It’s often easy for writers to get stuck in the mindset of only ever learning from other authors. Whether it’s the interminable round of online courses, reading blogs, or listening to podcasts, writers educate themselves by following other writers. Often, it’s absolutely the best way forward. But writers can learn from a much wider range of disciplines.
And, not only can they learn from them…I think they absolutely should.
Last week, I went to the D&AD Festival in Shoreditch. It was three days of fun and japes, learning and inspiration, for the design and advertising community. One of the talks I attended was ‘Why Design Matters’, by the incomparable Debbie Millman, host of the Design Matters podcast. While her talk was for designers, there were so many crossover points with writing and publishing that I decided to share the main takeaways.
Take from them what you will, but keep an eye out for #21. It’s an absolute belter.
What writers can learn from design practice.
1) Give yourself permission to do everything with your life. Don’t feel hemmed in by one thing.
Debbie meant not feeling hemmed in knowing what kind of designer you want to be. Or allowing yourself to be a designer and a podcaster and a filmmaker and an activist. But I think it’s equally applicable to authors. Everyone tells you to only write in one genre. Readers aren’t stupid. They can tell genres apart. And they can choose what they want to read and what they don’t.
So if you currently write steampunk and you also want to write fantasy? Do it. Don’t feel your readers will be confused. If you read both genres, I guarantee there will be other people who do too. And if they don’t? They can pick one and stick to it. If it’s a real problem, look at JK Rowling and Robert Galbraith.
2) Ask yourself what you want to be when you grow up.
Do you want to be a writer, or an author? Then get on with it. Stop faffing about with titles like ‘aspiring author’. If you write, then you’re a writer. Posted a story on your blog? Congratulations, you’re published.
Now get on with your writing career and stop hiding behind aspirations.
3) Consider your failures to be experiments.
Writers can learn more from their mistakes than their successes. One of my mistakes? Putting The Necromancer’s Apprentice with a second small press after its original home folded. I should have had the confidence in myself to put it out myself. Did I learn from it? Yes. Because it was an experiment, not a failure.
4) Put your everything into what you’re good at.
I’m never going to be an award-winning literary fictioneer. You won’t see my books being praised for their searing criticism of the harsh realities of growing up in a Newcastle suburb. So I won’t try, because it doesn’t interest me. But I am good at writing pulpy, action-filled dark fantasy adventures, so that’s where I put my ‘everything’.
Writers can learn so much from what they’re good at. But they seem to spend so long focusing on what they think they want to learn. Or what they think they need to be to sell more books. So try putting your everything into what you’re good at and see what happens.
5) Opportunities can come from anywhere.
Another problem writers have, particularly now in the days of online courses, is following trends. One person has huge success at something, they turn it into an online course, and then everyone does it. So it loses its efficiency.
Instead of looking for opportunities in what has already worked for another author, writers can learn more from what works in other industries. That’s where you’ll find innovation or the ‘next big thing’. Plus it’s far more interesting.
6) Always maintain your integrity.
It’s what people will remember about you when you’re no longer here. So hang onto it.
7) Start with the tools you have but pay attention to quality. There’s so much competition you can’t afford to make a bad first impression.
Debbie talked about her early experiences making her podcast. Listeners loved the content but hated the poor sound quality. At the time, she had no competition. Listeners had no choice but to fight past the awful sound.
It’s much like the early e-book revolution. Readers might put up with lower quality e-books when there are only eighty to choose from. But now? You’ve got a lot of competition so you have to make a good first impression.
That doesn’t mean you need to go out and buy a Macbook, Scrivener, and hire top designers for your cover art. Invest in quality editing and a good cover. Then pay what you can afford for the rest. Or teach yourself how to format e-books. If you’re really stuck, pay me and I’ll do that for you.
8) Get to know your own creative process.
Do you know that you’re a lark, and you do your best work between 7 and 9 am? Then rework your days so you can write during that period. Don’t force yourself to write at 11 pm because you think that’s what “real” writers do.
