By Randall Ingermanson
What's the dirtiest word in a writer's lexicon? Think about that for a minute before you read on. What's the worst thing you can call a fellow writer?
Here's what many writers would say: "Unpublished."
I've met a ton of writers at writing conferences. To break the ice, I usually ask them what they're working on. They'll spend ten minutes telling me all about their novel. Then, if they've not sold a book yet, they'll hang their heads like they're admitting to being a drug dealer or a congress-critter and mutter, "But I'm (shudder) unpublished."
Let's just dump that word. I've got a better one. When I was in college, I knew a lot of students who were hoping to get into med school. Some of them eventually made it. Some didn't. But here's the thing: I never heard any of them saying they were "unmedical" students. They said they were "pre-med."
I wish all writers would quit calling themselves "unpublished." I think it would be a whole lot smarter to use the word "pre-published."
Why is this important? Because the way you think about yourself influences whether you succeed or not. And how long it takes you to succeed.
I spent about 16 years pre-published (counting from the day I decided I was gonna write me a novel till the day I saw one of my novels on the bookstore shelf.) That's not at all uncommon. I've got friends who took longer. I've got friends who did it much quicker. I took way too long, and I suspect my own attitude had a lot to do with it.
I believe it should take about four years to get to publishable quality in your fiction. Some writers will be quicker, some slower, but four years is reasonable. I've got a longish article on my web site that explains the whole theory behind this: http://www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com/art/freshman.php
The bottom line is that I classify pre-published writers into four categories, Freshmen, Sophomores, Juniors, and Seniors. At each stage, there are specific tasks you need to accomplish to advance to the next stage.
You may be a Freshman, a Sophomore, a Junior, a Senior, or even a Graduate. If you aren't happy with how your career is going, then here are five steps you can take to get back on the road to where you want to go.
1) Take inventory of yourself. What level of writer are you? Do your writing friends agree? Do published authors agree? If you think you're a Senior and everybody else thinks you're a Sophomore, then there's a problem. Being a Sophomore doesn't mean you're a bad writer. It means you're not fully trained yet. There's a difference. Figure out where you are.
2) Make a long-term goal for yourself. If you've figured out that you're a Freshman, then a reasonable long-term goal is to graduate in about four years. Whereas if you're a Senior, then a reasonable goal is to graduate THIS year! Please note that you need to realistically think about whether this writing game is for you. You may wind up spending the next four or five years training to write fiction, and then end up NEVER getting published. Does that make you chuck your cheeseburgers? If so, then go find another career. Pick a safer one, like wing-walking or cliff diving or lion taming.
3) Make a short-term goal for yourself. Rome wasn't built in a nanosecond, and you won't learn neurosurgery or tennis or fiction in a few days or weeks or months. Can't be done. What can you reasonably do in the next three months? In the next year? For my short-term goals, I ask myself what I'm weakest at and what I'm strongest at. Then I work on improving just those two areas of my writing.
4) Get yourself some advisor's. You are the average of the five people you hang out with most. Change your hang-out group, and you just might change your behavior! Find some advisor's who are at a similar stage in their careers, writers who are positive thinkers and are dedicated to advancing. (If you're a Sophomore, hang out mostly with other Sophomores, and maybe a few Freshmen or Juniors). Your advisor's won't be in this just for you. They'll be in it for them too. They'll advise you, and you'll advise each of them. This is often called a Mastermind Group or a Dream Team or whatever. Get yours. No less than five. No more than six. This is NOT the same as a critique group. These are career advisor's, not craft polishers.
5) Map out a plan to meet your short-term goal. If you're not sure what to do, ask your advisor's. That's what they're there for. If they don't know, figure out who does. Share what you learn with your advisor's. Do everything you possibly can to help them succeed. They'll return the favor in spades.
6) I promised five steps, but you get a bonus sixth: Go do it. Put your plan into practice. Meet regularly with your advisory group. Keep each other accountable. If your plan isn't working, figure out why. If you don't know why, figure out whom to ask. Get help! Give help! Work your plan until you reach your short-term goal. Then set a new one.
That's all! It's pretty simple, but don't kid yourself -- it isn't easy. Learning to write fiction is hard work, and if you don't like that, then quit. Quitting IS easy and you'll get to watch more TV and probably have a better love life. You just won't ever get published, but you won't really care, or you'd be willing to do what it takes.
But the fact is, you can't quit and you won't. Because writing is in your blood. When writing is in your blood, you're going to do what it takes to succeed. You're going to assess where you are. You're going to make a plan. You're going to execute that plan.
That's what writers do.
Randy Ingermanson is the award-winning author of six novels and one nonfiction book. He is known around the world as "the Snowflake Guy" - a tribute to his invention of the widely used "Snowflake method" of designing a novel. Randy has a Ph.D. in theoretical physics and is the publisher of the world's largest electronic magazine on writing fiction, the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with over 8000 readers. Visit his web site today: http://www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com