In my last two editorials, I talked about "the things we are good at," and "the things we are not good at." The things we are good at, I said, can sometimes distract us from the things that are important. It's easy to get caught up in "things we are good at" (things that are easy to do) at the expense of things that matter more but that may be more difficult and therefore, more intimidating. Conversely, things we are not good at can prevent us from accomplishing the things that matter, if those things are key to actually achieving the things that matter. Having difficulty with grammar and punctuation, for example, can be a significant hindrance in achieving one's writing goals.
But what are the things that matter most? How do we identify what really is important, what we "should" be devoting our attention to, versus the things that we may need to let go of and leave behind?
Today, I believe this is becoming an increasingly difficult choice for writers. More and more "must do's" are clamoring for our attention. We are being bombarded with demands and "requirements." Expert books and articles tell us that there are dozens of things we must do to be "successful" -- many of which seem to have very little to do with actual writing. We're told that we simply must get involved in this social platform, or that one, or the other one. We're told that it's vital to keep our presence fresh, that we constantly "update" that presence (wherever it happens to be), that we actively "follow" others and encourage others to "follow" us. We're urged to find more ways to "connect" with our readers. If we blog, it's not enough to simply write the week's entry; we must also respond to every comment, and then comment on our followers' blog entries, just to keep those "connections" going. Every new technology or opportunity becomes one more thing we "must do" to keep abreast of, aware of, or involved in.
But what's really important?
The answer, of course, will vary from writer to writer. But the underlying principle will always be the same: What is the core element underlying your writing goal? What task is central or foundational to your goal, and what tasks are peripheral? Another way to approach the question is to ask, "What is it that only I can do?"
If you are a novelist, for example, the core element of your writing goal is to actually write a novel. It may be your first novel, or your second, or your 23rd. But it is still the one thing that must get done if you are, in fact, to be a novelist. And it's the one thing that only you can do. No one else can write that novel for you (unless you're James Patterson).
The core element of your writing goal is the thing that must be done before any other task even matters. It doesn't matter, for example, if you have a wonderful novelist Facebook page and hundreds of friends, if you have no novel to talk about. It doesn't matter if you have a fantastic blog or website, if you have no novel to promote. It doesn't matter if you have hundreds of Twitter followers, if they have nowhere to follow you to. Everything else is peripheral to that central, foundational core: Your novel.
Another huge distraction for many writers is the wonderful world of do-it-yourself publishing. Again, there are scores of articles and books assuring us that this is the wave of the future, and that by choosing this route, we are "taking control of our own destinies." The only problem is, there are often parts of our destinies that we aren't actually qualified to take control of. In those bad old days when our only option was to get published by a nasty, evil, villainous "commercial publisher," hefty chunks of our "destiny" were handed off to other people. Skilled artists, for example, created our book covers. Skilled editors and proofreaders caught our grammatical errors and typos (most of the time). Skilled salespeople actually went in person to bookstores across the country and convinced them to buy copies of our books and put them on their shelves. Today, as we "take charge" of our destinies, we bring a vast pool of unskilled labor to those same tasks: Ourselves.
Another distraction today is the constant emphasis on "connecting" with our readers. There's no doubt that many readers do like to "connect" with their favorite writers -- it makes them feel good to get a personal comment from an author they admire. This is nothing new; in the bad old days, successful authors generally had to hire a secretary to help them keep up with fan mail. Today, however, we're told that we need to do this ourselves -- respond to every comment, tweet and retweet, keep posting something fresh and new to "entertain" our readers and keep them "engaged," and just generally "be there."
But once again, the question gets back to that core element: With nothing to read, you have no readers. Most readers -- and particularly the readers who love you the most -- would rather have your next book than a friendly hello. Hard-core readers are always looking for something to read, and if your next book isn't on the shelves, they'll find another.
So the final step in working out what tasks to focus upon lies in identifying those tasks that truly matter. We will never run out of potential tasks. We will never run out of people telling us that we "must do" this or that or the other to "be successful in today's marketplace." We will never run out of distractions.
But unless we focus on the core elements of our writing goals -- the novel, the short story, the poem, the memoir, the song, the life-changing how-to book -- we will run out of the things that matter most: our hopes and dreams.
And, of course, our readers...
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