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Monday, April 25, 2016

To the Unpublished Writer: You're Doing Okay.

I see a lot of unpublished work. A lot. In some stories, I can tell that the writer needs to work on mastering a few elements: voice, or arcs, or style, or viewpoint. Others I can tell still have a very long road ahead of them. Once in a while, when I come across a story that shows that the writer still has a lot of growing to do, I think about the kind of harsh, even cruel, criticism they could potentially get from others. Once in a while, I might imagine the kind of damage that might do to that writer. They may feel emotionally wounded, even betrayed. They have poured their heart into their work, only to have it get shredded. They may quit writing altogether, thinking they don't have what it takes. Maybe it will paralyze them so that they feel mentally blocked every time they sit down and try to write. Maybe it will make them bitter.

If you have not had many successes or still have much to learn, take heart. Contrary to the perennial myth that writers are born, or "elect," or have some kind of secret element, all published writers have pretty much been where you are with your writing. They've just been working at it longer. It doesn't matter whether you are 25 or 95, beginning writers are beginning writers, not bad writers. In almost every story I see that is not publish-ready, I see myself. I see my "younger" writing days. You might be surprised to know how many struggles of "young" writers seem to be natural phases of the growing process. For example, I've talked with other writers, who like me, went through the "poetic" phase, where we tried to make all of our writing sound very poetic by using uncommon, even sophisticated words, or so many adjectives and adverbs that our writing became purple-prosey. I believe this is a natural phase of a learning writer. Another phase I see, which usually happens with a very "young" writer, is thinking that the longer a story or description is, the better. I remember going through this same phase myself, long ago, thinking, "Wow, look how long and detailed I can describe this. (And so 'poetic' too, of course!)"

I remember when I was in the "head-hopping" phase. Look at almost any of my stories from a little over ten years ago, and I (in some ways unknowingly) jumped from one character's viewpoint to another's and another's and another's--all in one scene. I had no "control" over my viewpoint. I even have a chapter where I was switching tenses. But even in those stories, I can find some talent, even if it was unrefined: my young gift for clever phrases, my stalwart ambition to foreshadow and create mystery, and (while quite uncontrolled) my desire to sink into character viewpoints. Your "young" talents may be something different. Maybe you are drawn to crafting a good love story. Maybe you love writing creepy scenes. Maybe you come up with unique concepts.

Another phase I see is where the writer is learning how to create character voice. The character's voice might be slightly "off" or not quite natural or believable, often along with being overdone or overbearing. Unlike my other phases I mentioned, this one is a more recent one. I never did quite figure out how to intentionally create character voice until just a few years ago, and I'm even worried that I've still overdone it in places.

My point is that pretty much everything a beginning or even unpublished writer is going through are things that just about every masterful writer has gone through--whether or not that master writer wants to acknowledge or admit it.

In an industry where there is a history of what is, in my opinion, elitism, it can be tempting for more experienced writers to pretend or fool themselves into thinking they were always completely, full-blown masters at writing. That's not true. Even Michelangelo had to learn his colors. But this sense of superiority can lead to them tearing down, ripping up, or even straight-out laughing at writers who are "still learning their colors." They may think that "young" writers are bad, foolish, or idiotic writers, instead of what they are, still-learning writers.

I've started doing yoga classes at a yoga studio, and this kind of behavior in the writing world is no different than a yoga instructor throwing insults at a new attendee because he hasn't yet mastered the Warrior II pose. Writing is like any other talent. You have to learn and grow.

Only maybe twice in the thousands of unpublished stories I've looked at did I think, "What were they thinking? What the heck is going on with this?"--and for one of those times, I'm pretty sure the person was high or drunk when they wrote the piece. I'm not exaggerating.

So know that you're doing okay. You're normal. The magic trick is to keep going. Keep learning and then practice what you learn. Be committed. Get feedback from people you trust. And while a few writers may be elitist, in this day and age, you'll find that the majority are kind, helpful, and accepting.


  1. No matter how long we work at writing, there's almost more to learn, always ways to become better. My latest phase, according to my crit partners, is that I focus so much on using the right words that I forget about the story itself.

    1. oh yeah, I think I've been doing something similar lately. O_o Sometimes it can be overwhelming to think there are always other ways to get better, but other times it's kind of fun and exciting to see how much there is to learn and how you can keep getting better.

  2. Agree, agree, agree. Whenever a mentor is generous with sensitive and direct critique, my writing grows. As a young woman, I once was shut down by elitist criticism of a story idea. It was delivered in a writing lab by another participant. I didn't write for five years believing I had nothing worth saying. Now we have movies and novels based on that same story idea. Critique motivates. Criticism kills. Thank you for this post.

  3. Thank you for this kind and accurate post, I think any writer can relate to all of these phases. I feel lucky to have met a terrific critique partner and other fellow writers after joining RWA in 2008. Their support and encouragement was invaluable. I wish everyone had that same experience. Another author posted on Twitter not to ever let anyone destroy your dreams because they've given up on theirs. So to every writer out there- don't ever give up, keep writing and living the dream!

  4. Great Post. Keep up the Good Work.


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