Resolutions for the Writer
     Victoria Grossack

Itís the New Year, the traditional time for making resolutions (although you can make resolutions at any point in the year). Some are common enough: lose weight; exercise more; clean out the garage; organize your papers better for taxes. These are all important. But what about a few New Year Resolutions pertaining to you and your writing?

Before you start making resolutions, I think itís wise to review two important points, and to look at them realistically:

(1) Where do you want to go as a writer?
(2) And where are you now?

Where Do You Want to Go as a Writer?

You may want to have success on a par with J K Rowling, Stephen King, or some of the authors who have appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show. These dreams are all well and good, for of the many, many people who want to become mega bestselling authors, some people make it, right? Why not you?

I donít want to rain on your parade. Iím not raining on your parade. Thereís no reason that you should not have these dreams. I have my own writing dreams and ambitions and goals, and I assure you that the word ďmodestĒ does not describe them.

However, thereís your overall, long-term goal, and then there are your goals for this year, this month, this day, the next fifteen minutes. Your long-term goal may be to make the bestseller list. However, there are several significant goals that need to be reached along the way. Hereís one road-map with big landmarks on it:

(1) Write a book;
(2) Make that book good;
(3) Submit for publication;
(4) Acceptance and publication;
(5) Sell lots of books

I would suggest that these points, even though they should guide you, are not fine enough. And in this column weíre going to focus on the first two items above. What do you need to do to (1) write a book and to (2) make that book good?

Notice the emphasis on you. Youíre the one writing this book; youíre the one who has to write well. So letís consider where you are now.

Where Are You Now?

In plotting a course to success, you need to know, not only where you want to go but where you are now. So I want you to work through an assessment of your writing abilities. Determine where you are strong and where you are weak. Here are some questions you could ask yourself:

Writing that book:

(1) Do you have something you want to write? Something specific or is it a vague idea? Although you donít need to know everything, you should have a sense of the beginning, the middle, and the end.

(2) Do you have the time to write? The energy? The discipline? The physical stamina? The peace and quiet?

(3) Are you familiar with the genre? Amazingly, some people expect to be able to write romances when they have read very few themselves, or to write science fiction without ever reading science fiction novels. Ideas striking these people as new and original will, alas, often have been done many times over. Itís much easier to learn this by reading than to go through the trouble of writing.

(4) Have you practiced by writing smaller pieces, such as journals, short stories, essays, and so on? Many people start writing a thousand-page novel without having tried anything smaller. Would you enter a marathon without running around the block a few times first?

(5) Do you suffer from writerís block? If you do, do you know why you suffer from it and can you do something about it?

Making that book better:

(1) Can you admit that your writing isnít perfect? Until youíre able to distance yourself a little from your own words, youíre not going to be able to improve them.

(2) How are you with respect to the following areas?

Grammar
Vocabulary
Word choice in your writing
Character development
Plot
Dialogue
Description
Romance
Tension
Clarity
Mystery Endings

With respect to the list the above, you will benefit if you can get feedback from other people. Iíve always assumed that writers who make, for example, mistakes in grammar, donít realize that theyíre making these errors, because I canít fathom why they would make them knowingly.

(3) How are you about writing your first draft? Does it come easily or do you have trouble putting things down on paper? If itís easy some of the time and difficult other times, do you know why?

(4) How are you with editing? Is editing something you avoid or that you enjoy? Can you be objective about what you write? Can you see what works and what doesnít? Do you find it easy, for example, to refine your phrases and sentences but you have trouble revising the plot?

Invest in Your Writing

Once youíve determined where your strengths and weaknesses lie, you should capitalize on your strengths and try to shore up your weaknesses. For example, if you are good at dialogue and terrible at description, you might want to consider writing plays. If you are good at choosing words but not so good at developing plot, then perhaps poetry is right for you.

Although itís wise to build on your strengths, you shouldnít ignore your weaknesses. So, once you go through the list above thoroughly, and determine where you are, develop strategies for tackling them. Search for online articles devoted to your issue (Fiction Fix has many articles in the archives). Buy or borrow a book that addresses your weakness. Donít just read it; work through it. I think buying the book is better than borrowing, for it allows you to write in the margins and to look things up later when you need them. Furthermore, often the points made in a writing book need time to simmer and develop, so it helps if the book is on your shelf.

One way to take a great leap forward is to get feedback from other people. You need to find the right other people. Few of your friends will be able to help you; you need readers and writers who can see problems and give you feedback. Try taking a class or joining local writing groups or finding a critique group. You can also do many of these things on-line. On-line groups can be amazingly helpful (they can also be a waste of time, so make sure what you find is right for you). On-line classes can also be helpful.

Now, I expect that many of you out there, although you might be willing to invest your time, cling tightly to your wallets. This should all be for free, right? Some wariness is justifiable. There are frauds and fakes out there, as well as questionable practices. Even with respect to the stuff thatís legitimate, thereís no guarantee that a particular course is right for you, at your level. If youíre not sure, you could ask for references.

Let me plug the courses offered here at Coffeehouse for Writers. Most of my students seem to appreciate mine. Iíve also audited a couple of the other instructorsí courses and I know they have a lot to offer.

If your writing is worth something to you, donít you think itís worth spending something on? Why should you expect your writing to improve without investing in it?

Widen Your Horizons

Give back a bit. If you can, critique the work of other writers. Not only does this help them, it helps you. If you can learn to be objective about the words of others, then you will probably improve in your ability to be clear about your own.

Read other writers! And not simply in your preferred genre. Many years ago, I realized I was reading too many authors over and over, and not expanding my horizons. I decided to try a new-to-me author for each letter of the alphabet. (For X, I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which was in fact ghosted by Alex Haley, but I bent the rules a bit.) Not all the new authors were hits with me, but a few became favorites and the exercise was entertaining.

Get Started

Now that youíve read this article, I recommend printing it out and going through it with a pen and deciding on your writing goals for 2008. Donít limit yourself to the questions and issues in the article; if others are more important to you, then consider them. Write down your goals, and come up with a plan. And then, take concrete steps to achieve your goals.

May 2008 be a great writing year for you!

Want to use this article, you have questions or comments? Write to me at grossackva at yahoo dot com.

December Article Feedback

In my December 2007 column I wrote about ďYour Computer and Your CreativityĒ Ė but I neglected to mention one important feature of some word processors Ė the ability to ďTrack Changes.Ē This is an especially helpful tool for collaborators in the final stages of polishing their work. Thanks, Edward Curley, for reminding me of this feature!

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About the Writer:

Victoria Grossack is, with Alice Underwood, the internationally published author of Iokaste: The Novel of the Mother-Wife of Oedipus, and other books coming out in the series called the Tapestry of Bronze (Tapestry of Bronze.com).  You can also read more of her articles on writing by ordering the e-book, Levels of Structure in Fiction from  www.booklocker.com.  

Victoria was a moderator of a critique group for Coffeehouse for Writers and teaches the From Leaves to Forests and Writing Historical Fiction workshops for Coffeehouse for Writers.