What Should Newbie Writers Focus On?

by Jami Gold on September 27, 2012

in Writing Stuff

Young woman holding a book, text: Advice for New Writers

A couple of months ago, a teenage writer left a comment on Roz Morris’s blog, asking how she could afford an editor. She* didn’t want to get a job, because that would take away from her writing time, and she didn’t want to go to college, because she didn’t want to kill her creativity by writing term papers. Her question spurred a side conversation in the comments where we gently corrected her impression that “real” writers spent all their time writing.

Those of us who write know that the vast majority of writers have day jobs. We often spend time working on things we don’t want to do. Sometimes our day jobs even involve writing “boring” things, like technical manuals or advertising copy.

In the comments, Roz pointed out that our writing is often helped by doing something else:

“[Non-writing time] doesn’t kill our creativity – in fact the enforced time away from the desk is good thinking time, which any novel needs in spades.”

The rest of us added our advice:

Nikki McCormack: “Creativity is a small fraction of what it takes to be a successful author. If this is how you want to make your living, then get out there and live life. Get a job. Learn a skill (or many). The more you learn and experience, the better your writing will be. Understanding life and the people around you helps you relate better to your readers and that is critical to being successful.

Your creativity is yours. It is your first ingredient to writing. Now you need to go out and get more ingredients. Think of everything you do and everything you learn as a step along the path to being a better writer, not an obstacle to your creativity.”

Me (Jami Gold): “If you want to really feel like your studies are adding to your writing and not taking away, think about the kind of stories you want to write. Someone who wants to write murder mysteries would find any kind of career in law enforcement invaluable–not just cops, but even those who work behind the scenes, filing paperwork or evidence, would see and hear things to round out their stories. I know of nurses who take that knowledge to write murders that look like suicides, and they know of the ways someone could try to get away with it.

Think of counselors or working in a counseling center and how many stories they’re exposed to. I could go on and on. Figure out where your passions lie in your stories, and maybe you’ll discover a passion for something that won’t be just a paying-the-bills gig.

Plus, people with those experiences are highly sought after by other writers. Imagine being able to make extra money by teaching workshops to writers about those things you’ve learned in your day job. Life will power your writing, not take away from it.”

John Whitbourn: “[P]ick a college course that will stimulate rather than stifle you. English Literature will expose you to some great works. … Or Music, or Physics, or Philosophy – lots of subjects are actually rather good for the creative imagination.

Anne R. Allen: “A college education certainly doesn’t stifle creativity. Creative writing classes can do that if they’re badly taught, but studying history and art and literature and science can only open up your mind. It’s a rare author indeed who can be successful without basic cultural literacy.

An editor can’t teach you how to write–no matter how much you pay. Grammar and word use are an author’s tools. You wouldn’t try to earn a living as a carpenter if you didn’t know how to pound a nail–and you wouldn’t hire somebody else to do it for you.

Learn your trade. Get the tools and skills you need. Enjoy the process.”

Soon after that exchange, I came across a post by the excellent writing teacher Holly Lisle, emphasizing the writer’s need for experience. I love her quote:

“If you have never lived, how are you going to write characters that live?”

I hung on to those links because I thought they said something important about the expectations we place on ourselves as writers. That if we don’t get x number of words on a page, the day was wasted. That if we’re not able to make enough from writing to quit our day job, we’re somehow a failure. That if we could write full-time, our life would be perfect.

Yes, it’s true that we need to protect our writing time. If we don’t make time for our writing, no one else will. But ensuring we get some writing time in is different from focusing on writing to exclusion of everything else. And especially for new and/or young writers, we might be unintentionally emphasizing the wrong things by talking only about the importance of writing time.

Last week, I spent a fair number of hours giving advice to another teenage writer, who had written to me off my blog. He was looking for help on how to deal with his parents, as they had forbidden him from working on his story about depressed and disturbed characters. He’s not depressed and he has a happy home life, so he wasn’t looking for advice on how to argue with them so much as how to explain his writing to them.

I’ve been there, with the upset school and the freaked out parents, so I empathized with his plight. As a teenager, I felt misunderstood. I wondered if I’d done something wrong by listening to my characters and following my muse. The experience contributed to me not writing again for years and years.

But as an adult, I could understand his parents’ worry that his writing was a cry for help. So I gave him suggestions on how to share his creativity with his parents in ways that wouldn’t freak them out, and I explained that whether we writers like it or not, dark thoughts/writing is listed on all those “prevent suicide and drug use” public service announcements. And it’s there for a reason. It can be a sign of trouble.

His parents probably assumed the characters in his story were him (we can all sympathize because people are always assuming we are our characters). They’d probably heard stories about kids who are insular and reserved going bad and shooting up places. Things like that have happened, and they don’t want to be the parents who lose their child because they ignored or blew off the “warning signs.”

Then I made sure he also understood the bigger picture:

“Besides, there’s plenty of work you can do to improve your writing skills until you are on your own. In other words, the time won’t be wasted. … Yes, it’ll suck to have to wait in order to write whatever you want, but you’ll be improving your skills…

Maturing also means recognizing that you can’t always do what you want when you want to do it. … I don’t get to write nearly as much as I’d like, and when I do have time to write, I often have blog posts or beta reading promises to work on…

[Y]ou have a choice here. Some people would mope or act out. Others would grab the opportunity to improve their craft. … Use this time to make something positive out of the situation. And as long as you don’t let this experience prevent you from writing for a long time (like what happened to me), you will get through this as a stronger writer than before.”

