How “Professional” Writing Experience Can Help / Hurt You as a Novelist

How it HELPS

1. You probably don’t subscribe to the ‘no words without inspiration’ school of thought.

Or, better yet, you’ve trained yourself to become inspired on command. This is great, because so many others out there will spend countless hours sitting in front of their antique typewriters, sipping scotch and staring out of windows … waiting for inspiration to hit them like a freight train of rhetoric. Meanwhile, you’ll be bent over your laptop, head down like a mule. Writing away, and leaving all those other fools in the dust.

2. You’re probably good with deadlines.

Similar to the fallacies inherent in #1, but much more dire, is the belief that ‘great’ writing has to be allowed to form in its own sweet time. Unfortunately for writers, editors—and most members of the publishing world as a whole—do not share this belief. If you’re able to recognize that and, better yet, forge ahead with eyes leveled on that deadline horizon (or, heck, even schedule your emotional breakdowns accordingly?) you’re on the road to success, my friends.

3. You’ve probably been trained to follow things through to completion.

A lot of writers without professional experience find they lack the drive, or the self-confidence, to keep hacking away at a WIP until it’s finished. No matter how ugly things get in the process. As a result, they shelve countless manuscripts, telling themselves they just aren’t good enough to succeed. My question for those writers is this: how will you ever know for sure, if the completed version of that idea is never allowed to see the light of day? (Let alone the gently critical, yet encouraging eyes of your critique partners?)

4. You’re probably good at juggling.

I’m not just speaking in terms of handling multiple writing projects at once. Even though, yes, that’s an incredibly important skill to cultivate as an author. As Tchaikovsky once supposedly said, “My greatest work is always the next one.” In this case, however, I’m also referring to the rest of your life. How you manage to reconcile all of the boring, everyday details of “real” life—work, grocery shopping, feeding the family, picking up the dry cleaning, soccer practice, etc.—with the fantasy world you’ve created in your mind.

Creative efforts, even ones which are based in reality, do have a habit of making the real world seem less attractive. When you’re immersed in a story, it can be really tempting to just ignore that world and live in your pajamas until the book is finished. But not everyone has that luxury. As a professional writer, you’ve probably already come face to face with that challenge, and hopefully conquered it.


How it can HURT

1. You’re probably used to being told what to do next.

As a journalist, you become accustomed to taking orders from a higher power (your editor, your CEO, your readership). By extension, you learn to take a great deal of constructive criticism. Above all, you adapt the style and scope of your writing to fit the needs of a target audience. These probably sound like good things. And they are.

But it’s also very easy to become dependent on these things for validation. If you’re used to just slapping something together and dropping it on your editor’s desk, confident that he’ll rip it to shreds and then come back with a list of very detailed demands—eh … I mean notes—you might have fallen victim to this attitude. What happens then, when your friends and beta readers and CPs think the book is ‘almost, but not quite’ amazing? Will you have the skill it takes to look at your WIP and figure out how to take it to the next level?

2. You’re probably used to calling all—or at least some—of the shots.

As an associate editor and later as a producer, I was able to control about 90% of the process. As a freelance journalist, I’m in charge of about 100% of the process, from inception to storyboarding to editing and even where and when I want to publish. This is NOT the case for most authors. Even self-published authors have to answer to a higher power, and that power is SALES NUMBERS. No matter how hard you work, no matter how well you market, a lot of your success as an author will depend on timing, industry, readership, luck … and that might be difficult for a bunch of control freaks like us to accept.

3. You’re probably used to getting PAID.

For me, I know this was a struggle. For a long time, I would keep track of my writing hours, filming hours … heck, even my brainstorming hours … on an organized little log sheet. At the end of every pay period, I would turn this log sheet in, and in return I would get piles (very, very small piles) of glorious, spendable money. This is not often the case with authors. Sometimes, it might feel like you’re cashing in your precious time in exchange for magic beans (the nebulous dream of someday being published). The trick is to realize that patience—and budgeting—comes with the territory. (Also, as my agent will tell you, get a good accountant ASAP.)


Here’s what you can do to make your experience WORK FOR YOU

1. Treat your personal writing like it’s your JOB, not your hobby. As NYT Bestselling author Suzanne Brockmann once told me in an interview, she never lets anyone make her feel like her job is less important than theirs. “Take yourself seriously,” Suz said. “Published or unpublished, you are a writer. Your writing is work time—don’t use it to do errands or laundry or favors for friends.” (For a full transcript of this interview, click here.)

2. Track your time. If you struggle with time management, pretend you ARE being paid. Keep a log sheet of how many hours you spend writing, editing, or staring into space trying to figure out what the heck happens next. (Hey, it counts.) If you really want to motivate yourself, maybe keep those records somewhere safe, and tell yourself that when you sell your first book you’ll pay yourself back in Christian Louboutin shoes. Or whatever.

3. Focus on the WRITING. That’s the one thing that you can absolutely, completely control. If you start to feel helpless or hopeless, write a scene where your character takes on a seemingly insurmountable task, and wins. Don’t let reality get you down. That’s why we’re writers in the first place. We’re the ones who look reality in the face and say, “I can do better than this.” Never forget that, and you’ll be fine.



Note: This post was originally written by Veronica Park as a guest post for Cassandra Page’s blog and published on 3/8/13.