Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Published Novelist: Nine Essential Qualities

Article by Inglath Cooper



What does it take to write books for a living? How can you make sure you take care of your gift?

So what does it actually take to make it as a selling writer? And beyond that, what does it take to ride out the tough spots in a highly competitive field?

These are questions I get asked on a regular basis from readers, as well as people who are just plain curious about someone who chooses to sit alone for hours at a time, creating characters and whole lives out of thin air. Admittedly, they're good questions. Following are nine qualities I believe are important in someone who wants to write novels for a living and make it a lasting career.

1. An absolute, bordering on abnormal, love of books.

We book fiends are easy to spot. We're the ones who make several trips a week to Barnes & Noble --yes, we like the coffee, but we're really there for the books. We peruse the new fiction titles with the same gleam in our eyes miners must have had when sifting for gold. Panning our findings for new authors whose stories might, just might, live up to those we've labeled our favorites. There's always the possibility we'll find a diamond somewhere in there. And when we do, it reinforces our determination to find another.

2. An absolute love of writing.

That is, a true appreciation for the stringing together of individual words to paint a picture for a reader, a picture that conveys our vision of the world as it is or as we would like it to be.

I wrote my first story at age nine on my mama's old manual typewriter. I still remember how it felt to finish it, the thrill of stacking up the pages that were visible evidence of the mini-world I had created.

From my earliest memories, I wanted to write stories that did for someone else what my favorites did for me. Show me another world. Bring to life people I'd be thrilled to know.

But how could someone like me be a writer? In my mind, writers were on par with neurosurgeons and physics professors, something way beyond reach for a small-town girl like me.

It wasn't until I was a junior at Virginia Tech majoring in English that I admitted to myself this was what I wanted to be. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to write books. Farfetched as it sounded. I think for a long time I didn't tell anyone. It just seemed too preposterous, as if they would laugh at the idea, and with good reason. I started my first manuscript while I was in college, longhand in a dark blue spiral ring notebook. It was set on an island somewhere, and I'm sure I would now find it all but unreadable, even though at the time, it was invaluable to me, proof that I could put a story on paper.

3. The desire to be the best writer you can be.

If you're just starting out, give yourself permission to learn how to write without the pressure of thinking about getting published. When I wrote that first manuscript in college, my goal was to get published. I not only wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be a published writer. From where I stand now, I wish I had approached the whole process from the angle of doing whatever I could to learn how to tell the best story I possibly could. I felt I had to prove myself, and it seemed to me then that publication was the ultimate proof that I could write.

If I could start over again, I would take a step back from the pressure I put on myself to sell and concentrate solely on learning how to tell my story in a way that would make it hard for a reader to put it down.

4. A need to surround yourself with positive writers and lovers of books.

If you get involved in a critique group, make sure it is one where the objective is to encourage and improve. Not tear down and belittle. There are people out there who are not careful with their words, who in a two minute diatribe can rip apart months and months of work and completely deflate a writer of all confidence.

Can you tell I'm speaking from experience?

It is so very important to make sure you are on the same page with your critique partners. Maybe even come up with a list of guidelines for the group. Discuss the things you are looking for in a critique.

If you're in a writing class, make sure it is one where the above objectives are primary.

This is not to say that you only want to show your work to people who will tell you you're the best thing since Fitzgerald and Faulkner. It is to say that there is constructive criticism, which we should all be willing and eager to seek out. And there is destructive criticism, which can completely destroy a writer's vision and belief in herself.

5. The will to make a place in your life for writing.

This sounds obvious enough. But there are all sorts of reasons not to write. The mortgage needs to be paid. The children need to eat. Pesky little everyday responsibilities like these.

Seriously, I've gone through all sorts of changes in my life, but the one thing I've always done is find a time to write that works for me, regardless of what else is going on. When I was in college, I wrote after classes for a certain amount of time each day. When I got out of college and went to work for a law firm, I got up at four a.m. and wrote before going to the office. When I became a mother, I started writing before my children got up in the morning and also during their nap. The point is to give your writing a regular time slot. It's the every day exercising of your writing muscle that will develop your skills and define your voice.

6. The determination to never let yourself believe you're there.

Once you've sold that first novel, it's tempting to tell yourself you've arrived, that it will be clear sailing from here on. Not quite how it worked for me. There is always room to grow. I try with every book to do something different than I've done before. Force myself to stretch in some way. Try something I previously thought was beyond my ability. It's amazing what we can dredge up from inside ourselves if we make our goal being the best we can be with every book.

7. The commitment to figure out what your process is.

After selling my first book, I went through a period of not being able to sell a second. I sold my first novel as a complete manuscript. That book was a story of my heart, and I wrote it as I saw it. When my publisher asked to see something else, I submitted a couple of proposals that were rejected. And I figured out somewhere along the way that I needed to get a good portion of the story down before I let someone else see it.

I do sell on proposal now. But I write a chunk of the book before I write the synopsis. This is how I learn what is going to happen in the story. This is my process. I know this about myself now, and while it is tempting to show my editor something at a much earlier stage, I try very hard to refrain from doing so.

Figure out what your process is and don't veer from it.

8. The ability to protect your gift.

Publishing is a tough business. An incredible number of people want to be writers. The competition to sell is intense.

When I had difficulty selling my second and third books, I began to wonder if I had what it took. I realize now how fragile my confidence was then and that I took those rejections as validation that I didn't really have what it took to be a writer. By the time I finally sold that second book, I was experiencing all the symptoms of burnout. It was an extremely dark time in my life, and I walked away from writing under the assumption that it would never again be a part of me.

I didn't write for two years. The desire to do so began to trickle back eventually, until I finally got up the courage to pull out my laptop and begin a story. I wrote the complete book the same way I had written my first published novel. Told the story as I saw it without letting anyone else inside my vision. I sold that book, John Riley's Girl, and it won the 2005 Rita Award for best long contemporary. This award was more meaningful to me than I can say. I wrote this book because I love to write. After a two-year period of burnout, I was given another chance. I no longer see the well of creativity inside me as an infinite thing that I can draw and draw from, but, instead, as something that can and will dry up and go away if I am not careful to protect it.

9. The ability to step back and refill the well.

Find things that replenish your spirit. Take a vacation and do not allow yourself to write, but simply to absorb the world around you.

Read, read, read. Read great books. Don't read mediocre books unless you want to be a mediocre writer. Strive for excellence and seek out excellence. And hopefully, your love affair with writing books will be a long and lasting one.


Brian M Logan

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