Victoria Mixon is a seasoned professional with advice we need to hear, expertise we need to access and hope we need to internalize. She also has a book out there, well worth the time and money.
Her words to us today are pure gold. I recommend we all read this several times and then post it on our bathroom mirror.
It’s that freaking good.
The Bootstrapping Writer—The Secret at the Core of Competency
by Storyfix guest blogger Victoria Mixon
Writing is about growing up.
That’s the single most helpful thing I can tell you about this work.
Because after you’ve spent your years developing your craft, and you’ve read the right books (mine and Larry’s), taken the right advice and rewritten your manuscript, edited it with your editor, built your author platform, established your credibility, and even survived the endless process of querying, waiting, signing with an agent, waiting, getting a publisher and going through production, waiting more, and finally, finally launching your promotion and book tour for the first of all the books you will eventually write in your career. . .you still have something to learn.
How to do it all as a professional.
This is the crucial difference, the delta abyss, the secret at the core of competence. And it makes or breaks all publishing writers.
The amateur aspiring writer approaches the writing, as Roz Morris once mentioned, as therapy. They don’t treat it as a craft to learn or an art to master so it can be shared with an audience. It’s just their own guts lying out there on the dissecting table, writhing painfully and trying to crawl back into the shadows, away from the light.
The professional aspiring writer approaches the writing as a craft, a complex, challenging set of skills they must develop as fully as humanly possible in the short lifespan they’ve been allotted, in the context of art—that extraordinary impulse to put into words aspects of life that have never been given words before.
There is no more beautiful description of this than the maga-editor Diana Athill’s description of Jean Rhys (that most self-indulgent of artistic victims):
As soon as we began [editing] she became a different person, her face stern, her eyes hooded, her concentration intense. . .This seemed to give me a clear glimpse of the central mystery of Jean Rhys: the existence within a person so incompetent and so given to muddle and disaster—even to destruction—of an artist as strong as steel.
Reading about Writing
The amateur approaches books on writing as secret codes to stardom, assuming that if they speed-read all of them they will, at some point, be transformed through sheer determination into published authors or at least published authors’ best friends. The discrepancies in advice confuse and infuriate them. It does not occur to them that a lot of it is simply bad.
The professional approaches books on writing as illumination of a craft for which they have already begun to lay a foundation. They’re alert to similarities in different writers’ ways of giving the same advice. They’re mentally cataloging the intricacies of each aspect of the craft as they find them elaborated upon in different directions.
And they’re especially sensitive to the undercurrent of each writer’s agenda: is this writer interested in teaching others the amazing, endless depths of this work we love? or are they only interested in selling their own book by making promises they can’t possibly fulfill?
They learn to recognize bad advice by comparing it to great novels they love. And eventually the professional finds themself nodding in recognition rather than scratching their head in puzzlement. Books on writing become validation as much as enlightenment. That’s a brilliant way to put what I already knew.
The amateur approaches rewriting as a final gloss over a first draft cast in stone. Yes, they expected to need their punctuation corrected. What they did not expect was to learn a first draft is mostly research, background notes on these characters, this fictional world, that will eventually have to be written up as carefully planned and organized scenes structured around a central premise.
The professional approaches rewriting as the real work. Many of them don’t bother with that overarching first draft. They structure first, write second. They know just plowing through a manuscript without any idea where it’s going or what it means is a recipe for disaster, or at least for a whole lot of stuff to keep in folders of NOTES.
The amateur treats editing as a sullying of their artistic vision. They don’t necessarily know what art is or what their personal perspective on life has to do with it, but they are certain it’s not supposed to be tampered with. They worry about losing their ‘voice’ or the ‘life’ of the words. These innocents do not expect to need editing, either by their publisher (they’re in luck with that nowadays, anyway) or, worse, by a hired lackey. They expect their writing to breathe.
The professional treats the objective eyes of experienced professional editors as manna from heaven.
“Thank god you knew what to do about that!” they say in abject gratitude. “I was ready to burn the whole damn thing.”
The professional knows perfectly well the words on the first-draft page could have been put there by typewriting monkeys. They know it’s necessary to grease the wheels, but they don’t necessarily want to recycle the grease.
They want help shaping it into the catapult that’s going to fling their reader exactly where they want a reader flung.
