Persistence beats talent

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All the writing talent in the world is meaningless if you don’t stay the course. You must apply ‘bum glue’ to adhere you to the process of producing work, consistently, relentlessly and unconditionally.

For many people, writing is hard and good writing—where readers are inspired to read on and recommend your work to others—is even harder. Often there are few rewards, at least initially. Yet most of us are conditioned, through education and parenting, to expect benefits for our efforts. With writing, we may need to endure years without recognition,  remuneration or reward.

At times, the process becomes mired in negativity. For example, submitting work to agents and publishers often results in rejection. Even if you don’t submit to agents and publishers and self-publish, there’s no guarantee your e-book will sell. There are days too when you realise that despite your efforts, your work isn’t where you want it to be.

The hardest times, or crises, are often turning points that shape your writing self. But how do you keep going when you feel like giving up? The answer is through rabid determination. Here are some specific ways that might help:

  • Acknowledge that writing is something you do alone in a room – Michael Ventura wrote this brutally honest and powerful piece on writing saying ‘The only thing you really need, is the talent of the room’. He explains that the ability to sit alone in a room and write day after day is the main talent a writer needs. Without it, no words will be produced and natural talent is rendered useless.
  • Identify your writing passion and root yourself in it – Ask yourself ‘Why do I write?’ Write it down and insert it in the header or footer of your work or stick it up around your writing space. When times are tough—e.g. you’ve just received your twentieth rejection, your current project isn’t working and you don’t understand why—you’ll be able to read that sentence, remember what it is you love about writing and continue.
  • Imagine what it’s like not to write – How does that make you feel? You don’t have to write, it’s a choice. Are you really a writer? Find your truth.
  • Get zen and let go of expectations and conditionality – Write to achieve your best work, whatever that is right now. You might dream of fame and fortune, but learn to appreciate the process for what it is in this moment. For every writer, there are times when persisting is the main reward. Despite what some people espouse, good things rarely come to us easily.
  • Create a REALISTIC strategic plan for your current writing project
    • Begin with defining your goal. Your goal is the primary high-level outcome you want to achieve for your writing project e.g.
      • To publish my work in the next 18 months (be specific and choose a date)
    • Now define your strategy or your approach to achieving your goal e.g.
      • Complete my MS over the next 9 months (specify a date)
      • Determine the optimum publishing method/s for my work
      • Find a writing group so I can share my work and gain support
    • A tactic is a is a measurable step you take to achieve your strategy e.g.
      • Diarise 2 hours of writing 5 days per week and stick to that
      • Or write 5k words per week
      • Install software on my computer so I don’t get distracted by emails and social media
      • Find 5 agents and 10 publishers who might be interested in my work and send my work to them
      • Or take a course in self-publishing.
  • Stave off boredom and failure through continual learning – Every writer can always improve. Take courses, seek constructive criticism (see this post), and read, read, read to learn how to overcome obstacles and renew your inspiration.
  • Write anyway – Push your doubts, fears and hopes aside, move away from self-doubt, self-pity and negativity and see what happens if you simply apply yourself. Write your way out by using that bum glue.
  • Seek moral support – Read blogs such as this and find interviews with authors where they explain their struggles. This helps you to realise that many of those so-called overnight successes worked at it for years. It also reaffirms that you’re not alone.

In the words of Winston S Churchill:

‘Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.’

How long’s a piece of string or how many REWRITES should you do?

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You thought your novel was finished. Did you send it out to publishers who rejected it? Or did you put it away for a while like you’re supposed to and realised months later it needed more work?

What to do? This is the point where plenty of people self publish. If you’re convinced — and others in the know are too — that your novel is ready, then go ahead. But if you see problems with your manuscript and are serious about your writing (as in you want to continually improve it), you have other options.

You could shelf it. You could see your story as a learning experience and move on to the next project with a sense of liberation. On the other hand, is there a voice in our head niggling at you to keep going until you get it right? Perhaps your story is too good to let go or you’re simply stubborn that way.

1.  Should you rewrite?

Recently I’ve been considering whether to rewrite my first novel again after already having rewritten it twice. I’ve had six months away from it, which has given me a new perspective on its strengths and weaknesses. 

There might be things you can learn by rewriting and improving your novel. For example, in writing my new novel I’ve been working hard on improving my style and other aspects of craft, which I could apply to my old story.

When discussing this with a friend, however, they suggested that after three versions and much time, I should give the old story up and move on; I should focus instead on finishing my current novel. Are they right?

2.  When should you let your manuscript go?

There are situations when you might consider giving up your novel such as:

  • You can’t finish the story, it ran out of steam and there’s nowhere to go
  • You’ve lost your passion for it and you can’t get it back even though you’ve honestly looked at everything that might be blocking you such as structure, style, voice, character etc.
  • It’s just not working despite having rewritten it umpteen times. Perhaps you’re too close to the story or you’re being held back by the first draft, which you wrote when you were less experienced
  • It’s destroying your love for writing after many attempts at rewrites. Ask yourself, is it worth it?
  • You’ve put it away for months, tried to rewrite it and you have nothing more to give. Your story is dead.

I’m not at the point where I’m ready to let go of my first story. So what now?

3.  How to rewrite your story for the umpteenth time and not lose your will to write:

  • Apply new craft skills such as  improving dialogue, heightening conflict, adding nouns and verbs, creating a compelling first page, showing not telling and so on. Really get into the words and challenge your grasp of technique. I love this stuff, even if it’s hard. It keeps me from getting bored.
  • Change your manuscript sufficiently so the process becomes engaging again. Don’t just edit, which is where you tighten your manuscript by moving line by line from the beginning to the end. Rewriting involves meatier processes like adding, subtracting or deepening characters, making structural changes such as moving chapters or the order of events, and cutting large sections. Rewriting involves prioritising problems by issue, not fixing the smaller stuff in a straight.

