Thursday, November 20, 2014

Walk the Walk: Never Stop Learning

Hi, friends.

Confession: It's been a spastic month and I missed my October posts on PubHub. I am wearing a cone of shame as I sit in my living room typing these words to you. It's a metaphoric cone of shame, but isn't that somehow even worse?

Anyway, onward and upward as we talk about walking the walk in this publishing business. Our topic today is pretty straightforward, and yet I can't tell you how many people I've come across in this wonderful world of books who seem to have forgotten one of the basic tenets of writing (and life): Never stop learning. Okay, I'll admit it, I've forgotten from time to time, too. Once you have a book deal (or even long before you sign that longed-for contract), it's hard to silence the voices inside your head that whisper: "I am an artist. If someone doesn't like my work, clearly he or she doesn't understand it. My book is a work of staggering genius and I. have. arrived."

Let me disabuse you of that notion right now. Yes, you are an artist, and I have no doubt that your work is full of meaning and depth and beauty. But it's not perfect, and contrary to what your mother might tell you, you are not God's gift to the publishing industry. And neither is ______________ (fill-in-the-blank with big name NYT Bestseller of your choice). We're all in this together, muddling our way through plot swamps and character tangles so fierce there are times a fifth-grader could probably string together a better sentence than we can. Admit it. We've come a long way, but we've got a lot to learn.

A few ideas to cultivate learning (and encourage humility) as we write:

  1. Attend writers' workshops, conferences, and retreats. Listen to what other authors have to say, push yourself in new directions, and have the grace to admit that there are things that can be improved in your writing. Fiercely seek out critique and take it seriously. Change what needs to be changed--as long as it doesn't compromise your vision for the book.
  2. Listen to your editor. They're good at what they do, and no matter how much you adore that paragraph you spent a month carefully constructing, if your editor wants you to axe it, chances are you should. Kill your darlings. It hurts, but it's for the best.
  3. Engage your readers. Pay attention to what they're reading and enjoying, how they're interacting with you (and other authors), and what they're looking for in a good read. You don't have to necessarily write to your audience, but it certainly helps to know them. And get to know them well! These are the people who will (hopefully) buy your books and (if you're lucky) gush about them to their friends.
  4. Read. Never stop reading. Read for pleasure, read out loud to your kids. Read books about craft and read labels on soup cans (it's amazing the crap they pack in there). I try to read as much as I write (if not more), and though I like to read books in my genre (upmarket women's fiction) I make a point to read books far outside my genre, too. And every few months I revisit books on craft, just to get my creative juices flowing. Some recommendations:
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft ~ Stephen King
Breath for the Bones ~ Lucy Shaw
Walking on Water ~ Madeleine L'Engle
Writing the Breakout Novel ~ Donald Maas
Elements of Fiction Writing ~ Orson Scott Card
On Writing Well ~ William Zinsser

Your turn. What are some thing you do to ensure that your writing stays fresh, your craft sharp, and your mind teachable? I'd love to hear your ideas!


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