Friday, March 22, 2013

Focusing on the Writing First

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

When I was a kid, my elementary school would have tornado drills at least twice in a school year.  What I remember most about these drills was that the teachers would direct all the children into the hallway to kneel with our arms covering our heads...and then they'd spend the entire drill busily cranking open the casement windows.  The prevailing wisdom at the time (at least, in my elementary school), was that the windows must be opened or else the school would explode from the pressure during a tornado.  I sounds nutty now.

Actually, it seemed crazy to me at the time that the teachers would be working so long and so hard to open those half-painted-shut windows...during a tornado. I remember thinking, "So...if this were a real tornado, the kids will all be safe in the hall.  And all the adults will be dead because they're trying to open the windows.  What will we do then?"  The windows just weren't the right things to be focusing on.

Twice recently, I've had new writers approach me to ask me publishing-related questions for unfinished first manuscripts.  I actually used to love talking with new writers.  I couldn't figure out why other writers disliked it so much.  Lately, though, I completely understand.  As I listened to them asking me questions about the industry, my heart sank.  How could I possibly give them any direction in only a few minutes? 

Neither had ever finished a book.  One had been working on a book for years, but not regularly.  It was something she picked up every few months.  She was concerned about agents and publishers and how to approach them.  

The other writer asked me about self-publishing vs. traditional publishing and building a platform.  And the writer looked totally overwhelmed.  I'd have been totally overwhelmed, too.  Working on a first novel, thinking about all the social media and the way the industry is imploding or exploding or improving (depending how you look at it.) 

It all reminded me of the teachers trying to crank those windows open.  Their principal had them focused on the wrong task.  They should have huddled down next to us in the hall.  Writers need to huddle down and write. 

Yes, we've got to follow the industry news.  It will help give us direction when we're figuring out the best avenue for publishing our story.  Plus, it's just such a dynamic time that our whole concept of the publishing industry could become outdated in a short period of time.  But the story comes first.

Platform building is important. But the timing of its importance is in question.  If it prevents you from writing that first book, that's a problem.   Industry expert Jane Friedman put it bluntly in her recent post (and the entire post is an insightful read)  on Writer Unboxed,  5 Industry Trends Requiring Every Writer’s Attention:

If you’re a totally new, unpublished writer who is focused on fiction, memoir, poetry, or any type of narrative-driven work, forget you ever heard the word platform. I think it’s causing more damage than good. It’s causing writers to do things that they dislike (even hate), and that are unnatural for them at an early stage of their careers. They’re confused, for good reason, and platform building grows into a raging distraction from the work at hand—the writing. 

I do think it's nice to have a home base on the web...a website, a blog, some place to hang your hat.  Definitely a professional-sounding email address, at the very least. But instead of platforming, new writers should think about discovering information from the writing community--craft, industry news, support.  Again, nothing that takes the place of the writing.  Platforming makes more sense for writers who have books launching. 

Once the book is finished, we do have lots of decisions to make and tons of information to absorb.  But we're focused in the wrong direction, it makes it even harder to find time to write.

How do you keep focused on your writing instead of all the other writing-related issues (industry changes, networking, platforming, agents and publishers)?  For me, it means knocking out my daily writing goal before hopping online.

Image: MorgueFile: npclark2k