Two weeks ago I took a workshop through International Thriller Writers from Lisa Unger who was describing her career as an author, including the 20-something books she’s written and I was suddenly struck by the fact that given my age and my career trajectory, there’s no way I will ever write that many books in my lifetime. Which led to a bit of regret that I hadn’t started my writing journey earlier, instead of spending decades in first the psychology field and later in the world of start-ups. What if I had begun learning the craft of writing in my twenties? Would I be publishing a book a year like Karin Slaughter or Lisa Gardiner or Megan Miranda? Which gave me a few sleepless nights and a general feeling of malaise until I realized there was nothing I could do about either my age or my career trajectory and I needed to quit my pity party and get over it.
But I also wondered whether there wasn’t a young writer out there who might benefit from my musings about starting earlier in life, studying the craft, and keeping at it during their twenties and thirties. Lisa didn’t magically write all those books—she worked hard at it, eventually found herself an agent, vowed to learn to write better, and put in the hours and the discipline to make that a reality. So, for that beginning writer who has lost faith in the process and is ready to quit, here are my thoughts.
Be patient. What you write initially won’t be any good and that will be hard because, like most of us, you like being good at stuff. But you’re going to have to get comfortable with being “bad” in the beginning. You’re going to write yourself into a corner; do an info-dump without realizing it; write clumsy and inauthentic dialogue. Get into the mindset that this is a series of skills that take time to learn—not that much different than learning to ride a bike. At first there is no way you can balance on two skinny tires; later, you can’t make yourself fall over if you try. It takes practice. And time.
Write Every day. Even if it’s only a paragraph. Write short stories. Write responses to prompts. Write poetry. Write a character description. Write a conversation between two people. Write a premise. Summarize the plot of a movie you just watched. Copy out a paragraph from a best-seller and substitute your own characters instead. Write a joke. Write down a family story you heard as a kid. Make up a different ending to a fairy tale. Write an online dating profile. Write something. Anything. Every day.
Take classes online or in person. Devour craft books. Join a critique group where you’ll learn not only what skills you need to work on, but also what you’re good at. By reading other’s work, you’ll absorb and remember the guidelines you’re reading about and you’ll start applying them as you write. It’s kind of like magic.
Take the time you might otherwise spend on social media sites and use it to read fiction writers in any and all genres that appeal to you. Underline/highlight passages that move you. Study the nitty-gritty of their sentences, how they end a chapter, their first lines, their character descriptions, how they describe a unique setting. Learn from others and copy their best practices until they become second nature to you.
You will need to feed, clothe, and house yourself and unfortunately that means a job which probably won’t have anything to do with writing. If you can, work at something where you leave the work behind when it’s quitting time and can spend your off-hours writing, rather than an occupation where you have to bring your day job home with you and work into the night (I’m looking at you, lawyers). That might mean a few years of waiting tables, or working a boring desk job, or signing up for a retail or a manufacturing gig. But remember, no matter where you work, there are conversations to be heard, characters to meet, environments to be observed and absorbed.
Travel whenever and wherever you can. It doesn’t have to be to a foreign country, although if you can, that’s great. Explore places you can reach by driving. Visit friends in different cities. How is New York City different from New Orleans is different than Wyoming? Interview people you’ve met whose family heritage or religion is different than yours. The idea is to expand your worldview so that your writing will reflect not just what you already know but what you want to know.
Eavesdrop and take notes—in the workplace, at family reunions, at little league games, at the local pub. Notice different speech patterns, different ways people express emotions, share stories. Jot down body language so you’ll know how to write emotions like anger or sadness without resorting to cliches or “telling.”
Experience life yourself. When a close friend disses you, examine how your body reacts. When you experience joy or anxiety or boredom, try to capture your mood in words you can later use in your work. When someone breaks your heart, feel it all but after a bit, write those feelings in a journal so you’ll remember when it’s time to write about grief.
Make writer friends. Trust me, you’ll need their support along the way.
Above all, that’s the only way you’ll learn. And gradually, over time, you’ll get better. Trust me on this one. If you stick to it, you will experience success. You may not hit the NY Times Best Seller list but you’ll have a story published in an on-line magazine. You may not be offered a book contract, but someone will invite you to talk to a local writing class. You may not answer the phone and it’s an agent who wants you as a client, but you may have a great conversation with an avid reader at a book fair.
It all counts. It’s all worthwhile. All of it will feed your soul.