Random fact: whenever I go out to write, I carry with me a few essentials. These include an unlined notebook, a fountain pen, and an unsharpened pencil.
Why the latter? you may be wondering. The unsharpened pencil symbolizes untapped potential, all the endless possibilities and stories yet to be written. Now with a new session of DIY MFA 101 just around the corner, I’m getting those back-to-school butterflies in my stomach and I am excited for all the amazing stories that these new writers are going to create.
All this excitement gets me thinking about literature and learning, and what a writing education is all about. After pondering this topic yesterday, I’ve realized that to be a writer, you just need to do seven things. And believe it or not, these are all things you can learn and do on your own. Here’s a rundown on these seven essential elements of a writing education.
1. Motivate Yourself
At some point in every writer’s career, he will struggle with finding motivation. Here’s the truth about writing: if you sit around and wait for motivation, you will never get anything done. Instead you need to learn to motivate yourself so that you can get those words on the page, with or without your muse.
You also need to practice techniques that will maximize your productivity so you make the most of your precious writing time. And no writer is free from rejection, so you have to build skills to help you bounce back when things don’t go your way. Once you’ve mastered these skills, you’ll be a more productive, efficient and resilient writer, ready to rock your writing life and finish that book.
2. Get Creative On Demand
Creativity is like a muscle: the more you exercise it the stronger it gets. Don’t wait for for inspiration to strike. Keep your writing momentum going full speed ahead by learning to generate ideas on demand. Hone your creative process and stock your writer’s toolbox with techniques that bring out your creative side.
Many writers are protective of their ideas, afraid of sharing them with the world because someone could steal them. The #1 best way you can protect your ideas from getting borrowed, stolen or misused is to have LOTS of them. Approach your creativity with an abundance mentality. You’ll not only feel less protective of the ideas you already have, but you’ll also find yourself generating hundreds or thousands of new ideas.
3. Master the Craft
Publishing is the “holy grail” of most writers. We all talk a good talk about how publishing is not the end all and be all, about how we want to connect with one true reader, about how we write because we can’t not write. But let’s face it, there’s something about seeing our name on the book cover, about holding that book in our hands, that’s every writer’s dream deep down.
Ask any agent or editor for the secret to getting published and they’ll tell you: write a great book. You can attend pitch sessions, network like crazy, and sit through countless seminars on how to write a great query, but in the end only one thing matters: your book. And how do you make your book great? That’s easy. Master the craft and become the best writer you can be.
4. Write an Engaging Story
Studying craft is not just about learning theory. You need to create a book that your readers believe in. You need to take your readers by the hand and guide them on the journey that is your story. You need to write a story that’s so engaging your readers forget that they’re actually reading a book.
Characters and plot are the fundamentals of a story, but you also have to hone those details that make the world of your book feel real. Techniques like description, dialogue and world-building make the scenes of your story come to life and that’s what ultimately lets your readers suspend their disbelief and buy into the world of your book.
5. Read Like a Writer
All writers started out as avid readers. A writer who doesn’t like to read is like a chef who doesn’t like to eat: sooner or later, they’ll lose interest and drift to something else. It’s that voracious love of words that sustains us as writers and keeps us chugging ahead, even when the writing is hard.
At the same time, reading broadly can get overwhelming. No matter how fast you read, there will always be more books on that to-be-read (TBR) pile. I myself am a ridiculously slow reader, so I’ve had to learn to make the most of my reading time by selecting the right books and reading with a writer’s eye. When you learn to read like a writer, you will be able to put your own writing in the context of everything else that’s happening in the literary world.
6. Find Your Ideal Readers
With all the changes in publishing these last few years, one thing remains constant: the readers are what matter most. Whether you go through one of the big publishers, partner with a small press, or decide to self-publish your work, the ultimate goal is to get your book in the hands of your ideal readers. To do that, you need to hone in on who those ideal readers are, what they are looking for from your book, and how you as the writer can best serve them.
Many writers wait until they’re about to get published to start building these connections with readers. Get a jump on the process and start engaging your ideal readers now. Not only will you be miles ahead of the game come publication, but you’ll also learn a TON about yourself and your own writing in the process.
7. Navigate the Publishing Industry
Times have changed and publishing is no longer one-size-fits-all. Whether you plan to go with a publisher, to self-publish, or do a combination of the two, it’s crucial to understand the business behind the books. Things are changing fast in the world of publishing. What “worked” yesterday might not apply today. Following someone else’s “best practices” will not get you where you want to go, and it might even do you more harm than good. Instead, focus on personal connections. Meet new colleagues, start conversations and ask smart questions. Everything else will follow from there.
Take-Home Message: Learn Better
The key to succeeding as a writer is the ability to adapt and roll with the punches. In this brave new world of books, it’s the DIY learners who are most fit to survive. This is why I believe so strongly in the DIY MFA concept. While it’s great to get a jump ahead from a graduate program, ultimately what you learn in school will only get you so far. Instead, you need to learn to become better learner, someone who can adjust to this rapidly changing industry.
the learners who inherit the future.”
These seven pillars are all things that you can learn on your own. A successful writing education goes beyond the classroom. You need to find ways to fit these seven pillars into your everyday life. Then, and only then, will you be equipped to adapt to that fast-paced book industry.