Hey, Writerly Women! In her comment, Andrea requested a latte, so here you go. You may actually want your warm beverage of choice for this post, ladies. It calls for some dipping deep.
You've shared some AWESOME writing with us these last few weeks. Naked stuff. Raw, truthful things. Some of the best word-smithing and creating of metaphors I've seen in a long time -- and I read a LOT. I think we've proven that writing without fear and telling our truth is not only freeing ... it brings out the best from our pens and keyboards. And yet ...
Something seems to happen when we sit down to do the "real writing." The story we hope to have published. The book we long to see in print, between stunning covers, in an end cap in the Barnes and Noble. That's when the doubts start. Is an agent ever going to take this on? Will any publishing house actually think this is even decent? Are people going to choose this over the bajillion other books available on Amazon?
Every time we allow a "no" answer to any of those questions to creep in, we tighten up. We get that knot Colleen talked about in her comment. Then every sentence -- make that every WORD -- becomes suspect. That's a cliche. That's lame. There is nothing fresh here. I'm a loser. Once we get there, the temptation to close the laptop and go eat an entire package of Oreos (or make three lattes back to back) is almost irresistible.
I'm not saying those questions about whether you'll get an agent, find a publisher and sell any books at all aren't realistic. What isn't valid is trying to write naked and true with all that going on in your head. I'm not going to tell you to just stop thinking about all that and merely write. That would be like saying, "Don't think about a white horse." Soon as I do that, you have a whole heard of albino mustangs stampeding through your head. Am I right?
What I will do is offer an approach I've found to be incredibly helpful, because, like you, I wonder those same things from time to time.
Let's start with a quote by Dr. Dennis Saleebey, who was a passionate believer in encouraging people to build on their strengths and translated that into practice at the Strengths Institute, which is part of the school of social welfare at the University of Kansas. He was well known in his field for his book The Strengths Perspective in Social Work Practice, but what he has to say speaks to us as writers as well:
"It is as wrong to deny the possible as it is to deny the problem."
We can't ignore the fact that it is difficult to get published these days. That agents seem to be looking for reasons to say no. That even when we do get a book out, so much of the responsibility for marketing it falls on us, a job for which most of us are completely unqualified. To forget that would be to deny the problem, and that would be a mistake. But Dr. Saleebey said (he unfortunately passed away in 2014; he was a person I would have loved to have talked to over coffee) we also have to look at the possible. Otherwise, we do nothing at all.
In training social workers, he always required his graduate students to begin their study by making a list of their 10 strengths. That sounds fun and encouraging and positive, right? Apparently you'd be surprised how many people hate doing that exercise. When asked to list their 5 limitations or places where they need growth, most have trouble stopping at just five. It seems to be human nature to focus on our shortcomings and shrug off our strengths.
Again, I know that applies to us specifically as we wrangle and worry over our work in progress. Let's give it a try. Swear to me you'll at least take a shot at it?
1. Thinking just about yourself as a writer, make a list of 10 things you do well. Do it naked. Tell yourself the truth.
2. Look over that list and flesh out anything general. Rather than "I'm good at plotting", you might say, "I can raise the stakes like no other," and "Talk about crafting cliff-hangers -- that's me." Instead of "My characters are good," you'd want to go with "My characters are three-dimensional" and "I can make the reader actually see them."
3. If you think you've listed all of your strengths as a writer and you have less than ten, dig deeper. According to Donald Maass, in making lists related to your work, the things you write down last are usually the most true. Don't forget things like, "I can write 4 pages in less than an hour when I'm on a roll," or "I edit and pare down until I reach the silvery essentials."
4. If you still can't come up with ten, set the list aside but think about it while you're washing your car or unloading the dishwasher. More will come to you. Looking at some of your writing will help as well. Be objective. Overlook any "flaws" and go for the good stuff. Even, "I'm pretty much a perfect speller" is valid.
In case this feels conceited and self-indulgent, fuh-get about it! We have to know where we excel, where we shine, what our possibilities are, or we will forever be editing our manuscripts until they start to look like Joan Rivers (Remember her? Lady who had so many face lifts she was barely recognizable as herself?) If it makes you feel any better, next week we'll do the other list. Just promise me you'll do your best not to go there yet.
What makes this community so amazing is your participation. And not just your comments but the sharing of your work. I love that you trust this to be a safe place. SO -- will you send me your lists? Either via email ([email protected]) or in a comment? If there is any trace of "Everybody will think I consider myself to be all that and a bag of chips" in your mind, tell it thanks but you're doing it anyway. It takes a great deal of courage to own your strengths and let them be known. Would it help if I shared some of my list?
* I am the ultimate planner, and that has served me well over and over and over. I have just about every detail outlined before I start my draft. And it never seems to make the writing stale. I love it!
* I love writing dialogue and I work very consciously to make it real. Maybe that's because I'm also the ultimate eavesdropper.
* Research is my forte. I always go to the place where my novel or series takes place and soak in all the details, the food, the dialect, the landscape, everything.
* My characters become so real to me that when I finish writing a book, I grieve because I won't be hanging out with them any more. I can practically smell them.
* I write tight. There's a lot of detail -- a lot -- but I make sure every piece of it does something to enhance the story. I have very few conversation-over-tea scenes.
* I always know my protagonist's hidden need before I begin. The story is organized around that.
* But I am also open to new ideas that present themselves as I write, as long as they don't take me off on a completely different track. I've even had new characters show up who had to be dealt with.
That's seven, but you get the idea, right? Do share with us. We want to celebrate your awesomeness with you.