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On Becoming a Writer

When did the lure of storytelling first pull you in?  Have you known from the time you read your first stories that someday you would write your own?  Or have you come to the compulsion more lately, perhaps after or as an adjunct to an interesting career?

 

My journey incorporated both. I'd always written, beginning with poetry and short stories while in high school and college.  The idea of writing a novel didn’t lodge in my head until I discovered Georgette Heyer and then the traditional Regencies inspired by her work.  At one point, they were so popular that some not-very-good ones were published.  Loving the period and thinking "I can do better than this!" I sat down to pen my first novel.  Children intervened and it was a fistful of years before I got back to it.  My second full-length novel became a Golden Heart winner and my first published book, THE WEDDING GAMBLE.  So if writing for publication is your dream, go for it!

 

If you do want to go for it, the first thing I'd do is join a local writer's group. RWA (Romance Writers of America) has branches in every state where you will find other people like you who love to read and write stories; google their website and check for a chapter near you, or join the at-large group.  In addition to RWA, there are many local or regional writers groups.  Check at your local library, community college or recreation center; many of these places host the meetings for local writers groups and can get you in touch with the group organizers.

 

I remember how excited I was the first time I attended an RWA meeting and thought "Wow!  Everyone here is a writer too!"  The internet also makes keeping in touch with "your" people so much easier.  It's like attending a chapter meeting every time you log in and check your writer loops. Support from others who also hear voices in their heads and seem curiously driven to tell stories, who ask "what if instead…" at the end of virtually every book they read or movie they see, is invaluable in trying to keep your eyes on The Dream while everything in Real Life is trying to pull you away from it.

 

In addition to camaraderie and the reinforcement that your writing is important, a local group sponsors speakers who talk about craft, the industry, taxes--all the aspects of the writer's life.  You'll learn more about how to put stories together, where to send them when you've crafted them, what to expect from the industry and where to go to find out more.

 

A local chapter can also provide access to another essential element in a writer’s development:  a critique group.  One of the crucial things about realizing your dream of becoming a published author is to carve out at least a little time on a regular business to write and then write, no matter how awful you think the current day’s work is.  As Nora Roberts famously said, "You can't fix a blank page."  A good critique group keeps your feet to the fire, because you don't want to go to that next meeting, or send the e-mail with no attachment when it's time to submit your next chapter and admit "I didn't get any writing done."  Having that critique deadline gives you an excuse to drop the dusting or skip a tv show and get that scene written at a time when you don’t yet have the pressure of a contract deadline or the validation of a royalty check.

 

In addition, the perceptive viewpoint of another writer provides you an invaluable way to see your story though the eyes of someone who doesn’t know every character and all the backstory.  Someone who will notice, where you who know the story so well might not, that though your heroine has a perfectly logical reason to shoot the hero, you neglected to actually write that reason into the story.  Or you did so in a way that didn’t make sense or seem persuasive to another reader.  Often, you can add in or tweak motivations, plot points, character developments so that you open up your story to being understood and appreciated by more readers.

Some cautions about critique groups, though:  their purpose is to help you keep to a writing schedule and provide positive feedback on your work.  Sometimes a critique group member’s thought processes are so different from yours that upon hearing their suggestions, you think “that just won’t work in my story.”  Sadly, there are readers who will never “get” your work; better to look for a critiquer who appreciates your point of view and gives feedback that makes you think “Yes, I see how that will make the scene better!”

 

Also avoid the Negative Reinforcers—those who seem more interested in tearing down your efforts than in helping you to make your work better.  There are writers out there who retool the same Chapter 1 indefinitely, who secretly envy and dislike writers intent on forging steadily toward typing “The End” on the last page of their manuscript.  Such individuals will try to subtlely—and sometimes not so subtlely--disparage and criticize so as to prevent anyone else from getting closer to publication than they are.  Avoid these people!  The publication process, with its inevitable low contest scores, dislocations by Real Life crises, and rejections from editors and agents provides enough hard knocks and discouragements.  Don’t harbor a viper in your creative nest.

 

Once you've found a helpful critique group, studied your craft and the market, you're ready to submit your writing for wider review.  I’d start with contests, to get more detailed evaluations and maybe garner some accolades that will promote your work to the top of a prospective agent or editor’s slush pile—or even get you a read of your full or partial by that editor or agent.  Many RWA chapters sponsor contests, and almost all of these provide valuable feedback in the form of score sheets that rate everything from pacing to character development to plot.  Finaling (or winning) contests will immediately put your manuscript in the hands of the final round judges, many of whom are editors who could buy it or agents who could represent it.  From there, it's a matter of luck, persistence, and the serendipity of getting that manuscript on just the right desk at just the right time to realize The Dream:  getting that book of your heart published.

 

It’s not an easy process.  It's a passion that seems to choose you rather than the other way around—those annoying voices in your head won’t go away until you sit down and start writing out their stories.  The pitfalls and disappointments along the way are many; in fact, I maintain that if you can be happy and NOT write, don’t.  There are many other avenues of expressing creativity (knitting, painting, scrapbooking, sculpting etc etc) that provide more immediate positive feedback with less stress and angst.  Even getting that first book published doesn't guarantee you can stay published or ever earn enough to give up the day job. 

 

But if the voices in your head keep nagging at you; if you can spend twenty minutes changing "happy" to "glad" and back again; if when you finish that scene and read back over it, you say "Man, that was good!" with a sense of fulfillment you don't get from doing anything else...then, to paraphrase Jeff Foxworthy, you just might be a writer!

 

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