July 14, 2011
Writer's block? Focus on writing, not editing or publishing
In my last column, "Best-selling author shares tips for career success," I wrote about my recent interview with celebrity ghostwriter Andrea Cagan. Here are some lessons we discussed on how to become a successful writer.
Andrea calls her latest book -- "Producer: Lessons Shared from 30 Years in Television," a biography of Wendy Walker -- "a unique challenge." Her subject, the senior executive producer of "Larry King Live," would wake up at 5:30 a.m. daily and worked until the Larry King show aired at night.
"I would try spending three to four days at her home, catching her on lunch breaks," Andrea says of Wendy. "She had to tell me all of those stories in that book. We would work at night, pull out a bottle of wine and talk about, 'What was it like when Marlon Brando kissed you, or when President Ronald Regan told Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down this wall?' "
Andrea taped all of the interviews, transcribed them and started writing. The key, she says, is to get it out really fast and not edit. This is also a great exercise for résumé writing: List all of your accomplishments and results, and don't worry about editing at first.
"The idea is to get something down on the page to have something to work with, because blank pages can be very intimidating," says Andrea. The first drafts might be pretty awful, she says, but don't try to make them smooth or sweet.
When Andrea was almost done with "Producer," she sat down with her editor. After going through the manuscript, they realized that people were more likely to pick up a book of lessons from a big-time producer than a memoir from a person they hadn't heard of, so they decided to shift the focus accordingly.
The book's deadline coincided with Larry's retirement, so Andrea had only one month to change the entire format. She spent a day freaking out and complaining, she says, and then got back to work: "I only give myself 24 hours to flip out." Overall, the project took six months.
I asked Andrea what makes so many of her books best sellers. "I get [the subjects] to tell their personal stories," she says. "The reader needs someone to hook onto. For example, Wendy went through a divorce, and it was very upsetting. The reader would want to know how she dealt with it."
Instead of positioning celebrities as stars or legends, Andrea humanizes them as much as possible by making them relatable to the average person. She also incorporates personal stories as often as possible.
To be successful, she says, aspiring authors should establish a disciplined writing schedule -- and focus only on writing. Many writers tell her they have a book idea and ask for advice on getting it published.
"Don't worry about publishing," she tells them. "You need to write it first. If you're willing to take baby steps, somehow a door opens along the way. You have to take a lot of risks and say yes to a lot of things you're not sure you can pull off. You need courage and trust, and then you have to actually do the work.
"Believe in yourself. You can't listen to the negative self or peer talk: 'Publishing is very hard these days, it's hard to get a book out there, agents are all creeps.' Instead, replace those thoughts with: 'Some people get their books published, and I can be one of them.' Every writer will experience massive rejection. You have to find the strength and temperament to weather it."
If you run into problems or your work isn't getting the attention it deserves, Andrea suggests talking to a smart person who has already traveled down that path. One mistake she often sees writers make is turning to family or friends for guidance; they usually don't know how to help, she says.
Finally, Andrea says, don't get married to your work. You might have to throw out an entire chapter because it doesn't fit the theme, for example; don't let that derail you. Learn to work with yourself, and find a good support team that can cheer you on.
Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.
Kristen Fife is a senior recruiter, career mentor, blogger and resume consultant based in the Seattle area.
Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.
Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.
Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.
Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.
Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."
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