Thursday, April 22, 2010

Just Do It!

I am often asked how I began my writing journey towards being a published author, as though armed with that knowledge, the supplicant could simply replicate the process and accomplish the same. Like everything else about my life, I cannot really recommend my own path as typical. The truth is, I wrote my first book out of sheer boredom.

My husband and I were the only expatriates at the time in a southern Bolivia city, working with a Christian ministry organization. While my husband traveled the Andes mountains two weeks at a time, I was stuck at home with three preschoolers, no car, no TV, no radio. Once my preschoolers were in bed, I had only the handful of English-language books I’d read dozens of times. I finally decided if I had nothing to read, I’d write a book instead. Stories scribbled while my babies slept became Kathy and the Redhead, a children’s novel based on my growing-up adventures at a missionary kids boarding school.

Like most writers, you will find the path to writing success a very individual journey. But there are a few strategies that can help maximize those possibilities:

1. Just do it!

I couldn’t say how many people over the years have confided in me their ambition to write a book. Many have carried a particular book idea around for years. They don’t want to share that idea because someone might steal it. I'm often asked if they should copyright it. [NEWSFLASH: Ideas are not copyrightable! If you’ve had one, be sure someone else has had the same]. Invariably, these idea-hoarders are bursting to let me in on their secret--so long as I promise not to steal it. Be sure once I’ve heard it, I’ve yet to be tempted!

The only way to write a book, an article, a short story, a poem . . . is to stop talking, sit down, and do it!

Which brings me to the second strategy.

2. Discipline--be persistent!

How does one sit down and write that book? By writing the first page, then the second and on to the third until the book is finished. Plenty of people start books. Too few finish them. The persistence to keep on going, no matter how far away that finished goal seems, day after day, page after page, is what makes a writer, not a great book idea.

Having written now fourteen novels, three of approximately 250,000 words, I’ve learned not to even think of how much remains of the project—it is too discouraging to look 18 months down the road—but just of the next scene, the next chapter. As I discipline myself to do this day after day after day, fourteen times now I’ve had the pleasure of suddenly realizing that I’ve written the last paragraph and can scribble ‘The End’ at the bottom of the page.

The difference between the successful writer and the drop-out is not their talent, but their persistence.

3. Write what you know.

A protagonist peeling off a parka in the middle of the Amazon. An experienced archeological team in the Peruvian Andes leaving an Inca find-of-the century unguarded to go eat supper (and then displaying horror that their find is stolen!). A Colombian drug lord choosing a backwoods English village for an operating base (because the author is from that village, making it easy to describe), instead of Miami, Rio, or anywhere with a swinging night life. All these tell me that the writer whose manuscript I’m reading hasn’t the smallest personal knowledge of the settings they’ve chosen to write about.

Your writing can only breathe reality and authenticity if you know what you’re writing about.

4. Don’t stop there . . . always pursue new knowledge.

On the other hand, what's the fun in limiting settings and plot lines to one's own personal experience! I’ve kicked around some of the planet's wilder settings, which is a wonderful advantage as a suspense novelist, if not so comfortable in real life. But I also research thoroughly enough to put the pieces of what I dig up together with what I already know on the ground and extrapolate--well, let's just say, intel some government agencies figure I shouldn’t know!

I never stop learning. Everything I hear, read, experience, research for a writing project gets filed into my mental data banks. You want to know about Guarani ethnomusicology, Mennonite history, the unparalleled brutality of the French in their colonies, I can pull out the stats. If I can see no present use for that data once the project involved is over, be sure that someday it will crawl into the pages of some other book I write.

5. Listen to editors.

Editors are smarter than you think. If they tell you something isn’t good enough, don’t run out to self-publish. Start rewriting!!

I would not be where I am today if it weren't for editors who took time to tell me where I was going wrong even while rejecting my manuscript. Or if I hadn't taken their advice and plowed it back into rewrites. If nothing else, the editor knows what sells. So if they’re willing to take their time to give advice, a wise writer pays attention.

Too many quite talented writers never make it to print because they’re just too proud to submit their work to an expert critique or too lazy to go back and improve their rough draft.


One of my sons loves music, but as a teenager played no instruments, had never had a voice lesson, and to my ear at least could only just carry a tune. So I was astounded to find out he was now lead singer of the youth worship band. When I broached him diplomatically about his lack of any musical training or visible native ability, he informed me airily, “Oh, Mom, you don’t have to have talent any more to become a pop star!”

Since then he has been lead singer for countless ‘gigs’, including at Miami's Hard Rock Cafe. Confirming a long-held conviction of my own concerning my teens’ choice of music styles!

There is a truth, though, that it is not innate talent or grammatical skills that make a great writer, though those do help. Many with ample talent and fine writing skills will never write a book—because they never get around to it! Like the hare and tortoise of Aesop's fable, they will be passed along the path by the writer who perhaps doesn’t have Hemingway's genius, but has a passion to write that keeps them plugging along, writing, rewriting, tearing apart and putting back together. Each rewrite a little better until one day an editor takes a look at their work and says, "Hey, this is fabulous!" And suddenly (actually, make that many months later!) they find their byline on a printed page.

Bottom line, there's only one real strategy for writing.

Just do it!