A Beginner’s Mind

iStock_000002339863XSmallDid you ever watch a child try to stand for the first time? My elder nephew’s attempts fascinated me. He’d strain on chubby hands and feet to push his diapered rump into the air, doing the baby Downward Dog until he’d cry in frustration and fall back to the floor of his playpen. He did this over and over. I felt so badly for him, because he was so clearly in anguish about not being able to stand and walk like the Big People. Then one day, he got up. It wasn’t a linear progression. Some days were better than others.

Now he’s in graduate school.

Writers go through much the same process, although hopefully, with fewer diaper changes. We were all once wobbly beginners aching to run before we could even stand.

When we’re new, we write with the heart-pumping joy of a story sizzling through our fingers, harboring secret fears that it’s all a pile of crap, that we don’t know what we’re doing, that any praise we get is accidental. Criticism is a stab through the heart, a corroboration that we should take up fencing, or haberdashery, or register for nursing school like Mom always hoped.

To paraphrase a popular grass-roots campaign, it gets better.

Do anything enough times and you will learn.

We all learn. All writers were amateurs once. Your favorite author, the one whose work keeps you up way past your bedtime, the one you’d stand in a block-long line to meet, once didn’t know how to write his or her own name. Didn’t know how to conjugate a verb. Didn’t know how to write dialogue or sustain dramatic tension. I could regale you with story after story about the rejections certain well-known books or authors received before someone decided to take a chance on them.

So go a little easier on yourself. As an “apprentice” writer, you have a couple of things working for you.

1. A beginner’s mind is an enthusiastic, thirsty little sponge. Take the opportunity to learn all you can about writing. There are some good books on writing out there. Two of my favorites are Anne LaMott’s Bird by Bird and The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. But one of the best ways to learn is by reading. Read a ton: good, not-so-good, something outside your favorite genre. It’s a great way to see the craft in action, to see what works and what doesn’t, and to begin to get a feel for why.

2. You don’t know yet what you don’t know. A frustrating bit of tautology, perhaps. But I noticed this as a long-time judge for a local school district’s yearly literary contest. The stories written by the younger children were so free and imaginative. Unicorns turned into flying sailboats that turned into rocket ships that took them to Saturn, where they had tea parties with space creatures. Something happened to these children as they get older, though. Maybe a teacher told them that unicorns aren’t real or if they really tried to have tea on Saturn, they’d die. Or a parent criticized their work in some less-than-thoughtful way. By sixth grade or so, many kids were writing with critics on their shoulders. Their writing got smaller, more contained, less imaginative. They began to associate writing with homework and grades and red ink. This analogy, I think, also holds true for adults beginning to write fiction. Unhampered by an internal critic that parrots back things like, “Never use flashbacks,” “Write what you know,” or “No one will ever publish this,” the apprentice writer may feel more free to experiment, to try different points of view or tenses or genres. Take advantage of that and play. Otherwise, you might never know that you’re really good at writing horror. Or poetry. Or stories about flying to Saturn on a unicorn-sailboat-rocket.

I hope you’re taking some time to enjoy the trip.

Want to be a better writer? Read more!

Happy news! According to the National Endowment for the Arts, daily reading, once on the decline, is rising again. Here are some good reasons you, as a writer, owe it to your career and to the next generation to keep making daily reading a habit.

