When asked when I knew I wanted to be a writer, I usually say it was about fourth grade. That's when, as a big fan of the feature called “Life in These United States” in The Reader's Digest, I realized it made a big difference how a story was told. I began to appreciate humor, brevity, and careful word choice. Looking back, I realize that long before I had professional ambitions, I would often volunteer to take the notes of the meeting or write the blurb for the newsletter. In sixth grade I won $25 in a national contest for saying (in 25 words or less) why I liked a certain toothpaste. It was fiction. I had to borrow the required box top from a neighbor, since we didn't use that brand.
Years later, I have some solid publication credits that range from poetry and plays to a newspaper activity column and six cozy mystery novels. Of course (of course!) my career as a writer has not been one huge success after another. In the olden days, when manuscript submissions still involved postage, SASEs, and, all too often, paper rejection slips, I sometimes gifted special writer friends with wastepaper baskets covered with decoupaged rejection slips.
My dedication to the job--as well as the rewards--still waxes and wanes. Good times, bad times, blah times, discouraging times, productive times--they're all in there, so I've developed several writing-related activities designed to keep me moving and productive, and remind myself that I am a writer. The very best of motivators would be a contract and/or a deadline. I'm talking about those other times. If you've ever suffered from the blahs, maybe one of these ideas will help you.
Draft a query letter describing your idea to an editor or publisher. Draft an application for a writing job, even an imaginary one. Write a thank you note or a letter to your mother. Write a letter to the editor. Almost certainly, you'll find yourself editing and improving what you've written, as well as clarifying your thoughts. Flannery O'Connor said, “I write to discover what I know.” How can that be a waste of time?
Find some motivational slogans to post near your work station. “The only unforgivable sin is giving up.” “Even Babe Ruth struck out most of the time.” A little of this goes a long way with me, but it's far better than thoughts like “What made you think you could do it?” and “Who cares, anyway?”
Find out about markets, contests, conferences, organizations, classes and workshops for writers. Check on details for a story.
Put that research to use. Enter a contest (which might come with a deadline, a focus, and feedback). Get into an existing critique group, or form one. Join a group (like RMFW) of people who face the same challenges and have the same goals. These people are the ones who can help you over the bad spots and re-direct you when you go astray. Sometimes they'll have useful marketing information.
Why not? Sometimes I fantasized about what I would wear at my first book signing. Write jacket copy or a review for that as yet unpublished, or unwritten novel. (This might help you find your focus. What IS that book about?)
Teaching is a great way to sharpen your own skills and understanding. Lately, I've been tutoring a Korean woman who wants to improve her writing in English, and I recently presented something I called “Working With Words” for a high school career day. I tried to give these hopeful high schoolers an honest assessment of their chances of making a living as writers. At the end, I gave each one a certificate (which I had downloaded and customized) that read: “A writer is one who writes. Abigail Authoress (not her real name) is a writer.”
TAKE A CLASS
Attend a conference like RMFW's Colorado Gold, where you can learn craft and marketing and meet people at all stages in their careers. I'll be there, presenting a session called “Show AND Tell,” discussing how to apply the advice, “show, don't tell,” and another session addressing ways to expand or compress your manuscript to make it the length you need. I'll also be facilitating a discussion called “Birds of a Feather,” for writers of mysteries. If you come, say hello. And if you need one of those certificates I mentioned, either download and customize it yourself, or let me know and I'll have one ready for you. A writer IS one who writes.
Linda Berry's mystery novels are set in the small Georgia town where she was born. For more information about Linda and her books, please visit her website.