Five Years In

I took last week off from writing, one of several one-week sabbaticals I take during the course of the year. It helps clear my mind and gives me a creative reboot. Since writing is not my primary job and I’m not working on any contract at the moment, I can afford to be somewhat whimsical with my schedule. After all, it is summer, and I’d rather be outside than sitting in my familiar chair pounding away on my keyboard.

While I was outside enjoying the weather, a milestone quietly passed. On July 1, 2012, I began my quest to become a published author. It was then that I first sat down in my chair in the wee hours of a weekday morning and began my daily habit of spending an hour writing. After many years of randomly creating and then abandoning stories like candy wrappers in a post-Halloween binge, I had finally committed myself to some sort of plan – a plan to become a better writer and complete what I started. Here I am five years later, and I’m still going strong.

Over the course of those five years, I’ve written seven novels. While all but one sit in the proverbial desk drawer, each of them is finished in the sense that I have completed at least two drafts, sometimes more. Each has taught me something new about writing because the mistakes I made in them became glaringly obvious as I reviewed them and had others review them. Protagonist is too weak, point-of-view shifts too much, and too much backstory are some examples of the problems I uncovered in my storytelling as a result of writing these novels. The feedback has been invaluable, and with each critical assessment, I tackle the next novel with more knowledge than I had before. That growth is imperative if I ever hope to become a published author.

Many writers tell aspiring authors to “just write,” and that I have done, but I have also worked to hone my craft by reading novels and observing what established writers do. When you’re a writer, you read differently. You notice things that may go unheeded by those simply interested in a good book. For example, I’m currently reading The Reconstructionist by Nick Arvin. It’s a literary novel that slowly reveals an intriguing subplot as the novel progresses. Arvin’s use of the subplot is unique and has me thinking that I can use such a convention in one of the story ideas I have. Stephen King will tell you that you can’t write if you don’t read, and he’s right. Reading is studying your craft.

Reading isn’t the only thing I’ve done to improve. I’ve attended conferences to meet writers and agents and get their feedback on the work I’ve done. This, too, has been tremendously helpful. Steven James’ and Robert Dugoni’s Novel Writing Intensive was one of the best four-day weekends I’ve spent in learning mode. The Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association has also provided endless resources to help me get better. The only complaint I have is that I don’t have enough time to consume everything I’d like to learn. I spend my daily hour writing, and anything beyond that, including learning, is gravy.

Later this week, I will take the next step in the learning part of my journey. I’m attending the first session of The Fifth Semester in Chicago where I’ll spend time with Dr. Ann Garvin and Erin Celello, two experienced authors and teachers. They put on what amounts to a MFA (Master of Fine Arts) boot camp twice per year that starts in Chicago and finishes in New York six months later. This intensive study and feedback session helps authors get on the track to publication. Of course, there are no guarantees, but the learning experience, like the others I have undertaken, should help me take it up a notch, and that can only mean good things when it comes to writing. I’ll share more after the first session.

Writing Goal for 2017

I only have one writing goal for 2017: Improve my writing. That’s it. I like to keep it simple and focused, and I cannot imagine a simpler and more focused goal than that. It’s not that I haven’t worked on improving my writing in the past – I have, but 2017 will be solely about pushing my work to the next level. In 2016, I wrote a lot – certainly over a thousand pages when all is said and done, and I completed two more draft novels. I’ve received some great feedback from other writers and agents, and the reality is that I still have a lot of work to do if I’m ever going to get to the point of publication, so I’m dedicating 2017 to getting better. Much better.

It’s nice to have a goal, but without a plan, it’s worthless. Once again, I’m going to keep it simple. There are three things I’m going to do in 2017 to help me achieve this goal: (1) Read (or finish) five books on writing, (2) Attend the Fifth Semester workshop, and (3) Practice. I’m a glutton for punishment, so I couldn’t resist forming a corny acronym out of my plan called RAP – Read, Attend, Practice. Can you tell I’ve worked in the corporate world for over 20 years? Every morning when I get up to write before work, I will remind myself of RAP and ensure that anything I’m doing with that precious hour falls in line with my plan.

To get even more specific (and focused), here are the five books I plan to read (or finish) on writing:

  • Story Trumps Structure by Steven James
  • On Writing Well by William Zinsser
  • The Art of Character by David Corbett
  • How to Write Dazzling Dialogue by James Scott Bell
  • Structuring Your Novel by K.M. Weiland

All of these books have been recommended to me by other writers or on blogs about writing.

I’m most excited about the Fifth Semester. This four-month-long workshop that includes three-day residencies in Chicago and New York will give me the opportunity to really accelerate my development as a writer. I plan to take my latest novel, Into the Caldera, and put it through the wringer of this course in the hope that I come out with my first publishable novel. It’s a huge investment, but it will pay off in terms of my improvement.

Last, but definitely not least, I will continue to practice by writing at least five days a week during that seminal hour every morning from 5 AM to 6 AM. My focus will not be on completing additional novels; although, I will continue to work on new ideas. Previously, I had set a goal of writing two novels a year, but I’ve backed off that goal as I’ve accumulated seven complete novels and have yet to get to the point of publication. I’ve learned a lot in this process, but now, I need to focus my efforts on getting past novels in the proverbial desk drawer. Much of my practice will be shared here in this blog as has been the case for the past two years. This blog is like my lab, not everything makes it out as a finished product, but at least the experimentation is fun.

Here’s to an exciting and, hopefully, rewarding 2017! Happy New Year!