It doesn’t seem that hard at first. When you’re caught up in the thrill of creating people and telling their story, writing feels like the easiest thing in the world. You just go on doing it until you get to the end. Then you put that first work in a drawer for a month and look at it again. It doesn’t look at all like the brilliant story you remember. In fact, it sucks.
But you bear down, start reading about the craft of writing, and join a writer’s group, either online or in person (or both). You learn to spot your worst problems, follow the advice you get on fixing them, and fiddle with your manuscript until it is much, much better than when you started.
Then you collect 114 form-letter rejections.
If you’re not discouraged at this point, you park that first manuscript in a drawer for good and start the next one. You’ve already learned a lot about writing from the first one, so this one is stronger from the outset. Again, you revise it and have it critiqued and generally mess with it until it’s as good as you can get it.
This one does better. It still gets a stack of form rejections, but some of them are slightly personalized, and two agents ask for first chapter and synopsis. So you have tantalizing, month-long waits before . . . rejection.
It’s usually at this point that you lose focus. You might obsess about your technique, as if there were a particular subtlety to writing that you’re not seeing. So you build a library of writing books, read everything you can on the internet, and analyze bestselling authors to the point that pleasure reading becomes work. Eventually, you can rattle off the fourteen different ways to build micro-tension and list the eleven flavors of third-person point of view.
This all might even help. But more likely than not, while you’re refining your technical skills until you can construct a story that’s as precise as a Swiss watch, you’ll lose track of the reasons you were writing the story in the first place. I help people develop their storytelling skills for a living, so I know the value of studying the mechanics of writing. But I also know the limits. Careful study, and even great editing, can only make you competent. It takes something else to become brilliant.
The other big temptation is self-publication. Yes, I know the internet is full of tales of writers who have made a real go of it in the indie market. But I’ve had a number of self-published authors come to me for help after their books have only sold to close friends and relatives. Too many writers go this route before they’re ready to publish at all.
I get the appeal. If you’ve been working hard at your writing for years and getting nowhere, self-publishing can make you feel like you’re finally moving again. You’re making decisions about design and font and cover art. You’re finally proofing your galleys. And in the end, you have a book in your hand – or at least in your e-reader. But self-publishing doesn’t bring you any closer to becoming a real writer.
It’s usually at this point in these articles that I tell you exactly what you need to do in order to grow into the writer you can become. Sadly, I have no idea.
The problem is, what most separates a competent writer from a brilliant one is love, and that’s something that simply can’t be taught. You need to love your characters – that’s actually a requirement of even competent writing. Writers within particular genres also tend to love the hallmarks of the genre – whether it’s the unfolding of an engaging mystery or the thrill of passion in a romance. J. R. R. Tolkien spent 25 years working on his setting — Middle Earth — as a sheer labor of love before his friends persuaded him to start publishing stories about it. Stephen King apparently loves terrifying people.
The most successful writers seem to love . . . humanity, the whole human condition. They’ve come to an understanding of life and are eager to share it with the world. Even the cynicism of the most dark and world-weary writers often springs from a disappointed love for humanity.
While it’s not guaranteed, you can develop that love by continuing to write. Even if you’re not getting any closer to publishing, you are learning to bring characters to life. This makes you more sensitive to the people around you, more aware of how they express themselves and what they may be feeling. As you spend time pondering your plot points, you’ll also start to notice how real stories develop and resolve. Writing deepens your awareness of life.
But it’s not quick. I’ve had a few clients I’ve worked with over a number of years and several novels. The learning curve on the craft end of things is fairly steep – usually one manuscript is enough to get their style and storytelling working well. But as they continue to write, I’ve watched their characters grow more complex, with a deeper, more authentic life. Their stories show more insight into the joys and hardships of living. Their characters develop more moral ambiguity without becoming unsympathetic. And at some point along this journey, they get published.
Writing makes writers wiser, which makes them better writers. So, yeah, it’s hard. But it’s worth it.
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