I thought I’d have a book published by now. Here’s why I’m okay that I can’t call myself an author just yet.
I thought I’d have a book published by now. Here’s why I’m okay that I can’t call myself an author just yet.
When you set out for a writing career, everyone told you it wasn’t going to be easy. There wasn’t a shortage of people to drone on and on about the low stats of snagging a career in writing.
But then you got the writing gig. And everyone stopped talking.
That’s when you could’ve used some solid advice. What should you expect? What mistakes can you avoid? How do you succeed?
Because most of us are well beyond the first day of our writing career, here’s some advice we wish someone told us before we started our career as a professional writer.
So what if you’ve endured a rigorous writing program from a prestigious university and you graduated with a polished manuscript?
The truth is that nobody cares.
Sure, it’s important to add your degree on your resume. It can move you up in the hiring process, but it’s only a step.
Once you get the job, all your supervisor cares about is that you write what needs to be written. They don’t want you to flower up technical copy. They don’t want 500 words for a banner ad.
But your MFA should have taught you that. Not everything needs to be literary. The words need to match the genre, the audience and the purpose.
So check your MFA at the door, but be sure to pick it up before you leave. You can always return to your creative writer ways outside the 9 to 5.
Never get too attached to your writing project. It doesn’t matter how pretty your repetition, how beautiful that word, how clever that phrase.
It’s probably going to get cut.
It doesn’t matter the literary background of the one holding the red pen. What the red pen says goes.
This can be devastating to writers. Or just really piss us off.
When it comes to your writing, everyone has an opinion. Sometimes it’s because it’s not reflecting the storyline or brand. And sometimes it’s because the editor doesn’t see her/his style in it.
Instead of letting this get under your skin, remember that the writing project isn’t you. It’s not your baby. It’s not a mini you. It’s not your adorable pet.
When you’re writing for a company, the writing project is a reflection of the company and of the brand. So if the edits reflect this, agree and make the change. But if the edits aren’t on-brand, then fight for the integrity of the writing project, not your ego.
We spend most of our days sitting at a desk hunched over our laptops. Besides getting up for the restroom or the break room, we stay at rest most of the time.
That can’t be good for our circulation.
So commit to one hour of exercise. Pick a fitness activity that gets you excited and gets your adrenaline going.
(My fitness of choice: Running)
You’ll be amazed how much better you feel – and the ideas you come up with – while exercising. Plus you won’t feel as guilty for snagging that break room donut.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve never seen a shoebill heron or don’t have an advanced degree in ornithology. Sometimes you just have to write about why the bird eats baby crocodiles.
Fake it ’til you make it.
A big misconception about writers is that we know everything. The myth probably comes from how we digest a vast array of information: Through the written word.
Or we’re just really, really good at pretending that we know it all.
Whether or not it’s true, it’s expected out of a writer. So having mad research skills is just as essential as your writing skills.
Internet search is your new best friend.
Sure, “writing” and “creating content” is in your job description. But so is “other duties as assigned.”
The truth is that there’s a lot that needs to be done in order for you to write. You need to research, strategize, promote and analyze in order to write what you need to write.
And, of course, meet about it.
There will be other tasks – and emails – in between the writing projects. Think of them as rest breaks so that your mind remains sharp when you do get back to writing.
What did you wish you knew before you started your writing career? Share your story below.
When I was in college, all I wanted to study was writing. It made sense at the time: Writers need to know how to write in order to write. So I didn’t study anything else that would distance me from my writing.
I only read the classics to study the craft of the story. I only read nonfiction books that elaborated on the art of writing.
These are great things to do as a writer. But it’s not the only thing you should be doing.
I went straight from undergrad to grad school (in writing, of course). When I sat down with my cohort for the first time to read our stories aloud, I had a reality check.
One peer shared his story about living at Yellowstone and hitchhiking back home. Another shared his story about balancing fatherhood and a full-time job. A third shared her story about finding her biological mother.
They were all doing something that I wasn’t. They were living life.
It seems simple when put that way. But writing books zoom in on adding alliteration and commas, not getting the writer out of one’s comfort zone. Novels and classics are screaming about it from cover to cover, but writing students are so focused on a specific scene that we miss the whole concept of plot development.
What makes writing so enjoyable to read are the experiences brought to it. Creative writers need to understand human interaction, see new places, and try new activities in order to create well-rounded characters and climatic plot arcs.
Nonfiction writers also need to apply life experiences. Historical writers visit ancient landmarks, technical writers practice building and medical writers watch surgeries and studies.
I had my eye on the prize to become a writer. I put my life on pause and went to school to bring myself a step closer to it. But I didn’t have any experiences to write about until I pressed play.
So this is my blog post explaining why I have been absent for three weeks. I was experiencing life. Life didn’t get in the way of my writing. Instead, life called me to step away and absorb what was happening in the moment in order to bring perspective to my writing.
I packed up my car and drove 2,000 miles across the country. And I saw this.
How does this story end? I can’t tell you that yet. I’m only in the middle of it myself. But I can tell you that I’m not afraid to live the story.
How has living life impacted your writing? Share your story below.
Getting into my Writing MFA program was one of the happiest moments in my life. I was accepted into my school of choice and I had the luxury of delaying the real world for another three years. I was finally going to become the writer I always wanted to be.
