(I’m mirroring last Friday’s post from Writer Unboxed over here because WU has been intermittently down since then. Huge apologies for those of you who’ve been trying to find it!)
One of the hardest stages of your writing journey—one that will take the most dedication, commitment, and self exploration—is the ‘nearly there’ stage. This is the stage where your critique partners love your work, you’re getting personalized rejections from agents or editors and highly complimentary reports from your beta readers, and yet . . . no sale or offer has materialized.
Remember those old cartoons, the ones where the character is in the desert, hot sun beating down on him, parched throat, covered in dust, nearly perishing of thirst as he slowly drags himself to the enticing oasis that is just within his reach—only to have it disappear just as he reaches it because it’s a frickin’ mirage?
That’s what the ‘nearly there’ stage feels like. Especially if you’ve been stuck in it more than a couple of years.
But the nearly there stage is a vital, absolutely critical part of our writerly development. In fact I know many agents and editors who would argue that this is exactly the stage that is missing from so many aspiring authors’ journeys and that lack has held them back. So I thought I’d share some thoughts on how to not only survive, but hopefully thrive during this stage.
Yes, I said thrive, because the truth is, this ‘nearly there’ stage where you’ve mastered the basics of craft can be a really, really fun part of your journey—especially if you take your focus off the finish line for a while and throw yourself into the spirit of experimentation and improving.
It can be a gift, a chance to strengthen your writing and your voice so that when you do get published, you have a greater chance of being published well, rather than simply being published.
The critically important tasks of the nearly there stage are mastering the craft at an advanced level, enriching the depth and quality of your stories, and coming to terms with the relationship between you and writing.
Most of us expect to take some time to Master The Craft. A year or two, maybe three. But when our apprenticeship starts to draw out far, far beyond that, it can become dispiriting and discouraging, and all too easy to throw in the towel.
We are so in love with the idea that someone is so naturally talented that they can sit down and write a book in six months, their first book, mind you, and have it published to great fanfare. Those are the publishing stories that get retold the most, so often that they almost become urban legend and that then becomes the expectation rather than the true outlier it is.
But as a society, we are far less enamored of the idea of long years of hard work, mastering the craft one component at a time, until we become proficient enough to master all the elements of craft within the same manuscript.
Donald Rumsfeld once took a lot of flak for talking about the known unknowns vs. the unknown unknowns, and while I’m not a big Rumsfeld fan (at all!) I do think he was on to something.
As writers entering the craft, there are things we know we haven’t mastered, and then there are things we don’t even realize are aspects of craft to be mastered—depth and layers and nuance and white space and subtext and all sorts of advanced techniques. This is partly because many of us come to writing without having been a critical, analytical reader. We come to writing out of the love and enthusiasm we’ve felt for books and we want to, in turn, create that same experience for others.
We often think we know how to write a story. After all, we’ve read thousands of them! It’s only after we dive in and our initial works are met with lukewarm responses, that we begin to realize that good writing makes stories seem effortless, when they’re simply not.
Improving doesn’t happen by accident. If you write a million words or invest 10,000 hours without the express intention of improving your craft and skill—and a plan for making that happen—you can easily end up no closer to your goal.
When I’ve done seventeen drafts of a book, it’s not that I was polishing my words seventeen times, but that it took me a draft to master each of the separate craft elements: character actions in one draft, plot in another, deepen motivation in the following draft, then add in description. Now redraft that description so that it is character specific and carries dramatic weight. Now refine character actions to include subtext, etc. and so on.
Now luckily, I no longer have to do seventeen drafts, but it is highly unusual for me to do less than six.
It has been years of practice that has allowed me to get better at juggling all those elements in a single body of work.
So, dive into this stage. Embrace it. Revel in it. You are about to set out with the sole intention of becoming a writing craft GEEK.
- Reread and analyze books you love—if you get caught up in the writing, stop and see what swept you away.
- Or it might be easier to study books you don’t love, but others do. You might get less sucked in by the writing and are therefore better able to analyze.
- Audiobooks can also be a good way to see what works and what doesn’t because you can’t skip or skim.
- There are scores of amazing writers conferences with workshops for all skill levels. Take full advantage of these. BUT, do not make the mistake of doing those things without also putting in consistent and regular writing time. One is not substituted for the other, but instead feeds the other.
- Consider developing a curriculum for yourself. I know that can seem a bit anal, but if you’re not getting a sense that your work is improving, create a road map to mastery using blogs, online workshops, real life workshops, and how to books. Alone or with others such as critique partners who are familiar with your writing, look at your strengths and weaknesses, then devise a program of study—and dedicated, specific writing time, to address those weaknesses.
