Monday, March 10, 2014

How to Become a Professional-Level Writer (A Check-In)

By DeAnna Knippling


I don’t know that any of us will ever stop searching for “the magic secret to forcing people to pay you for your writing.” I suspect looking for the magic secret is human nature, something having to do with the fact that when people talk about their successes, it’s the unusual events in their careers that stand out, not the mundane details.

“Oh!” we say, looking at the events that stand out. “That’s the reason they succeeded as writers.”

We see things from a twisted perspective - after the writer has had success (often, after the writer has had a breakthrough success and is selling millions of books). We see the major milestones, as they appear in retrospect: the years of revising, the steps that the writer took to publication (whether indie or traditionally or both), the blogs. Oh, yes, we see the blogs.

We see all that and think, “That’s how they succeeded.” We don’t think, “Just think of how much better they could have succeeded if they’d done it differently.”

Sometimes the authors themselves can’t see what led them to success, either. They think their books are selling because they got lucky, because they got a certain number of reviews, because they did what it took to get their books on Amazon’s bestseller lists, because they bought ads, because they blogged, tweeted, Facebooked, etc. It must have been something unusual, right?

No.

It was what the author did, on a daily basis, which was....

Write.

You’ve heard that advice before, yes? Fish gotta' swim, birds gotta' fly, writers gotta' write. Well, if you’re reading this, then more than likely you’ve ignored it. You’ve written a little bit, looked at your writing, fussed around with it, and said, “This isn’t getting me anywhere. It’s got to be something else.”

You’ve studied a bunch of other people’s opinions on writing. You laugh at writer lists. You pass around Facebook photos of hot guys (or chicks) that say, “X hot person says...GO WRITE.” You blog (Aieee! I’m blogging right now!!!). You invest yourself in writing-related activities, but not actually writing. You go for the cheap thrills of anything that makes you feel like you’re progressing as a writer...that is, anything that doesn’t actually take putting your butt in the chair or your fingers on the keyboard.

Eh, I do it too.

But that’s not how you become a professional writer.

A couple of years ago I did a bunch of research on the idea that it takes ten thousand hours to get good at anything. I talked about it at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference. And then...I went home and wrote. My goal now is to write at least a thousand words a day, every day. I’m ahead of schedule for the year; you do the math. And, since I gave that talk, I’ve published (and been paid for) dozens of stories.

Even more importantly, I’m starting to look at my writing and go, “Not so bad, eh?” Yes, that’s right. I’ve even found a cure for the debilitating self-doubt that plagues writers. How do you get over the sense that you’re a fake?

Keep writing; it’ll take care of itself eventually.

Here are Heinlein’s Rules, if you don’t know them:

Rule One: You must write.

Rule Two: You must finish what you write.

Rule Three: You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.

Rule Four: You must put your story on the market.

Rule Five: You must keep it on the market until it has sold.

Rule Six: Start working on something else.

Personally, I would add:

Rule Seven: If you want to study writing, start by taking something good and typing it in.

Rule Eight: Watch out for hangers-on and arrange it so they have limited ability to screw you over. The money flows to the writer, remember. Or, as Harlan Ellison would have it (NSFW).

Rule Nine: If you find yourself spending more than 20% of your writing time doing something that isn’t writing...stop.

This is hard for writers; there are a lot of things that pop up and beg us to work on them. If it isn’t our real lives trying to intrude, then it’s people begging for your time for one thing or another. If it’s not the temptation to be generous, then it’s the temptation to socialize, either online or offline. If it’s not chit-chatting, then it’s trying to tackle the behind-the-scenes stuff, like building a website or going on promotions tours or staring at the numbers of indie books you sold last month or entering receipts or submitting stories, always the submitting stories...

It’s easy to get wound up in that stuff, but it won’t make you a professional writer.

If you’re lost, go back to the beginning.

Write. Once you have written, you can worry about finishing what you write. Once you have finished, you can worry about editing, which mostly involves learning how to leave your work alone. Editing is a different skill than writing, and you probably don’t know it - why not let the pros do it, after they’ve plunked money down on your table? But nobody’s perfect; sometimes you give in to the urge to tinker. Move on as fast as you can, at least.

Then you can worry about submitting, and keeping submitting, and doing more writing.

Then, and only then, and no more than twenty percent of the time you have available to write, do you do anything else...and the first thing you do after you have your writing done is study. Then you worry about blogging, and socializing with other writers, and building your website, and tweeting.

Because you’re in this to become a better writer, right?

I think a lot of people want writing to be all about the garnishes of being a writer. The frilly parsley of hanging out with other writers. The carved rosette tomato of getting praised. The caviar of getting recognized. The edible gold leaf of getting paid gazillions of dollars. The cherry on top of getting to look like a hero while you train the next generation of writers. The extra chocolate sauce swirled on the plate of winning awards and prizes, prizes, prizes! Those things are (or would be) nice.

But those things aren’t the meal of writing, just the garnishes. 

If you haven’t written, then everything else is just something that takes up your time...while you don't become a professional writer.


About the Author: DeAnna Knippling started freelancing in May 2011 and wouldn’t be able to do it without her wonderful family and friends, especially her husband. In fact, she owes a lot to Pikes Peak Writers for helping her be a better writer, especially through the Write Brains, both in the lectures and in meeting lots of other writers.

Her reason for writing is to entertain by celebrating her family’s tradition of dry yet merry wit, and to help ease the suffering of lack of self-confidence, having suffered it many years herself. She also likes to poke around and ask difficult questions, because she hates it when people assume something must be so.

For more kicks in the writerly pants, see her blog at www.deannaknippling.com or her ebook How to Fail & Keep on Writing, available at Smashwords, B&N, Amazon, and OmniLit.

5 comments:

  1. Just write. It seems so simple.

    Yet here I am reading and commenting on blog posts instead of writing. I need a gadget that smacks my knuckles with a ruler whenever I go on the web. :D

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  2. Really enjoyed this post. Great advice and inspiration

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  3. Thanks for this advice. I needed to be reminded.

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