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Do Your Own Work

Most of the time I’m all encouragement and you-go-get-‘em on here. My purpose with this blog is to light a fire under writers and get them working.

If you are someone that has a strong desire to tell a story, and if the idea that you might die before you write it keeps you up at night, I hope you’ll dive into these posts and find all the tips, tricks, courage and positivity you need to get started. I will share what has worked for me and what hasn’t. I’ll share anything and everything I can related to writing process and getting your work done. I will not hold back and I’ll keep right on showing up.

But here’s the thing. It’s still your work.

No one else can do your work for you.

I’ve worked with writers facing many obstacles. Writers hampered by shame, often stemming from an incident around writing that happened in high school. Writers who have faced severe trauma and yet still have an overwhelming desire to share their stories. Writers who have never used a computer and want to write a manuscript.

When I’m working with a writer, I am never daunted by such obstacles. I’ve listened to their stories and shared tools with them, encouraged them to start, helped them practice setting boundaries with family, written them letters of permission on beautiful stationery — I’ve been willing to help in whatever small way I can. I know I’m just a spark. It’s their own desire to tell their story that will see them through.

But there is another type of writerly desire that I find very difficult to work with:

People who want to see their story out in the world, but aren’t willing to put in the work it takes to get it there.

No, for real, this happened:

One time a man came up to me when I was writing in a coffee shop. He had a burning question for a writer, and since he knew I was one, he thought it appropriate to interrupt and ask me. He told me he’d spent twenty years writing morning pages. (If you’ve never heard the term, Morning Pages are an exercise from the book The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. ) Now he had masses of notebooks full of his early morning thoughts and wanted to know what to do with them.

As someone who had practiced morning pages for over twenty years myself, and had recently abandoned the practice, I did have a few thoughts. I suggested he shred them or burn them. You see, the point of morning pages is to clear your mind, quickly — in twenty minutes or less — in order to make space for your true creative work to come through. It’s like practicing scales on the piano. The real work is what comes after the morning pages.

No, I was wrong, the man told me. He was sure that what he needed was an editor. Someone to sift through his hoard of notebooks, extract the gems, polish them and publish his brilliant book, all at no cost to him. He wanted me to tell him where to find such a person, or, maybe I could to do it for him? You see, he’d had a really interesting life and there were a lot of good thoughts on those pages.

Also, this really happened:

Recently, another man called me in the middle of my writing time (yes, shame on me for answering) and made me an offer. I could keep some of the royalties, if I wrote his father’s life story.

I was as polite and firm as I could be and clearly said no, but he still tried to talk me into it. Not only was I missing out on an opportunity to make a lot of money, including cash from the Netflix deal I was going to negotiate on our behalf, but I was refusing to help his father, who could sure use a financial cushion in his retirement years.

When I asked why his father didn’t write his own story, he told me, well, that’s a lot of work. And besides, his father doesn’t have my kind of connections.

There were so many layers of unchecked assumptions in making this request that I knew there was no point in challenging them. I simply got off the phone as quickly as I could. I’m sure in his mind I’m an unhelpful person who missed my chance.

My purpose in sharing this is not to give an old man with a good story a hard time.

No, my point is to tell you that a good story is not the thing.

A great idea is not the thing.

Lots of people have good stories and great ideas. Each Thursday, my small town weekly newspaper has enough good starting places for stories to keep a mystery writer like me busy for three novels.

Your passion for the story is the thing.

Your willingness to do the work, to put in the time, to overcome the obstacles, to hone your craft, to learn the next thing, whether that’s how to write suspense or how to make quote posts for Instagram or how to use a semicolon or how to write a query letter — these are the building blocks for getting a great story out into the world.

There is no end to these blocks. They will come up all the time, and, unless you are independently wealthy, you can’t subcontract all that stuff out.

Sure, you can learn from others. You can hire out some pieces. You can collaborate and trade. You can access free resources and choose to pay for others. You can judiciously ask other writers or industry professionals for advice (but only after you have done your own research.) You can attend conferences and festivals. You can join a writing group. You can hire editors and you can learn to edit yourself by trading pages with other writers. You can work with agents and publishers and publicists and social media brand managers.

But you can’t delegate your vision to any of these people. And if you try, it will fall apart.

Even the biggest names in writing know that no one can do their work for them. (Yes, even those that can afford to hire ghost writers still need to do their own work in other ways.)

You need to hold the big picture. You need to know what you are doing and why. And you need to be willing to put in the hours, over the course of years, to work toward your vision.

An athlete might have a coach and a physiotherapist and a corporate sponsor. They might have national team funding to send them to the Olympics and a nice hotel to stay in when they get there. But they still have to run the race when the time comes. No one else can do that for them.

Writing is the same. No matter how much help you have, you still need to do your own work.

I really hope you will. Or at least that you are willing. For those that are, I’ll keep showing up here and share with you whatever I can that might help you along. (And if you have a burning question or a topic you’d like me to cover, leave a comment and I’ll try to cover it.)

For those that are looking for someone else to write, edit, pitch and sell their story for them so they don’t have to, please don’t interrupt me. I’m busy over here doing my own work.

[These days my work in progress is a mystery set in Montreal in 1947 that features one of my ancestors as a fictional sleuth. I send a letter to readers every month about this project and if you are curious about what I’m up to, you can sign up here. ]

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