For those of us juggling day jobs, demanding bosses, spouses, kids, car pools, ballet classes, and piano lessons, we do need to be vigilant about protecting our writing time. But all our blog posts emphasizing writing time might lead newbie writers, especially when they’re young, to focus on writing at the expense of living.

Writing is just the first step toward being a good writer. So let’s share ideas about the non-writing things writers, especially new and/or young ones, can do that will help them become better writers in the long run.

How can writers improve their craft outside of creative writing classes? What non-writing skills should writers have? What classes or life experiences can help us write deeper characters, better plots, or tighter pacing? How has your day job or non-writing life helped you be a better writer?

* Note: I don’t actually know if the young writer on Roz’s blog was male or female, but I chose to stick with she/her in the post for simplicity’s sake.

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58 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Tamara LeBlanc September 27, 2012 at 6:37 am

As you know, Jami, I’m a huge fan of yours. I visit your blog as often as I can and learn so much, even though I’m not exactly a newbie writer. I think all of us, at every level can learn new things everyday. We just have to open our eyes, our ears and our hearts in order to take in all the world has to offer us.
I don’t work, I’ve never had a “real” job in my life. So I don’t get inspiration from a job setting, although I know that could be a treasure trove of valuable experiences to draw upon.
Instead, I listen…to people talking (I’m a bit of a quiet eaves dropper) to workshop presenters, to the tv…
I actually get a lot of ideas for plot, characterization, world building and the like from everything from PBS to TBS. there’s a wealth of information in all of the history channel, National Geographic, science, and discovery channel shows I watch. Not to mention the tv dramas and even comedies. I’ve mentioned this before, but the writing on Supernatural has heavily influenced my muse. I don’t steal ideas, I listen, learn and then put my own spin on them, to make them my own.
What I need now is a few more life experiences. I’ve never been out of the country. I’ve traveled very little in the US as well. I think that travel would help me gain more writing prowess. And though I don’t work, I often wonder, since my kids are nearly grown ups, that if I’d had some kind of job, if I’d be better at my craft as well. Food for thought…
As I said earlier, I’m a huge fan of yours, and I think that this particular post is one of my very favorites. The words of wisdom and support you and the other writers gave that teenager ( and then the second boy you mentioned) impressed the hell out of me. You’re truly one of my writing idols.


Jami Gold September 27, 2012 at 8:16 am

Hi Tamara,

*blush* Thank you. 🙂

I love your suggestions for paying attention to life’s stories. I’ve used plenty of news stories (and not just the weird ones) in my fiction writing, everything from historical events in Europe to crime trends. I’ve used mythology and fairy tales as inspiration. It’s fun to put “Easter egg” details from mythology in my writing to see if anyone will notice them. 🙂 Also, like you said, we can learn about plotting intuitively by paying attention to TV shows or movies.

Travel is a great suggestion as well. I have an upcoming post about that (assuming I ever sort through my #EpicRoadTrip pictures). 🙂

For yourself, yes, you might not have had some concrete experiences to draw from, but you’ve had other experiences. Don’t discount the work you’ve done for your family. 🙂 Those experiences–which you probably don’t even think of as experiences because they’re just living–have probably colored what themes and messages appeal to you. They’ve all added up to who you are and helped shaped the writer you are. If we’re paying attention, no time is ever wasted. 😉 Thanks for the comment!


Anonymous September 13, 2013 at 9:48 am

I love your idea of listening to your surroundings for ideas. I often do this–and often get in trouble for it! I find that the best way to get ideas for my writing is to read. I’ve been told my whole life that good writers are good readers. The best way to pick up new techniques and new ideas for plot twists, story lines, etc. is to read the work of those who know what they’re doing. Lately, I’ve also taken to reading the works of amateur writers (they’re all over the web), and I’ve found that they help, as well. Just a thought! 🙂


Jami Gold September 13, 2013 at 2:08 pm

Hi Anon,

I agree that reading is a great way to open our minds to other possibilities. Thanks for the comment! 🙂


Tami September 27, 2012 at 7:02 am

FANTASTIC post, and I wish I’d been there for the conversation in the comments. Sounds like it was a great one!

Making a living off your writing is difficult, even if you are a published and contracted writer. I have a day job and I write “boring” technical documentation (and not-so-boring web applications). I am often mentally exhausted by the time I get home, but I pay my own bills and am beholden to no one for my living. To me, that’s so incredibly important.

Also? Having to learn how to schedule and manage “spare” writing time is an important lesson. I think that if I’d gone straight into full days of ‘writing’ time, I’d have wasted so much of it because I wouldn’t have valued it properly.

Also, I definitely recommend having another creative outlet besides writing. It’s perfectly okay to have writing be your primary creative outlet, but if you only have one, you’ll find yourself blocked and frustrated more often than the writer who can turn to knitting or art or something as an alternative. I find that drawing energizes my writing instead of detracting from it.

(side note: I love Holly Lisle’s writing courses!)


Jami Gold September 27, 2012 at 8:27 am

Hi Tami,

Great points! Yes, I’ve written technical documentation before as well, and while technical writers have to strip their voice out, they also learn how to strip ideas down to the core meaning. When we’re faced with a confusing sentence or paragraph in our fiction writing, it’s invaluable to be able to step back and analyze what we’re really trying to say.

