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July 3, 2012

The Hard Work of Writing: Do You Embrace It?

Woman hugging a tree bigger than she can get her arms around

When you first started writing, did you realize how much work it would take? Or were you like most of us, thinking that you’d written your share of emails, essays, or Christmas letters and that writing a whole story wouldn’t be—couldn’t be—that much harder?

But at some point—maybe it’s when we struggle to make the story on the page match the one in our head, or when we receive a beta reader’s feedback or an agent’s rejection or poor reviews—we’re faced with the fact that good writing is hard.

The learning curve for new writers is steep and seems to never end. Grammar, sentence structure, passive writing, showing not telling, plot, characterization, subplots, etc., etc. It all has to be acknowledged, learned, and conquered.

That doesn’t even count learning about the business of writing or the publishing industry. Unless we came from a publishing background and a strong literary education, we likely didn’t have a clue what all was involved with our new venture.

I’m sure many aspiring writers reach the point of recognizing for the first time that heap of knowledge they didn’t know they needed and give up simply for being overwhelmed. Others probably give up because they’d started writing as a lark, and if it wasn’t easy, they weren’t interested. But the rest of us looked that list of “must learns” in the eye and decided to get to work.

I started thinking about the mental switch most of us have to go through in our writing career after Nathan left a great comment at my post about what we “owe” new authors:

“I think the biggest hurdles for all of us early writers is not grammar, style, story arch or character development. I think one of the main things we need to be mentored in is attitude. Your article is a good approach to giving us a gentle nudge towards being less stubborn or sensitive. Thanks for mentoring us in a better attitude towards criticism.”

Nathan makes a great point. Our learning curve isn’t just about things we have to learn, but also about recognizing the fact that we don’t know everything—and that’s okay.

We can’t learn if we don’t first make that attitude adjustment. Only after we acknowledge that we have gaps in our knowledge will we see the road of learning ahead of us. And only after we decide the hard work necessary to fill those gaps is worth it will we reach a point of wanting to learn. And only then are we teachable.

Admitting we don’t know things is never easy. It’s a weakness, a vulnerability, a point where we could fall into the comparison trap of thinking our writing isn’t good enough. That we aren’t good enough.

So for new writers, or for those not-so-new authors who recognize that we’ll never be done learning (*raises hand*), let’s share some encouragement. Do you remember when you discovered how much you didn’t know?

My first novel-length story was Harry Potter fan fiction, and yes, I wrote it as a lark to pass the time before the sixth book came out. I didn’t have a clue about grammar or deep point of view. I didn’t know anything about plot structure or voice. I’d never heard “show don’t tell.”

I wrote that story just for fun. And then I was bitten by the writing bug, and that developed into a dream of being published. I spent several months going through a computer class on “How to Write a Novel” and thought I was ready to dig in to my own characters, world, and story.

I wrote the first draft in about three months and then polished that turd with all kinds of surface-level “edits,” tweaking a word choice here and rearranging a sentence there. I went online to track down information about the next step.

Oh, a query letter. I felt like a genius. This was the magic ticket that would get me published, a query letter. Ah-ha!

Somehow, during my searches for how to write a query letter, I came across the Edittorrent blog. Editors Theresa Stevens and Alicia Rasley run their blog with a great mix of posts for newbies and analyses of advanced concepts that make my head hurt. At the time, they were running a blog series where you could send in a couple of paragraphs you had a question about and they’d give advice.

Hoo boy, did they ever. I sent in a couple of paragraphs, and they almost ignored my question with their earnest listing of all the other problems in my writing. I remember thinking that if those paragraphs—which I’d gone over umpteen times, as this was the opening of my story and had been “polished” to an extra shiny level—had that many problems, what did that say about the rest of my story?

It was a humbling experience, let me tell you.

Some of those who commented in my post about what we “owe” new writers would probably say Theresa and Alicia overstepped by pointing out issues beyond my question. And if I was feeling too defensive to listen to their feedback, I might have felt the same.

Instead, once I dragged myself out of the “I suck” pit of despair, I was extremely grateful. That was my first taste that “hey, a stint as a copyeditor does not a grammar expert make, and a decade of technical writing doesn’t lend itself to showing emotions or having an engaging voice.” In short, that was my first clue that I was at the bottom of the learning curve and not the top.

