I spent this past weekend at Sleuthfest, one of Florida’s best writers conferences. It was a dynamic gathering of writers, professional and aspiring, as well as some of the most important agents and editors in the business. I was struck that it’s probably one of the best things you can do as an aspiring writer, spend a weekend with other writers and publishing professionals. You learn so much about craft, the industry and even yourself. I’ve been attending Sleuthfest for ten years, and many of the people I have met there have become my dear friends and valued colleagues. Publishing is a business of relationships – and lots of those relationships begin at conferences.
On one of the panels (If Only I Had Known) author and investigative reporter Hank Phillipi Ryan had some important questions about the business, and what it takes to get published and stay published. Authors Lisa Black and Chris Grabenstien, two very talented writers who have been successfully publishing for quite a while, shared some terrific insight. And Jamie Freveletti shared some great thoughts on her own experiences at conferences like Sleuthfest, prior to being published. It was a rousing panel, full of passion, humor and good (I hope!) advice.
A few days before the event, I visited my daughter’s school and talked to a group of budding elementary school readers and writers. And it occurred to me that the advice I offered to them is not so very different to the advice I offered the “grown-up” writers at Sleuthfest. I think there’s value here, too, for even the most experienced working author. Because I find that between the dizzying highs and crushing lows of the writing life, sometimes it’s easy to forget the basics. Here is what I said at my daughter’s school:
Lots of people dream of publishing a novel. When I was about your age, I had the very same dream. Of course, there’s a lot of learning and hard work between dreaming and doing. But that dream, that desire is the first and most important step on the long road to being an author. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you move ahead on your journey from aspiring writer (someone who wants to write) to published author (someone who makes his or her living as a writer).
- Read every day. Every writer is a reader first. The books other authors have written are where every writer first fell in love with stories. So, read the work of great and important authors, the people who have done it best. And learn from those people. What makes their sentences so beautiful, or their characters so real, or their plots so exciting?
- Write every day. To be a writer, all you have to do is write. Publishing comes later. Writers don’t think about writing, they don’t talk about writing; they don’t make excuses for why they didn’t write. They just write every day. It’s that simple to be a writer.
- Try to get better every day. I think the desire to write is something with which we are born. Some of us just have stories in our hearts that want to find their way onto the page. However, the craft of writing is something that we learn and practice. Through reading great books, and writing every day, we can get better and better at what we do. Getting better at something you love carries an intrinsic joy, meaning that just doing it is its own reward. And the only way to get better at writing (or anything) is to practice.
- Write for love. Lots of people dream about getting famous and selling lots of books and being on television. But the truth is that those types of accolades (expressions of praise) are the result of very hard work; those are the rewards that come from reading, writing, and trying to get better every day. You must write only because you love to write, bringing joy and passion to your work. If you do, the rewards will come, and the hard work will be pure pleasure.
- Write and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. Writers work in what we call drafts (an early version of a piece of writing). The first draft, the second draft, the third, the fourth and so on. When we put our initial visions onto the page, we know that there is still a long way to go before the story or article or poem or play is good enough to go into production. A working, published author has initial readers, an editor, a copy editor, a proofreader, and every one of those people is going to have ideas about how the work can be better. But you can be your own editor, too. Once you’ve finished your first draft of whatever it is you are writing, take a break and then go back to it. Then rewrite it. Every time you do, it will be better than it was before.
The dream of becoming a real published author, someone who makes his or living with the written word, is a big one. It’s as difficult to get your book published by one of the big publishing companies as it is to get a record deal or become a movie actor. But if you have the talent, the determination, and a strong faith in yourself, you can do it. Dream big. Work hard. But, above all else, write.
Enjoy and keep writing!