Also, as you said, the skill of learning how to manage our time is huge. Even full-time writers have to juggle deadlines, social media, and the business side of things. We do tend to waste things when we have it in abundance. I know I never get as much done when my day job is less demanding for weeks or months at a time as how much I accomplish when I just get a day or two off. 🙂

Fantastic observation about other creative outlets! Yes, using our brain creativity in other ways can help our muse figure out a problem and avoid writer’s block. Thanks for the great comment!


Amanda September 27, 2012 at 7:17 am

Whoever that young woman is, send her to me 🙂 If I hadn’t gone to college, I never would have learned how to be a radio DJ (which one of my characters is). I never would have studied sociology and criminology (which has come in quite handy with several characters). I never would have understood the ins and outs of customer service, or met all the crazy mofos that served as fodder for story and character quirks. I certainly never would have learned enough about the “real world” problems that work their way into my stories (such as the death of a friend or parent, addiction issues, mental health issues, and the like) to write about them in such a way that it sounds like I know what I’m talking about.

And I definitely would never have learned how to do research. Because what I don’t know, I learn about. Or at least I learn enough about it to make it sound like I know what I’m talking about 🙂

I know one writer who wanted to write more effective fight scenes. So she started taking Krav Maga classes. Michelle Sagara (one of my favorite authors) still works part-time in a bookstore. I imagine she does it for her sanity as much as for the extra cash it brings in.

I’ve often wondered if, by chance, I happen to make enough money some day at this writing business if I would quit my day job. And the answer is always no. I may give up working for corporate America and go sell books in a delightful indie bookstore, but I’ll work. Writing is a solitary and often lonely occupation. We need outside stimulation. Not everyone can be a genius and still be a recluse.

I think the best thing any writer could do is if you think something sounds interesting enough you want to make it a central part of your character or story, take a class on it or read about it. Talk to people. Locking yourself in your room and writing for six to eight hours a day will, ultimately, be detrimental not only to your writing, but to your health.


Jami Gold September 27, 2012 at 8:33 am

Hi Amanda,

Yes, she didn’t leave a contact link, or else I would have reached out to her. 🙂

I’m with you. I took a ton of psychology classes in college (almost minored in it) and that’s helped me with character development more than I even realize. I also took some business-related classes, like business communication (how to get people to do what you want–Ooo, evoking reader emotions and contract negotiation all in one! 🙂 ). Thanks for the great suggestions and the comment!


Buffy Armstrong September 27, 2012 at 7:53 am

I was blessed with parents that left me the hell alone. I had to have dinner every single night with the family, but other than that, they let me read and write to my heart’s content with one caveat: my mother insisted that I go out and have fun every now and then. And for whatever reason, I resisted that. It was my rebellion. What she didn’t realize is typing away on my old Brother Word Processor or reading a romance novel for me was fun. My mom’s not a reader. I picked that up from her mother.

When I went to college, I made sure I took a broad array of courses. I knew I wanted to be a writer some day, but I needed to have something to say. I took classes in mythology, Egyptian Archeology, Native American Literature, Eastern European Literature, Archeology of Death, Sociology of Gender, various history classes, etc. I wanted and needed to learn as much about the world as possible. A broad liberal arts education is invaluable. I can’t stress this enough. My major was political science, and at its core, political science is just a study in human behavior.

I am hugely nosy. I like to call it curiosity but in the spirit of honesty, I’m just plain vanilla nosy. I listen when people tell me stories. I watch interactions with people. I listen in on conversations when I take the bus or shop at Target. I observe everything and everyone. Some of my earliest memories are sitting around my grandmother’s kitchen table and listening to old farmers’ wives gossip. I wish I had been old enough to grasp everything they said.

So I guess my best advice is to read a lot, write a lot, study everything you can, listen to people (especially to old people – they may seem daffy but they have a lot to say), observe and take an interest in people and things. You can’t write about things if you don’t know or care about them.


Jami Gold September 27, 2012 at 8:36 am

Hi Buffy,

Wow, fantastic list of classes! I took many of those as well. (Oh, you mean I have to take a year’s worth of “social studies” type classes? Ancient Greece, Ancient India, and Ancient Japan for the win! 🙂 )

And since I’ve met you in person, I can verify that you’re a great listener! 🙂 Thanks for the great suggestions and the comment!


Brooke Johnson September 27, 2012 at 8:08 am

I’m the writer who has never had a paycheck. I went to college, and I majored in creative writing because that’s what I wanted to do. Most of high school was spent either writing, reading, playing video games, or watching anime. I didn’t DO much as far as new experiences go. College was pretty much the same.

Looking back, I wish I had done some things differently so that I would have some unique experiences, and now, whenever the chance arises, I try new things, knowing that everything I do will help craft my experience and will color my future writing. I agreed to be a juror in a mock trial for one of my friends, even though I thought it might be boring. I’m always on the look out for new things to do, things I’ve never done before.