I needed that. I needed that slap upside the head so I’d start learning rather than thinking I knew it all already. I needed that insight before I could be teachable.

So when you’re down about ever getting to the “good enough” point, know that we’ve all been there. We know what you’re going through. We remember what it feels like to make that mental leap. And we know that when we’re really smart, we never let go of that positive attitude towared learning. *smile*

Encourage others and share your story in the comments. When and how did you first realize how much you had to learn? How did it initially make you feel—did you deny it or accept it? How did you make the mental leap to being teachable? Do you have any tips to share?

P.S. Don’t forget to enter my Blogiversary contest, where you can win me! Wait…what? Check it out for the full story. *smile*

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Susan Sipal

All so incredibly true, Jami. When I look back on all I’ve learned about writing over these last *cough* years, stuff I had no clue I didn’t even know when I started, it’s humbling. That’s why attitude is so important. You HAVE to be open to receive the knowledge and understanding you don’t already have. Truly, learning to write is one of the top 3 toughest things I’ve ever done in my life.

Tami

I totally agree about the attitude being the most important lesson you can impart, not only to writers, but to anyone.

Growing up, I learned that there was no greater sin than failure.

To fail meant ridicule, disappointment, and loss of respect.

Moving away from that mentality is taking me a very (very very) long time, but learning to take a failure (even something so non-fail as a critique) and consider it a GOOD thing has been the most important block of cement in my foundation.

I’ve had multiple eye-opening learning experiences, but not one of them would have stuck with me if I’d kept treating every not-forward movement like it was The Ultimate Worst Thing In The History Of Terrible Things.

Suzi

It took me 6 months of querying before I learned my ms wasn’t anywhere near ready. I thought I fixed it, but then learned again. So 10 months in I got to the point where I think I’m on track.

I’m still learning, but I will not make those same mistakes with my next WIP.

I wish I would’ve been reading writing blogs way back before I queried, but I didn’t get into that until starting at that 6 months point–where I finally started to learn what was wrong. For those people who think it’s easy to write and publish a good novel, they are so wrong. I never thought it’d be easy, but I didn’t know how much was involved.

Todd Moody

Fantastic post, Jami!
I remember clearly the moment I decided to start writing. I’m not so sure when I figured out that I had a mountain of learning to do. It was more of a gradual process, and for that I’m thankful, or I may have never started. I read a few books on how to structure a story, bought Struck and White’s Elements of Style and off I went. It had been almost 30 years since I had an English class and I struggled remembering all the rules. I started reading writing blogs, like Bob Mayer, Kristen Lamb, Jane Friedman and StoryFix and Yours! The realization slowly came, then the critiques came and it cemented that realization that I had a lot to learn still. But, knowing something and being really good at it are two different things though, and I am still honing those skills and learning little things that increase my knowledge base. I’m not sure I’ll ever master all of it, but it’s not because I gave up. I’m enrolling in a master’s course on writing this fall.

Taurean Watkins

While I didn’t know what literary agents or query letters were when I started, I knew it wasn’t simple to do either, and frankly the early years were simply me being stubborn about NOT quitting, because I quit things too easily and sooner when I was younger, I wanted this to break the cycle. I at least achieved that goal, I was barely taking piano lessons a year, had one recital, and gave it up. This has been 10 YEARS of commitment on my part, and while that might seem like much to the 20-50+ veterans who may still not be published, it was BIG DEAL for me. I’d never stuck with anything that long before that point. But things were are a lot more fun (productive too) back then as well. Jami, I’ll be really honest here (Not that I haven’t been before, but I try to curb the rage for sake of not giving the wrong impression, and just know, any angst is about this particular incident, not you) the turning point for me was a few years ago when early feedback (however valid it was) simply was given in a way that just didn’t make me want to “Get back on the proverbial horse and try again” as much as I don’t want to quit. I learned the difference when a writer friend of mine (who at the time, had no books published) gave me advice that made a previous book better, but she told me the…  — Read More »

Theresa

Jami, you never sucked.

Jordan McCollum

Oh, man, how little I know? Something I’ve learned over and over.

I remember those paragraph critiques, too. I learned not to try to stuff too much information into one sentence. Theresa and Alicia—and everyone who represents a major leap in learning the craft—are part of what I call “my secret sauce” in writing!

