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How To Cultivate Greatness In Your Writing

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There’s a television commercial; I believe it’s for E-trade, that talks about how nobody wants to be an ordinary…fill in the blank. Supposedly we aspire to be better. Nobody wants to be an ordinary athlete; nobody wants to be an ordinary investor. A photo of Hemingway flashes across the screen, and it says, “nobody wants to be an ordinary writer.” That made me pause. I wasn’t so sure about that.

You see, I am struck by how often I hear from writers who want to know if their current project is worth the effort. Basically, they want to know if they can sell it. There’s no passion behind their idea. No writing for the love of writing. They’re willing to abandon an idea based on my say-so or someone else’s. Somehow I don’t think John Steinbeck, when he was writing East of Eden, went around asking anyone if it was worth the effort. In fact, I am inspired by what a reviewer said of that novel when it was published. “A novel planned on the grandest possible scale…One of those occasions when a writer has aimed high and then summoned every ounce of energy, talent, seriousness, and passion of which he was capable…”

I keep that quote in front of me as I write my next novel. I hope I’m aiming high. I’d rather aim high and miss than aim low and be ordinary. I’d like to challenge you to aim for greatness in your next project. If you’re not sure how to do so, here are a few tips that may help.

Seek Out Good Teachers

Shooting for greatness can be a lot harder when you don’t have the guidance and support of a strong teacher or writing coach. A good teacher will see you as a person as well as a writer, which helps them to know what you are truly capable of. A good teacher will know when to push you and when to hold back. Many years ago, I had a teacher who discouraged me from starting a novel. I was new to understanding my powers as a writer, and he feared that I wouldn’t be able to finish what I started and give up writing altogether. He was right. I probably wouldn’t have finished back then. I was too immature.

I picked that teacher because after hearing him speak, I instinctively knew he had the pieces I was looking for then to establish myself as a writer. Likewise, it may help you to assess where your writing stands and what you need to learn to get your work to the next level. Don’t be afraid to interview an instructor before you take a class to see if you can get what you’re looking for.

Complete One Project

You may have a zillion ideas in your head right now. Choose one and complete it. Why? Because you will learn so much from sticking with one project and bringing it to fruition, even if it doesn’t get published. You’ll learn how to work with ideas, you’ll learn what to do when you get stuck, and you’ll learn more about your own writing habits and your strengths and weaknesses. Have you ever gone to a museum and seen the drawings that an artist makes as “studies” in preparation for a larger painting? This is kind of the same idea. Once you get to your larger canvas, you’ll be better prepared to write your masterpiece!

Set Big Goals for Your Next Project

Okay, next you have to think BIG. What kind of book would be challenging and exciting for you to write? A massive 4-volume biography of a historical figure? A 500-page Civil War epic that spans three generations? (And don’t say the Civil War has been done before! Check out E.L. Doctorow’s The March and see how new creativity can enliven an old idea.) How about a romance novel good enough to win a National Book Award? Whatever your shot at greatness will be, the only requirement is that it’s something that you will absolutely love writing. Otherwise, you won’t want to keep going when the going gets tough.

Remember to bring originality to your ideas. I recently read a piece that was adequately written, but every single sentence and expression had already been said in songs and other works. That’s not always a bad thing, but this author had done nothing to make the work her own. This is the kind of thing that can cause a manuscript to be rejected, and the writer would be totally baffled because she thought she had written well. It takes more than a pretty sentence for a work to be great.

Read Other Great Work

You will hear this A LOT from me as well as many editors and literary agents: if you’re going to be a great writer, you must read. Always read great writing so you will be reminded of what’s possible with the language. Good writing can become almost like a tune in your head, and you’re programming yourself to play that tune when you get in front of your computer screen. Now that doesn’t mean you’ve got someone else’s voice in your head, and you’re writing in a Stephen King or E.L. Doctorow persona! It does mean that you can read your work back to yourself and recognize when you’ve hit a wrong note. In reading, you’ll also learn how authors work with big-picture ideas and themes–the kind of stuff that adds layers of depth and interest to a book.

Disconnect from Thoughts of Money

I know making money is important, but it can also be a huge distraction. For now, unplug from that impulse that makes you want to think about how much you can sell this project for or whether you can sell the movie rights to it. There will be time enough for all that when you have finished your great work. Of course, sometimes, thinking about the finish line can be what motivates you. Maybe having a copy of a big fat royalty check on your bulletin board keeps you going. That’s okay. But if you find yourself trying to sell the book before you’ve made any headway into the project, beware. What if you did sell it at that point? Then you’d be caught up in meeting a deadline and meeting expectations. Those aren’t exactly ideal conditions under which to deliver a pacesetting work.

One last note: Even if your book project is not meant for the general public–maybe you’re writing a book for your children, for instance–that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have similarly high standards. After all, whatever you create is going to go out there with your name on it. That fact alone can inspire you to make your book the best that it can be.

© 2006 Sophfronia Scott

See Sophfronia’s The Book Sistah Blog, category “Articles.”

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