But then, I also see that I did take advantage of many opportunities, some that were whims or mere accidents, and listing them out makes them sound a bit more unique than I thought—roof climbing in the middle of the night in college, staggering to Taco Bell with a drunk Thai friend to buy 10 tacos, the many hiking and camping trips I took (and still take) with my dad, urban gardening, trying to tame the shrubs in my backyard, taking Japanese and Philosophy and Art in school, attending international student festivals on campus, having a Japanese roommate who couldn’t cook to save her life, playing in Magic: The Gathering tournaments and going to Waffle House at four in the morning after losing terribly, working with customers at my dad’s professional photo shoots, taking action shots during baseball games, playing softball as a kid, playing basketball as a teen, playing disc golf and pickleball, learning archery, going to football games every Friday night in high school, being the freshman homecoming maid, getting married, going to Renaissance Faires, knowing how to sew clothing…

The list goes on and on, and really, all of those things affect my writing. I may not have ever had a job other than helping my dad with sports photography, but I did things and experienced things as I lived my life. And I’m still living my life. Sometimes, I feel like I hole myself up in my office and don’t experience life as well as I could. I put writing first and everything else second. But somehow, I still have all these experiences, and I’m only 23.

My advice for writers who feel like they should ONLY write is:

Write, but don’t forget to live.

My best experiences were in college. I met so many awesome people and had so much fun. You don’t have to major in writing or literature, but it does help in the long run, I think. Always try new things. Go places you’ve never been. Eat things you’ve never eaten, or are scared to eat. Talk to people you don’t know.

Once you start viewing life as a tool for your writing, everything that you do matters. Everything you touch or see or hear or experience is something else you can add to your writing. So yeah… write. But don’t forget to live. 🙂


Jami Gold September 27, 2012 at 8:43 am

Hi Brooke,

“Write, but don’t forget to live.”

Exactly! And as I mentioned to Tamara, we often don’t think about our day-to-day experiences as “real” experiences because we’re just living, but they really do add up to create the person we are. My current day job prepared me to analyze my experiences because it requires that I see everything as a learning experience, and that matches up with what you said about viewing life as a tool for our writing. Like I said to Tamara, if we’re paying attention to life around us, no time is ever wasted. 🙂 Thanks for the great comment!


Nikki September 27, 2012 at 8:12 am

Great post that really captures the heart of the issue. You have to live and know life in some way if you ever hope to connect with readers. We do struggle for enough writing time and that emphasis in tweets, blog posts, and articles can easily lead someone just starting out to think that is the most important thing. Life is the most important thing. Writers have to live life if they want to write stories that resonate with people.

Thanks also for the quote and the link. 🙂 Happy writing (and living)!


Jami Gold September 27, 2012 at 8:53 am

Hi Nikki,

Yes, and that’s what I loved about your comment to the young writer. Writing isn’t just about coming up with an idea and putting words on a page. Fiction writing isn’t much different from technical manuals if we’re not able to connect with the reader. So if we’re serious about writing, life is really the most important thing. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by and for the comment!


Anne R. Allen September 27, 2012 at 9:40 am

What a great idea to blog about that thread. I remember reading that kid’s post and wanting to help her see how limited her thinking was. What she was proposing was exactly how NOT to be a good writer. What a writer needs most is something to say.

I remember one of my college professors–a quite well known poet–told me not to expect to write anything worth reading until I was over twenty-five. He said the best thing I could do to work on my writing was to go out and have a life. “Travel. Fall in love. Feel things.” So I did. I also had a lot of jobs that have all helped my writing: bookstore clerk, actor, teacher, theater manager, court reporter, caretaker, salesperson They all gave me great insight into people–especially people who read.

Great post–and thanks for the shout-out!


Jami Gold September 27, 2012 at 9:50 am

Hi Anne,

“What a writer needs most is something to say.”

LOL! Very true. And that was great advice from your professor. None of my work is autobiographical in the slightest, but we all draw on our experiences to help us with descriptions or emotions or sensations. Thanks for the comment!


Renee A. Schuls-Jacobson September 27, 2012 at 12:01 pm

I am thinking that Anne and I had the same professor! He told me to stop hiding in my dorm room, to get out there and live. I may have gone a little too far sometimes, but there is so much more a college education offers than just classes. The whole social scene is something to be studied. Students and professors can become future characters. There will be stories to collect and turned into essays.

This coming from an educator and a former student. 😉

Going to college is a privilege that many students would kill for. If Roz’s young writer has the opportunity to go, I hope *she doesn’t squander it.


Jami Gold September 27, 2012 at 4:24 pm

Hi Renee,

LOL! You went too far sometimes? Tsk, tsk. You troublemaker. *fist bump* Me too! 😉 Thanks for the comment!


rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy September 27, 2012 at 1:25 pm

Jami, thanks for referencing my post and my commenters! One of the things I’ve found is that people who ‘come out’ as writers seem to do so slowly, after finding it’s the only thing they’re really suited to. One friend drifted through lowly graphic design posts for years before realising that what he was really doing was stockpiling the necessary thinking time (which I talked about in my post).
I did a number of publishing jobs without having much ambition, because although I was good at them I simply didn’t care about the career structure. That’s funny because I’m an obsessively driven person, but I couldn’t be bothered with rising through ranks. Nothing seemed as important as actually creating the books. But funnily enough it took me a while to realise that because it’s not a conventional career path.

But that’s jobs. That’s after college. College gives you the time to discover yourself through learning and curiosity, and to make mistakes in a safe environment. Actually, I wish I was going again now because I’m sure I would use it better.


Jami Gold September 27, 2012 at 4:28 pm

Hi Roz,

That comment section had to have been one of my favorite ever. 🙂

Yes, I was never driven to do the corporate ladder thing either. However, I’m forever grateful for my whole work history because I was exposed to so many different people, industries, corporate structures, management types, etc. Plus, I think my experience has helped me have a business/entrepreneurial attitude toward my work in the publishing industry. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!


