3 Tips I Wish I’d Been Given When I Started My Writing Career

On Throwback Thursday, we’re looking at excerpts from past posts on Live Write Thrive.

Today’s post is from Advice I Wish I’d Been Given When I Started My Novel-Writing Journey. See if this is advice you can use!

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.

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. Excellent advice, Susanne. It ties in with persistence, belief in yourself, and the determination to succeed. Yesterday I read this quote from Nora Roberts “You have to be driven. You have to have the 3-D’s: Drive. Discipline. Desire. If you’re missing any one of those three, you can have all the talent in the world, but it’s going to be really hard to get anything done.” Thought I’d share that 🙂

  2. i remember attempting to get published 20 years ago! life happened and i didn’t stick with it. but the writing gene is, of course, here to stay! i have learned MUCH since i re-entered my writing journey, no small bit from you by the way. i appreciate what you share and teach. it always pays off to learn and continually be learning. and it shows in those who go it alone. i’m thankful for every opportunity to perfect what i do and do it with excellence! that said, i hear edits calling me…

  3. Speaking of the good old days and carbon paper, don’t you also remember that if you made a mistake or wanted to rearrange scenes, or delete paragraphs you would have to re-type the entire page, sometimes the chapter ?

  4. I’ve read Gladwell’s Tipping Point but not Outliers. Need to add that to my reading list. Thanks!

    What I wish I could go back and tell myself is that critique is opinion, and it’s important to consider comments first before applying all comments to your story. And always consider the source of the comment. Apply only what works for YOUR story.

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge with your followers. I’ve shared this post online.

  5. Good advice. Also, I’d add, once the craft is in place, learn the business–study that as hard as you study craft. In indie publishing, many authors seem to spend 2/3 of their time on business and only 1/3 on writing. But even in traditional publishing, a writer must know how it all works before entering the fray. Making a mistake in query letter–or worse, phoning an agent you don’t know!–would not be a good move. Beginners don’t understand what vanity presses are either and often fall victim to them.

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