Set the Page on Fire
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Set the Page on Fire

Secrets of Successful Writers

Steve O'Keefe

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eBook - ePub

Set the Page on Fire

Secrets of Successful Writers

Steve O'Keefe

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About This Book

Discover the Tricks and Tools of the Pros Successful writers write, rather than just think about writing, talk about writing, or plan what they'll write when they get a cabin in the woods. Yet even accomplished writers sometimes get "blocked, " losing access to their in-the-zone writing mind. Steve O'Keefe offers proven techniques and practices for jump-starting stalled ideas, honed during his many years of working in virtually every aspect of publishing. His innovative, often unconventional exercises will get you writing and accessing your own unique voice — a voice the world wants to read! Containing a career's worth of writing and publishing savvy, as well as the advice of expert authors gleaned from hundreds of interviews, Set the Page on Fire is the kind of nuts-and-bolts coaching and encouragement invaluable to novice and veteran writers alike.

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CHAPTER 1
TOP 10 SECRETS OF SUCCESSFUL WRITERS
Let’s start right off with the Top 10 Secrets of Successful Writers, which are based on my interviews with published authors and book publishing professionals. (You can find a complete list of the authors interviewed at the back of the book, as well as video clips of most interviews at the companion website for Set the Page on Fire.) The Top 10 List below is shown in reverse order, followed by a summary and discussion of each secret. The secrets I am about to divulge will serve as handy reminders when you’re in the heat of composition.
10. Writing is discovery, not capture
It’s something you kindle, not something you freeze.
9. Schedule time at the keyboard
two hours/day = a book in a month
one hour/day = a book in two months
fifteen minutes/day = a book never
8. Mechanics don’t matter
Worry about writing quickly and getting across.
7. A thousand words before dawn
The kids are still asleep, and you can write around your job.
6. Write in Airplane Mode
The internet is designed to steal your time. Keep it turned off while you’re writing.
5. Don’t talk about your writing
Talking damages desire. Your writing never comes out the way it sounds when you discuss it.
4. Use the Four-Part Pitch
This is an effective short pitch for securing outlets for your writing.
3. Know the person you’re pitching to
Pitch to people, not companies. Show that you know who you’re pitching to.
2. Get it in writing
Get a commitment before you write.
1. Tenacity
It can take eight years to break out, but it’s worth it.
Let’s examine each of these writing secrets in detail.
10. WRITING IS DISCOVERY, NOT CAPTURE
It’s something you kindle, not something you freeze.
Summary: Many people think writing is a process of capturing thoughts. However, it is more a technique for growing thoughts than harvesting them. The best writing comes out of the process of discovery at the keyboard. It can rarely be thought out in advance and laid down whole.
Discussion: If you are serious about having your writing add up to something, you need to log hours at the computer (or pad of paper). It’s hard to hold the entire text of an article or story in your mind until you get to a keyboard and let it all out. If you try to do so, what comes out is likely to sound all wrong. Why?
Your article dump sounds wrong because you created it in your mind, out of “brain language,” which is largely self-talk. When you are forced to squeeze those ideas into the alphabet, they come out sounding like baby talk. The text is often dull and uninspiring, which makes it hard to get started.
Written pieces that are constructed in the mind and laid down whole are nearly identical to pieces dictated into a recorder and transcribed. Have you seen the machine transcriptions that online video services provide? The words used are small, incomplete, and confusing.
The speaking vocabulary for an English-language high school graduate consists of about ten thousand words. The same person’s writing vocabulary is about forty thousand words. Her reading vocabulary is about fifty thousand words. These numbers are based on surveys of millions of people using vocabulary builder apps.
If you want to shape an article, a story, a report, a novel, or a poem, wouldn’t you want a tool caddy of forty thousand words rather than an itty-bitty ten-thousand-word one? You set the page on fire when you ignite that big vocabulary at the keyboard. The writing goes so fast you can hardly keep up!
9. SCHEDULE TIME AT THE KEYBOARD
two hours/day = a book in a month
one hour/day = a book in two months
fifteen minutes/day = a book never
Summary: It takes only forty hours for an average typist to keyboard an average-length novel. So much for time as a barrier to getting that book written! If you put in two hours a day, five days a week, you will grow a book in one month. If it takes fifteen minutes to get “warmed up,” as it does for many writers, then spending fifteen minutes a day writing is like clearing your throat but never singing.
