10 Lessons From 2016

Here we are at the end of days, or at least the end of days for this year.  And as we write up lists of resolutions to break, it’s a time to reflect on 2016 to see if there’s anything we’ve learned.  I know there are a few things I have…

The work is what matters.

No amount of lecturing will substitute for getting words on a page, editing, and submitting.  I haven’t written every day – April was my slowest month with just a couple of days spent writing – but I’ve written and submitted more this year than in the last two.

Writing feels really good.

The more you write, the prouder you feel on the progress you’ve made.  And if I don’t get a day in, it’s not the end of the world.  I just think, “Well, for sure, I can’t skip on tomorrow.”  Whether it’s four hours on a Saturday morning with a writing group or an hour or two at night when things have calmed down, it’s totally possible to carve out a little writing time each day.  Even if you write for just thirty minutes, you’ve got that many more words than you had the day before.

Be sure to have a support system.

Writing is a wonderful and magical experience.  It really is.  There have been writing sessions when I’m so jazzed up I swear I feel like I’m flying.  But at the end of the day, it’s also about one person in a solitary activity and you connections so you don’t feel so isolated.  That was a big thing about NaNoWriMo.  I got into the habit of doing live writing broadcasts on Facebook because I wanted to converse with people in real-time.  That’s something I want to keep doing in the next year (maybe on Youtube though; I’m still working that out).  Even talking to non-writers helps when I’m stressed out.  I’ve had friends get a new perspective and respect for the craft in our conversations.  The reaction has usually been, “Wow!  I didn’t know writers had to go through that!”

Know your DNA.

Memoirs.  Essays.  Poems.  Screenplays.  Short stories.  It’s all writing in the end, but each form employs different tactics, and even subject material varies.  A nonfiction story that works great for a memoir might not work as a screenplay, and a screenplay might not translate well as a novelization where you need to write in greater detail.  In the South Park documentary 6 Days to Air, Matt Stone talks about how studios approached him to direct feature-length comedies after the show found success, and how he steered away from that because he did not know how to direct such projects.  “It’s not in my DNA,” he said.  Similarly, I’m not an essayist.  I can’t write mysteries, westerns, or romantic comedies.  I’ve had an interest in science fiction, fantasy, and horror since childhood.

Weird = Good.

Probably the single most important creative lesson I’ve learned is this: if it’s weird, it’s probably a good idea.  If it’s crazy, it’s probably a good idea.  If people tell you it’s stupid, it’s definitely a good idea.  Because no one else is thinking about those topics, so you’ve got this great wide territory to roam around in.

Your literary plans will change.

I had one idea of how to write at the beginning of the year.  I’ve got a whole other idea on it here at the end.  And just because I’ve got a list of future projects, doesn’t mean I’m going to actually write all of them.  I might simply lose interest in some of the ideas I thought were cool a few weeks earlier.

Find your tools.

I’m a pen-and-paper advocate, but I’m also comfortable drafting right onto my word processor.  While there are no distractions with pen and paper – no Facebook or Twitter; just story – I’m also a very fast typist.  Furthermore, I was raised in the 90s in a time when desktop computers began flexing their muscles.

Pace yourself.

If you take on too much, you’re asking to be overwhelmed.  In fact, they say that Millennials (yes, I count in that generation; one of the first) have this workaholic streak they believe makes them stand out, impressive to others, when they’re actually overextending themselves and at greater risk of burnout.  There is no shame in using the brake pedal.  At the same time, you don’t want to lose momentum on your work habits.  Like I said, if I have to skip a day’s writing because I’m too tired to focus, so be it.  The project will still be there, and I know firsthand it’s useless trying to write with a tired mind.  You end up with only gibberish.  If I have to take a second day – and with so much work going on this holiday season, that has happened a couple of times – then I’ve got to accept and make peace with that, although I will try to write at least a page just to keep the rhythm.  No more than two days off, however.  Otherwise procrastination becomes habitual.

Don’t obsess over your platform.

“Platform” is a word I hesitate to use because I feel it carries certain marketing expectations, and it comes with so many different interpretations.  Jane Friedman gave the simplest definition with “an ability to sell books because of who you are or who you can reach.”  I prefer to look at platform in terms of outreach.  It’s more important to show readers who you are, what you’re about, and then give them the choice to seek out your work.  You shouldn’t neglect promoting that reading next month, but you shouldn’t lose sleep over it either.  The blog is the only part of the platform to worry about because it doesn’t work without regular updates.  Twitter is so immediate and ad hoc that the idea of planning it outside the realm of marketing feels very disingenuous.  If promotion must be done, do it.  But take care not to overdo it otherwise the audience will think you’ve got nothing to say other than “buy my book!”

Have a hobby.

For most of 2016, I either worked my day job, wrote, or researched.  Not much time was spent with friends or relaxing to the point where exhaustion got the best of me.  Building upon the last point, it’s important to have a life outside of writing.  Warren Buffet plays the ukulele.  James Hetfield has an interest in beekeeping.  Hell, Meryl Streep knits!  This year, my hobbies were reduced to the occasional movie, which is enjoyable, but it’s merely the consumption of media.  There’s nothing interactive about it.  I’ve had a hard time keeping up with reading.  I’m not exercising like I should.  And call me nostalgic, but I even miss playing video games or playing around with Garage Band or iMovie even though I’m not a video editor.  Point is I’m not taking time to relax and let my mind wander, which is where real creativity lies.

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