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September 27, 2012

What Should Newbie Writers Focus On?

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 on "What Should Newbie Writers Focus On?"

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Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc
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… Read more »
Anonymous
Anonymous

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! 🙂

Tami

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!)

Amanda
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… Read more »
Buffy Armstrong
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… Read more »
Brooke Johnson
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… Read more »
Nikki
Nikki

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)!

Anne R. Allen

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!

Renee A. Schuls-Jacobson

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.

rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy

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.

Emma
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… Read more »
Fiona Ingram

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.

Martina Boone
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,… Read more »
Rinelle Grey

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

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

Taurean Watkins
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… Read more »
Leslie R.
Leslie R.

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).

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Okelly
Okelly

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.

Anne R. Allen

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.

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Amanda E.
Amanda E.

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.

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[…] have nothing to do with our passions. That reminded me of a post I did a couple of years ago with advice for newbie writers, and I wanted to tie these ideas […]

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[…] people, including my colleague Jami, have told me “College isn’t for […]

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[…] I pointed out in my post with advice for newbie authors, the non-writing experiences we have enrich our writing and can provide benefits to our writing […]

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[…] What Should Newbie Writers Focus On? […]

A. Fae

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

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[…] years ago, I shared advice for new writers about what they should focus on. One of my points was about the expectation of having a day job. […]

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