1. Reading keeps you abreast of the current market. Some writers disagree about this, but reading current books in my genres gives me a broad idea of what’s out there and helps me position my novels in the marketplace.
2. Reading teaches you good writing techniques. Just like playing tennis with a better player helps you improve your game, reading great books urges you to raise the bar on your own writing. My favorite example is Zombie, a novella by Joyce Carol Oates. Somehow she made empathize with a serial killer. I went from being awed by that on the first reading to drilling down to exactly how she did it, and the specific techniques she assigned to the protagonist in character development. Remember, it’s okay to borrow a technique (as long as you use it in your own voice) but NOT to plagiarize!
3. Reading increases your vocabulary. I love books that send me to the dictionary. I once told this to novelist/short story writer T.C. Boyle, when I met him at one of his events. He smiled at me, and then signed my copy of his book in Latin.
4. Reading helps you explore other genres than your own. Some days I get a bee in my bonnet to try historical fiction. Reading them gives me an idea of how it’s done and the challenges I will face.
5. Reading makes the world smaller. Books take us through the looking glass, to faraway lands, and across the universe. In doing so, we learn about other countries, religions, and cultures. We understand each other better. And how can that be anything but good for you as a writer and as a citizen of the world?
6. Reading keeps your imagination sharp. For over ten years, I judged a literary contest for a local school district. I noticed an interesting trend. For a while, the level of imagination exhibited in the children’s stories declined. Then Harry Potter came along, and as if someone waved a magic wand, the stories flourished with creativity. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
7. Reading makes you more attractive. And why not? Reading makes you smarter, and according to some studies, intelligence is an attractive quality when choosing a mate.
8. Reading supports fellow authors. In this tough business of publishing, don’t we want to support each other?

Why do you read? If you had three minutes with a person who doesn’t care for reading, what would you say to try to change his or her mind?

Tips for Ghostwriting Success

When I tell people I’m a ghostwriter (among other things), I usually get the same two questions.

First: “What are you working on?” To which I respond, “I’d tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.”

Second: “Don’t you want credit for your work?”

My answer?  Not especially. I’m performing a service and getting paid. It keeps me in organic produce, which makes me happy. But don’t believe for a minute that equating ghostwriting to a bread-and-butter, background service makes me lackadaisical about what I write. I want to do the best possible job for my clients. It’s their money; they should get the byline or their name on the cover. Any credit on my part is appreciated, although not necessary. If I do a good job, I might be hired again, so I can buy more organic produce, which will make me happier.

In my previous career as a freelance graphic designer, I certainly did not expect a credit to appear on my designs. Again, as an independent contractor, I did a service and got paid. Even the book jacket designs I created did not carry my name. No big deal.

So what makes a good ghostwriter?

Discretion. Nobody wants a ghostwriter who will go around various virtual hot spots blabbing about the potential bestseller he or she is writing for Really Big Celebrity. Or that the President of the Acme Widgets Company does not write the sales letters that go out bearing his name. Keep it to yourself and don’t blow your credibility. I have been in “black ops” with clients so many times I could probably get a security clearance from the CIA.

The ability to mimic somebody else’s voice. I was called in to “ghost edit” a children’s story that a publisher was translating into English. The writer was very well known in his field. My edits had to keep in line with the author’s voice, or else his fans (and the author) would know something strange was going on. Or perhaps you are writing the CEO’s blog for the company website. You’ll need to write in his or her style, comfortably.

The ability to write about different topics with ease. One day you might be ghostwriting a real estate blog. Another day it could be an article for a busy entomologist about the mating habits of the Madagascar hissing cockroach. Although expertise helps, you don’t necessarily need to know everything about everything. That’s what Google is for. You need the patience and curiosity to do the required research, and the mental flexibility that allows you to go back and forth among topics comfortably. Yes, you could specialize, and many writers are very successful at this, but in a tight economy, and especially for a beginning ghostwriter, you may want to be more open-minded.

A collaborative spirit. Sometimes you’ll get a client who is happy to let you write the whole shebang on your own, but most of the time, your ghostwriting assignments will be a collaborative effort. This may mean you’ll review and contribute to a client’s outline, or write a rough draft and submit it for your client’s opinions and suggested revisions. It may take time to develop a collaborative relationship with a client, and this is vital if you hope to turn it into a long-term proposition. If you can’t take constructive criticism or do not play well with others, perhaps ghostwriting is not for you.

Professionalism. This includes all the stuff you’re supposed to do as a professional freelance writer. Work out an agreement. Stick to it. Communicate well. Meet your deadlines. Meet your deadlines. And most importantly, meet your deadlines.

Have you ever done any ghostwriting? Can you share some of your experiences? Without giving away too much, of course. Wouldn’t want you to blow your security clearance.

(Image courtesy of Alexandria Library Incorporated. Copyright 2006)