Discussion: All the planning and thinking and researching you do disappears unless you spend time converting it into written language at the keyboard or with a pen. Since only the portion of your work that gets converted into language is writing, if you want to grow your writing output, schedule time to put your thoughts into writing.
Most writers have to defend that schedule against myriad intrusions in order to accomplish their goals. You need chunks of time from one to three hours long to make real progress with either articles or books. You need to pick a time of day you can stick to. You need a place where you won’t be interrupted and where your writing won’t disturb others. You need to find some method for evoking the muse and setting the page on fire so that your writing time is pleasant and productive.
The best way to call on the muse is to write a little every day. It doesn’t matter what, really: emails, postcards, journal entries, to-do lists, blog posts, greeting cards, letters, memos, ideas, quotations, reviews — even text messages. Any conversion of thoughts into writing helps keep your muse close.
You set the page on fire by making the transition from your friendly but tiny verbal vocabulary to your massive, elegant written vocabulary. This book is full of tricks for getting into your writing vocabulary quickly, eliminating the writer’s warm-up, and making your writing time significantly more productive.
8. MECHANICS DON’T MATTER
Worry about writing quickly and getting across.
Summary: Spend time perfecting your pitches, if you want, but not your writing. Writing reads better when it’s done quickly, even if it contains errors. Writing that has been labored over is often so compact it’s impenetrable. It’s easy to fix writing that has bad mechanics, but it’s very difficult to infuse ordinary writing with a voice that grabs the reader and a pace that doesn’t let go.
Discussion: What draws people into reading a piece is wondering what’s coming next. This sense of a reader’s journey is baked right into the language itself: we read a few letters to recognize a word and a few words to make out a sentence. Just the process of understanding what is written is a path. Writers can harness the anticipation that is hardwired into the reading process to build suspense and compel attention.
You can generate this can’t-wait-to-see-what-happens-next process when you, too, aren’t sure of what’s coming next and are working as fast as possible to type it out. When you are flying at the keyboard in this fashion, the writing is pleasant, even addictive, and the output can be tremendous. But the grammar sometimes suffers.
If you stop to fix problems in tense, sentence structure, spelling, and punctuation, it will slow your writing to a crawl. More of your sentences will come out perfectly — and be perfectly boring. If you lose the voice, the pace, the sense of discovery, you lose the reader. The writing becomes slow, unpleasant, laborious, predictable, and dull.
Write quickly. Use tricks to get yourself writing quickly. Don’t worry about mechanics until you are done writing and in editing mode. When you write quickly and clean it up later, your writing will be stronger and more exciting, with a clearer voice and a better sense of direction.
7. A THOUSAND WORDS BEFORE DAWN
The kids are still asleep, and you can write around your job.
Summary: A surprising number of writers get their clicks in before sunrise. Since very few writers hit it big with their first book, they have regular jobs and must fit writing time into their working lives. Many successful authors use the hours before work to write, and they retain that schedule even after they become well known. Famous writers very often use the morning to compose, the afternoon for business, and the evening for inspiration.
Discussion: It can be just as hard to find the quiet to write as it is to find the time. When you write quickly, it feels as though you are listening to your own thought stream and turning it into text. If writing feels like listening, it makes sense that writers prefer quiet when they compose.
You can build mental walls to noise, as we all do when writing in a café or on a plane or train. You can build physical walls, too, by putting on headphones or closing a door. But there’s nothing like real quiet to keep you writing for hours without noticing the passing of time.
Some writers get their quiet by going on retreats. Once you’ve seen how to set the page on fire, you can get a book written in as little as a week. An average typist can type an average-length novel in just forty hours at the keyboard. “That’s not writing, that’s typing,” Truman Capote once quipped. But writing is, in fact, that portion of your thought that gets converted into alphabet. You can speed up that process when it’s quiet.
Writing is easy compared with the administrative chores of being a professional author. When you find more outlets for your writing, you’ll have more time for writing. Most successful authors give writing their first shot at the start of the day and spend the afternoon on business, once their creative fire has cooled.
6. WRITE IN AIRPLANE MODE
The internet is designed to steal your time. Keep it turned off while you’re writing.
Summary: You don’t need the internet to write an article or a book. It’s very helpful for researching or editing, and that’s when you should go online. Successful writers write fast, without interruption. They do research and editing in a separate pass. Believe it or not, it can be considerably ...

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