I spent this past weekend at the New Jersey SCBWI annual conference, and came home on Sunday evening feeling overwhelmed. For one thing, I'm just not used to being around that many people for two days straight. Even though after dinner on Saturday I retreated to my hotel room for a couple of hours of alone time, two days is still a lot of public time for an introvert. For another thing, there's always an awful lot that goes on at this conference, and it's hard to try to process it all afterwards.
I'm not going to try to summarize each of the two keynote speeches and eight workshops I attended. And I can't say there were any crucial new nuggets of information - the keys to the castle, as it were - that I was handed so that I became suddenly equipped to storm the fortress of the publishing world. But some ideas I'd been vaguely aware of before were strongly reinforced, and those are what I'm going to try to summarize here.
1. Becoming a published author does not change one's character. Sure, it changes one's writing goals, and it adds a book launch party and an editor and a contract and a schedule of deadlines to one's life. But an anxious prepublished author who gets a book published will become an anxious published author; only the focus of his or her anxiety will change. Instead of "Will I ever get published?" the question will become "Will I ever get a second book published?" or "Will this book sell?" or "What if I don't have enough of a social media presence to promote my book?" or... You get the idea. Anxiety is a very flexible trait which can be easily integrated into virtually any situation. So: writing books really, truly is about the journey. I've hear this said so many times before, but it's finally starting to sink in.
2. Every author needs to play to his or her own strengths. Does a critique group work for you, or would you rather just work with one cherished beta reader? How tech-savvy, or un-savvy, are you? Blog if you like to blog, tweet if you like to tweet. If the thought of doing school visits gives you hives, don't do them. Find the kinds of book promotion that feel comfortable to you, and stick to them. There are as many ways to lead an author's life as there are authors, and you need to find your own rhythm because nobody else's will work for you.
3. Try to acquire writer friends whom you like and trust. Writing can be so lonely, and your nonwriter family and friends, no matter how much they love you, don't really understand what it's like. Go to writing conferences. Make contacts, even if you're shy and it's hard. Become part of a supportive writers' community, and give back to it as much as you can. It'll be the most valuable writing tool you'll ever find.
4. Read as many books as you can in the genre in which you're writing, and read some in other genres too so you can understand what the differences are. Find favorite authors and analyze their books to learn what makes them work as well as they do. Finish reading books you don't particularly like so you can try to figure out what's missing. Learn something from every book you read. Read book reviews and author interviews. READ.
5. Write. And then revise. And then revise five, ten, thirty, fifty more times. Keep asking yourself "why" questions: Why did that character say that? Why did the conversation end when it did? Why is the antagonist behaving so badly? Why is the protagonist behaving so badly? Why is this scene necessary to advance the story? Why, why, why? Every time you ask yourself a "why" question to which you don't already know the answer, your knowledge of your characters and your story deepens.
So that's it. Not the keys to the castle, but maybe a road map to point you in the right direction. Do you have "keys" of your own that you'd like to add? If so, please leave them in the comments. We're all in this enterprise together, you know.