A Year-Long “Get Fit to Print” Program for Aspiring Authors

I’ve recently been spending more time at home looking at ideal strength-training approaches. As I enter my middle years, accompanied by a (regrettably) soft middle, it occurs to me that I need to do some course correcting if I’m to avoid a slow, painful death from multiple chronic conditions. So refreshing myself on techniques like “couch-to-5K” and “building strength 101” has proven salutary.

People really like structured programs as a jumping-off point for their own growth, and evolving as a writer is no exception. Although you simply cannot distill creative writing into a proscriptive algorithm — people start in different places, and they learn in different ways — a review of the literature suggests that there’s perhaps too little scaffolding offered to new writers. Experienced authors and editors offer trite slogans, which is fine, but those slogans are damned difficult to turn into concrete action.

So, in the interest of providing some scaffolding, I’m pleased to introduce Jason’s “Get Fit to Print”™ program to take you from zero to literary hero in 12 months flat.*

*Your mileage may vary. Tax, title and license separate. The FDA has not approved these statements. Consult your doctor before taking Cialis. Batteries not included. Potential choking hazard. May contain nuts. Blah, blah.

Month Activities Rationale
January No matter how good of a writer you think you are, you aren’t as good as you think. None of us are! The most common reason we at Caffeinated Press reject submissions is because the technical quality of the writing is substandard. So refresh your grammar skills. Buy some reference books and actually read them. It’ll be a dry exercise, but reading stylebooks is like looking at maps: Not fun, but unless you do it, you don’t know what you don’t know about getting from Point A to Point B.
February Write one of each of the following: a poem of at least 20 lines, a flash story between 500 and 1,000 words, a creative non-fiction essay between 1,000 and 2,500 words, and a short story between 2,500 and 5,000 words. Write them in this order. Start on 2/1 and be done by 2/28. These pieces will likely be crap. That’s OK. The point is to do the writing. You’ll use these pieces later, as you hone your skills. Until then, however, you have to have something on paper. You’ll also learn a little bit about how you write: Morning or evening? PC or paper? Notes first or dive “write” in? Don’t overthink it. Let it feel natural. There’s no correct way to do this.
  •  Attend a literary event in your community — a book signing, a poetry reading, whatever. Better yet, attend more than one. And when you’re there, talk to people. Be social!
  • Also, go back to your February works and revise them. Don’t show them to anyone else yet. Not even Aunt Ethel.
 Start to build connections with the literary community. You will need a network of fellow literary travelers if you want to be successful as a published writer — so connect with fellow authors, readers, publishers, editors, booksellers, etc. This networking component is a major contributor to the financial viability of first-time authors.
  •  Find or join a critique group. Aim for a group that’s open, focused and diverse in terms of experience. Maybe think about the folks you met in March.
  • Pick your toolset. Some people like sitting with a laptop and Microsoft Word. Others prefer planning in Scrivener. Still others favor plain-text Markdown. And while some folks love early-morning scribbling, others need the evening and a martini to thrive. Or a jaunt to the coffee shop. Regardless, prepare your planned times for writing with the tools you find most useful. Make this combination of tools, time and setting a habit.
  •  Without beta readers — i.e., a trusted critique group — you are almost surely guaranteed to fail as a writer. Writing may be a solitary exercise, but polishing the written word is a community event. You’ll be expected to submit stuff for review. The results will probably be painful. And you’ll be expected to reciprocate.
  • Regarding tools — don’t overthink it, or you might find you’re spending more time planning to write, than actually writing. Optimization of one’s writing environment can, if taken to extremes, prevent writing altogether.
May  Start building a business and social platform.  Now’s the time to “come out” as an author. Build a blog. Establish a Twitter account and a Facebook fan page for yourself as an author. Create a Goodreads account. Think about your author’s identity: Do you use a pseudonym? Have a different email address or a PO Box for your literary endeavors? Do you establish an LLC or a DBA to legally and financially separate your author-related work from your personal life? Do you need your own logo or Web domain? Author-branded business cards? This might be a good time to look for something like a Business of Writing or Author Media Toolbox seminar.
  •  Edit your February works in light of feedback from your critique group.
