Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Lee Tobin McClain
What's the key to spectacular writing success? Talent? Intelligence? Creative genius?
None of the above. According to Dr. Dean Keith Simonton, who has conducted research on creativity for nearly 25 years, creative success correlates most closely with output: the quantity of work produced. Artistic and scientific achievers from Picasso to Da Vinci didn't succeed more, percentage-wise, than other now-unknown creators of their eras; they simply produced more, and thus had more successes.
As the director of a graduate program in writing, I can vouch for the fact that students who complete more writing projects succeed more frequently than their slower-writing peers, regardless of talent.
If productivity equals success, how can you increase yours? Here are eight ways.
Build an Expectant Audience
Many of us are motivated by the expectations of others. We'll do more to fulfill responsibilities or avoid humiliation than we will to fulfill our own dream.
If that's your blessing -- or your curse -- use it. Create an audience for yourself, whether it's a critique group, an editor, or even online subscribers.
Poet Michael Arnzen developed a system for distributing a poem a week from his web site, which delivered poetry directly to readers' Palm Pilots or other handheld computers. He solicited subscribers through e-mail and press releases and once hundreds of people were expecting their weekly poems, Arnzen was committed to delivering. "Knowing my subscribers were always waiting for the next poem in the series drove me to write daily. It was my most productive year as a poet, ever, despite my full time job," Arnzen says. "And the project brought attention to my other writing, too. I sold three chapbooks this past year, including the poetry series itself."
Critique groups can function the same way. If your group sets up a schedule for distributing work, you feel obligated to fulfill your responsibility. The critiques you receive are almost a bonus compared to the regular production such groups enforce.
For magazine writers -- aspiring or published -- there's nothing better than landing a few assignments to build an expectant audience and thus, enhance your productivity. If you're an established writer, play the query-a-day game (see tip number three) until you have several assignments and deadlines to push you into productivity. If you're inexperienced, you may have to work on spec or for free. But knowing that an editor, even the editor of the tiny neighborhood newspaper, is expecting your work will jar you into increased productivity no matter what other demands are made on your time.
Don't try to make a rapid jump in your productivity. Take it slow. More importantly, take it steady.
Bestselling novelist Peter Straub compares writing to exercise. "If you spend an hour or two a day writing, fairly soon you will be able to do it for three or four hours each day; and the more you write, the more sheer muscle you develop," he says. Romance and women's fiction writer Susan Mallery suggests that a very gradual increase in daily pages written can lead to a major boost in quality and quantity of work sold. Her strategy is simple: figure out how many pages you write in each writing session now, and then increase by half a page every few weeks.
Why does it work? "A half page is a manageable goal," says Mallery. "It's so small an increase, it's hard to get excited about it. Yet over time, it makes a huge difference. Those half pages add up without adding stress to the writer."
Mallery ought to know. She is the author of 75 published novels.
The hidden benefit behind Mallery's method is consistency. And consistent writing actually increases quality as well as quantity. "When you write a certain number of pages each day, the story stays 'in-place' in the brain," she explains. "That means writing time can be spent on deepening the characterization and enhancing the story rather than trying to remember who these people are and what's happening with the plot."
A Query a Day: Games with Yourself
If you're trying to make it in magazine writing, you need regular, frequent assignments that will keep you writing. But at the beginning of your career, or during a slump, the assignments can be thin or nonexistent. That's the dangerous point when it's easy to clean the garage or see the latest chick flick instead of writing. Soon, you can feel like someone who used to write, or used to want to write, instead of feeling like a writer.
At times like this, you need some kind of game to boost your creativity and your career. My favorite is "A Query A Day." All you have to do is produce and mail out one query letter each day, and then you're off the hook and out the door. Conversely, on busy days when the boss demands the latest report, the spouse threatens to leave, and the teenager wrecks the car, you still have to produce that one query.
Benefits are multiple. You get really fast at writing query letters. You get fast at finding markets at the odd moments of your day; I've been known to keep a copy of Writer's Market in my bathroom.
Best of all, you're planting seeds that will bear fruit for months to come. Inevitably, something hits, and then something else does, and before long you're so busy writing stories that you have to quit the game. Months later, assignments from the game days will still trickle in. And because you produced so many queries, you probably went off in weird directions; now, you have an assignment to write something out of your own norm, and creativity soars.
Variations for other sorts of writers: try "A Short Synopsis Per Day"; "A Contest Entry Per Day"; "A Poem a Day".
When you're working on a long book project, reinforcement and rewards are seriously lacking. If you let discouragement set in, your productivity may dip or plunge.
That's when you need the perspective and refreshment of multiple projects. If you're writing a novel, make use of your background research by submitting short magazine pieces on topics related to your novel's theme. If your book project is nonfiction, see if you can work up a short story or poem, either on the same topic or on something completely different.
