“Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it!”
A writer friend and Storyfix.com regular recently contacted me off-line for some advice. With a year-off from work on her hands and a strong desire to improve her writing, she asked me how I would spend such a year. Here is my response.
You state you want to be a better writer, and less strongly, that you “possibly” want to publish at the end of that year. Actually, my response is to deconstruct that sentence and rebuild it.
Because the way to become a better writer is to write with the intention of publishing.
It’s like someone stating they wish to improve their golf game, and then maybe enter and win some tournaments at the end of the year. That process looks different than the golfer who states “I WILL win a tournament” by the end of the year. That commitment creates context and colors the entire experience of the year. Improvement will come quicker, because it must.
The information about how to write publishable stories is out there. And even so, there is no guarantee, sometimes great work remains unpublished. We never know.
You don’t need to practice these principles, you need to put them into play. Which means you’ll practice as you go. I can teach you the criteria, the format, the process, the sequence, and the bar you must reach. What I can’t do is put the ideas in your head or the words on your screen.
A golf coach can show someone how to swing the club. But the rest is up to them.
Would I enter an MFA program for a year? No. Unless you want to write true “literature,” the kind few people read outside of MFA programs. If you want to write commercial fiction (I’m assuming that’s the kind of work you want to do), you don’t need an MFA. You need to simply write, and write from an informed perspective. Workshops are good, gobble them up. Find a methodology, a theory, an approach you like, understand it inside and out, and then put it to work. Find published work you like, then emulate it. There are no formulas other than effort-equals-opportunity.
As for a writing coach, that can work, but it can end up being expensive. It’s often a comfort-level security blanket type of thing, unless the writer is truly unsure of what to write, how to write it and for what purpose it unfolds as it does. Which is ironic, I think, because such a writer probably is too far behind the learning curve to write something publishable anyway. But yes, a writing coach can help, someone to bounce ideas and story-planning documents off, and then to show chapters to.
The real flag in the sand here, I think, is to get clear on your intentions.
Are you seeking to improve, or to publish? Of course, in striving for publication improvement is implied and demanded, but the reverse is not true. Improvement through effort is different than improvement through study. Improvement through both is best.
Then you need to get clear on what, specifically, you want to write. You need to define your project, put a fence around it. What genre, what market, what plan. Do you have a killer story idea? That’s the starting point, right after you declare intention.
The best process and the most thorough information in the world can’t turn a bad idea into a good one, or bad writing into solid writing. That stuff can’t be taught, it must be discovered by each writer in their own way.
A big mistake is that people begin the journey without a truly compelling idea for a story. Their desire is so strong that they settle, they’ll write anything just to be in the game, to be actually writing something.
The whole proposition can be made or broken right here, right at the starting gate. The idea you wish to pursue is huge. Search for it, but don’t rush it, and don’t settle. Find an idea that keeps you up at night.
If you have that idea, you need to grow it into a story, through the creation of a plan for the story. I call this “ideation” — the evolution of an idea, a seed, a germ of something, into a fleshed out story that others – key word there – will want to read.
In the end, no matter how you go about it, you will have developed a story that fulfills six different requirements (what I call the Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling). Story structure is only one of them. The Big Idea is another one. Then there comes character and theme. These are the four building blocks of your story.
The other two core competencies become “executional” processes — you need to understand and master the craft of writing great scenes, which are sequenced according to proper structural principles (the milestones you’ve read on my blog), and written with a compelling “voice.”
There is nothing else besides these six things. And within each there is depth of learning and experience waiting for you. You don’t have to be other-worldly great at all of them. But you do in at least one of the four building blocks, and then become very competent in both of the two executional core competencies (scenes and voice).
Are you up for all that? Even if you don’t feel you “own” these now, simply acknowledging them as the goal puts you miles ahead of most writers.
The ball is in your court. What do you want to pursue? What is your story? Is it worth a year in your life? Are you willing to not settle and not compromise, to build this thing the way it needs to be built?
If you understand the above process and criteria, you are miles ahead of most new writers. Trust me on this.
Opening quote by Geothe. But then, you knew that.