The Hard Work of Writing: Do You Embrace It?
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*Pin It
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.
Exactly. When we start, we have no idea what we don’t know. I still remember what Nora Roberts said about writing during her keynote speech at the RWA National conference two years ago: “If writing wasn’t hard, everyone would do it.” 🙂
Back in college, they used to have “weeder” classes: introductory classes that were purposely hard to weed out those that weren’t serious. Writing is like one big weeder class. 🙂 And you’re right, it’s one of the toughest things I’ve ever attempted in my life. Thanks for sharing and for the comment!
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.
Great point! Some of us see setbacks as failures because of our life experiences or the way we were raised. That’s why the attitude of “The only way to fail is to give up” is so important.
Every published author faces setbacks. Even those who think they’re taking a shortcut and cheating the system by self-publishing still have to face the possibility of bad reviews. Setbacks simply are the nature of the business.
As you said, the sooner we accept that, the sooner we realize that’s not “The Ultimate Worst Thing In The History Of Terrible Things,” the better off we’ll be. 🙂 Thanks for sharing and for the comment!
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.
Yes, you’re right that our learning curve is often “I thought I fixed it, but then learned again.” I’ve learned some lessons multiple times. 🙂
And it’s not that I’m slow. LOL! But we often get more out of a lesson only after we reach a certain level of knowledge. I’ve kept all my contest feedback, and every six months or so, I review the notes to see if I’ve now reached a point where I can pick up and understand any new tidbits.
Like you, I never thought writing would be easy, but I didn’t know it was going to be this hard either. 🙂 Thanks for sharing and for the comment!
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.
Yes, I remember that one instance as being the first time I got a glimpse of the knowledge mountain, but I’ve since gotten more glimpses as I’ve learned just how much I don’t know over and over. So in the big picture, it was gradual for me too, but that first reaction definitely stands out in my mind. 🙂
And you’re right–in some ways, that innocent lack of knowledge is what allows us to start on the writing path. If we knew from the beginning how hard it would be, we might not even try, so the writing bug might not ever have a chance to infect us. And that would be a shame for many writers with great potential.
Great point too about ” knowing something and being really good at it are two different things.” So true! I feel like that’s the phase I’m at for sure. 🙂 Thanks for sharing and for the comment! (And good luck in your class–I hope you share what you learn with all of us! 🙂 )
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 »
Hi Tauren, I love your essays. 🙂 I found myself nodding and going “Oh, me too!” to much of it. Like you, this is the project I’ve stuck with the longest without reaching milestones outsiders would recognize as “progress.” (What others think and what I feel inside are completely different. 😉 ) “there’s a difference between being disappointed and defeated” Very true! And I think a) as beta readers, we should try to find that line and stick to the honest but encouraging side, and b) as writers, we have to be open to seeing the difference. Sometimes, any setback that’s not an obvious success feels like a defeat, and that attitude won’t help us move forward. Recognizing that our writing isn’t perfect doesn’t mean that we can’t or won’t get there, but boy, can it be frustrating when we constantly discover we aren’t as close as we thought we were. “Sometimes it’s not denial of a problem that blocks our learning, it’s knowing full well the problem is, and nothing you do seems to make it better.” Yes, Todd also mentioned this above, and I agree. I’ve now learned enough that I “know” almost everything, but that doesn’t mean I can implement it. Like you, no matter how much advice I read on query letters, I still suck at them. 😉 And you’re also right that sometimes, we can learn that “we’re not ready” lesson too well, where we stop pushing ourselves to move forward on other fronts. We’ll… — Read More »
Jami, you never sucked.
Aww, thank you. 🙂
Don’t worry, I recovered from that despair quickly. And I really did need to be slapped upside the head or else I never would have been open to learning. 🙂 Thanks for the reassuring comment! *hugs*
Any hope for those of us who don’t “need” that bash to the head, and don’t know what they can do, and I’m in the camp.
I don’t need Boot Camp-style “disillusionment” I need HOPE!
You’re right that not everyone needs that bash to the head. 🙂 Deb E mentioned in her comment that she’d come in to writing knowing that she didn’t know much. Or even for those of us who needed it initially, once we’re relieved of our self-delusions, we often need that hope that we can learn all this stuff.
