When I was in 7th grade, my English teacher told me that I had potential as a writer. That was enough for me to set a goal that someday I would become a published author.
Twenty-eight years later I had still not published anything but the time was right to write in 2005. Fran and I had completed the adoption of our daughter from Guatemala, and I felt that was a story that needed to be told.
I started by converting the journal I kept during the adoption process into a first draft of my memoir. After getting feedback from a couple of people, atrocious was a kind description of that draft. While I had the desire to write, aside from what was required in school and my employment, I had never put in the effort to develop the skills needed to write.
The 7th grader in me was tired of waiting. He motivated me to start developing the necessary skills to write and publish.
Investing In What Satisfies
All skills can be learned but not all skills can be mastered. God gives us a certain combination of gifts allowing us to master a few skills, become competent in others, and a disaster in many. With the gift of discernment, God lets us know on which skills we should focus. With this awareness, we must then pay the price of practice to master the skill.
Early in my writing journey, God sent me a teacher who explained that each of us have the gift of 24 hours in a day. He called it the great equalizer because it was the same amount given to all no matter who we are. What makes the difference is how we spend the hours we are each given.
When I talked about “finding” time to become a writer, he told me that I would not because I had all the time that I was going to get. He encouraged me to stop spending my hours on low value things such as entertainment.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the average American man spends 3.71 hours a day watching TV. That was about right for me. Of my 8,736 hours given to me each year, I was spending 15% (1,350 hours) staring at television.
My teacher suggested that I could invest those hours in what I said was important to me, and that’s what I did. Starting in 2005, I gave up television and invested that time into learning how to write.
My teacher also suggested that while writing and writing and writing was a good way to become a better writer, I needed to invest time studying excellent teachers to guide me; otherwise, I would continue reinforcing bad behaviors.
At the Feet of the Masters
Below are those teachers who had the greatest influence on helping me learn to write.
Bill Roorbach’s book, Writing Life Stories is where I started. He is a writing teacher who put his memoir-writing class in book form, presenting information and giving exercises. Using his exercises, I was able to write a second draft that became the foundation of my book.
One of his exercises was to define the reasons why I am writing and—more importantly—why someone would invest their hours into reading what I wrote. That was a powerful and obvious concept that I had never considered: is the value I am providing worth the investment of my reader’s time?
Roorbach asks the reader to define their goal for writing. If it is to tell a story, is it a compelling story? Does it have all the attributes of a good story, of a hero’s journey? If it is to provide information, is the information accurate? If it is to make an argument, did you provide a persuasive argument?
One of the key points I learned from Roorbach is squeezing all the meaning out of each sentence. Here is an example: This makes it clearer.
Do you understand that sentence?
What is “This”?
What is “it”?
How can it “make”?
A great investment is spending time with William Zinsser and learning his lessons On Writing Well. This book amazed me in the first reading because everything prior to this that was “well written” I thought was dry and difficult to read (the classics that are required reading in school).
For those interested in writing a memoir, Zinsser also published Writing About Your Life: A Journey into the Past which I would highly recommend as well.
E.B. White, author of such classics as Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and The Trumpet of the Swan, was also a writing teacher. One of his students, William Strunk, took copious notes of White’s lectures where he presented a unique philosophy of writing style.
Working with White, Strunk put this writing style into a book all writers must have. One person told me she re-reads this book before starting work on each of her books (it’s only 87 pages).
According to the contributors of eHow.com, step 1 of becoming a better writer is to “Read or re-read THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE by Strunk & White. It is practically the Holy Grail of English grammar. Sure, it may seem a little stodgy at times, but the basics never lose their cool.”
American is one of the more difficult languages because it is a collection of words and rules from the world’s languages. Because of this, many of us struggle conveying meaning and emotion with written American.
British author Lynne Truss helped me understand the black art of punctuation in her book Eats, Shoots, and Leaves. The book has a fun approach to reminding yourself of the basics of punctuation.
She quotes another author who said, “Learning grammar in grade school in like learning sex in grade school: you now know the basics but have no practical experience to drawn from.”
From one of the most commercially successful American authors of our time, Stephen King tells his writer’s journey from the publication of Carrie until just after he was hit by a van in his book On Writing.
He also includes tips based on the method he uses when writing. The one that I found most useful was putting a draft manuscript away for at least six weeks and working on something else. At the end of the six weeks, you are reading your draft with new eyes.
I am not a fan of his fiction because I don’t care for horror but I gleaned MANY good tips from this book. After finishing this, I read his book Christine. Again, while I don’t care for the genre, it was an interesting read thinking about how he described his process of developing a story and the specifics of working on Christine.
Whether you are self-publishing or attempting to find an agent/publisher, writing a book proposal will help answer many questions you have not even asked yet.
How to Write a Book Proposal is based on Michael Larsen’s experience as an agent and an author.
The book walks you through his method to layout and format a proposal and query. His exercises force you to get alone with your big-old brain and a journal out the answers that will help you while writing the book (yes, do this before getting too far into writing the book). He asks many difficult questions an author needs to consider, no matter which publication method being used.
At first I struggled with the proposal until I realized that if I cannot write a book proposal, then I should not be writing a book to sell.
- READ and READ and READ to find a style you like. I read many other memoirs that are considered good (some of them were a struggle for me to finish). From each, I pulled a little technique and made it my own.
- Write as often as you can. Since many experts suggest a daily writing habit, several years ago, I started going to bed when my youngest did (around 9pm) and got up at 3:15. This gives me almost 3 hours of undistributed time to write. When the rest of the family is watching TV at night, I am studying to develop my skills even more. Of course, this requires coordination and buy-in from your spouse.
- Do not rush getting published. You’ve waited this long, another few months or a year of polishing your masterpiece is well worth the first impression.
- Many suggest writer’s conferences… I have been to a few and wish I could have my money and time back for both. I get more from online communities and webinars, but that is my style.
- Will you be as excited about this book three years from now as you are now? Experts say that first-time authors should expect to spend at least three years marketing our first book before it becomes a success. Yes, there are exceptions, but they are the exception.
- Keep your goal in front of you as your measurement of success.
“There’s a word for a writer who never gives up…published.” ~ Joe Konrath
Gil Michelini’s mission is to help lay Catholic adults to learn why and how to live lives worthy of their calling using the wisdom of Vatican II. He is the author of Daddy, Come & Get Me, the story of his adoption of a daughter from Guatemala. Gil blogs at GilMichelini.com.