A couple weeks back, my friend Matt sent me a message on Facebook:
Weird question for you:
You’ve always been a gifted writer, and have pursued it as a career. I’ve always enjoyed it too, and over the last couple of years have given some thought to pursuing it, though to what extent I’m not sure.
Running our business leaves me with little free time, which I like to spend with the kids obviously.
I wanted to know if you could offer any advice if I was considering publishing something. I’ve given thought to everything from business writing to poetry to fiction.
I realize this is likely a long road, and may be an empty pursuit (especially given that I can’t pursue it full time, and if I’ve learned anything it’s that almost every success requires hard work), but I think I may try anyway.
You’re probably looking at this thinking, “OK, where do you want to start?” The truth is I don’t know.
For sure I don’t want to paste a poem onto some random website and hope for the best.
I spent a week or two thinking about his question and then wrote what follows. Matt gave me permission to share it as a post.
I hope you find it useful, too.
Is Wanting to Write a Waste of Time?
Writing feeds the soul.
I can’t function if I’m not writing something. I’ve tried, and it never works out (just ask my family).
It also strikes me as unfair to expect family, friends or work to do all of your soul filling. That puts unreasonable demands on people. (Same with expecting your happiness to come from others.)
Sometimes, you need to do something that is just for you.
Most importantly, writing is how I process the world.
Fiction or Non-Fiction?
They also require different skill set.
Back in high school, I had a teacher named Dan DeSouza who told me I was better suited to non-fiction. He praised my ability to structure logical arguments.
At the time, I was convinced I was going to write a successful fantasy novel (still am.)
I spent several years resisting his comments and thinking he was wrong to dismiss my fictive genius. After I got to know myself better as a person and a writer, I realized he was right.
My analytical skill set does make me more of a natural in the business/non-fiction world.
For the record, I haven’t given up on fiction route. I’ve been in a writing group for six or seven years, but it’s all on hold while my family is young.
I’ve accepted that it’s a long game and the non-fiction world is where I’m living right now.
The good part?
Any kind of writing that you practice and refine will make you a better writer in terms of fundamentals, although I also believe there are nuances to telling fictional stories that no end of business writing will teach you.
I Want to Write Fiction
- Write everyday. It doesn’t matter if it’s six minutes or 60 minutes. Find a block of time you can structure into your day and use it to write no matter what else is happening. Maybe it’s in a note book. Maybe it’s on a digital device. Whatever. For me, it’s Monday nights on my computer at home. Yes, that means I break my everyday rule, although I do write a lot in my job.
- Don’t worry about whether or how to publish, especially in the beginning. You have no control, really, over whether people will want to share and engage with your work. What you do have control over is the writing process itself. The more you can divorce your creative and marketing selves the better. It isn’t easy, especially if you work in a marketing-related field.
- Write something start-to-finish—a poem, a story, a novel, whatever—before you worry about what do with it. You’ll learn the most that way about yourself and your goals.
- Try not to edit as you write. Shut that critic up and focus on doing the brain-hand-paper/device transfer as well as you can.
- If you are serious about a specialized field like poetry, get on Twitter and start following some poets to learn about their challenges, ideas, writing practices, etc. Start with my former colleague and friend, Sonnet L’Abbé. She’s neat.
- If you get stuck or reach a point where you need feedback, take a class. I really enjoyed my experience at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies. I met my former writing teacher (the fantastic Nalo Hopkinson) and writing group that way. One of us got published last year.
- When you finish something and you have taken it as far as you possibly can, start thinking about what to do with it. There are lots of options (traditional literary agents, publishers, WattPad, Amazon, vanity presses, etc.) Whatever you do, make sure you do your homework. There is a whole process and you will need to research it to present yourself and your work in the best possible light. For example, if you like speculative fiction, you might look at Ralan for market information.
- Be particularly wary of self-publishing arrangements. I’m not saying don’t consider it, just be extra careful. For every Amanda Hocking, there are thousands of writers whose work has not found a massive audience. I am particularly skeptical of the merit of exposing early work to an audience (e.g., WattPad and their competitors). Make sure you aren’t tying your hands down the road.
- If you do get published, be prepared to roll up your sleeves. The self-publishing game has made everyone a promoter. Prepare accordingly.
- Whatever anyone tells you, and there is a whole cottage industry around people who want you to take their advice (some good or some bad), there is no wrong way to be creative. There are, perhaps, more productive ways to get the most out of your creativity, but satisfaction will come from finding what works for you and doing it.
Trust me, unless your name is Vincent Lam, going that route won’t work out.
I Want to Write Non-Fiction
- Write everyday (yes, it is inescapable). It doesn’t matter if it’s six minutes or 60 minutes. Find a block of time you can structure into your day and use it to write no matter what else is happening. Maybe it’s in a note book. Maybe it’s on a digital device. Whatever. For me, it’s Monday nights on my computer at home. Yes, that means I break my everyday rule.
- Ask yourself: can you connect your working life and your writing life? You may want to read Scott Stratten on this subject—his UnMarketing book stresses that everyone is an expert in something. Talking to your consumer audience in an accessible way can make you a thought leader in your sector and attract a wider audience base. If it scratches your writing itch at the same time, so much the better.
- Blogging is the easiest entry point to the market. It’s cheap, it’s easy to set up, and it gives you content for either your business or your profession. I used blogging to demonstrate my writing skills and content knowledge beyond my current position. I do believe it helped me to get hired into my current job (if for no other reason than the ongoing confidence boost it gives me).
- The other beauty of blogging? Blogging is fast. I can do a post in a couple of hours, which lets me feel like I accomplished something. If you also exist in the world of small-people/time-crunch, that’s pretty important for motivation. (It also explains the whole Mommy blogger phenomenon.)
- If you go this route, brainstorm about possible topics. Look for idea clusters.
- Write five or six posts before you put anything up online to get a feel for your tone and style. Also, try and decide on a publishing schedule early-on. I can tell you that after starting Analytic Blinks and committing to a weekly post on the same day of the week, my site traffic has improved.
- When you launch a blog, set up Google Analytics to gain some hard data on your audience. It’s a good way to get feedback on what works from a content perspective.
- Be prepared for a lot of wet noodling—throwing stuff at the creative wall and seeing what sticks.
- Failing is okay. The Analytic Eye is my second blog. My first never took off—I was doing it for myself, not for an audience. I did learn a lot.
- If you do any kind of non-fiction writing, find a way to make it work for you. For example, I realized in writing this response to my friend that it would make a decent blog entry. People get less upset if you ask for their permission to publish ahead of time, as I did in this case.
If I Could Tell You One Thing . . .
… it would be this:
Before markets or audience or intended readers, writing is something you can do for you. It is a bit like the classical perception of higher education in that way.
I started this blog because I wanted to do it. I kept writing it because I enjoyed it.
This week, one of my posts is being published as chapter in The Book of Business Awesome. (Check out the neat contest for people buying multiple copies on Stratten’s site. Or buy from Amazon, etc.)
Never in my wildest dreams did I think any of that would happen when I started blogging.
But it did.
So have fun.
See what happens.