  • Build your social platform by blogging at least once per week and growing your Facebook likes and Twitter followers. Aim for slow, organic growth. Keep doing this network-acquisition work, from now until the day you die.
 You’ll probably be embarrassed by what your critique partners catch. Good. Learn from the experience. And if you disagree with their observations, don’t just dismiss the comments—study them. You have to grow a certain amount of skin thickness as a writer, and lose a degree of emotional attachment to your work, to survive in a tough literary market. Some people can’t take feedback well. If you’re one of those folks, re-consider your aspiration to write for publication.
July  Write a novelette.  Longer-form works (aim for 14k to 16k words) require more complex plotting, character development and narrative arcs. You’ll build on the lessons you learned with shorter works, earlier in the year, to voyage into more complicated waters.
  •  Attend one writing-related event each week.
  • Don’t write much. Instead, read the stuff your local peers have published. Your talent as a writer must be honed, in part, by being a voracious reader. Writers who don’t read are like electricians who live in a candle-lit house.
 Continue to build your network. Pass out your business cards, buy local authors’ books, show up at readings. Meet people. Learn from their stories and read their books. Get to know the names of well-known local writers and artists. One day, when you need a blurb for a book cover, these are the folks to whom you’ll turn.
  •  Edit your novelette in light of feedback from your critique group.
  • Keep growing your social network.
 Learn from critique feedback. Assess where you have gaps (descriptions, point of view, narrative voice, setting, conflict, etc.) and go back to your reference materials to study up on ideal solutions.
  •  Plan a novel. Target 85k words for the completed product. Do not start writing it yet, but do think about plot, characters, conflict, setting, etc.
  • Also, write two short stories of less than 8k words each.
  •  Long-form plotting without writing makes you think about what you’re doing before you do it. You might enjoy “pantsing” (writing without prep), but you should at least once try the discipline of planning.
  • Even when you’re in plotting/revising modes, still find the time to write short pieces. Build your own slush pile. It’ll come in handy when you come across a great submission opportunity on deadline day!
November Participate in National Novel Writing Month. Your goal is to start 11/1, and by 11/30, be “done” with a manuscript of at least 50k words. (The novel doesn’t technically need to be done, you just need to have incurred the minimum word count by 11:59 p.m. on the 30th.) This novel is considered a “zero draft” — it’s not even a first draft. That’s OK. Don’t spend time self-editing as you go. And don’t aim to write a 50k-word story; most first-time novels are closer to 80k-90k. Your goal, really, is to just get the words down. You’ll fix them later.
  • Pick at least two of your completed, peer-reviewed short-form pieces. Send each to at least one contest. Check Poets & Writers for an excellent, current list of opportunities.
  • Finish your NaNo novel.
  • Polish your October stories in light of feedback from your critique group.
  • Celebrate your work by shopping some of your well-curated slush pile. You are likely to get a lot of silence, or a lot of form rejections — but we all do. It’s a badge of honor. Keep writing, keep submitting. Learn from your feedback. After all: You’ve just spent the year going from zero to a literary hero. Own that victory.
  • Oh, and about that NaNo novel — it’s probably going to be garbage. Your next two or three are likely to also be garbage. You learn by doing. Most experienced authors have several early, complete manuscripts tucked in a drawer somewhere, where they will never see the light of day. These training manuscripts are painful, but necessary. You’ll probably be better positioned to sell a novel on the market by the time you hit manuscript four, five, six — unless you self-publish. Which may or may not be wise, depending on your career goals.

Will this approach guarantee you financial success as an author? Nope. But I get enough questions from people who say, “I literally do not know where to start,” that I think there’s some value in the construct I’ve outlined above.

The key points for getting started as a writer are:

  • Plug your gaps in grammar, syntax and style.
  • Sit your butt in a chair and write stuff.
  • Find a critique group and make heavy use of it.
  • Network with your peers in your local literary scene.
  • Build a platform/identity as an author — a blog, social media, custom domain name, biz cards, etc.
  • Submit your polished work to carefully selected venues.

You nail these six points, you’re in good shape. miss any of them, and you’re not. So whether you prefer a lot of structure, or a succinct list of rules, you’ve now been given a framework. Make the best of it!

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