July 11th, 2012


Life Skills for Writers

I have about 50 more pages to review/revise, and then I think I'll send it off to Mom and maybe a friend or two. I'm making a lot fewer changes than I expected. I don't know if that's been because of distraction brain (there are a couple of things I may go back and tinker with that I don't think registered when I read them) or if because it really is ready. Then I'll get back to stuff like updating the web site again.

I skipped the writing post last week for the holiday. Today I think I'll talk about something not strictly writing-related. We know the kinds of skills you need to be a writer: writing (duh), research, knowing something about the business. But I've found that there are some non-writing life skills that are helpful -- if not critical -- to a writing career.

1) The ability to read aloud.
If you get a book published, at some point you will likely be asked to read from your work. This can be a great promotional tool or it can sink you like a rock. Authors are asked to do readings at booksignings and conventions, and I even had a newspaper ask me to read an excerpt on the phone for them to put on the newspaper web site as a bonus feature for their article about me. If you can do a good job with these readings, you'll get the audience excited and interested even if your book isn't a topic they might otherwise notice. If you drone in a monotone, no matter how exciting the book itself may be, the audience will assume that your book is boring.

I also find that reading aloud is helpful in the creative process. It's a good way to proofread and make sure that you read every word and not just skim over it. It's a great way to check your dialogue and make sure it sounds like something someone would actually say and to make sure your characters have distinct voices. If you find yourself going into the character voices while reading, that's a good sign. But doing that in a way that proves to be helpful requires being able to read well.

Reading aloud well takes practice. Listen to books on tape to see how the pros do it. Go to readings by other authors and take note of what works and what doesn't. Take a speech or drama course at a community college. Record yourself reading your work or someone else's and then critique your own performance. If you do get scheduled for a reading, rehearse it. Don't just show up, then thumb through your book to find a part you think might work and read it cold. I usually find my excerpt in the manuscript and edit it for reading. You don't need dialogue tags if you're doing character voices, and there may be continuity bits you need to fix to make an excerpt make sense out of context. I print it in large print and mark up the page to remind me of what I need to do when I read. Then I practice and time it.

2) Non-fiction writing
Your focus may be on fiction, but being able to write articles and essays is really helpful for promoting your work. Blogging is essentially writing an essay, and the better you do it, the more effective it is as a promotional tool (I've been approached by magazines to turn blog posts into articles for them). You may also be asked to contribute articles or opinion pieces to writing magazines, writing organization magazines and newsletters or non-fiction books. Not only does that get your name out in more places, but it can be a nice way to make a little extra money.

3) Money management
If you live paycheck-to-paycheck and figure that if you still have money in your account, you're free to spend it, you'll probably have some trouble surviving as a full-time writer or even getting to the point of making the leap to full-time writing. You don't get a monthly paycheck with your taxes and insurance costs already deducted. Advances get paid in lump sums, and it's easy to get giddy and go nuts when you get a single check that big, but that check may have to last you a couple of years before the next bit of money comes in. Royalties (once you earn out the advance, which can take a few years) are generally paid twice a year by the big publishers. The e-bookstores pay monthly if you're self-publishing, but you don't know how big that check may or may not be each month. You'll need to put aside money to pay income taxes, and you'll have to pay business expenses. For instance, most promotion these days comes out of the writer's pocket, not the publisher's. Managing my money before I took the leap into full-time writing so that I had a big financial cushion was one of the best things I did for my career. You can find books on money management, and that's also something they usually have classes and seminars on at community colleges.

4) Networking and other interpersonal business skills
Networking can be very helpful in building a career, but if you do it wrong it can also be detrimental. It's a good idea to learn what's professional and acceptable -- how to approach people without being annoying or creepy, how to draw upon your network without being presumptuous or coming across like a user. There's also a lot of business etiquette that I've found helpful in my writing career. Even simple things like writing thank-you notes can make a big impression. I learned most of this stuff in my old day-job career and from the professional organizations I joined in college, but you can find books on these subjects. There may also be panels and workshops on networking and business etiquette at writing conferences and conventions.

Is there something you'd like to know about the craft or career of writing? Let me know and I'll address it in future posts.