Emma September 27, 2012 at 6:02 pm

As a young writer, I can definitely make a case for life experience being the best asset to your writing. I spent the majority of my teenage years trying to finish a novel rather than living life to the full (partly because I genuinely was suffering from depression, and my writing was my only outlet). But it was only when I went away to study at university that I began to realise that it’s our real-life experiences that shape us as writers and as people, and since then my well-being AND my writing have improved beyond compare. In all honesty, I’ve seen and experienced more in the past two years than in most of my life beforehand! I’m now about to go into my third year studying English Literature with Creative Writing – a course I’d definitely recommend to an aspiring novelist! The Literature side has given me access to books I might not otherwise have read, whilst Creative Writing has enabled me to build up a support group of other writers. Plus, thanks to university, I’ve travelled abroad to volunteer, which has also given me a lot of new experiences to write about!

I can understand the reluctance to sacrifice writing time for assignments and other things, but writing should be a part of life and not a substitute for it! Also, I find I can actually write MORE now – I’ve finished three novels in the time I’ve been at university, whereas I only managed to write one beforehand…

At 21 I still have tons of time left, and I’m happy to try and pursue a career in publishing before I attempt to write full-time. I might like my own company, but making new friends, falling in love, travelling and living life are important to me too!

Thanks for the great post! 🙂


Jami Gold September 27, 2012 at 6:06 pm

Hi Emma,

Sounds like you’ve found a wonderful balance! And you’re right–traveling, starting a company, falling in love, etc. will all round out your experiences and help you with your writing and a writing career. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!


Fiona Ingram September 27, 2012 at 11:08 pm

I’d like to comment on what writing other kinds of material can do to improve one’s writing. I am fortunate to be able to write full time (thanks to my wonderful and generous Mom who passed away two weeks ago). When I was still working, I struggled to find the time and energy to write while being employed by the Boss From Hell – who also paid me so well that it was hard to walk away from that big healthy cheque each month. I write historical (Regency) romance for fun, and the publishers keep asking me for more books, so…I write them because now I have the time and no longer the pressure of earning a living. Although my main genre is middle grade adventure (yay!), I find that writing in another genre, and experiencing the vigilant and eagle eyes of different editors for the romance books has tightened up my writing overall. No one should ever think they can lock themselves away in an ivory tower and ‘just write.’ Books are about real life and living people, even though it might be a fantasy world or a long ago era. Many famous authors – Deepak Chopra springs to mind – continued to work while producing books. Perhaps the young writer you mention has read stories about the struggling writer (You Know Who!) living on welfare, who writes a book and becomes an overnight sensation. If only it was that easy.


Jami Gold September 28, 2012 at 11:32 am

Hi Fiona,

First, I’m so sorry for your loss. *hugs*

Second, great point about how the more we expose ourselves to–whether fiction writing or not, a different genre, writing for a work assignment, etc.–the more we’ll be aware of what works for us, what doesn’t, and we’ll get different input from different editors and/or bosses. All of this helps us learn the craft and our writing style, bit by bit.

Third, the “Cinderella” story that distorts the reality even more is Stephenie Meyer and Twilight. She sent out a limited number of queries, broke every rule as far as word count, and approached most of the querying process as a lark. At least JKR really did struggle, really dealt with oodles of rejection, etc. I’m not bashing or disrespecting either one! But yes, stories like that do distort the reality for 99.99999 percent of writers. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!


Martina Boone September 28, 2012 at 5:30 am

Really fantastic post and discussion! I think that one of the most important lessons that writers need to learn is *how* to learn.

Creativity is probably one of the least of the things that contribute to being a good writer. Yes, we need to have some basic ability to think of new things, or old things in new ways, but I think that can be developed the same way that we develop good grammar and an overall sense of story structure. It’s probably all part of that 10,000 hours. I do believe in that, by the way. But I don’t believe that 10,000 hours of pure writing alone will actually teach us to write a saleable book. We have to read critically, read widely, write in different genres, read craft books, write horrible books, read more craft books so that we can recognize that we’ve written horrible books, and then . . . and here comes the part that makes or breaks a writer . . . we have to be willing and anal enough to sit on our assets, night after very late night and change every word, every scene, every character and theme and beautiful image that doesn’t contribute to the point of the story. Yes, that means we have to recognize we need a point :D. How we get there, college, work, mentorships, workshops, extension learning, DIY MFAs, whatever, matters less than the burning desire and willingness to learn craft and share what we have to say, heart to heart, with someone else.

My ten cents. End soapbox. But I love the question and your answer, Jami! Such an interesting thing to think about! 🙂




Jami Gold September 28, 2012 at 12:29 pm

Hi Martina,

“We have to read critically, read widely, write in different genres, read craft books, write horrible books, read more craft books so that we can recognize that we’ve written horrible books … How we get there … matters less than the burning desire and willingness to learn craft and share what we have to say, heart to heart, with someone else.”

Great points! Yes, creativity is such a small part of what we do as writers. I’ve mentioned before that we can come up with 20 great ideas before breakfast, but if we don’t have the ability to implement them, they’re not doing much good. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!


Rinelle Grey September 28, 2012 at 6:10 am

It’s amazing how much there is to learn from life that becomes relevant to my stories as I go on. Some of it work related (I work in stock photography, which has a surprising number of parallels to selling books I’m beginning to realise), some family related, some hobby related. I’m amazed at how many of the skills I have become skills my characters have.

