As it drops toward its horizon and final bow, what stands out the most about 2016 is the time I have not spent furthering my own writing objectives. Not what you want to see in a year-end evaluation, but it’s a chance to do better today and next year.
First, a step back. I’ve taken the critique group/occasional course/read-all-you-can approach to writing instead of enrolling in an MFA program. Critique groups teach you how to write in a sort of apprenticeship manner, by requiring that you evaluate and comment on other people’s writing in order to receive feedback on your own. If you’re lucky, someone skilled in this practice is leading the group and setting the example. Over time you come to recognize the difference between useful and not so useful comments, and you learn about writing by examining the results of unseasoned skills―yours and everyone else’s.
This process reminds me of the watches and small appliances my father and I took apart when I was a child, and then put back together again with varying degrees of success. It’s a method of discovering how things work that requires a lot of hours and can lead to incomplete or not entirely functional results, but it’s an indelible way to learn.
Okay, so that being my learning method, 2016 was spent in a group that recently released a themed anthology. That project was invaluable as a writing experience. It was a good challenge and I enjoyed working with and learning from the other members. However, it basically inhaled all of the year’s writing oxygen.
I wrote a total of five stories for this project over the course of about eighteen months. Two were published in the collection. Instinct told me to pull a third story from consideration―I want it to come to a more slowly developed final form instead of being freeze-framed to meet a deadline. One morphed into something that didn’t meet the anthology theme. One was declined. All of this work was done according to a set schedule of writing, which in itself was a good experience. It’s the polar opposite of my customary “let it sit a while and come back to it later” method.
Here is the downside: two stories intended for self-publication this past fall did not make the finish line. One was a political satire intended for pre-election reading. The other was a chiller intended for Halloween. Three other stories have been waiting for attention before they can jump back into the submission/revision cycle.
So 2016 resulted in a book that contains some of my work, something concrete. And, in the process of working on it, three new stories evolved, two of which I think have promise. But looking at the work that the anthology forced aside has thrown up some red flags (or yellow cards). It was a good learning experience, but I’m not sure I would do it again in the near future. At least not while I also have to work at something else for a living.
What to do differently in 2017?
One change is something I just began doing this week, using new software that stores tasks, projects and deadlines and sends reminders keyed to my priorities. That should help keep me focused on the most crucial goals, instead of trying to do everything (my usual MO).
A second change is the result of seeing my writing go through a significant improvement or two during the past year. Most of those changes came out of writing things I was positive I had no business taking on. So wherever that road leads, that’s where I’m headed. As more than one writer has pointed out, if a project scares you it’s a sign that you should be working on it.