fabulous content for my dues.
How about you? If you’re a writer, what things have gone into your learning to write? If you’re a reader, do you expect the authors you pay to entertain you to have a certain level of competency? Don’t be shy! I love hearing from you. Thanks for reading!