And make sure to submit the other writing somewhere -- a contest, a tiny literary magazine, or a newspaper. The opportunity for quicker feedback can give you a boost on your main project. Whether or not you publish any of these side pieces, your big project will benefit from the renewal of interest brought about by your moonlighting.
Create a Compelling Future
If you're not producing as much as you want, maybe you're living too much in the present.
Success guru Tony Robbins asserts that you should have enormous goals, the type that will make your palms sweat and your heart race, in order to keep yourself working hard each day. Most people, he maintains, think too small when they think about their future.
Indeed, successful writers often admit they've been visualizing that place on the bestseller list for years. Before my first book was published, I spent a lot of time looking at the paperback rack, letting my eyes blur so that I could imagine that the latest popular romance was my own.
One day, it was.
So go ahead and picture yourself accepting the Bram Stoker award, or the Edgar, or the Nebula. Imagine what you'll say when interviewed about your Pulitzer. If your dream is big enough, you'll be motivated to make big efforts at the keyboard today, to make tomorrow's vision come true.
Pages, Not Hours
Should you make yourself sit at the keyboard for two hours each day, or strive for two pages?
Views differ, but I'm a fan of the page count. It's all too easy to sit and daydream away a stint of writing time and produce nothing. But if you know you aren't allowed to leave until you come up with that query, or those three pages, you'll get it done faster. Sometimes what you create will seem to be no good, but you'll find that when you come back later, it's hard to tell the difference between the pages produced quickly and those crafted more slowly.
In any case, bad pages can be fixed. A blank page can't.
The "Book-in-a-Week" technique is trendy now in the romance writing community, but dates back to authors like Belgian-born detective writer Georges Simenon. Simenon wrote most of his 500-plus novels in the space of 8-10 days -- sans outline, sans pause, and sans computer.
Today's Book-in-a-Week proponents swear by a similar, if electronically-updated, method: they clear their calendars of as much non-writing-related activity as possible in order to fully focus on writing for one week. During that week they write in every spare moment, whether that means a ten-hour stretch on a Saturday, or writing during commuting time, coffee breaks, the lunch hour, a teenager's soccer game, and a toddler's bath time.
Some really do complete the first draft of an entire book. Others set smaller goals: write an article every day, for example. The point is to push yourself beyond your normal comfort zone, knowing you'll only have to stay there for one week.
The Internet serves as a helpful ally to keep writers motivated for this challenge. "I joined an online book-in-a-week challenge to help me stay the course," explains one participant. "Everyone posted their page totals each evening. Knowing my online friends were doing the same crazy thing, that I'd have to post my totals each night, and that it was only for one week, kept me writing. I wrote an average of twenty pages per day. That's more than I'd ever written before."
This mad rush of writing has several benefits beyond the often admirable number of pages produced. Focusing on writing as much as possible helps to turn off the internal critic. For this week only, you're not judged on quality, only quantity. For perfectionists, that can be liberating.
April Kihlstrom, who has spoken about Book-in-a-Week challenges at national conferences, describes quality benefits gleaned from this quantity-related method. A draft written in a short time, she explains, is far more likely to be consistent, passionate, and strong-voiced.
Book-in-a-Week isn't for everyone, and it can't be done often, but it may provide the jump start you need for increasing your productivity.
Charts, Calendars, and Goals
If you're already a working writer, you know that you have to plan out your work; you have deadlines to meet, and editors who will squawk if you don't do so. But if you're still unpublished, you may be meandering along without a real plan, without charting out your goals for yourself.
Get in practice for your future success by setting your own deadlines. That way, when assignments or contracts come, you'll know how quickly you can write, and you'll have faith in your own ability to meet your deadline and follow through on your promises. Plan to finish the picture book this month, the chapter book by spring, the young adult novel by the end of the year. Then figure out how you'll do it with daily page counts marked on a calendar.
As the platitude says, every journey begins with a step. So decide now to put these productivity tips to use. Make a plan about how you'll succeed. As your output increases, watch your career soar along with it.
The beautiful thing about output is that it's something you can control -- unlike native intelligence or a good ear for words. You have no one to blame but yourself if you aren't making it on a page a week. And when your career takes off due to your increased output, you'll have the satisfaction of knowing that your own hard work made the difference.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Dr. Lee Tobin McClain happily divides her time between teaching and writing and finds that the two pursuits enrich each other. She writes romantic suspense, fiction for children and teens, and nonfiction essays and magazine articles. Her teaching interests include children's and YA literature, magazine writing, composition, and creative writing. She has published three young adult novels through Dorchester Press.