Jan
Jan

Hi Jami, I make mistakes everyday, all the time. What I did was make friends with the mule. See, how many kicks from a mule does it take for you to figure out that you need to get out from behind that bugger. Afterwords, I take it out for a drink and try to convince it not to kick me so hard next time.

ChemistKen

Amazing! I began my journey in much the same way as you. I started daydreaming about how Rowling might go about writing another book in her universe, began to jot down some notes, and soon I was hooked on writing, which is pretty funny since I never cared much for writing before that. Now I’m using this fan fiction to teach myself all the concepts like story structure, characterization, and show vs tell (that one drives me nuts!). Like you said – there is so much for the new writer to learn – even now, after working three years on the same story.

I didn’t realize how much I had to learn until I started reading blogs on the subject. I knew I was a newbie, so I had no problem with accepting what I learned. Most of the rules made sense once I heard about them. But there was an agonizingly long period of time during my second year of writing when I would read a blog post explaining some concept of writing and then realize I had to go back and fix my story again. And again. And again. Arg!

Laurie Evans

Last year, I wrote my first novel. And THEN I looked up “how to” books and blogs. And then I found out how much I DIDN’T know! Day.um!

Now, I’m trying to decide between “polishing my turd” and just setting the whole thing on fire and trying something new. But I’m convinced that I wouldn’t have finished if I looked up the “how to” info first.

Sometimes, ignorance is bliss. 🙂

Laurie Evans

Oops, I meant to say: I knew it would be work, but like the above commenter, I had no idea just HOW much work it would be, either!

Deb E

I guess I was “lucky” in coming to writing from a scientific background – I already knew I didn’t know much, so I’ve never been overly humbled by negative feedback – I expected it. That’s not to say I feel that my writing still sucks, but I struggle, greatly, with seeing it as “good enough”.
It’s probably why it’s taken me 3.5yrs to be on the verge of finishing my first novel (end of the month, hopefully – finished, but not FINISHED … still, it’s something).

I think my biggest hurdle lately has been accepting that aiming for perfection is a great way to NEVER publish anything, and I want to publish. So, perfection is out.

Still, it’s a funny road. The other day, I got a glowing review from someone who read the chapters I have available online (I haven’t found a local critique group, yet, so the internet has been an immense help to me). It was wonderful – someone really enjoyed my work (in fact, I have several someones, which is just amazing). Do you know how long that warm glow of “yeah, my story is awesome” lasted? One day. Yep. Back to the road of self-doubt.

Always re-learning.

Oh, and my writing road started out as fanfic, too … but based on the old TV Show “The Young Riders”. Boys and horses. Yum.

Sonia Lal

I never had the slap upside the head moment. It was more of a gradual process.

Figuring out what show vs tell actually means, figuring out I need a balance of details and which particular details, figuring out that description/metaphors can say something about character and the world all at once, not just whatever I happen to describing, that the character needs to present in all of the above.

I am still learning. Still. It amazes me sometimes how much there is to learn.

Though figuring out the difference between showing and telling was probably key.

Kat

The whole ‘what is in my head doesn’t match what is on the page’ was one of the biggest hurdles I found when I started writing. I mean, I had been reading since I was tiny, I had this absolutely incredible story so why why why won’t it come out right? Luckily the advice of just getting through the first draft and then revising the hell out of it was something I heard early one and learned to embrace.

As to the most embarrassing thing I realized? I suck at commas. I honestly don’t know why no one seemed to have told me that during all my time writing essays in school and university! Yet one month in the writing community and I heard ‘revise your grammar, especially your comma usage’ a gazillion times. I was (kind of still am) very embarrassed about that but I have gone out and bought a grammar book. Hopefully commas won’t be the bane of my life any longer!

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Matthew Shields

Jami. WHERE is your Harry Potter fanfic? 😛

Sonia G Medeiros

Oh yeah, writing is definitely a humbling experience…if you’re doing it right, anyway. LOL. It’s daunting to see how far you need to go. No matter how much you learn, it always seems like you have so much more to learn. But that’s the joy too. How can writing ever get boring when there’s always something new t0 learn. Whenever I talk to someone who is interested in writing but doesn’t have a lot of experience yet, I talk encouragingly about the work. Expect way more work than you can possibly expect but remember that everybody has to start on the ground level. No matter how great a writer is now, s/he was a newbie at some point too.

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