7 Things Writers Need to Do Right Now

James Scott Bell

Heraclitus, that old pre-Socratic philosopher who shuffled along the streets of Athens in 450 B.C. thinking deep thoughts, called reality a river, and famously noted, “You can’t step in the same river twice.”

He would not, therefore, have been surprised in the slightest by the changes in the publishing industry. For the only thing certain about the future of books is that none of it is certain. The flow of innovation continues apace and the river is filled with rocks, waterfalls and more than a few overturned kayaks.

But look at all the writers with life vests on. And some even shooting the rapids with a whoop and holler. If you want to survive and even thrive in the rush and spray of publishing today, you need to do the following:

1. Elevate your game

Here’s the deal for the rest of your life: you’re going to have to keep getting better as a writer. You have more competition. There’s a growing number of writers out there who know what they’re doing, and are hungry, and are after the same readers you are.
True, there’s an even larger number of writers who don’t have the stuff yet, and won’t put in the hard work to get it. They’ll eventually get frustrated and drop off the map. But, like a Hydra’s head, they’ll be replaced by nine more writers who areworking at this thing.

Be one of the workers. Write to a quota and set aside at least one hour per week to study the craft. Doing those two things consistently will get you further downstream than anything else. Every now and then go to a writer’s conference, or sign up for a specialized workshop like, ahem, this one. Subscribe to Writer’s Digest and at least scan every article. I always pick up a few things with each issue.

2. Understand publishing contracts

The traditional publishing world is still there. It’s big and it’s venerable. Sure it’s tight, but there are still deals being made. If you decide to go that route, learn what key contract terms mean. Especially understand non-compete clauses, option clauses, termination and reversion of rights. A good place to start is in the “Contracts” archive of The Passive Voice.
Have the attitude that many things are negotiable, but also understand your “leverage” depends on your track record (if any), the size of the publishing house and how much you desire to be traditionally published.
Strategize with your agent and determine: a) what you would LOVE to have in the contract; b) what would be NICE to have; and c) what you absolutely MUST have. Make sure your c) list is short and reasonable. Ask yourself if you are prepared to walk away from a deal if you don’t get your c) terms. If you’re not, make them b) terms.
Writers and publishers need to understand it’s more possible than ever to forge a win-win deal if the parties are flexible and creative.
3. Take more risks
Editors and agents all say they are looking for a “fresh voice.” What they mean is a fresh voice they can actually sell. Everyone wants to land in that sweet spot where originality and commerce meet to make that ka-ching sound.
You will grow as a writer, and get closer to that sweet spot, if you take more risks with your writing. Push yourself past comfortable limits. Deepen your style and character work. Especially if you’re doing genre books where we’ve seen just about everything many times over.
As I said when I made my own “risky” move (which has ultimately been worth it to me), don’t be afraid to “fail aggressively.”
4. Begin a self-publishing stream
There is absolutely no reason anymore for a writer not to have a stream of income from self-publishing. When approached the right way this will not only result in steady revenue, but also build that ever-loving “platform” everyone talks about. You will be making readers. Traditional publishers are starting to get that. There is no longer a stigma to self-publishing.
But, and I emphasize this, only if you approach it systematically and in a businesslike fashion.
Fortunately, the business fundamentals are not difficult to understand. I call these fundamentals The 5 Absolutely Unbreakable Laws for creating steady income as a self-publisher.
5. Set goals
Not everyone is a goal setter. Which is a little hard for me to understand, because I’ve been setting goals most of my life. Writers want to achieve. They want to publish, sell, make readers. To give yourself the best shot, you need to set goals that you can actually control, and work toward them every day.
Did you know that if you set down written goals and regularly work toward them, you immediately jump into the top 3% of achievers in any field? So why aren’t you?
There’s a Kindle article that fully and completely sets out the fundamentals of goal setting. It’s called How to Achieve Your Goals and Dreams. I had a goal to write it, so I did.
6. Work smarter
In addition to goals, there is the matter of using your time wisely. Do this: Look at the calendar of your upcoming week (I do this on Sunday). Fill in the places where you have obligations (job, soccer practice, appointments). Now look at the empty slots and start filling them with writing and studying time.
Anthony Trollope wrote almost 50 novels while working full time as a civil servant (of course, this was in the era before Twitter and Angry Birds. But I digress). He did it by finding the time to complete his quota of words. Day by week by month by year.
7. Stay cool
You can get yourself all tied up in knots about this crazy business. You can look at sales numbers and Amazon rankings and bad reviews and friends’ successes and your own perceived disappointments (though I maintain nothing is wasted in a writer’s life if he refuses to be defeated). There are going to be striking developments requiring fresh decisions, and those same decisions may look different to you a month later. 
But stay frosty. The way a writer does that, the best way, is to write, to have pages to work on every day. To be developing other projects even as you are working on your WIP. Here’s a favorite quote from Dennis Palumbo: “Every hour you spend writing is an hour not spent fretting about your writing.” (Writing from the Inside Out)
So don’t fret, type. Shoot the rapids. Live large.
I’ll see you downriver.

