Things I wish I’d learned sooner as a Writer

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Writing is one of those talents that takes most people a lot of time to develop. I don’t really begrudge learning the craft bit by bit, or even setting aside writing for years at a time. I do wish I’d started ten years earlier but overall, I know I likely couldn’t have done it much sooner; I just wasn’t really ready. But I’ll use the trope of a note to my younger self to call out the things that stand out in this process of becoming a writing.

  1. A writer is someone who writes. While it may be appropriate, at times, to note I’m not yet published, if I spend hours a week writing, I should be proud to call myself a writer regardless of any other credentials.
  2. At the heart of a good story in any media is an interesting premise and interesting characters who are changed by the story. Everything else is secondary.
    • As a long time referee who loves creating elaborate worlds: setting only matters as it illustrates the premise and the characters. Any thing else might be fun and might be worth doing as a side hobby but it is not writing.
  3. There’s a wide range of elements of the writing craft that need to be mastered. For most of these, there are excellent resources available on the web or in writing books. They are worth reading and re-visiting as my writing craft matures but they do not replace the act of writing. Spend time here and there reading these resources, take a few seminars, go to a few conferences but only as a fairly small part of your time as a writer. Digest the material then set it aside.
  4. Most books, workshops, and courses will have a few useful take-aways but, in the end, I’m not likely to really remember much about them after a while. But there are a few that are “keepers” that I will always remember:
    • The single most useful book I’ve ever read is Jack Bickham‘s Scene and Structure. It’s the main structural problem I had with my earlier works and the most common problem I find in works I critique. Read and understand it.
    • The single most useful course I’ve ever taken is Discovering Story Magic by Laura Barker. It provides concrete, useful tools for defining a character and linking the character’s goals and flaws to plot.
    • The single most useful workshop I’ve ever taken was Don Maass’ 21st Century Fiction. Nothing like hearing from a widely successful agent about what sells.
  5. Go to a least one writer’s conference early on. It’s an eye-opener on the craft and the business. If you have the money, go once or twice a year but they aren’t cheap and you don’t really need to go frequently unless you have a book to pitch (and even there, not many agents sign authors from pitches. Still, doesn’t hurt to practice marketing your story.)
  6. Find a local writer’s group and join it, even if their market is tangential to yours. Workshops, seminars, etc., are very useful in providing direction and context.
  7. Develop critiquing resources. A local group of people you know and meet with may work but be careful: they need to a) give real feedback and b) be writing at a level comparable to your own. Often, you won’t find that from people you know or can meet face-to-face: they are reluctant to give critical feedback and are unlikely to be writing at your current maturity. There are plenty of other places like for getting feedback from people who have never met you (and is therefore more likely to be useful).
    • Critiques of your work are, of course, useful but even more valuable, you will find critiquing someone else’s work helps your own craft. Nothing like seeing too many ‘tells’ to really appreciate why you need to show, for instance.
  8. Consider using some paid critiquing services but check them out first. They range from $1 to $4 per page depending on who and what service they are offering but don’t assume more expensive is better. It is worth getting some professional opinions on even just the first chapter or a synopsis.
  9. Speaking of first chapter: openings matter. The first sentence, the first paragraph, first page, first scene, first chapter: if you can’t hook the reader there, they won’t read the rest of it, no matter how brilliant it may be.
  10. Learn to deal with rejection. Allow yourself a fixed amount of time to sulk, then get back to writing. Early on it might be a day, a week or even a month but soon enough rejection will be a minor irritant that might sting for no more than a few minutes or hours (worst case, a day or two).
  11. There are very few real jerks in the writing industry. Agents and publishers aren’t evil people who take glee in squashing your dreams. They want you to submit a great book just as much as you want to write one. They are flooded with queries, though, so in the normal course of things, don’t expect any real feedback from them. But if you want a real answer from them, go to a conference and pitch your work. Almost all of them will listen to your pitch kindly, give you a little feedback and probably take a look at a partial later. Unfortunately, they probably won’t give you feedback on the partial but it’s a start.
  12. Lastly: writing is fun. Once you get a few basics under your fingertips and develop a routine, the act of turning a story into something someone else can read is enjoyable. Sit down and write. You’ll like it.

What would you tell your younger self?

13 thoughts on “Things I wish I’d learned sooner as a Writer

  1. Travel more and actually talk more to the people you meet overseas. I’m amazed at all the missed opportunities my younger self made. I was shy (arrogant, really) and didn’t make an effort to meet folks when I traveled. All those missed stories and cultural learning!

      1. Sorry, didn’t see your question way back when…

        To answer: Not really…but sort of. More on just how cramped those planes are getting. I think when we get around to interstellar travel, it will not be as romantic as we all think, just as plane travel is now more cumbersome than adventurous. (shrugs) I’m waiting for teleportation.

  2. This was an excellent post. It got me thinking. I’ve been writing since I was a kid and I did a lot of things right. I had a pretty good work ethic, read widely, submitted, and was rejected, etc. I stopped for about five or six years when I had kids, changed careers, moved, went back to school, and basically became distracted with life. When I finally came back to it, I found I was a MUCH stronger writer.

    I’ve asked myself since then, what changed? I know I picked up one technique over those years that has served me well–I discovered my writing process (based upon the video game background I acquired), but really–the big thing that changed my writing skill–it was that I had lived life. Because of it, my overall writing style is more mature. Its just not something I could have given my younger self. I had to live.

    1. Thanks! I don’t really regret the pauses either. Life helps quite a bit. There are a few writers who do well early in life but most seem to need some living 🙂

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  4. For me, I think I’d say: be more adventurous. Nobody wants to read “safe” stories–even me, after I’ve written them. (Sort of like your point 2, which is so very true.) I’d also tell myself to relax about the whole thing, and just write more. I had to do a lot of maturing and living (like danbracewell above) before I really got my groove with writing. If I’d known then how long the road would be, I’d like to think that I would have just written for the joy of it, and not worried about publishing until I’d matured as a writer–as a human being.

    That said, I’m not ready to jump in a time machine and change the past. For one thing, my college English teacher gave me basically the same advice. And for another, things have come out all right for me, I think, all things considered.

    1. It’s funny you mention something similar but for the longest time, I actually wanted to write stories I probably wouldn’t have really wanted to read. Part of point 2 for me was analyzing what a really enjoy in stories and movies. There, LOTR is actually a bit of a red-herring: I t has a wonderfully complex setting that I love for itself but after analyzing what makes a movie or book tick for me I realized, I really didn’t care about the “deep setting”: it’s great but not as important.

      Definitely agree

      Thanks for the comments!

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