1. QUIT YOUR DAY JOB: If you have something to fall back on, you will fall back on it. If you have to be successful at your writing in order to eat, believe me, you will find a way to make that happen. Barbra Streisand never learned to type, because she figured if she did, she would wind up typing instead of singing. Dump Plan B and stick to Plan A!
2. B.I.C. (Butt In Chair): This is the only cure for writer’s block. You have to put in your time. You never know what’s going to happen when you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. But you do know what will happen if you don’t put in your time: nothing!
3. SHOW UP: If you are going to live a literary life, live a literary life. Go to readings, workshops, conferences, seminars. Join –or start—a writers group. Become a member of a writers organization (Romance Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, etc.) Create your own network of people who will support your literary career.
4. READ, READ, READ. Read everything and anything you can get your hands on. Every book you read will teach you something, even the terrible ones. Especially the terrible ones. Study how other writers handle dialogue, description, character development, action, setting, plot. Every once in a while, read something you don’t ordinarily read (if you always read fiction, try nonfiction; if you always read poetry, try some prose). Think of all the people who said, “I never read fantasy” and then picked up Harry Potter.
5. BE DIVERSE: Just as you read many different forms (see above) write in many different forms. I started out my literary life as a poet, then wrote my first novel, GOOD ENOUGH TO EAT, then my first collection of short stories A LETTER TO HARVEY MILK, then returned to poetry, SWEET DARK PLACES, and then wrote my first children’s book, HEATHER HAS TWO MOMMIES. Perhaps it’s because I get bored easily, but nevertheless, I learn something from every form in which I write. Writing poetry has helped me add sensory detail to my prose; writing fiction has helped me write poetry with a narrative arc. And being versed in different forms has helped me create something new: my most recent book, OCTOBER MOURNING: A SONG FOR MATTHEW SHEPARD explores the impact of Matthew Shepard’s murder in a cycle of 68 poems which add up to a historical novel written in verse.
6. REVISE, REVISE, REVISE: Writing is rewriting. Someone famous said, there are two ways to do something, the quick way and the right way. Take your time to get it right, whether that’s writing seven drafts or twenty-seven drafts. Show your work to people you trust and listen to what they have to say. Consider their suggestions and try them. When I do this, very often something else entirely appears on the page that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been willing to at least consider someone else’s suggestions. Don’t get too attached to what you’ve created. I find that the sentence/paragraph/chapter I’m most attached to is usually the one that has to go. I recently wrote a chapter book for young readers which consisted of 10 short chapters (30 pages). My editor thought it would make a better picture book, so I shortened it to 5 pages. Ouch! So much of my brilliant writing landing on the cutting room floor! But in the end, I had to admit that my editor (who ultimately bought the book) was right.
7. KNOW THE MARKET: Writing is a creative act; publishing is a business. Do your homework and research publishing houses to find the best home for your work. Sometimes it’s obvious (sending my novelTHE RELUCTANT DAUGHTER to Bold Strokes Books was a no-brainer). Sometimes it takes a while for a book to find its home. In the words of Winston Churchill, “Never give up.” As a friend of mine likes to say, sometimes the editor who will fall in love with your manuscript hasn’t even been born yet. She was kidding (sort of) but the point is, be persistent. Another friend of mine says, “Never co-habitate with a manuscript.” If you offer (not submit) your manuscript to a publisher and it is declined (not rejected) turn it around and offer it to someone else.
8. SUPPORT OTHER WRITERS: I firmly believe that when one of us succeeds, all of us succeed. Go to readings. Tell friends about books you love. Use your social networks to sing the praises of your writing friends and colleagues. Share their success stories. Plug their books. Cheer them on. This is a tough business. We writers need to stick together!
9. BELIEVE IN YOURSELF: If you don’t believe in yourself, no one else will believe in you. Which isn’t to say that everything you put on paper (or screen) is brilliant. (See #6). It means that you know your work is important and you will make a commitment to give it the time, energy, and effort it deserves. Find others who believe in you, too. And I can’t stress this enough: make sure you choose wisely when it comes to love. Your beloved has to understand how important your writing is to you. If you wind up with someone who doesn’t take you seriously as a writer, there’s going to be trouble.
10. BE KIND TO YOURSELF: This, above all, is the most important gift you can give yourself. Writers seem to be good at beating ourselves up (myself included). My writing isn’t good enough, I don’t do it often enough, I’m not writing in the right form, my work isn’t important, I’m a hack, etc etc. Sound familiar? Try to get the critic in your head to shut up. See if you can find a nurturing voice (the Goddess? your best friend? your mother?) to replace the critic and praise you daily. Write yourself a pep talk, a love letter, a positive review. Tuck it in an envelope and give it to a friend to mail to you at some point in the future as a surprise. Look in the mirror every morning and say, “I am a writer” to your gorgeous reflection. Pat yourself on the back for being brave enough to create something out of nothing. It’s your letter to the world, as Emily Dickinson said. And those of us lucky enough to read your work are all the richer for it.