Looking Back at 2016: Lessons I Learned about Being a Writer This Year (to Make 2017 the Best Year Ever)

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Looking back at 2016 lessons learned

It’s this time of the year again when we’re summarizing our failures and successes throughout the previous 12 months and trying to learn from our mistakes and setting new goals for the year ahead.

While we’re looking forward to what future has in store for us, it’s always beneficial to look back and see what we’ve already accomplished.

This is a summary of what I learned as a writer last year and some takeaways to help you and me become a better writer this year.

Reading is the best way to learn how to write better

This year, I’ve been reading so much about how to write a book, structure it properly, create an enchanting world and inhabit it with living characters. The books like The Writer’s Journey by Christofer Vogler, Million Dollar Outlines by David Farland and Stephen King’s On Writing helped me better understand what I’m doing and taught me how to improve my own book.

Apart from books on writing, I’ve been following many many blogs on writing. There are so many great authors out there who share their knowledge of the craft completely free on their blogs and you can learn so much about being a writer, writing, editing, publishing and self-publishing from them. I firmly believe that today you totally don’t have to pay for education, expensive online courses, etc. to master the skills you want to master. With the internet, self-education become so much more approachable.

I’ll just mention a few authors from the top of my mind whose blogs I read closely and regularly and recommend to check out:

  • K.M. Weiland’s blog where she shares so many tricks of the trade it could be compiled in a huge and tremendously useful book. From her blog, you will learn all you need to learn about story structure, character arcs, good dialogue, foreshadowing, effective time management for writers and so much more.
  • Jeff Goins’s motivational blog about not only writing, but being a writer, the philosophy of work and art, life in general. It’s truly a gem of a blog. When you’re in doubt or need just a fraction of inspiration, visit goinswriter.com. And don’t forget to subscribe to Jeff’s podcast Portfolio Life.
  • Joanna Penn’s blog for writers is one of the best blogs for writers and authors in the world. It won numerous awards and its author is recognized as an industry veteran and wanted keynote speaker. Joanna will teach you book marketing, self-publishing, editing, productive writing and even help you find your book cover artist. She also has a great podcast you must totally subscribe to.
  • Derek Murphy’s blog for writers and creatives. The author shares his expert tips on writing, marketing, publishing, etc. that really work. I’m particularly interested in his book marketing experiments.

These are just a few blogs for writers and authors. Without them, I must admit, I wouldn’t be where I am today in my skills and knowledge about the craft.

I learned so much about writing from these and other blogs and books I mentioned and didn’t mention, but a big part of it I learned from reading fiction and looking at how other writers did their job successfully. It’s always inspiring to see a good book or a good passage in the book and think, “Hey, I would have wished I wrote this!” So never underestimate the power of reading fiction and read fiction inside and outside of your genre.

In any kind of business and art, it’s so important to have mentors. The majority of us aren’t lucky enough to have Jeff Goins or Joanna Penn as a friend and teacher, but you can follow their advice they share for free on their blogs and learn to become a better and happier writer. What are your excuses not to do so?

Talking to your beta readers can help you see more opportunities to improve your book

This year, I learned so much about writing from just talking to my beta readers. When I sent them the book, it was ridden with plot holes too big not to miss but somehow I couldn’t spot them without the help from the outside. When I received the feedback from my beta readers, I gathered it in Evernote and started to meticulously rewrite those small details and bigger plot lines, like a sculptor polishing his work.

Without my beta readers, How to Save a Princess wouldn’t be a book it is now. I have been watching joyfully how it developed, evolved, and improved in so many aspects. This version of the book is definitely so much better than the one I sent first my beta readers.

Some takeaways? Don’t be scared of your beta readers’ feedback. Here are four simple tips on how to survive talking to them:

  • First, choose your beta readers carefully so that you could rely on them giving you the constructive criticism, not just “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it” kind of a critique.
  • Second, prepare some burning questions you want to get answers to. You can search for the typical ones online or make up your own – I would suggest do the both and come up with the ultimate questionnaire for your beta readers. For example, as an author you might worry that that particular scene doesn’t work as you intended – ask how a beta reader feels about that scene and write down their answer. Another example might be the character’s name: ask what beta readers think about the wizard-cat you named Catipuss. You might think it’s a great and clever name but you will be surprised when you hear other people thoughts on the matter.
  • Third, collect the feedback in some kind of a note, summarize it by chapters or scenes and analyze. Remember, you don’t have to and totally don’t need to fix everything that your beta readers think a problem. Listen to your inner writer’s voice: if you feel like your beta reader stepped on a weakness in your book here, definitely fix it; but if you don’t feel the way they feel and you don’t think the rewriting of the scene will be better than it is now and you completely understand why you wrote the scene the way it is now, leave it as it is. Note, however, that you might not agree with your beta readers, but if a few people tell you that the name Catipuss is not a great idea, you would be a fool not to listen to them. The rule of thumb is easy: if several of your beta readers tell you about the issue, the issue is real and you should fix it. Two or more beta readers telling you the same thing can’t be wrong.
  • Fourth, go through each point of a feedback you gathered (the valuable one, not the unhelpful one that we have thrown away on the previous step), review it, find the part in your book it’s about and rewrite it according to your notes.

And that last step takes us to the next section of this post, which is about how to rewrite your book to make it even better.

Rewriting is when you actually free your book from its muddy shell

After I read about some writing tricks like cliffhangers, creating unforgettable characters, story arcs and overall story structure, after I talked to my beta readers and got their feedback on what worked and what didn’t for them in my book, I wrapped up a to-do list for each chapter and started making changes.