Of course, the opposite is true too. My characters end up needing some skill or knowledge that I lack, and in researching it, I discover a new interest.

You can’t seperate writing from life.


Taurean Watkins September 28, 2012 at 12:22 pm

No, but your life doesn’t have to define everything you write about, either.


Jami Gold September 28, 2012 at 12:31 pm

Hi Rinelle,

Exactly! Many jobs/hobbies have parallels to writing that we’d never think about. My tech guy talks about his work with computers and programming and needing to get every little bit of code exactly right, and I think, wow, that sounds just like editing. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!


Taurean Watkins September 28, 2012 at 12:15 pm

As someone who dropped out of high school and spent YEARS frozen in fear and shame about not having finished high school, failed at adult education twice, and struggling to study for my second (Hopefully LAST) re-test for my GED, education was a four-letter word to me. I can understand the pain expressed by this teen so well.

If you ever read this, Mystery Teen, if nothing else I say makes the least bit of sense to you, know I STILL LIVE YOUR PAIN, and I’m not a teenager anymore.

I still relaspe in my apathy about my weakness in math and science, and just the inescapble pressures from a competitve culture of students far smarter and resillant than I, in a tight job market.

Try to remember that as important and proud an accomplishment as getting a college degree and having letters after your name can be, and nessecary as it is for some careers, it’s NOT the ONLY thing that defines you.

But I do think even the most caring teachers, caregivers and parents often forget what that pressure and hearbreak over one’s academic shortcomings feels like, or delude themselves into thinking any apathy a student expresses about learning as being “Lazy.” But it’s not always laziness. It’s STRESS!

S-T-R-E-S-S, plain and simple, is that so hard to believe.

I don’t talk about this to benefit my ego or to wallow in self-pity.

I talk about it because if one person feels less alone in their apathy about school, or feeling unfairly defined because of their lack of schooling, whatever the reason, it’s worth bruising my ego, this is something NO ONE should have to die over, I mean that physically as much as emotionally.

I’ve heard crazy and just plain SAD stories of how writers commit suicide when the rejction of one or many stories gets to be too much.

Well, lots of people IN and WAY beyond my age bracket (Mid-20s as I write this), and kids WAY younger than high school feel the same kind of pressure about their education.

Whether that’s imposed by family, teachers, society or a combo thereof, kids and teens have DIED from the stress of the weighted importance their education is.

This effects so many lives for either not having enough or none at all. I speak of this NOT from a political bent, this is strictly PERSONAL.

As much as I don’t want to get all extremist on people, this is something we all need to think about, and talk about on our respective blogs/circle of offline and online friends and/or family.

I’m not arguing against education, college in particular, only that we need to recognize the pressures we put on people to excel, and if I’m really not alone in this, than I dare you to share your stories, awareness is often the first step to recovery.

Jami, I apologize if I sound angry, and while while part of me does feel anger, this comes from a sane place, even if it reads otherwise.


Jami Gold September 28, 2012 at 12:55 pm

Hi Taurean,

You’re absolutely right about the pressure for education, even when it doesn’t make sense. I’m a huge fan of education. I’m a teacher at heart, and my current day job is in the education field. But the default assumption of college for everyone, including those who can’t afford it and will never make enough off their degree to justify the cost, creates too much stress.

I didn’t major in creative writing at college and that hasn’t impacted my ability to become a writer because I’m willing to continue learning on my own. I majored in a degree that would lead to a good-paying job so I’d be able to recoup my tuition investment. But if someone could get a day job to support themselves without college–thinks trades like mechanic, plumber, etc.–they wouldn’t need college at all, and they’d still have an equal shot at becoming an author.

I hope young writers won’t needlessly saddle themselves with huge college debt for a degree that won’t help them recover the tuition cost. None of us needs that stress. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

P.S. Yep, I fixed your requested edits. 🙂


Taurean Watkins September 28, 2012 at 1:11 pm

Jami, I was really speaking to the emotional aspect of the pressure to excel academically, rather than the finanncial, what you said still stands, but even if you can afford college, and know you need it for your career, those feelings are still there. That’s all I was speaking to.

I feel the pressure worsens each year, and I wish there were support outlets for non-teens over 25, because it seems if you’ve been MIA that long, folks assume either you’ve given up all together, or can do it all alone, at least that’s how it can feel.

Yes, there are jobs that don’t need college, but since I don’t want to be a plumber or work in computer science, the answer isn’t as clear cut for me, and for others.


Taurean Watkins September 28, 2012 at 1:20 pm

Sorry, I forgot to add this above-

Sometimes, people go to college to rethink their careers, and even if you don’t recoup costs right away, that doesn’t mean it was a waste, and please understand I’m speaking broadly on this aspect.

No, I wouldn’t want to owe debt for decades, but as I said, this is not just about affording college, but the mixed about education in general, regardless of how much tution costs.

Make sense?


Jami Gold September 28, 2012 at 1:34 pm

Hi Taurean,

Yes, I understand. My rant was more about the students who have taken on a lifetime’s worth of debt for college, more than they’ll ever be able to repay. Since their reason for doing so often comes down to the same pressure and expectations and idea of “well, isn’t this what everybody does?” as Roz’s young commenter’s perception, I stepped onto my soapbox. 🙂

That said, I absolutely agree that college can provide intangible benefits beyond a better-paying job! 🙂 Thanks for the comment!


