By Nancy Julien Kopp
Can a writer be compared to a jungle animal? Is a writer anything like the tawny leopard who pauses in a shaft of golden sunlight and lifts his regal head, nostrils flaring? He crouches low to the ground and proceeds toward his next sure meal. The leopard ignores all other aspects of nature’s bounty as the scent of a fresh kill draws him on. Without warning, he falls into a vast hole and lands at the bottom with a thud. Trapped! Caught with no way out!
Unsuspecting writers fall into traps, too. The scent of publication draws them through their own jungle. Sometimes writers forget to be cautious and tend to business, and they fall headlong into a different type of pit, trapped like the leopard. But a writer can find the means to escape and continue on his journey.
Writers are urged to write often, to write voraciously, to write, write, write. We know that in order to become better writers and win the prize — publication — there are myriad things we must do besides putting words on paper. Writing successes don’t arrive out of the blue, but are achieved in various ways.
Among them, reading about writing is foremost in our minds, so we go to the local library and bookstores. We borrow dozens of books that tell us how to plot, how to sketch characters, how to present a book proposal, and more. The books line our shelves, and we immerse ourselves in one after the other and absorb the lessons within. Certainly one viewpoint is too narrow. Let’s expand our horizons and read several.
It eats into our writing time.
Kathryn Anzak writes book reviews and nonfiction and is also working on a novel. She says, “Reading books does get in the way of writing. I get caught up in the learning and forget the application part.”
Read books about writing, but read fewer of them. It’s impossible to read every book written on the subject of writing. Select the ones you do read with care, and look for material dealing with the type of writing you do.
In addition to instructive books, the Internet is filled with writers’ sites presenting weekly or monthly newsletters. The editors offer articles to read and classes to take. They present markets and contests, writing prompts, and fun activities. Seldom satisfied with one of these newsletters, most writers subscribe to dozens. The newsletters do have some excellent information, but they take precious time to read. It eats into our writing time.
Once again, be selective. If you find yourself skimming through the contents of one of these newsletters rather than fully reading it, unsubscribe quickly. With a practiced eye, you’ll soon discern which are worth the time it takes to read them. You’ll figure out which ones offer solutions to problems or new markets, and which are forms of mindless entertainment.
We look for help other than what we find in books and on the Internet, something that includes other writers in a social setting. We find it in a personal, face-to-face critique group, which profits writers in numerous ways. Whether it meets weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly, a local group like this can offer constructive criticism and perhaps praise for our work. It also eats into our writing time.
Before joining one of these critique groups, take a serious look at the time involved. Ask yourself if the time befits the benefit. Is it worth using precious hours you might spend at your computer writing a story? A writer can profit from an honest answer to this question.
Research provides another way to help craft a successful manuscript. Those who write nonfiction, historical fiction, and contemporary fiction often need to delve into investigative fact-finding. One thing leads to another, and the research takes far longer than anticipated. It eats into our writing time.
Jerri Garretson is the owner of Ravenstone Press and author of several books for children, including The Secret of Hidden Springs and Imagicat. Jerri says, “For me, the distraction is likely to be too much researching, way beyond what I actually need. I get to enjoying the process, and it feeds on itself.”
With practice, the writer can determine an appropriate amount of time given to research. A written list of facts and information to complete the story is helpful in deciding how much research is necessary. Adhere to the list rather than enlarging upon it as you go. The important thing here is to stay focused.
Writers’ organizations offer another opportunity to learn from others. If you live in a city that has a chapter of a national writers group, it makes sense to join. Groups like this can bring many advantages, but we can also become so involved that it eats into our writing time.
An author of adult fiction, who prefers to remain anonymous, says that she recently resigned from a group of writers because she got caught up in revising their by-laws, policies, and procedures. She says, “With all the apologies I heard from others at the meetings for not having gotten any writing done since the last meeting, I knew I was wasting my time.”
If you want to retain membership in a group like this, do so, but attend when you can afford the time, and don’t allow yourself to become embroiled in the operation of the group to the detriment of your own working time. It’s not easy to say no when asked to help, but learn to put your writing first and foremost. It’s the gold star item in your life if you intend to be a serious writer.
We’ve explored numerous ways we attempt to become better writers but not all of them are beneficial. As we’ve seen, some of them lead us into a trap. Frank Kryza, author of The Power of Light/cite>, gives some excellent advice. “Very few writing projects can be completed within a short planning horizon, so you just have to be committed to writing every day, whether you want to or not, and the best teacher will be your own (self-discovered) mistakes.”
This advice is plain and simple and leaves few, if any, traps to snare us.
Kate Reynolds has completed one novel and is working on another. Kate, too, has some good suggestions. She says, “Years ago, I read an article that listed ‘The Five Essential Steps To Publishing.’ I typed them into my computer and printed the page. It’s dog-eared and coffee stained now, but I keep this list by my computer and read it every day to keep myself focused.”
Kate’s five steps are:
- Finish it
- Do not re-write endlessly
- Send it to someone who can buy it; not friends or relatives
- Go to step 1
Don’t be like the leopard and let the scent of publication lead you into one of these traps. You can maintain a healthy balance of the tools of the trade available to a writer. Review your writing activities occasionally to make sure you aren’t falling into one of those deep pits again. When you are producing fewer and fewer pages, it may be time to step back and assess the reasons why you are writing less. To make writing a priority takes the same kind of commitment as saving money. Financial experts advise clients to take the savings out of the paycheck first. Writing is no different — those thousand words a day must take precedence over all other writing-related aspects of your life. You know what the traps are, and by practicing self-discipline, you can avoid all of them and become a better writer.
Nancy Julien Kopp’s writing reflects both her growing-up years in Chicago and many years of living in the Flint Hills of Kansas. She has published stories, articles, essays, children’s stories and poetry in magazines, newspapers, and online. She is a former teacher who still enjoys teaching via the written word. You can find her at Writer Granny’s World.