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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Some things they don’t usually tell you in writing class. . .

Working on my career, I’ve been thinking about the idea of writing professionally as opposed to writing as a hobby. Now I’ve been writing professionally in one sense of the term (getting paid) for a good fifteen years. But there’s another sense, meaning approaching the craft with professionalism. That comprises a whole bushel of things from doing your taxes right, reliably meeting deadlines, communicating with editors and so on. It also applies to elements of the writing itself, elements that apply regardless of what anyone may or may not be paying you. Here are what I think are the top five:

  1. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Writing professionally means that you have enough self knowledge that you are aware of the things you do well, and of the things you do poorly. This is not to commit the mistake of concentrating solely on what you do well. (hey I write really good dialogue, who needs all that narrative crap?) This is to allow you to focus on the areas where you know you’re going to need help.
  2. Know what you’re interested in. There’s nothing worse than something written by a bored writer. You aren’t going to write a convincing Civil War novel unless you find the period fascinating. If what you’re doing requires research, and it isn’t research you find interesting for its own sake, you may want to reconsider. Conversely, when planning a project, hook into your own personal obsessions and what you produce will be richer for it.
  3. Know a dead project when you see it. It is a painful thing to abandon a piece of work, especially if it represents several months, even years, of effort. However, if you hit a wall, and it doesn’t budge, sometimes it isn’t the writer, it’s what you’re writing. If you want to be a professional writer (in both senses) you cannot let a stalled project stall your career. Do something else. If you come back, and it’s still terminal, pull the plug. If you’re under contract, call the editor and pitch something else to replace it.
  4. Know when the project is finished. If you spend three times more time rewriting than you did writing, you’re using the revision process as an excuse to keep from moving on. Submit the thing and go to the next project.
  5. Have a plan. Outlining your career is probably more important than outlining your novel. Know what you want to be writing in five years, and work toward that goal. Even if it doesn’t change the story you’re going to write right now, it may change how you pitch it, and to whom you submit it. The same novel could potentially end up published as dark fantasy, a paranormal romance, or as a supernatural thriller, all depending on who gets to look at it first. Where do you think you want the next book to go?