Advice I Wish I’d Been Given When I Started My Novel-Writing Journey

This concludes our series asking some seasoned, experienced authors what three key bits of advice they would give new writers that they wished they’d known when they started writing. We all wish someone had given us gems of wisdom that would help us avoid wasting precious time and making serious career mistakes. In the first post of this series, I mentioned I would share my three bits of advice, so here they are. Oh, how I wish someone had told me these things when I started writing novels nearly thirty years ago!

If I could go back in time and sit my younger self down to have a serious talk about the years of rough road ahead, I would have a lot more than three main bits of advice. I think a daylong discussion would ensue, and perhaps (well, more like probably) at the end of it, my younger self would decide the best course of action would be to avoid beginning the arduous novel journey at all.

The Not-So-Good-Old Days

Why? Because thirty years ago publishing was a daunting goal, and up until just the last few years it was close to impossible for a good writer to land a publishing contract. An aspiring novelist had to expect years of submissions, rejection letters, and disappointment looming in her future. And although it is still tough today to get that lucrative contract with a top publishing house, it now is not the only viable, appealing option for serious novelists.

But back then, I didn’t have the wonderful vista of self-publishing I have now. I had to do it the old-school way. Which, by the way, without computers was a real pain in the rump. Imagine not only having to type your manuscripts (and maybe even use carbon paper), you had to do everything that really slow way—via snail mail. Which only added to the extremely long amount of time you had to wait to hear back from agents and publishers about your submissions. Think months and years, not hours or days.

The cost also was very taxing, especially to struggling writers who could little afford to shell out upwards of $50 to print out chapters and pay for not just mailing them to the agent but for the stamps to put on the SASE for the return of the almost-always-rejected manuscript.

Back in the day I spent hundreds of dollars on postage and hundreds of hours typing letters, addressing and stamping envelopes, and mailing partial and complete manuscripts. And waited. And waited. During those decades of waiting, I was often encouraged by other successful authors who told me ten years was about the average amount of time it took from the completion of writing a perfect, polished manuscript to getting it picked up by a traditional publisher. Yes, you heard right! Writers had to have the patience of Job.

Due to this very slow process, writers back then fell by the wayside from exhaustion, despair, and faintness of heart. I think if you tell today’s aspiring novelists in this fast-food, instant-gratification world that they should expect to wait ten years before getting published, most will throw in the towel and leave the ring. No wonder that one of my literary agents told me twenty years ago that “the writer who persists without giving up will win.” Kind of like the last man (or author) standing after all the bricks of rejection fall and the dust settles.

So how does all this fit in with my three bits of advice that I would give my younger self? This is how:

Apply Yourself Diligently to Learning the Craft

Even now, with the ease of self-publishing, this first and foremost “rule” applies. When I sat down to write that first novel, I thought I was a natural talent and just “knew” how to do it. I really didn’t. I read a lot and studied writers, and, granted, this was back in the Stone Age when there was no Internet and it was almost impossible to find something like a critique group. There were no online classes, podcasts, Meetup groups. I took classes on creative writing at college, attended a writing conference once a year, and read writing craft books.

Well, still—I sure could have been a whole lot more diligent back then even with the limited resources available to me. It was my attitude that was a problem. I think I was a bit cocky in judging myself a great writer. I had a successful writer mother. I had friends who told me I was a great writer. And the first top agent I queried with my first novel snatched it up and said I was brilliant. (Really, that did not help me—the novel was terrible, and although he was a highly respected literary agent, he was wrong. The book needed a lot of work.) That book—and none of my other seven completed novels—ever got a publishing contract offered to any of my six agents over the twenty-plus years I tried to get published.

And sure, with practice, I did become a better writer. But not the great one I thought I was. And of course, life happened. I had kids and a business to run. How could I make the time to take more classes at the local college or travel to expensive writers’ conferences? I gave up writing and trying for many years at some point (I think after novel and agent #3) from discouragement. It was only after I did the following that l felt I was finally getting on my “author” feet. And this is my tip #2 that I would tell both my younger self and all new, aspiring writers:

Attend Excellent Writing Workshops

Back in those old days, there weren’t a whole lot of writers’ conferences. They were expensive to attend and to travel to, so were mostly inaccessible to me. But it was only when I decided to really hone my craft, determined to become the best writer that I could be, that I “counted the cost” and decided I had to carve out time and set aside money to get excellent writing instruction. I have to say that this is the best advice I can give any and all writers. The money and time spent have been way more than worth it.

From one-day workshops to week-long workshops to weekend writer intensive retreats—my writing went from okay to ideal. I don’t mean I am now the greatest writer in the world. But I do believe that what I was lacking in—knowledge, writers’ “tools,” expertise—has been fully supplied.

When I left for home after attending Donald Maass’s Breakout Novel week-long workshop, I had this wonderful sense of realization that I now had everything I needed to write anything I desired. My “toolbox” was full to overflowing, and although I am always studying, learning, and applying new techniques, I do believe I got to that tipping point where I was proficient in my craft.

I see that moment when it  happens with my editing clients as well. When they go from being a struggling, novice writer to being a full-fledged author. I do believe there is something like a point of “saturation”—the place a striving writer gets to when she finally knows the craft well enough to be considered a master craftsman. Which brings me to tip #3:

Write, Write, Write

Need I reiterate? Nope. I think Malcolm Gladwell is spot on about emphasizing the need to put in 10,000 hours to become an expert at just about anything (if you haven’t read his terrific book  Outliers, I highly recommend it!). Back when I started writing novels, I put in what time I could, with the distractions of the aforementioned kids and business to run. But I didn’t put in the kind of dedication and “attack” I could have, which is necessary to excel. When I started writing again in earnest in 2005, determined to “make it” this time, I scheduled my time carefully, and although working outside my home, eked out that time to write two novels a year. I am still doing that, even though I don’t have to . . . because I know to be a writer means to write, write, write.