Jami Gold September 28, 2012 at 1:22 pm

Hi Taurean,

Very true. And yes, I knew you were speaking about the emotional stress, but I climbed onto my own soapbox in the second half of my reply. 😉 I wasn’t intended to take away from your point, but merely to add to it. Thanks for the comment!


Taurean Watkins September 28, 2012 at 1:29 pm


I know I sometimes talk all over the place, and I do agree with your soapbox moment, and I certainly wouldn’t consider some colleges due to being unable to pay tution if I do go after I get my GED.

But there’s so much involved in your descisions about college that has nothing to do with money, or at least isn’t the only factor, and I hope more teachers and parents can understand that before students of any age start turning to drastic coping measures, but I do have soft spot for people in my age bracket because we’re old enough to not be considered children, yet not nessecarily anymore free in our lives in other ways at the same time.


Jami Gold September 28, 2012 at 1:39 pm

Hi Taurean,

I’m reminded of the New Adult genre (subgenre?) struggling in the publishing industry. Those stories are too adult for YA readers, but they’re not career and adult-focused like normal adult stories. From what I understand, they’re about that 18-25 or so age bracket, where characters struggle to be independent, but not in the rebellious ways typical of YA. I’m probably terribly over-simplifying the genre though. 🙂 However, you’re right that there’s a gap there in real life just like in our stories. Thanks for the comment!


Taurean Watkins November 29, 2012 at 8:43 pm


I’d never heard of the “New Adult” term before your comment above, but I’ve since noticed rumblings here and there on various blogs and forums, and while I personally find the term “New Adult” sounds a little condescending (Like people who think kids and adults under 30 have it SO EASY, particularly in a pre-2008 recession world. WRONG then and WAY WRONG now, thank you very much…), what it represents is something I do support.

I honestly feel adults under 30 who don’t have children and didn’t go to college and attain several degrees and a few PhDs and aren’t married, are just as stigmatized and undeserved as seniors of a certain age, MEN and women. (I do feel men under 30 get shafted here for lack of emotional and financial support compared to all the women’s groups in the U.S. and Canada especially)

Okay, I’m getting on my soapbox again, Jami, so bear with me. Just know any anger is about the problem, NOT you and the adults over 30 (Teachers, parents, etc) who do care about us under 30 folks who made some mistakes and just got discouraged in a world where grades can matter more than the other things we can bring to a career that matters as much as money.

Here goes-

I think sometimes in all the discussions about “Books for Reluctant Readers” in the early “Back to School” mania before the holidays we focus so much on the kids who are struggling to read technically, or at grade level, we forget the simple fact that NOT ALL KIDS who don’t read for pleasure because they’re struggling academically.

Like me, they just haven’t yet found the books they WANT to read, that a school isn’t mandating they read to pass a class, and while in grade school there can be overlap, by middle school, and ESPECIALLY high school, books are forced on kids and teens that really aren’t speaking to readers, it’s all about getting ready for college and the “real world.”

I’m sorry for any teachers I offend here because I say this as a former public school student who didn’t have a joyous school experience, and in no way mean to insult those that did, but as much as we focus on the preschool to sixth graders and middle school kids, we NEED to do more for the high school students BEYOND pushing the mantra of “COLLEGE, COLLEGE, COLLEGE” down their throats.

Yes, I know not everyone can afford to go to college, as Jami made bitingly clear in a previous post, and some high school graduates go to trade schools and all that.

But most of us who aren’t going into a specific vocational trade like being a plumber or in construction, we likely will need a certain level of schooling beyond high school just to get a job, never mind a career in a specific field or niche market.

To me, the most unsung heroes after college graduates who still can’t get a job after graduating YEARS ago, either before and right on the edge of the recession in 2008, are the dropouts like me who feel like most non-dropouts who never knew the pain academic life can be for non-Type A students, really get what we battle daily.

We’re NOT the dropouts who “didn’t try.”

We’re NOT the dropouts you see on the news who turned to drugs and sex.

We’re NOT the dropouts who stopped caring.

We’re just jealous of people who faced our challenges, but found some level of success, anyway.

The ones who faced far worse obstacles than we did make us feel the most guilty.

But regardless if we were better off than some in similar situations, teachers at large, parents who are lucky and privlaged to have high school/college grads in the family, have NO RIGHT to judge the pain those of us dropouts who-

A. NEVER planned this. (I’ve seen many a documentary this year of teens who knew in middle school they’d drop out in high school. I’m NOT one of them)
B. NEVER wanted this to happen to them.
C. CARED about my education and DID every d*** thing I financially and legally could to “Stay the course.”

This is NOT, nor will EVER BE, something we’re PROUD of.

But that’s what happened. All I’m saying is unless you know the details, please, please don’t lump us all together in a box not all of us fit in. (I’m speaking generally, Jami, I’m sure you don’t feel this way)

I’ll admit there was a long period in the early years before my 20s there was a laziness factor, but overall, I was crushed. I would’ve been the first male in my immediate family to graduate high school, just HIGH SCHOOL, never mind college, and while some writers I know found the GED route easier, I do not. I NEVER liked taking tests, and when I say that, I mean those big, stress-inducing standardized test that seem to be more important to teachers than

To me, a non-parent under 30, who can’t even teach his grandmother how to use a cable DVR or send an e-mail without losing my patience, that’s just not showing kids how the world is AT ALL. That only breeds fear, intimidation and resentment to learning. To me, it only shows kids and teens the worst things about adulthood.

