I’ve recently been spending more time at home looking at ideal strength-training approaches. As I enter my middle years, with a soft middle, it occurs to me that I need to do some course correcting if I’m to avoid a slow, painful death from multiple chronic conditions. So refreshing myself on techniques like “couch-to-5K” and “building strength 101” has proven salutary.
People really like structured programs as a jumping-off point for their own growth. Although you simply cannot distill creative writing into a proscriptive algorithm — people start in different places, and they learn in different ways — a review of the literature suggests that there’s perhaps too little scaffolding offered to new writers. Experienced authors and editors offer trite slogans, which is fine, but those slogans are damned difficult to turn into concrete action.
So, in the interest of providing some scaffolding, I’m pleased to introduce Jason’s “Get Fit to Print”™ program to take you from zero to literary hero in 12 months flat.*
*Your mileage may vary. Tax, title and license separate. The FDA has not approved these statements. Consult your doctor before taking Cialis. Batteries not included. Potential choking hazard. May contain nuts. Blah, blah.
||No matter how good of a writer you think you are, you aren’t as good as you think. None of us are! The most common reason we at Caffeinated Press reject submissions is that the technical quality of the writing is substandard. So refresh your grammar skills. Buy some reference books and actually read them. It’ll be a dry exercise, but reading stylebooks is like looking at maps: Not fun, but unless you do it, you don’t know what you don’t know about getting from Point A to Point B.
Your goal this month is to spend a minimum of 20 hours studying these reference volumes in detail. That’s it. No writing. Just studying.
|February||Write one of each of the following: a poem of at least 20 lines, a flash story between 500 and 1,000 words, a creative non-fiction essay between 1,000 and 2,500 words, and a short story between 2,500 and 5,000 words. Write them in this order. Start on 2/1 and be done by 2/28.||These pieces will likely be crap. That’s OK. The point is to do the writing. You’ll use these pieces later, as you hone your skills. Until then, however, you have to have something on paper. You’ll also learn a little bit about how you write: Morning or evening? PC or paper? Notes first or dive “write” in? Don’t overthink it. Let it feel natural. There’s no correct way to do this.|
||Start to build connections with the literary community. You will need a network of fellow literary travelers if you want to be successful as a published writer — so connect with fellow authors, readers, publishers, editors, booksellers, etc. This networking component is a major contributor to the financial viability of first-time authors.|
|May||Start building a business and social platform.||Now’s the time to “come out” as an author. Build a blog. Establish a Twitter account and a Facebook fan page for yourself as an author. Create a Goodreads account. Think about your author’s identity: Do you use a pseudonym? Have a different email address or a PO Box for your literary endeavors? Do you establish an LLC or a DBA to legally and financially separate your author-related work from your personal life? Do you need your own logo or Web domain? Author-branded business cards? This might be a good time to look for something like a Business of Writing or Author Media Toolbox seminar. If you bought Jane Friedman’s book in January, you’re already on your way.|
||You’ll probably be embarrassed by what your critique partners catch. Good. Learn from the experience. And if you disagree with their observations, don’t just dismiss the comments—study them. You have to grow a certain amount of skin thickness as a writer, and lose a degree of emotional attachment to your work, to survive in a tough literary market. Some people can’t take feedback well. If you’re one of those folks, re-consider your aspiration to write for publication.|
|July||Write a novelette.||Longer-form works (aim for 14k to 16k words) require more complex plotting, character development and narrative arcs. You’ll build on the lessons you learned with shorter works, earlier in the year, to voyage into more complicated waters.|
||Continue to build your network. Pass out your business cards, buy local authors’ books, show up at readings. Meet people. Learn from their stories and read their books. Get to know the names of well-known local writers and artists. One day, when you need a blurb for a book cover, these are the folks to whom you’ll turn.|
||Learn from critique feedback. Assess where you have gaps (descriptions, point of view, narrative voice, setting, conflict, etc.) and go back to your reference materials to study up on ideal solutions.|
|November||Participate in National Novel Writing Month. Your goal is to start 11/1, and by 11/30, be “done” with a manuscript of at least 50k words. (The novel doesn’t technically need to be done, you just need to have incurred the minimum word count by 11:59 p.m. on the 30th.)||This novel is considered a “zero draft” — it’s not even a first draft. That’s OK. Don’t spend time self-editing as you go. And don’t aim to write a 50k-word story; most first-time novels are closer to 80k-90k. Your goal, really, is to just get the words down. You’ll fix them later.|
Will this approach guarantee you financial success as an author? Nope. But I get enough questions from people who say, “I literally do not know where to start,” that I think there’s some value in the construct I’ve outlined above.
The key points for getting started as a writer are:
- Plug your gaps in syntax and style so you don’t reinforce bad tendencies.
- Sit your butt in a chair and write stuff.
- Find a critique group and make heavy use of it.
- Network with your peers in your local literary scene.
- Build a platform/identity as an author — a blog, social media, custom domain name, biz cards, etc.
- Start small (short stories, poems) as a gateway to noveling.
You nail these six points, you’re in good shape. miss any of them, and you’re not. So whether you prefer a lot of structure or a succinct list of rules, you’ve now been given a framework. Make the best of it!