I hope you have enjoyed this 9-part series and benefited from the various insightful tips from the authors featured on Live Write Thrive. Now is your time: tell us what advice you wished you’d been given when you started writing. Or if you are a beginning writer, what tips have stood out to you and helped you plot your ongoing writing journey?

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  1. I endorse and resonate with all points raised here, which have to do with the craft of writing. The psychology of becoming an ‘author’ as opposed to a ‘writer’ in this instant gratification world of the self publisher, has never (for me) been better expressed than in Dan Holloway’s recent book ‘Self-publish with Integrity’. It deals with all the aspects one does not consider until too late ( the insidious loss of confidence, the temptation to believe criticism and suspect praise, the marketing arrogance that suggests there is only one way to convince…like shouting too loudly or too apologetically…many wheedling whispers that undermine) all of these once identified will be spotted before they do too much damage, and his central cri de coeur question ‘First come to know why it is you write’ once answered will act like a bullet proof vest against the slings and arrows of mixed metaphors.

  2. Great post. I have lived it all, the mailing, the SASE, the waiting, the rejections. It made me stop writing for about six years. But now I am back and writing writing. I just hope it’s not too late for me. Beth Havey

  3. Thank you for this educational and entertaining post. When I got the writing ‘bug’ it was a total shock. One morning I woke up and was overwhelmed by the need to write. That passion stole my life. After several weeks I came to the conclusion that the story I was writing was worth the effort of doing it well. I registered for several writing classes at our University Extension office. Those classes were worth every penny and nights away from home.

    Years later I’m still learning. I’ve been fortunate to have had my first novel published. At that time I thought it was excellent. Now, when I read it, I can see where I could have done a better job. Through memebership in critique groups, associations with other authors, and a desire to continue improving, I see myself as an author of quality fiction writing.

    What I’ve learned over the years is that it takes more than passion to write a great novel. It requires attention to detail. It requires a desire to continually master the craft of writing. It requires courage to open myself to constructive criticism. Most of all, I think, one needs to understand that the journey in writing a novel can be more important than the pleasure in being published. It’s a journey of self-discovery.

  4. Very VERY useful. ‘Write, write, write’ and the point about attending workshops run by seasoned writers is to me, the important thing. Thank you very much for the posts.

  5. Absolutely agree with everything you said here, and with the utmost of humility I’d like to add a suggestion. I have wanted for a long time to attend writing workshops and truly couldn’t because of financial constraints. So I decided to design my own workshop with a two-pronged approach. For the first part of the workshop during this last year I have spent time reading books on writing (including Donald Maass’ book form of the Breakout Novelist concept — dense but so worth the time to get through it.) Before I chose the books for my reading list I did a little research to make sure I added books worth the time.

    The second part of the workshop was me finding writing prompts every week and posting new fiction on my blog based on those prompts. Even if I didn’t get a chance to write some of the other days during the week, I knew I would have to post for that prompt and the discipline has helped to lay the foundation for the second year/phase of the workshop that starts on February 1.

    I realize that this is not at all the same as attending a live action workshop where I listen to lectures by renowned instructors, but given my personal circumstances I have found it to be a fairly good substitute in the last year. And now that my family is more financially secure and my kids are older, I can start looking into writing workshops out of town and use my own personal workshop to supplement what I learn in the live workshops.

    I just wanted to add this suggestion to encourage other writers to look beyond the limitations of their personal circumstances. You’re right, we have so many more resources today than writers in the past and we can make those resources work for us. We just have to have that persistence and patience and the rock-solid belief that we can succeed if we work hard and stick with it.

    Happy writing, everyone!

  6. Timely and valuable advice…have a novel on the back burner … Sitting and waiting for me to do something with it for last ten years…. Been enjoying posting poetry and photography since last April…napowrimo….thinking about dragging it out this summer and polishing it up… Keep getting Amazon Kindle self publishing info in email…thinking about copywriting and work shopping it before putting it out there…

  7. I enjoyed the post. The reality check of the 10-years to get published is very useful. In today’s world, looking at the Gangnam style hits, it is easy to dream that my writing will go viral… Thank you

  8. I have struggled long and hard to find a critique group. I joined one that had only a leader and no other participants but myself, and she was so harsh in her criticism of every sentence, every idea, I began to understand why I was the only one there. Writing is more community based than I had ever realized before and so I thank you for this post. Having published academic and periodical articles, I am fast realizing that fiction is a very different animal with much greater demands and variables.

  9. Ekta, thank you for this post. I have worked hard the past 18 months on getting my first novel ready for publication. Your method of constructing your own workshop series is an excellent idea. I have now scheduled time each day for reading and for writing, as both are important. The reading includes titles within the writing profession as well as for pleasure. The writing is focused on elements of the second book of a series as well as learning how to blog on a regular basis. Using writing prompts may be a way for me to become more consistent on that. Thanks for the idea of setting up a long-term independent workshop. My calendar is filling up and I am getting excited about getting more focused on what I love to do. Thanks.

  10. Thank you for the reality check. When I retired five years ago as a public school educator, one of my goals was “to Write.” I figured that because I taught writing, wrote a few grants, wrote memos, and wrote poetry in my spare time, I was ready “to Write”. Then, I decided that I would write a memoir and finish it in five years. Guess what, I haven’t finished the memoir, but I am a much better writer because I learned much of your advice the hard way. My writing group, Writers Anonymous has been crucial to the improvement. Thank you

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