As a writing tutor, mentor and manuscript assessor, I meet a lot of writers who want to be published. Unfortunately a proportion of them spend far too much of their creative time putting the product (book) before the process (writing) by researching publishers and asking questions about how to submit a manuscript or how to publicise it through social networking and blogs, before they’ve even finished their first draft! This behaviour might sound grandiose, but in fact it’s a procrastination technique that’s very often caused by a lack of confidence.
The bottom line is that unless you’ve written several novels and are assured of your ability to complete the book and edit it into something publishable, my advice is to delay talking to publishers or agents until you have a finished product to talk about. I’m a big advocate of thinking about what you want (and not what you don’t want), but you have to be practical. You have to do the work. The bald truth is:
It sounds impossibly simplistic to say that, but it’s the most important thing I can teach writers. Write. Make notes about your characters, your settings, your plot, write character diaries, and when you have enough momentum, write scenes and chapters and push the story forward relentlessly until you get to The End, resisting all procrastination urges and any unhelpful perfectionism that’s telling you to go back and edit for grammar and flow, or stop to research that insignificant minor detail that will probably end up being edited out of the finished manuscript anyway. Keep the flow going. If you’re stuck on a plot point then leave a hole and leap forward because there’s a good chance that what you write next will help you discover the missing piece. If that doesn’t help, stop writing draft and go back to character diaries and backstory.
But stick with your characters and keep writing about them in whatever form you have to until you can get back to your draft. Rack up word count. Flex those writing muscles until you can’t stop thinking about your characters and they invade your mind while you’re hanging out washing or driving kids to school. Allow your first draft to come out imperfectly, so long as you capture its essence. As Anne Lamott says in her beautiful book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life: “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.” and “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.”
Unfortunately most writers have the perfectionism gene, and from what I’ve seen it’s the #1 reason that we procrastinate. Subconsciously we get a dialogue happening that says, If I can’t do it perfectly on the first attempt, I mustn’t be a real writer. I’ve even had clients who’ve been so paralysed by perfectionism that they can’t write a thing, and all because they’re comparing their first draft to a book they bought and read the week before. As if there’s no such thing as editing! The reality is that a first draft is edited several times by the author before the manuscript is submitted, then several more times by the publishers. It’s like comparing a pile of self raising flour to a gourmet mudcake from a boutique bakery. Crazy. Yet writers do this to themselves. Completely unrealistic.
Concert pianists, in comparison, are well aware that they must practise the scales for years, getting their fingers nimble and laying down those pathways in the brain that say This finger placed there produces that sound. Writers are no different. We need to write so we can lay down pathways that say This word combination represents the experience I want to convey. Our job is to take our vision of the story and to translate that into words on a page which a reader’s imagination will then recreate into a similar vision in their own mind. It takes years of practice to get the right word combinations to create the right experience for the reader, and this is what’s called developing the craft of writing (completely different to natural talent). There’s no getting around it, you have to write a lot to develop your craft. And you have to stop beating yourself up if you don’t get it ‘right’ on the first draft. Remember: The art of writing is rewriting.
Sure, you need information (how-to books and workshops) so you know how to write, and you need feedback (manuscript assessment and critique partners) so you can hone your skills, but the vast majority of a writer’s time, no matter where they are in their career, should be spent doing the work: writing.
So my advice this week is to write. If you really do want to be a published author, you must set aside time to practise. And if perfectionism is a problem for you, watch this video and see if it inspires you to let it go, at least while you’re writing first draft!
Have you ever been plagued with self doubt? Thought your writing was utter rubbish (when it wasn’t)? I’d love to hear how you overcame it.
(Link to Getting Published Part 1: Making the Commitment)