But did I?
Sure, now my writing style is refined. I know how to make sentences evoke strong actions as well as subtly convey foreshadowing. I can shape character development and recurring themes in my sleep.
However, there’s one thing that I didn’t learn. And it’s probably why I had to write my thesis three times in order to snag a diploma. It’s something so rare and yet so simple to teach.
There wasn’t an option to take a Plot and Conflict Development class. There wasn’t a lecture on how to create a story arc. There wasn’t even a homework assignment on it to see where my storyline was weak.
In fact, plot was never discussed at all. Instructors always asked, “What happens next?” but they never explained the necessity of asking that question.
It wasn’t just my program. Even the most prestigious Writing MFA programs don’t dedicate a course to crafting a strong plot. There are a plethora of workshop sessions and literature courses as if you’ll learn the plot process through osmosis.
Some of my Writing MFA program courses tried to explain it.
In my Young Adult Fiction class, I was assigned to outline my proposed young adult novel from start to finish. But outlining a story without plot structure is like trying to solve a math problem without the formula.
My playwriting courses brought me closer. My instructor explained that a play was based on what characters want, what they’ll do to get it and how conflicting wants between characters creates—you guessed it—conflict. But that’s like saying that if you want to solve that math problem, you’ll need a calculator, a pencil and paper.
There’s still no formula on the table.
Is it because plot structure is a scientific way of breaking down a story? Are Writing MFA programs afraid to introduce science in a fine arts program? Do graduate writing programs think that left brain strategy destroys right brain creativity?
Or do instructors simply not know how to teach plot?
Whatever the reason, not knowing how to structure a story left me feeling helpless in grad school. It’s like refining every tool in the toolbox and throwing out the largest wrench from the shed. It’s like graduating with all but one skill that is the driving force for writing success.
Don’t worry. There’s a happy ending to this story.
I discovered the science behind plot and conflict development when I attended the Rochester Writers’ Conference in 2012. The keynote speaker explained not only how to create the physical plot of the story but also how to parallel the emotional plot with the story’s adventure.
My mind was blown.
Then, in 2014, I got to choose a book from the free books stack simply by signing up for the library’s summer reading program. And there on the shelf was The Plot Whisperer Workbook, a step-by-step guide to creating the plot all my stories craved.
Summer reading programs do change lives.
So, for the cost of a local writing conference and a free book, learning plot structure ended up being cheaper than taking a three-credit Writing MFA program course.
And, finally, my writing is back on course.
In next week’s blog post, I explain how to create a story arc through character development.
Did you learn plot structure in your Writing MFA program? Share your story below.
If I was a superhero, my arch-nemesis would be the traditional writing workshop method.
But it was the traditional writing workshop that almost deterred me from pursuing a writing career. So I consider it the enemy.
Here’s why. In my undergrad writing classes, I was assigned—like my classmates—to write a short story three times each semester. I would write a story passionately down on paper and furiously type it up, daydreaming of the awaiting praise of genius from my peers.
That is, the praise that never happened.
After printing piles of trees and distributing them around the classroom, I awaited my destiny—or doom—as my peers spent a week with red pens destroying my work of art.
And it was never pretty.
The rule was that I had to sit in silence for 45 minutes while my peers said what they liked and hated about the story. Comments normally ran like this:
“I liked this, but I really hated…”
(Those three dots represent 43 minutes.)
After a grueling interrogation session where my mouth is figuratively taped shut, my slaughtered story would crawl deep into my desk drawer or, worse, the trashcan.
The point of my story? The traditional writing workshop method doesn’t work.
The Problem: Writers are trained to only write when evaluated. If a writer only presents a story once a month, guess what? The writer is most likely going to write once a month. How is a writer’s craft going to stay sharp when s/he only writes on command?
The Solution: Writers should be asked to write at least five new pages a week, whether or not they present. Peer support (or pressure) is a great way to keep the writer on track.
The Problem: Who cares if a peer likes your character or dislikes the plot choices? A story shouldn’t be presented so that it wins a popularity contest. It’s on the chopping block so that it can be polished.
The Solution: Compliment (or insult) a writer effectively so that the writer makes the editing choices. Ask questions like “why is it important for Character A to do X?” or “what is going through Character B’s head during Y?” Let the writer write down your questions, then later evaluate the answers and the validity of his/her writing choices in private.
The Problem: After the verbal beating, the writer will most likely never return to revise the story. The traditional writing workshop method makes the writer’s voice feel unvalued when the writer cannot contribute to the conversation, especially when the only ones that are heard are critical peers.
The Solution: Positive statements go a long way—but not as like statements. Point out what was effective and what really supports the story structure or character development. That way, when the writer returns to revise the story s/he will know where to start.
The Problem: It takes a lot for a writer to show his/her work. So where’s the motivation to write when stories are torn to piece? The writer is less likely going to take writing risks. Playing it safe becomes the name of the game—if the writer chooses to write at all.
The Solution: Let the writer have a voice, even for two minutes. The writer should be part of the dialogue, not on the sidelines. The group must agree that this is a safe, healthy environment to discuss writing so that everyone feels comfortable voicing their thoughts maturely and productively.
What do you think of the traditional writing workshop method? Share your thoughts below.