Thanks to Karen for her comment regarding my post last night about critique partners. She brought up an important point -- one that I'd like to talk about some more.
Writing is an odd business. Some people fall into it naturally; others, like me, take longer to settle down.
When I think about my journey as a writer, I think of two large milestones along the way. The first was when I finally developed the discipline to finish a manuscript. I'm not talking about short stories. I earned extra money by selling short stories to the confession magazines for years before I ever finished a full-length manuscript. My problem was in staying committed to the longer length project. For years, I'd start something, get bored and put it down. I had dozens of unfinished manuscripts. It took a long time for me to decide that I wouldn't start a new one until I finished the one I was working on. That was a huge turning point for me. Later, I had to reverse this strategy when it, too, began to work against me. However, that's another story.
The second big milestone was when I stepped away from my computer and began to interact with other writers. Looking back on this, I wish I had taken this step much sooner. I waited until I was nearly finished with my first full-length manuscript to join two groups: Sisters in Crime and Romance Writers of America. I joined SinC first and, some months later, joined RWA. I'd resisted joining RWA because writing romances wasn't what I wanted to do. However, those people are very serious about writing. I've never met a bunch of more committed folk. They energized me and moved my efforts to a much higher level.
Remember, I said the second milestone was stepping away from my computer and interacting with other writers. In addition to joining support groups like RWA that meant finding a critique group.
Writing is essentially a lonely business. It seems counter-intuitive to need to network in order to succeed. But, that's been my experience. It was much easier to join a writers group where we just talked about the process of writing. It was very difficult for me to join a critique group where I actually read my chapters out loud to other people for feedback. It's probably hard for a baby bird to jump out of the nest and flap its wings, too. However, it's a necessary part of the growth process.
The good news is that it didn't take me long to get comfortable with sharing my work. The other writers were flexible, supportive and very kind. They also could see things about my writing that had never occurred to me. I began to recognize my weaknesses and strengths. I'm very good at plotting and dialogue. I'm less strong at narrative and sentence structure. Fortunately, there are lots of good classes available in the community and online. I learned to identify my weaknesses and to work on them.
I've met lots of writers who complain bitterly about agents and publishers and the industry as a whole. I've observed that most of these people have managed to finish a work, but have never moved away from their computers. They have not learned to network and to grow through feedback. They write and then mail off their manuscripts. They become angry and defensive when their work is rejected. It's a sad, endless loop.
The first step is to learn to sit at your computer and write; the second step is to learn to move away from your computer. Both take discipline and courage, but they're worth it.