I certainly don’t mean to imply that Theresa’s comments were mean in any way. Not at all. The bash to the head aspect was internal to me, as I recognized my weaknesses for the first time. And you’re right–that’s an important point.
A few people will need to have a harsh bash to the head to get through their delusions, but most of us don’t. Most of us will recognize that if someone we respect gives us advice, we should listen. So a beta reader, for example, shouldn’t take it upon themselves to “cure” a writer of their delusions. If the writer is ready for it, they’ll reach that conclusion on their own even with kind-but-honest feedback. 🙂 Thanks for pointing that out and for the comment!
You’re right, Jami, I know most of the time people don’t mean it as a snarky joke (put down?), and I wasn’t accusing you or anyone of it, either.
I was just making the case for those of us who get it, but like me, are struggling to move forward. We just want hope, and maybe a shoulder to lean on, when things get overwhelming, and nothing you’ve tried so far seems to help.
It’s sometimes more painful to know where your weakness lies, yet nothing you try seems to help, than being in the dark or in denial, and I just felt people who read this who feel as I do, needed to know they’re not insane for feeling less than “Supercalafragalisticexpialidocious” about their writing right now, and aren’t “In denial” of problems in their writing either.
Also, after giving it some thought, maybe for me at least, the word “Embrace” in the post title is too strong a word. Maybe because I associate embracing something (concept or person) an emotionally gratifying process, rather than feeling like I’m doing my own root canal, sans morphine (Not EVERY hardship in writing makes me feel bad, but query letters do, trying to write nonfiction does, and don’t get me started on reading in genre right now…)
“Can you take on The Challenge?” sounds just as positive for me, without the loaded “Smoking Gun” implications of the word “Embrace”, or even the word, “Acceptance.”
Take Care All,
Point well taken about the title. 🙂 Should I mention that I suck at book titles too? LOL!
And I understand what you mean about that lost space between knowing/recognizing a problem and not being able to fix it. I’ve said before that I’m also that way with query letters. But I also remember getting feedback about how I needed to do xyz, and me just crying to my family: I don’t know how! That’s a frustrating feeling.
So far, I’ve mostly ignored the query issue because I’m fine with using the “extra” time to improve my writing in general. I’ve also looked for opportunities to get my work in front of the industry without queries (contest entries, in-person pitching, etc.). But at some point, I’ll hit the wall with them again–or with back cover blurbs.
If I figure out how to word my thoughts, maybe I’ll do a post about that in-between issue at some point. *hugs* And thanks for the comment!
Please do, Jami. You’ll reach more wayward writers like me who aren’t in denial, but struggling to keep hope alive all the same, trust me on this. Too many blogs look at this in an either/or context, either your “Resilient to a fault” or your a “Lazy Hack” who didn’t want it enough. I’m paraphrasing, seriously, but you get what I mean. Considering how much we stress “Flexibility” in this business, we don’t give much public vocal thought about how we evolve through hard transitions. I can better read between the lines now than in the beginning, and I know having a laser focus when discussing these things avoid overly convoluted “facts.” But even still, as bloggers we need to give an outlet and a voice to the in-between folks who are seriously struggling to keep the faith during times when they’re weaknesses are outclassing whatever strengths they’ve been able to learn on their journey so far. As much as we preach to writers about things not being black and white as we often feel, we don’t show it when we talk about the craft nearly as much, or in ways that people can feel hope, rather than recoil in frustration, NOT (Always) denial. I respect what you’re saying about taking the time to keep learning, but there still comes a point where you want to start reaching milestones that learning alone won’t give you, and I hope you understand what I mean. I’m not just talking about getting published,… — Read More »
I’ve added the idea to my running “list of blog post ideas” along with the link to your comment here of your thoughts. I’ll let my muse mull that over. 🙂
As for the frustration of wanting to reach milestones and not seeing any progress, I sympathize. I would also suggest to maybe take a step back from your writing, because I would bet you have made progress and just not recognized it. That’s happened to me several times. 🙂
That doesn’t mean those milestones come as fast as we want them to, but sometimes just recognizing that we haven’t been as static in our knowledge as we’ve believed helps soften the frustration. *hugs* Thanks for the comment!
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!