Building a Platform
The amateur throws themself on the mercy of the blogosphere in a panic to score. Numbers! More numbers! Higher numbers! Infinite numbers! They do not see building an author platform as firming the ground upon which to stand forever, but as a paint-by-the-numbers project that, they hope against hope, will result in them making a grand sale of the Mona Lisa.
The professional uses the tools at hand—and in this era, those tools are very powerful, very grassroots, very free indeed—to let their audience know where they are. They’re not shilling for the publishing industry. They’re offering what they have so readers know they have it to give. All else unfolds from there.
The amateur thinks establishing credibility (thank you for that emphasis, Larry!) is simply getting lots of people to point at you. They forget that sometimes people point to laugh.
The professional knows what their credibility is based on and what they have yet to add to that base. They research. They study. They learn. They earn their keep. And when it comes time to draw on that credibility, they sometimes take a certain maverick delight in never being stumped because they truly are the expert in their field they need to be.
The amateur doesn’t query so much as shut their eyes tight, cross their fingers, and fling a handful of overworked words into the void in hopes they will fall into the hands of someone tender-hearted, desperate, and well-connected enough to use them. These people are usually devastated and occasionally incensed when this does not result in lucrative contracts.
The professional approaches querying as an exacting branch of the writing world—rather like journalism—that requires the writer to follow certain parameters established to ease the processing of zillions of handfuls of overworked words. The professional learns these parameters and develops a certain flair with this particular exacting niche. It’s all part of the job.
Then they do the real work, which is developing professional contacts in a way that showcases their integrity and responsibility and understanding of the hard work being undertaken by everyone in the field.
The amateur throws themself into waiting as if at the doors to a mental institution. The minute their queries are sent, they begin the pacing and chafing of hands, the lip-biting and compulsive blinking and, eventually, deep-chest growling. This goes on until either they wake up and realize they’re not the only pacing amateur in the world or their loved ones sign on the dotted line.
The professional knows waiting is part of the game—a big part of it. Yes, it’s nerve-wracking to sit around watching a pot boil. So they don’t. They get on with other projects, they kiss their sweetums, they take off their shoes and walk barefoot in the yard waving their arms in the sunshine or rain. They look around and remind themself, That was the imaginary part of my time on this planet. This is the real part.
The amateur can’t wait to be sent on book tour and, in pretty quick order, can’t wait to get home again. They launch into the first reading in the slow, sonorous voice they imagine would have come out of Edith Wharton (if they’d ever met her) and they’re certain actually does come out of J.K. Rowling. By the end of the second page they’re flying through words they know by heart so fast the audience can’t understand what they’re saying. It stops being fun. It starts being work.
They get cranky.
The professional is appropriately grateful if their publisher even agrees to foot the bill for a book tour and plans for it the way they planned to learn writing, to learn queries, to wait. They rest up and make sure their schedule includes enough downtime to keep them alive for the duration. They organize the necessary travel and bookstore information so they’ll have it on hand when they need it. They let friends know they’ll be getting unexpected peevish calls of exhaustion and frustration from a whiny voice who will forget to identify themself. They promise their loved ones to go back to normal eventually.
Then they pull themself up by the bootstraps and remind themself that this audience—these readers—are the people paying their mortgage out of the sheer kindness of their hearts. Every single one of them deserves the respect of good breeding. The professional is the one bringing them that good breeding.
Finally, the amateur thinks writing is going to fix their life. They convince themself (with a little help from the current state of the sales-hysterical contemporary publishing industry) that fame and fortune lie in wait just around the corner, if they can only snatch it out of the hands of the next guy in line quick enough.
And when this fails to be the case, they crumble—and all the vitriol and bitterness and gall they hoped writing would stave off forever sweeps them like a flashflood off their feet and into the Hell of the Disgruntled, where they spend the rest of their days griping about what might have been.
The professional knows they don’t live because they write, they write because they live.
They do both with all the passion they can muster. But mostly they live.
A. Victoria Mixon is a professional writer and independent editor with over thirty years’ experience in both fiction and nonfiction. She is the coauthor of Children and the Internet: A Zen Guide for Parents and Educators and author of The Art & Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner’s Manual. She can be reached through her blog, her editorial services, and Twitter.
(Larry’s comment: gang. It really is that good.)