I’ll let you know how this goes in six month’s time. I’m encouraged by author Richard Flanagan’s struggle with his Man Booker prizewinning novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which took him numerous attempt over many years in various formats before he created something he considered publishable. The story was problematic, I suspect, because it was close to him, which is my challenge too.

My only decision now is should I burn/trash every single earlier version like he did before starting afresh? This sounds dangerous and scary, but possibly liberating. What do you think?

The value of morning pages for writers

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Recently I began doing morning pages again. Morning pages are Julie Cameron’s idea from her book The Artist’s Way on how to improve creativity. They involve doing three longhand pages of stream-of-consciousness writing (or even drawing) about anything top of mind each morning. Usually this takes me 20-30 minutes.

I read Cameron’s book years ago and tried them but didn’t find them particularly useful. Recently I saw her give a lecture and was reminded about them so I thought I’d try them for a few days.

Well, I’m a convert. I do them on most working days now and they’ve been quite remarkable. These are the things I’ve found they help me with:

  • Setting daily priorities.
  • This includes setting writing goals and not letting them disappear amid other life demands.
  • Coming up with ideas on how to overcome writing problems. Later, when I attack them on the page, they don’t seem nearly as daunting.
  • Venting and get things off your mind so you can focus better without such annoying distractions.
  • Other things that have been bothering me suddenly come up on the page, usually with a resolution. Afterwards I feel a sense of clarity and lightness.
  • They just make everything deeper, no matter how irritated I feel about doing them.

I find if I don’t do my morning pages, I’m less focused, my goals are less defined and I achieve less. My time fritters away and I end up feeling a diminished sense of achievement and even frustration compared to when I do them.

Maybe you don’t need them right now, but they’re a good thing to bear in mind should you find writing becomes more challenging. Happy writing.

 

Boredom, perseverance, growth & accomplishment in writing

IMG_0188Let’s talk about how to keep going with your writing, against all the odds: time, the miniscule likelihood of being traditionally published, the challenges of being standing out amid the ocean of self-published works. I could go on, but you get the point.

In last week’s post here, I mentioned business woman Beate Chelette’s quote on breakdown, breakthrough and breakout. I’ve been thinking a lot about this as I’ve been struggling with writing boredom. I know myself well enough to know that boredom comes from within me. It’s not an external thing that’s imposed, it’s in my head. I realised that something had to be wrong with my writing if I was bored, but what?

This has been my process of reinvigorating my writing.

  1. Realise that perseverance is not just willpower or resilience
    Persevering in your writing is not just a matter of  willpower (bum glue, making time, mind over matter), resilience (against rejection, fear and criticism) or endurance (it takes so very long to write and especially to write well).

    Perseverance comes down to loving what you’re doing. Research on the psychology of creativity shows that we produce our best results when we’re slightly excited, optimistic and seeking pleasure (not in fear mode). You don’t always have to love what you produce, especially first off, but you need to love the process; the story, words, creating.

    My main problem was that the feelings I had inside me weren’t being reflected on the page. My writing was reading adequately, but not as richly or evocatvely as I wanted. I was frustrated about the level of my writing but I had no idea of how to improve it.  What to do?

  2. Ask yourself if you need to grow, and how
    For inspiration on how to rekindle my love of writing, I began reading a new (deceased) author, Angela Carter. Her writing is intense, beautiful, transcendental. It’s not how I write or want to write, but her use of words is masterful. I realised I wanted some of that in my writing, which felt a bit safe reflecting the fact that I felt safe in my writing. I wasn’t pushing the envelope anymore and I was truly bored. (Aside: Reading is so important to being a better writer.)

    I explored some websites and ordered a few time-honoured books on the craft of writing. Why I didn’t already have these technical books is beyond me (der!), although I’m sure I’ve read such things in the past only I took what I needed from them at that time, which is not what I need from them now.

    From this research I worked out that I wanted to strengthen my style and voice. Ideas, structure and plot have not been issues for me so far (but every book is different). Next I found a free online course on style and voice. Wow! I spent just half a day completing week one, then rewrote the first page of my current novel adding in sensuous description. I referred to Carter’s work as a guide.

    The result? My writing group loves my current novel (unlike my last), but rewriting the first page has taken it to a whole new level. I received comments like: “It has a dreamlike quality about it now that draws me in deep.” Not bad for a day’s work!

    Since then, I can’t wait to write every day. I’m writing much slower, but I have a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment that’s been missing for a long time.

  3. Be determined to grow
    Perseverance in itself isn’t enough to be a good writer. It’s perseverance in a willingness to grow your writing that’s critical. If you read published authors on writing, many say they must relearn how to write eah new book. What is life if it it’s not change, and what is change if it’s not growth?

    Be willing to examine where you’re at and how you might improve your writing. Listen to your gut, listen to your critics. Open up and always look for opportunities to challenge yourself and grow. Stagnation is death.

    To stay engaged in your writing process and become a better writer, what do you need to improve? 

  4. Also, for inspiration and camaraderie, read this amazing piece
    Here’s a link to an incredible piece by writer Michael Ventura that I occasionally read during times of doubt called ‘The Talent of the Room’. It’s deep, brutal and real. In it he discusses the dangers of the (writing) room: the craziness, compromise and learning, the slog, the selling out and success (or is that really failure?).

“Writing is something you do alone in a room. The only thing you really need is the talent of the room. Unless you have that, your other talents are worthless.”