I suppose any writer would tell you that rewriting your book is not easy. It’s a writer’s hell. You have to drop away your beautiful words and sentences, or worse, the whole chapters and sometimes even characters or plot lines. You have to kill your darlings to make your book better. And you know that after you did this, your book would be better, right? But boy, how hard it is to do!

Rewriting isn’t easy but essential for any good book. If you take your writing career seriously and not like a hobby, you should be ready to rewrite your book. As an old saying goes, true writing is rewriting. No one can write a book without touching it to edit.

I have a few tips for you to survive a revision stage:

  • Don’t be frightened by it. Just write your first draft, get some feedback from your beta readers, let your manuscript cool off for a while (usually a week or two is fine) and only then get to work on revising it.
  • Never drop your text directly to the wastebin. Cut it and paste it into the folder called “Deleted fragments” or something like this. Who knows when this text will come in handy? Perhaps not for this book but for the next novel in the series? Better have such folder full of nice fragments than an empty wastebin and regrets.
  • Some writers recommend doing a few rounds of revisions. First, you read your book pretending as best as you can that you are your target audience. Try to spot the things that work and that don’t, on a macro scale. Like weak plot points or poor characterization or silly dialogue. After that, dive deeper, grab that magnifying glass of yours and look at your scenes’ structure, sentences, and word choice. With each round, dive deeper and deeper into the cogs of your text.
  • If revising from the start seems daunting or boring or downright scary, jump to the end and revise your final chapter. Or maybe choose the most interesting chapter from the middle and start there. Remember, it’s your creative process and there’s no rules except the ones you set for yourself. Revise as you like, no one forces you to start from the very first page of your manuscript.

I hope these tips will alleviate the pain of rewriting your book for you at least a little bit. I totally understand you. I’m here with you. I hate rewriting, this feeling of doing the same work again after you thought it was done, cutting your precious text and trying to connect the dots between the missing paragraphs. Just always remember about this necessary stage and know that it’s essential for a good book. And you want your book turn out to be a good one, don’t you?

Trying new things and experimenting with time management helps to find a more effective way to write

I was looking for an effective way to motivate myself to sit down and actually write, not just pretend I’m thinking about my book and planning and stuff. I was looking for a way to fight procrastination and get my words out there into the world.

Following BookBaby’s blog and their tips on time management via time boxes or K.M.Weiland’s blog for authors HelpingWritersBecomeAuthors.com where she shares her secrets of productive writing with an egg timer, I found and tested different methods.

I learned that setting a small goal of writing 300 words per evening or writing just for 25 minutes really works for me. The secret here is to trick your mind into thinking that writing is really doable and an easy task that won’t take a boat load of your time to do. When you set a really high goal for yourself like “I will write 1,500 words in one session” or “I will be writing for 5 hours,” you immediately set yourself up for a failure.

Higher goals are great, sure, but only when you already built some writing and discipline muscle. If you’re just starting out and still struggling with your discipline, if you didn’t develop a habit of writing daily, such higher goals will be a stop signal for your brain. They will force you to procrastinate because your brain will be thinking these goals aren’t really achievable and take so much effort that it’s not worth it.

Instead of trying to lift a car with one hand, start with a bottle of water, but write every day, however small your word counts would be.

Here’s how to do this to alleviate the pain. Set up a timer on your smartphone for 15 or 25 minutes. Sit down (or stand up if you prefer to stand while working), open up your Scrivener project and start writing. Write, don’t think about writing or edit, just write for the time interval you set.

After you hear the timer, stop. You can finish your last sentence, but not more. Stop right there, leave your keyboard and rest for 5 minutes. Better do some stretching exercises or look out the window to let your eyes and brain relax.

After this short rest, return to your keyboard, set up another timer and write some more. Repeat this as many times as you need to reach your daily writing goal. Just give this method a try and you will be surprised with how easy it is to trick yourself into writing for short periods of time.

It’s so important to learn accepting yourself as a writer

I always thought about myself as slow and unproductive. I can’t produce 1000 words an hour. I struggled to write every day and make substantial progress: whenever I had only a couple hours in the evening after work and before going to bed, I managed to write maybe 500-700 words if I’m focused and then I felt miserable, always comparing myself to other productive writers.

Until someone in one Facebook writing group told me that I should accept my writing style and be okay with. Yes, it’s always great to strive for more, to try write faster, write better quality texts. No doubt here. But you should learn your strength and weaknesses as a writer and compare yourself to what you were yesterday and not to others. As we all do, you have great gifts and you should understand it and be grateful for it.

Once you accept yourself as a writer and the stage you’re at in your writer’s journey, it will become easier for you to travel along the chosen path. It’s really liberating, this feeling of acceptance from yourself. Because whenever you do your work, however small or insignificant it might have seemed before, you know that you’re moving forward towards your goals and you do your best every moment you work on your book or writer’s business.

Final thoughts

Here are the best lessons I learned about being a writer this year. It was an amazing year as always and I’m grateful for all the lessons it gave me, writing-wise and personal life-wise.

Some lessons are very hard to learn from, very hard to take objectively and draw a positive thing from. Especially when you have to throw away a big chunk of your book because you see now that it’s a bad writing and it doesn’t work for your overall concept. But every stumbling block, every failure on the path is an opportunity to stand up even taller and stronger and move forward even faster than before. We have a choice to either embrace these opportunities and grow or feel pity for ourselves and hide in our shell. We’d better choose the former.

I hope this post listing what I learned from the previous year will help you look at your own writing routine with another angle, draw some lessons to apply to your creative process and make your 2017 book the best one ever. Here’s to this new year bringing endless amazing opportunities to our lives and to us becoming happier writers, friends!