Yes, I’m with you–I seem to relearn this lesson with every contest/agent/beta reader feedback. 🙂
LOL! Yes, Theresa and Alicia’s lesson of not stuffing too much into one sentence has stuck with me too. Whenever a sentence gets too convoluted, that’s usually the cause. I remember your blog as being one of the first that explained POV and plot structure to me (I think I discovered Storyfix through you too), so thank you for that. 🙂 And thanks for the comment!
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.
LOL! I like that attitude. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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!
Oh cool! Yes, I hadn’t thought much about becoming a writer before I wrote that fanfic either. Then the writing bug bit me hard. 🙂
My first original story has been edited/revised/you-name-it more times than I can count, and I still don’t consider it ready. So I definitely understand the frustration of feeling like every new thing we learn equals a rewrite. But I’ve used that as my learning curve story, as you said.
The stories I’ve written since then have been much better with voice, technique, and everything. Seeing that progress really helps, so if you haven’t written other stories in addition to your fanfic one, I’d recommend it.
Some lessons will stick better when you can apply them from the very beginning of the story, and sometimes we get a nice surprise of knowing more than we thought we did. 🙂
I’ve discovered that I learn a lot by osmosis–meaning, even if I don’t consciously pay attention to xyz lesson, I’m still absorbing it on some level. Just yesterday, I read a post about a subtle form of telling, and thought “uh-oh.” But imagine my (pleasant) surprise when I checked my last story and it didn’t have the problem. *whew* 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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. 🙂
I understand–and I agree! Many of us wouldn’t have gotten as far as we did if someone had forced that “how to” knowledge onto us before we were ready. Our ignorance allowed us pursue our writing long enough to be infected by the writing bug and prove to ourselves that at least we could finish something.
Plus, even those of us beyond that initial “oh my gosh, look at that overwhelming to-do list” reaction can still suffer from rule paralysis, where we’re trying so hard to follow every rule or suggestion or tip that we can’t write anything. Writing often isn’t for the faint of heart. 🙂 Thanks for sharing and for the comment!
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!
Yep, I didn’t think it would be “easy” per se, but I really had no idea it would be this hard, where it would take months upon months and years upon years to get where I wanted to be with my writing. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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.
Oh, and my writing road started out as fanfic, too … but based on the old TV Show “The Young Riders”. Boys and horses. Yum.
Yes, it’s such a balancing act to believe in our work enough to not let the self-doubt hold us back, and yet not be delusional and think it’s ready for publishing when it’s not. As a perfectionist, I’ve struggled with this same issue, but like you said, perfection is a false goal. It doesn’t exist.
And you’re right–in general, we’re very hard on ourselves. The good comments stay with us for minutes, hours, maybe a day if we’re lucky, while the bad comments will stay with us forever. I understand now why many writers refuse to read any of their reviews. 🙂 Thanks for sharing and for the comment!
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.
Great point! Yes, there’s a skill-level jump between knowing to show, write details, and include characterization and being able to do all that at once with one phrase. 🙂 And it’s little things like those techniques that make this a never-ending learning experience. Even when we learn a skill, there’s almost always a way to implement the skill even better. Thanks for the comment!
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!
I still struggle with getting the story in my head onto the page, so I understand. 🙂 And I’ve faced that embarrassing “did I really think that was the right way to do xyz?” situation too. Yikes! Point me to a rock to climb under. LOL!
Good luck with conquering commas, and thanks for the comment!
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Jami. WHERE is your Harry Potter fanfic? 😛
Ha! In the dead file of my computer. 😛
I never posted it–partly because by the time I finished it, book 6 had just come out and completely made my story line null and void. (My fanfic was my take on what book 7 would be, and well, *cough* Dumbledore was alive in my story.) I let one family member read it, mostly because my fanfic experience triggered the writing bug in me and I wanted them to understand what I would soon be doing with all my time. 🙂
So no, it doesn’t exist in some hidden corner of the internet. 😉 I know you really wanted to see my horrible Mary Sue character and all my grammar mistakes. Sorry to disappoint you. LOL! Thanks for the comment!
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.
So true! I think that’s part of why I enjoy blogging. I still remember what it’s like to know nothing and I want to share what I’ve learned and picked up over the years. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!