- Many published writers get better because they are working closely with an editor who guides and shapes the story. If you’ve attended a number of conferences, consider spending some of that conference budget on a mss critique by a qualified, recommended and respected book editor. You’re looking for big picture, meta level editorial input rather than line editing, although that too can be wildly helpful, but you want to make sure you’ve nailed the big picture down first.
- Oftentimes authors, agents, or editors will offer critiques as prizes for contests or for charity auctions, so keep an eye out for those great opportunities as well.
- Instead of starting a manuscript with the intention to create a marketable, salable story, start it with the intent of mastering certain aspects of craft: compelling description, evocative subtext, nuanced language, layered characters. Give yourself permission, for just this one manuscript, to ignore plot or structure. Or to concentrate on plot and structure if you normally avoid them. Not all of your million words need be in pursuit of one goal. I would actually argue that they shouldn’t be.
- Then, once you’ve spent long hours learning the rules and perfecting the craft—now play with it! Experiment. Color outside the lines. Be daring. Be brave.
Perhaps the most important component to the nearly there stage is better developing the Stories We Tell. Take this opportunity to embark on a journey of self discovery. Dig deeper, look under the rocks and stones of your own soul and write as raw and real as you are able.
- Experiment with your voice—trying always to uncover your most unique, genuine and authentic voice and core stories.
- Find and do exercises to develop your most authentic, strongest story telling voice once you find it.
- Give yourself permission to write as if no one—not your mother, not your sister, not your spouse, not even another living, breathing soul—will have to see it. There is great freedom in slamming that door shut while you write.
- Force yourself out of your comfort zone, not only craft-wise, but subject-wise.
- Spend some time un-learning conventional publishing wisdom and marketing advice and write what you truly love. Reconnect with the sorts of stories that first awakened the love of reading in you and that have provided you with your greatest reading pleasure. What blew your mind? Showed you the full scope of what was possible? Shook the foundations of your world? The seeds of your own voice likely are hidden in those books.
- Spend some time thinking about the complex relationships in your own life. Do you characters have equally complex and dynamic relationships? They should.
- Are you giving your characters as rich and varied an emotional life as you possess? Do some timed writing exercises—spending twenty minutes tops—and write about the following: Your first kiss, your first loss, your first experience with shame, your first betrayal, your first major mistake in judgment.
- Once you’ve captured your emotional milestones in writing, look to your characters. Do you know how they reacted to similar moments in their lives? You should, because the answers to those questions shape our entire worldview and how we interact with everything around us and will therefore play a large part in shaping the story you are trying to tell.
Self knowledge is also a huge factor in surviving nearly there.
This is where the rubber meets the road. Will you have what it takes? Are you truly committed to this writing thing? Even if it takes more than two or three years to achieve your goals?
There is no wrong answer here. Writing might be something that only holds a certain amount of appeal for you, an appeal that will evaporate when it does not come easily or quickly, and that’s okay.
You must know yourself. Come to terms with why you write and who you are and where the two of those intersect. Some people do write for validation and no matter how much they wish that away, it won’t change. Which is fine as long as they are aware of that, the risks involved, and understand how it shapes both their journey and their frustrations. Others write to better understand the world, to make connections, to explore the issues that haunt them, or simply because they can’t NOT write. It is helpful to know which category you fall into.
- Take the long view.
- Practice being in the moment and enjoying the stage you’re in rather than assuming the grass is so much greener elsewhere and pining to be someplace you’re not. As with life, each stage of the writing journey is full of valuable lessons and opportunity for growth, if only we let it be.
- Find a way to get more process minded. Try to remove the onus of publishing=success. I highly recommend Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way as a good place to find help in shifting that perspective.
- There are so many ways to define success! Challenge yourself to find/list ten milestones of success that have nothing to do with being published.
- The same goes for a publishing career. There are all sorts of highly different and yet successful publishing paths. Spend some time understanding what is important to you: wide readership, critical acclaim, a large fan base, number of books sold, financial metrics.
And speaking of journeys, in the writing journey, this nearly there stage is the equivalent of the Dark Night of the Soul, when all feels lost and as if all your efforts have been in vain. Just like a character in a novel, you will have to dig deep, take a leap of faith, and recommit.
You may even have to quit writing for a while, decide it is taking up too much of your life, distracting you from other things that require your attention. But there is a good chance that the writing monster has already sunk her long, seductive claws into you and you will not be able to leave her behind as easily as you thought.
In fact, a huge number of successful writers I know have all at some point quit writing and walked away at some point. Only to find that they couldn’t not write. It was as much a part of them as their bone and sinew.
And once you discover that, you realize that publishing really is only one piece of it. That recognition can allow us to take a deep breath and step back from the sense of urgency that nips too often at our heels. Or at the very least, give us the perspective and patience to keep on cheerfully slogging our way forward.