“There’s a long history, of women especially, saying ‘Well, I just got lucky.’ I didn’t just get lucky. I worked my f***ing a** off. And then I got lucky. And if I hadn’t worked my a** off, I wouldn’t have gotten lucky. You have to do the work. You always have to do the work.” –Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things
Simply put, in writing, there are no shortcuts. Or, to put it another way, the shortcuts never pan out, and there’s nothing to do about it except work hard, and continue to work hard. Until you get better. Unsure if you’re on the right path? Consider the following:
- Send only your best, completed manuscripts to agents and editors – even if the request is only for a partial. Imagine how disappointing it would be – and counterproductive for your career – to get a request for your full manuscript… only to have to tell them it’s not finished.
- Accept that it is the writer’s sole responsibility these days to come up with great ideas, and develop those ideas to a very high standard. Some writers mistakenly believe the idea of their story is so mind-blowingly terrific, an agent or editor will want to sign them on the spot and work out the details of the manuscript later.
- Use friends and family as early readers, and when you need affirmation. In successive drafts, when critical feedback is needed, use professional editors and other professional writers in your writing community. Concern yourself with the following questions: does your story “work?” and how you can make it better/stronger?
- Before querying, take the time to research the needs, interests, and submission requirements of agents and editors. Respect their guidelines, and they will in turn respect you.
- If you have an ace-in-the-hole or a special contact in the business, make it count. Or, in other words, save it for the perfect project, or the time when your writing has reached a new level.
- Avoid chasing trends. Forget the next Hunger Games, Divergent, or Fifty Shades. Write the book that only you should write. Ride no one else’s wave.
- Instead of quitting your day job abruptly to “make something happen,” work part-time, or schedule in dedicated, uninterrupted writing time. Cut a day off your full-time schedule with every published book. Choose a writing-compatible career. Drive an old car!
- If you’re going to write outside your preferred genre, put the work into it. This means reading 20 or more good examples in the genre and just as many bad ones. Also, get to know and intimately understand the conventions specific to that genre. You don’t have to follow all of them, but you do need to know what they are.
- The story is done only when the story is done. Thinking you’re going to nail it on the first, second, or third draft is unrealistic and may ultimately defeat you.
“Books aren’t written – they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.” –Michael Crichton
- Accept that writing picture books, middle grade, or YA, is no easier than writing any other kind of book. Same goes for collaborating with a relative, spouse, or friend who “wants to someday write a book” but hasn’t committed to spending years of their life to learn and grow as a writer. Writing in all forms is hard work.
- If you have a personal story or a compelling family history you want to share, make sure the story can pass the “So What?” test. Always push yourself to ask this question of your work. If your story is personally interesting, will it be interesting to others as well? Can it change the reader’s experience of the world? Does your book need to be written? Does it deserve a readership?
- Writing is deceptively difficult and many people are tempted to jump into it without any formal training believing they have such a great idea for a story this will be enough to carry the project through to publication. This may be possible for celebrities who use co-authors or ghostwriters, but in reality you need to develop your writing skills just as a musician needs to practice scales and arpeggios, and transition to easy minuets and waltzes. Only after many years of dedicated practice is she ready for a stage performance. Daily writing practice, journaling, writing short stories, essays, or even brilliantly crafted emails and text messages are ways to strengthen your writing muscles.
In the end, it’s up to you to find a way to derive some pleasure – even a twisted kind of pleasure – from the hard work of writing. Put the time in, and stay clear of shortcuts, and you’ll be well on your way.