If you’ve read my book, Write Awake: A Conscious Path to Creativity and Change, you know that I did not follow the "traditional" path to becoming a writer. I was a professional singer until I was about 23 years old and I always thought singing would be my career for the rest of my life.
When I think about it, I doubt I’ve ever done anything traditionally. For example:
I didn’t go to college immediately after high school.
I didn’t marry until I was nearly forty and I didn't wear white.
I didn’t have 2.3 kids.
I didn't take a vacation every year.
I didn't retire when I was 65.
I hadn't planned to become a novelist but here I am with two published books of fiction under my belt and I'm working on two more. One thing I discovered early on is there are several paths to becoming an author. But what do you do when you've lost your way?
Hitting the Trail
Smart hikers don't just traipse off for the mountains without a plan.
They practice strength endurance to ensure they’re fully fit for the journey. They practice building a fire. They check the weather for the day of their hike and study a map of the hiking trail to determine how far they wish to hike, noting all the possible obstacles and potential hazards.
Writers begin their path with a dream. Perhaps they are inspired by a particular author; maybe they’ve always wanted to write. This desire leads to studying and reading the works of other authors, particularly in the genre they're interested in writing. They may take a creative writing course or two, but most of all they daydream until they feel ready to write.
Do you have a plan? Even if you’re someone who detests organization and just wants to "wing it," an outline of what you think your book will look like is helpful. It's the map that provides you with direction. An outline doesn’t show you everything you may encounter, but it does give you an idea of what to expect.
I'm a great believer in signs. And whenever I feel lost, I look for one.
Have you been working on a novel, but finding it difficult to get from Point A to Point B? I developed a special "hike" that takes you through the novel writing woods with six trail markers: Draft, Story, Characters, Edit, Publish, and Promote. To keep the pace, I added navigational links to writer friendly websites and apps. Think of them as your trusty navigation system to get you back on track.
Are you ready to begin? Grab your gear and journey on!
Marker #1: Draft
I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box, so that later, I can build castles. ~ Shannon Hale
You've brainstormed, actually put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), and now you've wandered a bit from your initial outline. Don’t panic because you can take a rest right here by the writing stream while you get your bearings.
First drafts are like waterfalls where every drop of idea cascades into the same pool. Drafts are meant to be catch-alls, so jot down everything you can think of, even it it sounds silly. It’s always better to have too many words than not enough and you can edit it later.
From this marker, check your navigation tools, hydrate, then keep on trekking…
Marker #2: Story
First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him. ~ Ray Bradbury
Not knowing your story is like finding fallen trees blocking your way on the path. Until you move the obstacles, you're going nowhere.
Have you traveled the world? Did you discover buried treasure? Have you survived cancer or taken care of someone who has? Did you raise the one kid who called for a school-wide strike or made a mess of Aisle 10 in the supermarket? You’ve got the makings of a story there!
Transport yourself to that moment in time. See yourself touching, smelling, seeing, tasting, and hearing in that particular scenario. This is what you want to convey to your readers. And don’t just tell them what happened, show them.
Let’s say you want to write about a summer road trip you took with your family. Be as specific as you can about your adventure. What’s going on outside? Did you drive past lakes and farms and “9 Miles to Stuckey’s” billboards?
What’s happening inside? Is your car filled with pillows and suitcases, a traveling bingo game, and a picnic cooler? Is there an assaulting odor of sweat and feet, discarded French Fries, and smelly onion-soaked cheeseburger wrappers?
Think about the sounds of your trip. Write about the music blasting on the radio, your brother making disgusting armpit noises, and your sister singing off-key in the back seat.
Be as imaginative as you want to be, but don’t forget to dig for storywriting gems among your own real-life adventures!
Marker #3: Characters
Character is destiny. Change, growing from within and forced from without, is the mainspring of character development. ~ Rita Mae Brown
You’ve passed a few squirrels, a deer, and a tree stump that looks like a bear. So how would you incorporate these sightings into new characters for your book?
Writing from a non-human perspective can be fun, as I discovered while writing my book, Inn Lak’ech. Not only do the water and trees speak, but teenager Elm Sunday gets to transform into a tree herself, marveling at her new roots shooting deep into the soil and the butterflies tickling her arm-like branches.
With humans, observing what you and others do will help you write more realistic characters.
Think of some of the mundane tasks you do at home. Vacuuming, emptying the dishwasher, cleaning the windows. The next time you do one of those tasks, think about what it involves. Do you stand? Do you crouch? Which supplies do you use? Which muscles in your body are being utilized during this activity?
If you want your characters to be more believable, give them conflict. In reality, everyone has conflict and when they surpass the obstacles, they grow and advance. Have your characters grow, too.
Marker #4: Edit
So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads. ~ Dr. Seuss
Are you experiencing some shortness of breath? The altitude may be a little high now because editing is a tough terrain. Many writers don’t like to self edit, but I look forward to it because it allows me to make things pretty, to clean up the mind clutter. It’s really a necessity, especially if you’ve been throwing every thought onto the page like an overcrowded writer’s soup. (Honestly, you wouldn’t believe all the stuff I had squeezed into this one blog post before it was edited.)
So where are you right now with your novel? Does your head feel like it’s ready to burst? If so, just stop. Breathe in that fresh air. Then, take out your draft and listen to what you’ve written so far. Yes, read it aloud. Does it flow? If it doesn’t sound right, cross it out.
At this point, you may choose to hire a professional editor or not. Whatever you decide, please let go of the idea that every word you write is precious. If a word doesn't work, you don’t need it. Either let it go or save it for another book.
Marker #5: Publish
Publishing is a business. Writing may be art, but publishing, when all is said and done, comes down to dollars. ~ Nicholas Sparks
Your manuscript is the best it can be and you are ready for the next step in your journey. But now you have a dilemma. From this point onward, there are two directions you could take to becoming a published writer.
The traditional route is the one where you work hard, then wait to hear from your agent or publisher, then wait again for your masterpiece to be printed and released to the general public. It's a constant waiting game, but obviously worth it to the millions of authors who achieved it.
Your other choice is to self publish. That’s the direction I took and one of the many reasons I did was because I wanted total control over what I wrote and said about my book. There’s absolutely no shame in publishing it yourself—Mark Twain, Beatrix Potter, and Stephen King did it—and you spend less time waiting for others to make a decision. However, independent publishers wear a multitude of hats and it is hard work because you handle everything from the book formatting to the cover design.
Marker #6: Promote
All of marketing consists in creating relationships. Real relationships: friends, lovers, partners, warriors, fans. ~ John Kremer
Ugh. You’re tired and I get it. You have reached the summit on your very long and winding trail where the view from on high is spectacular!
And look what you’ve accomplished—you are a published author!
You might think it is all downhill from here, but in some ways, promoting your works is even more difficult than writing them. And I feel your pain, I really do. But here’s the direction you need to follow after you’ve reached this marker:
Create an author website.
Create an author page on Facebook.
Create a mailing list.
Create and send a newsletter.
Promote your book on social media.
Schedule book readings and other promotional events.
What a gorgeous sunset! Here you are at the end of the trail and you're (past) ready for a vacation. That's fine, but understand this is not the end of the adventure because the process is virtually the same for every book you write hereafter.
As I reflect upon my own novel writing journey, one of the greatest challenges has been keeping up the momentum. So my last tip for you is to take breaks, hydrate often, and eat plenty of energizing trail mix!