And do you know you’ll never be a plotter, no matter how much you try? Get to know your own pantsing process, learn it inside out, and then do that. It’s your process and it can only work if you truly understand it. Work with your process, not against it.
9) Be aware of how you become who you are.
Knowing who you are as a writer is key to creating an author brand (see my signup box below if branding confuses the crap out of you). But writers can learn why they write by knowing how they got to where they are as an author.
It’s also absolute gold when it comes to character development. You can repeat that journey inside one of your characters. And you know it’s plausible because you’re living proof.
10) Read your emails! Who knows what opportunities are in your inbox?
This one came from Debbie’s experience of spotting the Facebook inbox for the first time. She almost missed an awesome interview opportunity because she didn’t know it was there.
So check your messages.
11) You don’t always have to follow what’s popular.
The problem with writing what’s popular now is there’s no guarantee it’ll still be popular by the time the book is ready for release. You’re just playing catch-up.
Who knows what’s going to be big next? Instead, own whatever you do and do it because you can’t imagine not doing it. If it becomes the next big thing, great. If not, you’ll still be happy.
12) Just because you can tweet the whole world in seconds doesn’t mean you have to do everything quickly.
Take your time to learn and enjoy your craft. Don’t rush to put books out just for the sake of having books on Amazon. And for God’s sake, think before you tweet.
13) Practice really does make perfect. There are no shortcuts.
It’s true that the more you write, the better you’ll get. But conversely, you could write a million words a year and still not improve if you don’t know what to work on.
Case in point – I’m not great at writing emotions so I’m actively working on improving that. So take the time to educate yourself about your craft and practice the things you’re worst at.
14) You don’t have to be the next Jessica Walsh. Those superstar designers are rare. Just be yourself.
Debbie referred to Jessica Walsh, half of design dream duo Sagmeister & Walsh. She’s one of those big names who ‘made it’ while in her 20s. Our writing equivalent would be the likes of Stephen King or JK Rowling. You don’t have to be a bestseller megastar. Just yourself.
15) “Everything worthwhile takes time”.
If you don’t want to invest the time? Don’t become a writer.
16) You have plenty of time! You might not find your ‘thing’ until your early 40s.
I sometimes see authors posting in Facebook groups asking if they’ve “missed their chance” because they only took up writing at 60. No. Most readers don’t care about how old an author is (if they even know). And if you’re a more mature writer, you have a wealth of life experience to draw on that a 20-year-old can only dream of. Own it.
17) “Busy is a decision. You don’t find the time to do things, you make the time to do things.”
I’m not going to sport all the usual cliches about ditching TV to find writing time. Or cutting back on something else to give you an extra couple of hours a week. You’ve heard all this before.
But ultimately, it’s true. If you want to be a writer, then you’ll make time to write. Because you can’t not write. Writers can learn all kinds of elements of writing craft but time management rules them all.
18) Confidence comes after repeated success at doing the same things.
Still nervous about your ability to write even on book 3? That’s okay. Confidence isn’t a given. It’s something you earn after you’ve done the same thing enough times and had a good result.
Don’t confuse it with insanity. That’s doing the same thing and expecting a different result.
19) But courage is more important than confidence.
Having the courage to try is really your first step. Choosing to be a writer is a tough decision so congratulate yourself on making it.
And then get on with writing.
20) “In order to strive for a remarkable life, you have to decide that you want one”.
This always chimes for me a lot with Joanna Penn’s talk of living a creative life. Writers can learn every element of the business of publishing. That puts us in control of our author careers and gives us access to a creative life.
21) “If not now, when?”
This, for me, was the biggest point of Debbie’s talk. It’s too easy to put off something we want to do. Maybe we’re scared. Perhaps we’re not sure of our ability.
But if you’re not going to do it now, and I mean right now, then when will you do it? ‘Someday’ isn’t an actual unit of time. Don’t wait around for someone to give you permission to write. If it’s important to you, you’ll make it work.
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