-- Guest Post by Emlyn Chand
When did you have enough confidence in your abilities to officially call yourself a writer?
For me, it was when I first received money for my work as a freelance columnist. For you, it may have been when you finished the first chapter of your first novel or won a prize for a short story. Maybe you never had any qualms about saddling yourself with this label. Maybe you still don’t consider yourself a “real writer.”
Me? Now I know enough to see that I was a writer long before someone handed me that first paycheck. It’s kind of something you’re born with—like it or not.
But being an author, that’s different.
The term writer focuses more on the craft—engaging in the actual activity of writing. The term author encompasses not only the craft but also the business aspect of it.
So when are you worthy of the label author? Why, when you publish your first book of course!
I write this post just days before I make the transition from writer to author. My first novel Farsighted releases on October 24, which means my 26-year-long (AKA life-long) dream is finally coming true. When I look back at the journey that brought me to the peak of this beautiful achievement, I can’t help but think of what I wish I’d have known before starting on my path.
I’ve identified 10 lessons I’ve learned along the way. Maybe you already know these things. Maybe you don’t. I’m gonna share ‘em anyway...
1. Something’s gotta give. Writing is not something you can do with just a little bit of effort. To get through the first draft, editing, what-have-you, you'll have to work hard! Yes, you could space it out over several years, but if you want to finish anytime this year, you’re going to have to make sacrifices. For me, this was less time with friends and family, less television, and less attention to my health (eating right and exercising). Oops.
2. Write what you want to write—not what you think you should be writing. Boy, this was a hard one to learn. I’ve always fallen back on being “that smart girl.” When things didn’t go right in my personal life or when I was picked last in gym class, I took pride in my intellect. Therefore, I’ve always done what I can to improve my wit and make my best trait the best it can be. That being said, I spent a long time forcing myself to read classic literature. I did enjoy it, and I still do, but it’s definitely not what I find most entertaining (YA is). Still I kept at the classic literature because it was important to me that others respect my intelligence (damaged by high school much? :-P).
Naturally when I decided to write a novel, it came out as literary fiction. That’s the me I wanted to portray to the world. I wanted people to salivate over my talent and proclaim my literary merit... Except the novel wasn’t that good, because it wasn’t a piece of who I really am. Now that I’ve cozied into YA, I couldn’t be happier. And the larger facade of who I once pretended to be has lifted. I. AM. FREE. Now this lesson doesn’t just mean: don’t put on a false front. It also means: don’t chase trends. Write what your heart wants to write, and it’ll all be good in the end.
3. You’re going to make mistakes. LOTS of mistakes. Practice makes perfect. Well, it makes it better than before. You may be an excellent writer, but if you’ve never written a novel before, you’re a newbie. That’s okay too! When writing that all-important first novel, you’re pretty much going to make every mistake in the book. In my first novel, I really struggled with keeping a consistent point-of-view and writing authentic dialogue. The POV problem was very difficult to fix, but in trying, I learned an important lesson—one I couldn’t have learned if I hadn’t made such huge blunders. Now that I do know how to correct and avoid these problems, dialogue and POV are two of my strongest areas (at least that’s what readers tell me).
4. Writer’s detour is a bigger problem than writer’s block. Writer’s block gets all the PR, but it’s not as dangerous as writer’s detour. When you’re blocked you’re not moving forward. When you take a detour, you’re moving in the wrong direction. Will you get to California quicker by taking a small rest in Boise, or will you get there quicker by following a pretty red car to Ontario first? (My advice, drive straight-on through to Cali if you can). Don’t get so caught up with a minor character (or a theme you want to convey) that you stray all over the place. Which brings me to my next point...
5. Structure is important. We writers fall into two camps: pantsers and plotters. Some pantsers consider themselves superior, because their writing leads their plots—not the other way around. I used to think like that too. Even if you want to keep your plotline fluid, you need some form of structure. Shudder at the thought of outlining? Then mapping your characters is crucial. You need to know where you’re going and/or who's taking you there. Otherwise you’re just groping about in the dark. Yes, writing is absolutely a creative process, but don’t under-estimate the value of good planning.
6. Novel #1 may never leave the drawer. Or it may leave the drawer, journey around the query circuit, and then come right back to where it started. My first novel DID get me an agent, but 9 drafts later, it still wasn’t good enough to publish. When my agent suggested I change 2/3 of it for draft 10, I decided to move onto my next project. I just wasn’t enjoying the process anymore. I’m so glad I finally called it quits on novel #1, because novel #2 is so much better, and now I get to put it out there into the world. If I would’ve kept agonizing over the inferior manuscript, novel #2 may have never happened!
7. When you’re done, you’re not done. I’m just a big ball of sunshine today, aren’t I? But it’s important to understand just how much work follows being “done.” Anne Lamott said it best in Bird by Bird, you’re going to write “shitty first drafts.” I can guarantee it! Don’t let that stop you, just be prepared for it.
8. Writing is a business just as much as it’s an art. Getting a novel published and promoting it once it’s out there is infinitely more work than writing a novel in the first place. That’s not to under-value the writing process, but it’s true. Sure, you can finish your novel, self-publish it, and then do virtually nothing to promote it. Fine.
But if you actually want to sell copies of your book, you’ve gotta handle the business side of things. Finding an agent is an extremely formal business interaction—you even have to write fancy business (AKA query) letters. Marketing your book is a TON of work. It’s pretty fun (at least, I think so, but I moonlight as a book publicist, so I realize I might not be normal). However, being fun is not equivalent to being easy. Not even close. Expect lots of work and lots of stress and not very much sleep. The good news: you get out what you put in, so give it all you can!
9. Querying will destroy your soul. My unhappy place is remembering query letter Hell. I honestly can’t remember anything harder in my life. Ever. Make sure you have a good support system in place. Because even if you’re brilliant, you can pretty much expect a slew of rejections. I ultimately got an agent but had to suffer through 60 “not for us”s first. Of course, it hurts. As writers, we pour our hearts and souls into our manuscript. Our words are a part of who we are. Having a faceless stranger tell you it’s not good enough is pure torture. End of argument.
10. You will sustain injuries. Gosh, my neck is killing me while I’m writing this post. You’re probably going to get neck and back pain too. Headaches from staring at the computer too long. Possible eye problems. Definite poor posture. Maybe even carpal tunnel syndrome. That’s just the way it goes, so be prepared.
Seems pretty cynical, doesn’t it? I ♥ the craft and would never abandon it (like I even have a choice), but I find that those who are starting out with visions of Stephen King or JK Rowling-esque fame already see the pretty side of writing—the glamor. Having a balanced picture is so important. Even still, all the practical knowledge just can’t compare to experiential knowledge. Follow YOUR path to author-hood, make your own mistakes, learn lessons from them, and then share with the rest of us.