Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Learning to be a Writer

The question we are answering this week is, “What obstacles, if any, did you encounter on your road to becoming a writer? And how did you overcome them?”

Terry Shames here:

I could take up the whole week answering this question, but I’ll try to keep the obstacles I encountered to a few.

1)    Myself. People often tell me they are amazed at my output. I feel like a slacker in comparison to some writers, but in comparison to myself when I was younger, I guess it’s pretty good. But having reasonable output did not come easily. It took me years to get over being….okay, what’s the word? Lazy? Not exactly; but close. I was always a a hard worker. I started working to buy some of my own clothes when I was 12. In high school I knew if I wanted to go to college, I’d have to pay for it myself, so I worked afternoons and weekends during school, and full-time during summers. I worked while I went to college. I have always had a good work ethic. But the kind of lazy I’m thinking of is the kind that lets me off the hook for working hard toward a personal goal. I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t have the rigor to really push myself to become good at writing. Which leads me to the second obstacle:

2)    Kidding myself. I somehow had the idea that when I got around to writing, all the words I wrote would be golden. When I finally decided to get serious about writing, I kept a cartoon on the door of my office. It showed two babes soaking in a hot tub. One says to the other, “I’d write a book, too, if I just had the time.” The cartoon was an admonishment to myself. When I was in my twenties and thirties I wrote a lot. I wrote half-books, half-stories, story ideas, twenty pages of books. Get the picture? I was fooling around. I told myself that if I actually wrote a book, it would be good. I just had to get around to doing it. I remember having a conversation with Roger Hobbs about his first novel, Ghostman, which won critical acclaim. He told me that he had written a few other novels, but that he didn’t think any of them were good enough to submit. What a concept! If only I had had the same understanding of quality when I was his age (he was twenty-six) I might have made things a lot easier on myself.

3)    Not doing my homework. What this amounted to was not having any understanding whatsoever of the publishing industry—and not doing the work to gain that understanding. Again, it was that particular brand of laziness that afflicted me. The first book I ever wrote was a science fiction book. When I had written about half of it, I chose a publisher at random, sent a  few chapters to them, and….wonder of wonders, they said they liked it, and asked me to send the rest. I was so terrified that I didn’t write another word for almost a year. And I never got back to them.  If I had done my homework, I would have known not to send anything until the whole manuscript was ready, or at the very least I would have been honest and told the publisher that I was only halfway through with the book. As it was, I squandered an opportunity to have the book judged fairly. I wish I could remember my thought process, but it’s clear in retrospect that I hadn’t paid enough attention to what it meant to work at writing and publishing.

4)    Or rather, this is 3) plus. Still not doing my homework. Finally I decided to dig in and really write. I wrote one book after another, got one good agent after another, and nobody could place the books. There are so many things I did wrong with this—so many obstacles I created for myself—that I’m still amazed that I ever managed to get over it.. Instead of working with an agent who had shopped my book, the next time I wrote a book, I looked for a different agent. I suppose to be fair, none of them had impressed on me that they would work with me to perfect my next project, but from my end I simply moved on. If I had bothered to find out about agent/writer relationships, I would have known to work with the same agent on the next project.


5)    The usual. I got over those personal obstacles by attending some mystery writing workshops, joining MWA and Sisters in Crime, and working with a very serious writer’s group. all of which taught me a professional approach to being a writer. The lesson, in short, is to write the best book you can write, have it critiqued, send the work to agents who are right for your manuscript. And you have to persevere.  By taking myself seriously, I finally I found a home for my books.

 There’s not enough room to write about the question of how much of my obstacle creation was laziness and how much was fear. But what I do know is that whatever the root of my problem, had I been more professional I might have overcome the obstacles sooner. I wish I could go back and tell myself that a professional approach might have short-circuited what became a years-long slog to being published. So bottom line? My biggest obstacle was myself.

ANNOUNCEMENT: The publishing date of my next Samuel Craddock novel, A Risky Undertaking for Loretta Singletary, has been delayed. I will update readers as soon as the new date has been firmed up. Stay tuned!

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