There are two main types of Progression to explore here. The first is related to the craft of writing, and the second is about progression within the industry.
Progression in Your Craft
In the first of the P’s we looked at the importance of practice, of continuing to write, every day, if possible, with the goal of using that to become better.
But, even though it’s stated and, for some, assumed, the reason for practice isn’t just the matter of fact “more words on the page” that result from it; it’s the other thing that happens when a person continues to work at something.
It is progression. Improvement. Even if it is by imperceptible wins.
Though progression is the natural by-product of practice, it is important to split it out into its own unique element. That is how important it is.
Because just doing the same thing over and over, without improving upon and continually learning, is just doing the same thing over and over. If (to use a crude example) you don’t understand the basics of grammar, you might continue to use the word “your” in the incorrect context when you mean to write “you’re” (you are) in more sentences rather than learning and improving. (“Your never going to improve” VS “You’re never going to improve.”)
That is where working with an excellent editor can help. They can help you find patterns of habits in your writing that you don’t notice, and which might be almost invisible to you, but which can be off-putting for a reader, perhaps even kicking them out of the narrative you are trying to lead them through. And yes, even the best writers still have well-formed habits and word pattern choices that can be jarring.
To consider this, (because it is often easier to see it in someone else than in yourself), think of a friend or an acquaintance you know who regularly peppers their every-day speech with a colorful word, or phrase. Maybe it’s the f-word and its variations, typically just adding “ing” to the word, that they liberally sprinkle into their talk as an adjective and an adverb. So much that if you were to track and get a nickel for each time they use the word, after a short discussion with them, you’d have enough money to buy yourself a coffee or perhaps a more expensive alcohol-based drink; which could come in handy in terms of helping you deal with the excessive and repetitive f-bombs.
Or perhaps it’s the insertion of the extraneous and un-necessary word “like” in speech. When I was growing up, excessive use of this word was an indicator of “Valley Girl” talk’ but it has moved more and more into popular culture and modern speech from adults to children and even the well-educated, not necessarily for the creation of a simile, and not just as a mis-used adjective or adverb, but for dialogue attribution and as vocal “pauses” in speech itself. Taking a nickel from each use in some conversations could leave you with enough money to purchase an entire round of drinks. Which we could all, like, really use in, like, certain circumstances, right?
I used those two examples because they can be jarring and easily recognizable and are quite likely something you have experienced and can thus easily see (or “hear”). In your writing, the patterns and over-use of some words are likely to be subtler, but a good editor can usually help you detect them and hunt them down with an unforgiving and unrepentant red pen.
Yes, writing and writing and writing some more is a fundamental key. But there’s a quiet and often unstated, or perhaps understated additional element to all that practice that comes with it. It is the ability to continue to learn and become better at your writing.
I think that the open-ness to learning, no matter how practiced, skilled, or proficient a person is, is an essential key.
I like to reflect on Neil Peart, the drummer from the Canadian rock band, Rush. An inductee into the Modern Drummer hall of fame in 1983, making him the youngest person to ever receive that honor, Peart is often regarded as one of the best drummers to emerge from the rock world. Initially emulating the icons he grew up enjoying, drummers such as Keith Moon (The Who) or John Bonham (Led Zeppelin) and spending endless hours in his basement practicing playing like them, Peart developed his own unique style, inspiring an entire new generation of drummers. And yet, despite all the accolades, awards and honors, and having played drums for 30 years, in 1995 he stopped to re-learn how to play drums under the tutelage of Freddie Gruber, a legendary jazz drummer and teacher.
In a 2017 article in Musicradar. Peart is quoted as saying that Gruber helped him loosen up his playing. “That’s what his coaching was all about,” Peart said. “It was all physical, not musical. He’s not the kind of teacher who teaches you to play the drums, he teaches you how to dance on the drums.”
But that wasn’t enough. In 2007, he continued to be a student, wanting to refine his skills and be able to do “big band” style drumming, in honor of the legendary Buddy Rich, so studied and re-learned drum timing techniques with Peter Erskine.
Regardless of how good he was, of how respected and successful he was, Peart never stopped learning, or re-learning the craft he loved so well.
So, taking a cue from Neil Peart, who re-learned how to dance on the drums, what are the ways that, through regular practice and continuing to learn and re-learn the skills of writing, are you willing to continue to master the fine art of making the words dance on the page?
A free weekly resource that I find extremely beneficial towards continuing to re-learn and focus on refining and honing my own writing craft is the podcast Writing Excuses which is hosted by authors Dan Wells, Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal and Howard Taylor. The podcast, which mostly focuses on the craft of writing, is promoted as “fifteen minutes long, because you’re in a hurry, and we’re not that smart.” It is meant to be digested in a format that can be enjoyed even on the shortest of commutes or while performing some other daily chore, such as doing the dishes or walking the dog. Even if the podcast ever stops producing new episodes, there are, as of this writing, thirteen seasons of incredible free backlist material that you can learn from.
Progression in the Business
If progression with the craft of writing itself is the foundation upon which you create a pathway to success, progression in understanding the business of writing and publishing allows you to build a structure that fits in with the current architectural trends.
The business of writing and publishing evolves. A little more than a decade ago eBooks weren’t really a thing. Digital publishing involved print-on-demand (POD); there were no easy paths to self-publishing via Kindle, Kobo and the other eBook platforms. The Kindle and Kindle Direct Publishing didn’t exist until 2007. Smashwords, the world’s first major eBook distribution platform, wasn’t founded until 2008.
If, today, you are considering your publishing and self-publishing options, and you haven’t learned all that has changed and been made available to writers since 2007, then you would still be only looking at the old way of doing things. Your paths would, for the most part, be to either work at finding an agent and/or publisher to sell your book to, or paying a ridiculous amount of money to a vanity publishing outfit to have the book self-published using POD technology.
I know that is a bit of an exaggerated example, but I wanted to use it to illustrate a point.
Just as you, as a writer, are constantly changing, growing, and evolving, so too is the business of writing and the business of publishing. I have been working in the bookselling, writing and publishing professions since 1992, and I have witnessed some dramatic shifts. But, as much as I already have experience and information and insights, I am still, every single day, reading and listening to and watching developments in our industry; and I am focusing not just on self-publishing, but also on traditional publishing — because both are constantly changing and evolving.
Around the time that the Kindle and digital publishing was emerging, New York Times Bestselling author Kevin J. Anderson, a writer of about fifty books with millions of copies in print started to detect a shift in the industry, and gathered together with his wife, fellow author Rebecca Moesta, and friends David Farland, Eric Flint, and Brandon Sanderson to discuss the changes and to help teach one another the new elements from the publishing landscape so they could better navigate those changes.
Those meetings eventually became Superstars Writing Seminars, where Anderson, the aforementioned colleagues and James A. Owen come together every year at a gathering in Colorado Springs, CO, not just to teach the business of writing and publishing to between one hundred and two hundred writers in a very intimate and interactive setting, but to also continue to learn about the industry themselves.
Anderson and his colleagues aren’t just teaching, but they are continuing to learn. If you can look at a group of writers who have millions of copies of their books in print, are published in multiple languages and been on the New York Times bestseller lists too many times to count, and yet recognize the importance of continuing to learn, then there are, indeed, things you and I can continue to also progress within our own learning.
This is a slightly modified version of the chapter “Progression ”from the book The 7 P’s of Publishing Success.