It’s been about a year since I decided to be a writer again*. Over the last year I’ve settled into a comfortable balance between my writing life and everything else, and developed habits that have taken me from obscurity to someone who’s appeared on guest blogs and podcasts, gotten good reviews, made friends with writers and artists that I respect, attended conventions, had a pro-level sale, been accepted into the SFWA (didn’t I mention that? Yes, that was my good news this week), and edited a few books. Oh, and built a tiny but respectable little publishing company. In a year.
But it hasn’t been easy, or simple. I spend between 40 and 60 hours a week working on my writing (and, along with that, the editing and publishing that goes into Dagan Books). I spend about 10 hours a week actually putting words on paper. The rest of my time is taken up by all of the little, largely unseen, tasks that make up the life of a working writer:
- I read every day. I don’t just read books and magazines, and in fact don’t read them as often as I’d like. I do read them when I can, but a lot of my reading is through the (growing) list of authors I subscribe to on my Google Reader. Through them I am introduced to new writers, new books, movies, and music. I am told where to find a recording of Leonard Nimoy reading Israeli author Etgar Keret. I get reminders about upcoming readings, author events, and conventions, some of which I can make it to. When I can’t, I can find a recap of what happened so at least I know what I missed. I get introduced to film criticism as expressed by The Incredible Hulk, whose breakdown of structure and plot should be required reading for new writers. I read what NPR and The Paris Review have to say about books making the NY Times Bestseller list, and what indie book bloggers say about books I’d never have heard of otherwise. I get to be part of a world-wide conversation on what fiction is today, and what it should be, and that informs how I see my own writing. It has changed how I write, for the better.
- I also read slush for Dagan Books. In fact, I read every bit of it. 200 fish-themed stories for our latest anthology? I read them all. And for each of the two books before that. I read the novel queries too. From these I learn how many terrible ways there are to pitch your novel, and the few good ways. I learn which opening paragraphs sound less impressive each time you read a new author do the same thing, and which sentences always work, every time. I see authors who come across as arrogant, nervous, self-doubting, clueless, and worse, and I remind myself not to make those same mistakes. Every day, I read all of these things, and my writing improves before it even hits the page.
- I edit. Whether it’s formating a book for print, or giving an author notes on thematic changes or language structure, or line editing punctuation mistakes and lost grammar … I’m learning. I am developing an ability to find an author’s voice and help them express the story underneath the words, and in doing so I am learning how to be my own editor, something I never used to be any good at.
- I make connections on social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. When people talk to me, I reply. When my friends mention a new book or new writer, I go take a look. I stay informed about what makes people take a moment to share their thoughts online. I grow my connections to people who will be talking about my newest story or my next book. I find new blogs to follow, new voices to listen to, new markets to submit to, that I otherwise wouldn’t have heard of.
- I write blog posts like this one, and I update my website (here, and at Dagan Books). I let people know a little more about how I work, or how I think, and I hope I’m teaching a little of what I’ve been lucky enough to learn. I keep people updated with my schedule and my projects so they can know where to find my writing or where we can meet up next. I add tags so people can search the sites easier, change the template if a better version (easier to read, or more in keeping with my personal style) is put out, schedule posts in advance so they’re more evenly spread out than I actually write them. I give people a reason to keep following me, keep reading me, because I continue to consistently (but not overwhelmingly) have something to say.
- I record podcasts. Whether it’s being interviewed or being a regular contributor to someone else’s podcast, or recording my own stories, I’m reaching out to an audience I wouldn’t otherwise have. I know, from being told, that I have readers who’d rather hear me talk for 20 minutes than have to find the same amount of quiet, still, time, because they can hear me tell a story on during their commute but may not have time to read it.
- I do research. My latest sale was much improved by the time I spent online looking up facts about the Lacandon Jungle, and on my couch, watching a documentary about large cats. Writing science fiction, for me, has a strong basis in science fact, and any story that isn’t directly taken from personal experience comes with a need for research. I can’t write until I know what I’m supposed to be saying.
- I stay organized. Sometimes that’s updating my Duotrope tracker so I know where my stories are, and sometimes that’s filing paperwork (contracts, receipts, publications). There are days where I have to rename feeds in my Google Reader so I can actually find the author I’m looking for, and other days that I update my whiteboard to reflect new deadlines, and take off ones I’ve met. I have two white boards, by the way: one for deadlines in list form, and another as a calendar, because I’ve learned the hard way this year that you don’t want to miss a deadline or alienate a potential publisher or promoter. I keep track of what markets are open, what they’re buying, and (from having read what they put out) whether I’d be a good fit. I keep a list of those markets and when I’m ready to submit, I look there first.
- I stay focused. I can’t spend the day playing games online or watching television – nothing gets done and another day passes that I’ll never get back.
There’s more but you get the idea. By taking the time to do all of these other things, and not letting myself get sidetracked, I’m better informed, and a better writer, than I thought I’d be at the start of this year. I’ve had more successes than I hoped for too. I’m not famous and I’m not wealthy but I am in a good position to maintain the path I’m on, the path that will one day lead to be being a much better writer.
When I do sit down to write, it’s easier and faster than it would be without all the other things I do. I know that from experience. I also know, now, some mistakes to avoid, and when I write something I have a good idea of what market might be interested in it. In short, my writing works better because of all of the writing work I put into the rest of my life. Seeing that what I’m doing is having a positive effect on my life, and on my goals, makes it all worth it.
A little fame might be nice too. That’s a goal for next year.
* Instead of someone who’d grown up wanting to be a writer, been told it wasn’t a feasible option, and then spent 20 years trying everything else on before coming back around to the conclusion that writing was the only “job” that really fit. I will probably always have a day job, because giving up a steady income and health insurance – in this economy – is foolish, but who I am, what makes me, is writing.