I’ve been writing for a long time. And yes, I have learned a lot in the last three or four decades of writing articles, short stories and book-length stuff. Some of it has even come from reading advice from other writers.
I remember about a five-year period when I read Writer’s Digest religiously when it came out every month. It told me things like, “You’ll never become a ‘real’ writer unless you write every day.” Which totally demoralized me, since I never could get myself to write every single day. I produced a lot of material, and even sold some of it. But I guess I wasn’t a ‘real’ writer, because I didn’t do it their way.
Boys and girls, what I have learned over the years is that the only thing that matters is putting words on paper. Or in this day and age of word processing–words on screen. It’s like driving a car. You can learn a lot from books. You can have your best friend tell you how to drive. You can even practice in a simulator. But until you get behind that wheel, you will never really learn how to drive. And the more you drive, the better you will become.
Well, there are limits to that, of course. If you always drive the three miles from your house to work and never anywhere else, you may never learn to manage a mountain road, or learn to drive on the freeway, or learn to pull an oversized trailer behind your car. You need to try different things. And you need some critique on how you are doing.
And that’s why I decided to attend Writers@Work. Last year, I was telling my good friend and colleague Dr. Susan Gardner that I felt my writing had plateaued. I was getting better–slowly but surely–but I had no measurement of how I was doing in relation to the expectation of the world out there. I was “good enough” to write in the Adventist Church, but what about elsewhere? And how much is “good enough”?
Susan told me about an annual writing conference in Park City, Utah. A group of writers in Park City and Salt Lake started it 25 years ago with the purpose of establishing a writing community. They brought in writers, editors and agents that really knew their stuff. Afternoons were spent with panel presentations on a variety of subjects including the business of writing. Evenings were spent in readings by the faculty. Morning classes would be broken up into sections such as Fiction, Memoir, Nonfiction, Short Story and Poetry. Each class would include 15 students who would be required to submit their writing. Those interested in attending a particular section would have to compete for the 15 spots available via their writing. I was privileged and thrilled to be one of the 15 writers accepted to participate in the Fiction section this year.
We learned a lot that week. Our teacher, Julianna Baggott, is the author of 14 books. She told us early on that we were more likely to learn from critiquing other people’s work than from the comments they made of our work. Each class period consisted of three one-hour critiques of a student’s work. During that time, the author could not make any comments, and all comments by the class were not directed at the author but were said in third person: “I feel the author did this…” Each critique would start off with the things we felt the author did well, then included areas where he or she needed to improve.
At first, it was strange and a little uncomfortable to work with a group of total strangers this way. But the 16 of us became very close during that week. There were four professors and three medical doctors among us, and in fact, I benefited by having a physician volunteer to serve as a consultant on my book! Thanks Jim!
But what did I learn from that workshop? Lots, most of it pretty technical. I learned that I wasn’t that far off as far as quality goes. I learned the concept of voice and how crucial characterization is to the success of your story.
But overall, I learned this: if you are going to play in the big leagues, you had better bring your A game. Every day. All the time. There are thousands competing for the top spots. And just like professional sports, you may be pretty good at the local ball field. But that doesn’t mean squat when it comes to competing against the thousands who are also “pretty good.”
Bringing your A game means writing the very best you can. That may seem pretty obvious, but when you are writing a book that’s 200, 500 or a thousand pages long, it’s easy to let the details slip. Especially if you are on deadline, or you just want to get the blamed thing written. That doesn’t mean you should choke on the first sentence and never write again because you are overwhelmed by expectation. Go ahead and write that first, crappy draft. Get it on paper. But it does put a lot more emphasis on the rewriting process.
I hate rewriting. But I love being published. And so now I am going to go over and over my manuscripts with the intention of making each page, paragraph and sentence the very best I can.
That’s how the boys (and girls) in the big leagues do it. That’s the A game.