What happened to the good things about adulthood? Do they even exist for non-rich people anymore?

What’s the different between being realistic and being pessimistic? Like it or not, there’s overlap, so how can we show kids, teens, and adults under 30 who despite even having the coveted college degree(s) still can’t find work and feel alone in their pain? Why don’t we matter?

If there any teachers or parents with adult children (HS Dropouts or college students/graduates older than 19 but younger than 30) facing the issues of taking longer to be self-sufficient, how do you and your family stay hopeful and sane?

When is it more than just”lack of money” for you or someone you love?

For anyone who’s dropped out of high school for non-deadbeat reasons, with no paying job(s) and are going to college later, if at all: How do you feel like an adult, despite the fact that your family still needs to lend you a hand (If they can), and for argument’s sake, I only mean the non-deadbeats who would gladly live on their own if money and having a job allowed that.

For all the negative digs you can make (However true) of what school didn’t do, couldn’t do, didn’t make a priority enough, just stalled after failing to complete high school, and are struggling to stay the course with getting their GED and finding a job to increase their limited income that doesn’t require degrees and referrals you just don’t have.

Some of us struggling students are trying. We just feel no one beyond our experience gets the pain and discouragement we feel. Just because we’re not college graduates or have launched our careers, and we don’t have a spouse and 2.5 kids to raise, doesn’t mean are lives are always easier or more flexible.

Sometimes it feels like we’re still perpetually 12 years old, despite the fact for all our quirks and mistakes we’re JUST NOT KIDS ANYMORE. We just can’t afford to live someone else.

Okay, rant over (LOL!)
Take Care,


Jami Gold December 2, 2012 at 11:40 am

Hi Taurean,

As you know, I don’t think college is right for everyone, so I agree that the focus on college leaves those who don’t fit into that preconceived idea out in the cold. Those kids can end up feeling discouraged and wonder what the point of high school is–for them–if the implied goal of high school is to get them ready for college.

My cousin’s son falls into this category. He’d be great at a lot of things. College-level schooling/tests isn’t one of them. But the school system has left him feeling like a failure who can’t accomplish anything because he’s not good at those things–out of everything else in life. I don’t know of any answers to that issue, unfortunately. Personally, all I can do is encourage reading beyond the required school books to try to help people find stories that appeal to them, and encourage people to find their own path, and not one that others expect of them. Thanks for the comment!

Leslie R. September 28, 2012 at 12:52 pm

Great post. I’ve recently been struggling with feeling like a failure because my word count isn’t as high as I think it should be. I have to remind myself constantly that the outlining, planning and thinking are part of the process too. Like many other writers, I have a day job, so my writing time is limited. I do need to find time to put those words on the page, but I also need to not beat myself up if I need to use that time for other writing related activities (or even non-writing related activities on occasion).


Jami Gold September 28, 2012 at 1:04 pm

Hi Leslie,

Absolutely! Much of the “fast drafting” technique depends on plenty of “think time.” The idea is that our actual butt-in-chair time might be limited, but all that think time helps us be super productive during that time. I brainstorm a ton before I start a project, and even once I start drafting, a sizable percentage of time is spent in that “think time.”

Plus, as I mentioned in the post, my writing time is often taken up with blog posts and beta reading obligations too. So it’s all a balance. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!


Okelly October 14, 2012 at 2:46 pm

Do not obsess over word count. I can crank out twenty pages in three hours, then spend a week trying to hunt down all the typo’s, worthless lines, and bad grammar. the end result is usually about fifteen pages of half way decent material.

Im trying to learn to plot, plan, and structure the story, before I write. which is hard because I am one of those write by the pants people, whose typing skills leave something to be desired LOL.


Jami Gold October 14, 2012 at 4:33 pm

Hi Okelly,

Yep, I’m a pantser as well, but like you said, a little planning can go a long way in not wasting time and words. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!


Anne R. Allen October 21, 2012 at 2:58 pm

Great post. How fun to find you quoted me! I remember that post on Roz’s blog. It made me sad how misinformed that kid was. People don’t understand that it’s a general education that produces great minds, not specific training in one narrow set of skills. Great advice here. I hope a lot of young people see it.


Jami Gold October 21, 2012 at 9:30 pm

Hi Anne,

Did I forget to let you know I’d linked to you? LOL! I usually try to let people know, but I’ve been known to forget. 🙂

I hope young writers find this advice too. It might help take some of the pressure off them. Thanks for the comment!


Amanda E. May 16, 2014 at 3:12 pm

This was really hepful, thanks so much! I am 12 and I am writing a few books just recently, but I knew that I wont be very professional with my writing since I am still pretty young to be a writer. But I learned that it doesn’t matter how old you are. And I know you talked about having experiences with life itself, and I know that I still haven’t learner that much yet, but I still think that I can manage writing a good, professional, and successful book.


Jami Gold May 16, 2014 at 5:53 pm

Hi Amanda,

By starting out so young, you’ll be ahead of the game. 🙂 Good luck and thanks for the comment!


A. Fae August 1, 2016 at 3:55 am

This is a great piece and awesome advice. May I have your permission to re-post it on my blog please?


Jami Gold August 1, 2016 at 9:05 am

Hi A. Fae,

I don’t allow reposting of my full posts, but if you mean posting a few paragraphs with a link here to the rest, be my guest. 🙂 I’m glad you found it helpful!


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