7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Catherine Gildiner

1. Writing is a job. Writing is a job not a vocation or an avocation. If you want to be a success at it, treat it like the most important part of your day. Don’t do it when all else is done. Lots of women do this sort of thing. They think they have to be mothers, then clean the house and then they have “earned the right” to write. Forget it. I used to be a psychologist for 25 years. I didn’t start writing until I was 50. I write exactly as long per day as I worked as a psychologist. I work from 9-5, five days a week. I never write on the weekend. I never waited for inspiration to be a psychologist because it was a job. If you wait for inspiration to write, you will die at your computer with a blank page blinking in the darkness.

2. Create your own publicity. You can write two thirds of the time, but you must publicize one third of the time. It is a competitive market. Why would anyone want to read your book when they have literally thousands of other submissions? It is up to you to let the agents, publishers and anyone connected to the field know what is special about your book. As I psychologist, I needed a shtick and you need one in writing as well.
Don’t wait to be discovered. It won’t happen. Write articles for anyone who will take you. Write letters to the editor, anything. When you write, always mention something with a sound bite and then mention your book and something exciting about it. Example “They say that if you can remember the sixties you weren’t really there. (Sound bite complete.) Well I was there in AFTER THE FALLS, my memoir about growing up in the sixties. (Title of the book complete.) Who could forget the arrest at fourteen, the fire, the murder trial and the investigation by the FBI?” (Exciting details complete)

3. Learn your market. If you don’t know your market, it is like looking at a map of New York when you want to get around Chicago. Read all other books in your genre. Narrow it down to a specific genre. Mine was not “memoir,” since it was too big. Instead I investigated “childhood memoirs.” Then find out who reads them. (Read blogs and comments in your genre.) If your readers are left-wing lesbian women, and you are focusing on the Wall Street Journal, you are wasting our time. If you are putting in hours on Facebook, and your readers are over 65, you are off the mark.

4. Find truth in your work. Writing is about creating an inner world. You dump out your unconscious and then the reader identifies with it. Most of us have many of the same unconscious loves, hates, fears and desires and it is good writing that taps into those longings. We all have aggressive and sexual instincts and you have to tap into what other people feel or the universal unconscious. You have to know what you are talking about because you have lived it. Readers aren’t stupid. If you are faking your experience, they will smell a rat. If you are writing about murder, you have to have at least felt murderous at least once.

5. Don’t write for a market. People who think they can approach writing like a business are misguided. If someone says “I have chosen to write for the ‘teenage market’ because it is ‘up and coming,’ ” I know they will fail. You have to write from your heart and then promote like a business.

6. You need ice in your veins. Why do writers think that they have to be kind to those around them? I don’t mean that you should be mean, but you need to get your story out no matter what it takes or else you shouldn’t call yourself a writer. When people play football, they don’t worry about hurting one another. When business people mark up a product, they don’t think they are cheating you. When farmers send their cows to slaughter, they don’t see themselves as murderers. Writing is your job. When people say to me that they can’t write their story until their mother, father and family dies, I know that they will never be writers. Remember one thing. Memory is fallible. You may not have things right. People will not always agree with your portrayal of them in your memoir. Others will think you have changed them unfairly in your novel. The only thing that is important is to be true to the story—whatever that is.

7. Pick a method of writing. Sit down and write. Start with what comes into your mind first and then build on it. Do not second guess yourself or correct your spelling or grammar. Ninety percent of your best writing will come out this way. Stream of consciousness is like a pump system or an oil rig. You get the garbage out first and then the valuable stuff starts to flow later. Just keep with it. You can always throw out the bad stuff. Dump your whole story out first with no self regulating. You get your best images and phrases that way. Then go over it for style much later. Then make an outline that makes sense with each chapter organized and then rewrite the book. Now you start your second draft. Never give it to anyone to read as you are writing it. They don’t know any more than you and often they know less. When it is finished (second or third draft) and you have fixed it up as much as you can, then hand it three critical friends to read and get their feedback. Hopefully their criticisms will match. Act on the criticism that makes sense to you or what feels right. Then submit it for publication!

Catherine Gildiner has written two memoirs. Her
latest, After the Falls (Nov. 2010, Knopf) is about
growing up in the 1960s—a sequel The Boston
Globe called “powerful, personal … irresistible.”
Her acclaimed first memoir, Too Close to the Falls,
followed her, ages 4-13 in small-town America.
See her website here.