Anything else you would add to the list?  

17 thoughts on “7 Things Writers Need to Do Right Now

  1. It’s a tough lessen to learn, but a very important one: when to be hot and when to be cold in your writing career. Heat is for producing, cold is for business.

    Great advice, James. Thank you very much. 🙂

  2. Excellent list, Jim, particularly #2. May I suggest #2 a): learn how the business of physically publishing, marketing, and selling books works, from editor’s office to retail.

  3. Right, Joe. And also It would behoove writers to “see” the industry from the publishers’ point of view, the decisions that have to be made, the economics of it. To understand it in business terms.

  4. Great list, Jim. I particularly like the recommendation of getting familiar with publishing contract terms. Before I sold, I took an online workshop taught by an attorney who specialized in the publishing industry. Best thing I could have done. It truly prepared me for what was around the corner.

    I agree with Joe H that some knowledge of the physical aspects of publishing would be helpful. And having an idea of basic author promotion (a marketing framework) would be useful to more fully understand the time commitment. Whether an author is self or traditionally pubbed, marketing is a required aspect of the business in some fashion.

    Thanks, Jim.

  5. Hi Jim, Great list! Surprised to see you came up with 7 items before even mentioning networking, though, both through social media and the good old fashioned way, in person (another great use for that writer’s conference experience you mentioned re: craft, right?). There now seems to be a public component to several of the things you mentioned: we must “be seen” meeting our word counts, learn our craft while sharing links, and “self-publish” by blogging. Writing for publication has never been a more time-intensive endeavor, another reason some of the wannabes fall away.

  6. Taking risks always seemed counter-intuitive to growth. After all, risks are when you’re outside your comfort zone, so you’re not doing your best work, right? Wrong. Every time I find myself far, far outside my comfort zone I learn the biggest lessons.

    I would add living large to this list. We’re told to find other hobbies and interests outside of writing, but with being pressed for time, I put that on the back burner. Then I do nothing but eat, sleep, take care of the baby, and write, and wonder why I feel so burnt out.

    Lately I’ve made doing something fun more of a priority, and my writing has actually improved, because I have time to think about it.

    And YAY for another short fiction, big impact booklet! I downloaded it before I even finished reading the article. 😀

  7. Right you are, Mike. Someone once said if you can avoid writing, you by all means should. But if this is what you want to do, you do it, and you never stop.

  8. It’s doubtful that anyone could compile a better list for the writer today. The Heraclitus quote is inspired, the kayak in the rapids is wizard, and the first admonition – “elevate your game,” is like a left hook to the mid-section. Jim, I’d add one tiny thing – I know it’s counter-intuitive, but maybe it could be a sub-heading under elevating your game. I’d say take a part of each day and deliberately slow the world down; just sit back and observe the small details. Call it meditation or call it what you will, but go to a quiet place and watch and observe. Ray Carver did this in life and in his work; he was a great watcher. (Jim knows this better than most, I’m sure.) Notice how Ray brings all this to bear in his poetry. Look at “Happiness” as one example: he sees the small, innocent details of the two boys delivering papers. Look at “This Morning” and you see the same slowing of the world, the fierce concentration on the simple details of the walk across the fields Sure, it’s poetry and not prose, but the principle is the same. So, amid the platform building, the pursuit of the dream, the wailing, take a time-out to sit on the porch and just watch and observe. In terms of elevating your game, it might be the best thing you do all day.

  9. Terry, an excellent addition to the discussion. Yes, Carver was the master of the “telling detail,” and that takes thought and practice. Thanks for stopping by.

  10. You’re right, Joe. Except for Parmenides, who came right after Heraclitus, and gummed up the works by saying, in effect, you can’t step into the same river ONCE. Nobody knows what the heck he meant, and he never sold a novel. ‘Nuff said.

  11. Thanks for the repost – notes duly taken.

    The only advice I might add is Don’t Talk About It. Not only are you not writing, but it’s the best way to lose the spark.

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