Bleary-eyed I stumble
From the bed to the floor
Feel the carpet squish
Beneath my toes.
Silent, I tiptoe
Down the dimly-lit hall
To the table
Where my journal waits.
Open it, step inside
Where will it take me today?
What makes a writer successful? Fame? Money? These days both are elusive. If these are your goals, you may not have the stamina for the expedition. The road may long and difficult. There’ll be twists and turns along the way. And maybe even a dark forest or two. If you’re ready to find out if you have the fortitude for the journey, read on.
Being a successful writer is finding joy in the journey, finding the sunlight through the trees, and making new discoveries along the way. It’s showing up, engaging in something meaningful, and celebrating your progress.
If you’re ready to begin, here are the 5 not-so-easy steps.
1. Write. Daily.
The inimitable Jane Yolen, author of 386 books, has this magic word she shares with writers – BIC. It stands for Butt in Chair.
This is the first step in becoming a successful writer. You have to write. Daily.
How many times have you fantasized about seeing your name on a book in a bookstore? Or imagined yourself reading to a room full of kids? Or speaking at a writer’s conference?
None of these experiences will happen if you don’t do the work.
Jane Yolen starts every day with a poem. She calls her morning poems “finger exercises” because they wake her up and get her ready to write. She likens the practice to “priming the pump so the water flows.”
Yolen says she gets grumpy if she just rushes into one of her projects without writing her morning poem. I tried it this morning and the result is the poem above. It works. I was able to get into the flow of this article much quicker than I normally do.
How do you prime yourself for writing?
Try writing a poem each morning. Or, sit down and let your thoughts spill onto the page in a stream of consciousness. Then, tackle your big project. ‘Finger exercises’ remove the damns blocking your flow of words.
If you want to be a successful writer get your butt in the chair, warm-up, and write.
2. Play the long game
Kwame Alexander jokes that he is a “26-year overnight success.”
Don’t expect instant success as a writer. Most successful authors take years to finally break out. Judy Blume received rejections for two years and attended writing courses at night before ever successfully publishing a book. Kwame Alexander self-published fourteen books before he finally found an agent.
What is one trait all successful writers share? Determination.
Play the long game. Stick with writing because you love it, because it completes you and gives your life meaning, not because you’re expecting instant success.
Neal Porter, vice-president and publisher of Neal Porter Books, says picture books take 2-3 years from submission to publication. That’s a long time. If you want to be a traditionally-published writer, you’ll have to be patient. Even if you want to self-publish, you’ll still need patience. Make sure your book is the very best version it can be before you share it with the world.
In the SCBWI interview with Jane Yolen she said she’s never understood all this stuff about writers bleeding onto the page. She’s joyous when she writes. Perhaps we all need to be a bit more joyous and little less serious when we write. Our joy will shine through in our writing.
If you’re not prepared to play the long game and you can’t find the joy in your writing, it will show.
Reading the work of others will help you tune your ear.
First, read for the joy of it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started a book and planned to read it with a writer’s eyes, only to get swept away by the story. If you want to study the craft of writing first, read for the sheer joy of it. Get this out of your system. Only then will you be able to go back and read like a writer.
Find standout passages. What makes them special?
Which scenes provoke emotional reactions? Why?
Notice what techniques the writer uses. Look for the pauses in the story – those quiet, powerful scenes followed by loud, thumping action. How does the author blend the two?
How does an author add layers of meaning and depth? What lies under the surface of the story?
How do the scenes fit together?
Look for the rhythm of the writing. Are the sentences short? Are they long? How does the author merge them seamlessly?
What are the conventions of your genre? Read other books in the same genre. Look for the common elements and also for the ways the author distinguishes himself within the genre.
Explore character. What are the protagonist’s flaws? What are his/her quirks? Everyone has them. Give you character some dimension. How does your character charm the reader? Does he or she have any endearing qualities? Are they a loyal friend or a well-meaning fool?
When you tune your reader’s ear, you’ll notice a world of exciting possibilities open to you as a writer. Be bold. Go forth. Explore.
4. Stay in your own lane
Stop looking ahead or over your shoulders at other writers. It may feel like a punch to the gut when you see someone who seems to come out of nowhere and zoom ahead of you, but remember, we’re all on our own journey and your success may not look like someone else’s.
As your writing develops, try to discover your own voice. Sometimes, it helps to write in the style of other authors when you’re starting out. But, if you stick with writing long enough your goal should be to find your own voice and style. Find it by experimenting, taking chances, and being brave.
“Every great or even every very good writer makes the world over according to his own specification. It is his world and no other. This is one of the things that distinguishes one writer from another. Not talent. There’s plenty of that around.”- Raymond Carver
If you’re copying others, your writing won’t provoke an emotional reaction in the reader. Jill Santopolo, author and associate publisher of Philomel Books, looks for emotion in the books she takes on.
“Those books that touch readers are the ones who really sell.” – Jill Santopolo
Stay in your own lane. Stop comparing yourself with others. Be brave, take chances, experiment and practice. Listen to your intuition to help you find and hone your voice.
“Know yourself. Know what matters. What are your priorities? What will you fight for?” – Julie Strauss-Gabel
Where will your writer’s journey take you?
5. Put yourself out there
“It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default” – J.K. Rowling, Harvard Commencement address
Sharing your work with others is scary. It makes you feel vulnerable. Do it anyway. It’s the quickest way to grow.
In her interview with SCBWI on Saturday Judy Blume suggested you looking for someone supportive of your writing journey. She once had a writing teacher who didn’t believe in her so she left his class. It’s important to get the right people in your corner. You want people who are honest and direct, but also encouraging.
Who will be in your superhero writing team?
- Who will challenge you?
- Who will hold you accountable?
- Who will celebrate with you when you finish your project?
Create your own superhero writing team. Join a writing group. Support others. Help each other grow and develop. When you do, everyone wins.
Face your fears. Hit publish. Find readers for your manuscript and deal with your discomfort because it’s the only way to grow.
If you want to be a successful writer, write every day, play the long game, read, stay in your own lane, and put yourself out there. You won’t regret it.
“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” – J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets