Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Should I wait to be a better writer?

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the newly released The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.

Last week, I had the joy of holding mentoring sessions with teen writers. I sat in an office, and they came in for fifteen minutes to talk about publishing, writing, their story, or anything on their  mind.

One of the writers asked me, "This book I wrote is really special to me, but I'm worried about trying to get it [traditionally] published. I know I'll keep getting better as a writer - should I wait to pursue publication in case I want to make changes when I'm a better writer?"

I resonated with that question because as a teen writer, I improved so rapidly with every book I wrote, that I was constantly thinking, "That last book I wrote was horrible! How could I have ever thought it was good?"

I feared I would always feel that way. I even confessed to a friend that I was worried I would never be able to write two books in a row that I actually liked. Her answer was, "But don't you think you'll always be getting better as a writer?"

Yes. But that's not what I wanted. I wanted to someday be perfect and to never again think, "That last story was terrible."

But once we accept that our writing will never be perfect, that we'll always be improving, we have to wrestle with when we're an acceptable level of imperfect to pursue publishing our books. Here are some thoughts I have about that process:

Publishers won't take a risk on a bad book.

We've all read bad books. But let's forget about them for a minute.

It's very hard to get a book published, particularly a first book. One of the reasons is because a LOT of people have to say, "Hey, this is a great book!" before the publisher makes an offer. (For more on how that works, see Jill's wonderful article The Publishing Process or check out the book we wrote on getting a book published.)

So while you're on the journey of getting your special book published, you'll have lots of people looking for ways to strengthen it. You won't be alone.

You'll always be growing as a writer (ideally) but it doesn't mean you'll always think your old stuff sucks.

I'm the type of writer who tweaks every time she reads through her manuscript. This is why I never read my published novels. (Some writers do - I honestly don't know how they stand it, but maybe they think the same thing about me.)

Recently I realized that in my debut novel, Me, Just Different, I have my main character, Skylar, giving Abbie rides to her boyfriend's house in exchange for gas money. That seemed like very logical motivation to me, like, 9 years ago when I wrote the first draft. I never gave it a second thought until a few days ago when it struck me, "She's such a princess that her parents totally would have paid for her gas! Why did I not realize that?"

All that to say there are things I would probably change about my published books, but I still think they're good books. I continue to improve as a writer, but I don't feel the way I did as a young writer.

Life's too short to write anything but the book of your heart.

In an issue of one of my writing magazines, James Scott Bell had a writing exercise that I loved and have continued to mull over even two years later. It went something like:
1. If you could only write one more book in your life, what would you write? Describe below.
2. Write that book.
Maybe the book you wrote is special ... but why would you ever spend time writing anything else? Why bother with a book that isn't special to you?

The obvious answer is because you might be able to write a book that sells easier/better. This is true, and it's a question most working writers have to ask themselves at some point. I imagine I could sell better in a different genre, but so far I don't have the passion for writing for adults that I do for teens. And I don't have the energy to write a story I don't feel passionate about.

Even so ... maybe you should wait.

I heard two wonderful quotes from fellow writers at the conference last week. One was when Jill and I were teaching our, "How to Revise Your Novel" class, and Jill said that sometimes "our ideas are greater than our skill level." 

And a couple days later, Daniel Schwabauer (who writes middle grade books for AMG, and who created the One Year Adventure Novel curriculum) said, "Some ideas are plucked too green." He shared how about twenty years ago he had an idea for a book that he just loved, but he couldn't make it work, and he's only recently gone back to it.

So if you've written the book, but it doesn't feel quite right to you, then maybe you're not ready to write the final version yet. There's nothing wrong with that.

What about you? Do you have additional advice you would have given to that young writer? Have you experienced the same fear as her?

43 comments:

  1. Hmmm. That's an interesting question, isn't it? I guess it's part of that "how do I know when my book is done" question. I guess I'd say it depends on the writer. Eventually, you just have to query SOMETHING. Probably it's a gut feeling like so much else in writing. :)

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    1. I think it can certainly be a gut feeling, Amanda.

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  2. There's an African writer, Chimamanda Adichie, and I don't know if she reads her books once they're published or not. But she doesn't read reviews of her books. At all. She says she doesn't want to get influenced by what critics and readers have to say because she wants to stay true to herself when writing. I thought that was interesting, like you write whatever you like without caring what other people think and then the 'good' and 'bad' doesn't even come into it because different people have a different opinion on what's good and bad.

    -Mokona
    www.mokonasmedley.weebly.com

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    1. Mokona, I agree with her. I found that reading my own reviews tends to either puff me up with pride and think that I'm amazing or depress me and make me think I'm a horrible human being. Neither of these are good things, so I've given up reading my own reviews. During seasons of promotion, this is HARD because I like to share links of giveaways, and often bloggers who are doing giveaways have written reviews. But I avoid them wherever I can.

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    2. It definitely ensures that you're honest while writing. And that's very important.

      -Mokona
      www.mokonasmedley.weebly.com

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  3. That quote from James Scott Bell just blew my mind. I've been struggling to find a story idea I'm excited about (I just have no ideas, no real desire to write...I'm working on a story that I like but am not particularly enthusiastic about right now...) and to read that just sort of turned my head upside down. Wow.

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    1. I hope it sparks your next great novel, Olivia!

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  4. I was thinking about this waaaaaay too much for it to be healthy before I started my first draft. I was absolutely in love (and thankfully, still am in love!) with my idea, but it was my first attempt at a whole novel and the first thing I ever managed to finish over about 1,500 words. I knew that it would suck in comparison to what I'll write in, say, four years, but then I realised that IT SHOULD SUCK, because otherwise it would mean I haven't improved! *facepalm*

    Anyway, I completely forgot about this once I started writing (too much other stuff to think about -- novels are complicated!!) but once again you've managed to answer my questions without me even asking them. I think what I'll do is macro- and micro-edit, then leave it until I've completed a couple more projects. After that, I can go back, cringe at how awful I once was, smile at how much better the new stuff is (I hope) and fix Project #1, because I know I'm nowhere near the querying stage yet -- and Jill, my ideas are definitely greater than my skill level! But I definitely agree that once you feel you're at the query stage, you just have to take the plunge, because as you said, traditional publishers will only accept you once they think you're good.

    And I'm happy to say that the only "bad books" I've ever read were either self-published and in dire need of an editor, or in a genre I hate and was forced to read, but not actually failures on the author's part :)

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    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Hannah J! Very wise.

      And regarding bad books, that's a great perspective - sometimes they're just not our type of book.

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  5. When I finished my second draft of my first novel, I thought it was great! Probably better than any other fantasy book for kids out there. But I decided to wait for publication. I didn't even go back for a third draft until after I finished book two and got some second opinions from some other awesome teen writers. I'm so thankful I did this! I see problems with my book that I didn't see as a thirteen-year-old on the high of writing a novel. Already, some scenes are way better and much more realistic then the first started out. And I'm about to do a serious edit during July.

    Yeah, I one day hope to publish my first novel, but it will be a very, very different thing from where I started.

    Great post, Stephanie!
    ~Sarah Faulkner

    www.inklinedwriters.blogspot.com

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    1. I'm so glad you've been patient, and that you're digging into the hard work of editing. Very proud of you, Sarah!

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  6. Great post! I completely agree with everything you said. I don't think any writer should be completely content with their skill level, only because we should continue striving for better with each book that we write.

    For Purple Moon (my first novel), I actually got the publishing contract for it when I was 16--however, since I continued to learn more about the craft, I kept wanting to go back and rewrite it. I still have the urgency to revise every time I read the manuscript, but I've finally gotten to the point where I'm ready for it to be seen by the public. I wrote a similar post on my blog a couple weeks ago, about whether or not teenagers should pursue publication, or perhaps wait until their craft is more honed and they have more knowledge about the industry. I don't think it has as much to do with age as it does with experience and skill level.

    I love the prompt that you gave, Stephanie. Which writing magazines do you have? I'm wondering if I should maybe subscribe to a few.

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    1. Can you link to your post, Tessa? I'd like to hear more of your thoughts, and I bet others would benefit from reading it.

      I think that particular nugget was in the ACFW quarterly magazine, which is really good, and you get it free with your membership.

      A great (free!) one is CFOM: http://www.christianfictiononlinemagazine.com/

      Off and on, I've subscribed to Writer's Digest, and it's really good too.

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  7. I definitely struggle with this fear. I've often said, "This idea is too good to waste on a first novel." I know I shouldn't feel that way, but it's SO hard to lay aside insecurity and just write. There will be edits and there probably will be (probably significant) improvement from the first draft to the final. Easy enough to say, but hard to believe when you're staring at a blank screen. I absolutely LOVED the exercise that James Scott Bell came up with. Time to go meditate on that one. Great post! :)

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    1. "This idea is too good I waste on a first novel" -- that's exactly how I felt at first! And I tried unsuccessfully to come up with a different "first novel appropriate" idea, but my heart wasn't in it, and so eventually I just gave in and wrote the first idea, and I'm glad I did. So if you haven't already, I'd encourage you to just go for it, because even if you edit it to the best you can do now, and it's rejected, you can go back to it in a couple of years and fix it, and then hopefully it'll be accepted! :)

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    2. I second Hannah's advice :) Do your best with it and trust the editing process!

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  8. Hmm, I have to think about that... I'm sure it depends on who you are. And what Jill said once is true as well: Practice makes perfect.
    Anyway, I hopefully will get the GTW-book somewhere this week, so I definitely will check it out!
    Thanks for the post!

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  9. Those are really good points. I'd just do everything to learn about the craft as much as I can and edit it really well, and then if she decides to wait, she'd know that her book was good.
    I totally agree with the "plucked too green" idea. All of my first short stories were really awful execution, but good ideas. I must say, years seems like a long time to wait, but we've still got most of our lives ahead of us.

    Personally, I haven't struggled with this. The thought has honestly never crossed my mind. There will always be mistakes, but mistakes are kind of a part of life. And I have faith that my novel will turn out well, in the next few years anyway. Or maybe I won't think it's ready, but I'll still have written a novel, which is an accomplishment all the same.

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    1. I love that you've embraced the reality of mistakes, Katia, and I'm glad to hear you haven't struggled with this!

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  11. I think if you are worried about trying to write a great novel before your literary intellect has fully blossomed, attempt to write something on your level. As in, if you are a twelve year-old no matter how good you think you are, if you attempt to write the next great epic of American literature you will obviously fail. However, it would be appropriate for said twelve year-old to write towards an audience their age.

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    1. I wonder if anybody who sets out with the intention of writing "the next great epic of American literature" could actually achieve it. It seems like if that's your goal, it'll muddle your thinking while you're writing. That you'll be too hung up on how the story will be received, and you won't be focused enough on telling the truth about the world. Just a thought.

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  12. I think you need to find a balance of challenging ourselves yet meeting our skills. It's not the easiest place to find. I know I put too much pressure on myself in the area of ideas but i also know a few ideas I have, I AM to green for.

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    1. That's true, Tonya. Ideally each book we write should challenge us to grow as a writer. Good point.

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  13. Thank you so much for this post! That prompt by James Scott Bell really stopped me in my tracks. I realized that for a year now I have been trying to write a book that I don't feel passionate about at all. In looking back, I see that I never did. I could never fully get into it because the writing was not a product of my heart. Instead, it was a duty, a chore. This post gives me a lot to think about, and hopefully it will set me on the path of writing a story that I truly love. Thank you so much!

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  14. What if the book that's special to you is too unique, or too "different" and people have told you it won't work? Are people right or are you right?

    I really appreciated that prompt by James Scott Bell. It kind of pulled me up short. I just went back to rewriting my "Special" book, and I've been kicking myself because I should be working on my books that are more saleable. This book isn't. I feel a bit better now (but still worried, heheheh. The life of me as a writer :P).

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    1. The world needs more Special books. You'd better not think about sales when writing. And if you think about it, all the Big Hits were Special. Were vampire romances written at all until Stephenie Meyer came along? And I'm pretty sure the dystopian genre didn't exist until The Hunger Games happened. In fact, Big Hits most of the time have that element of 'different' in them, and I'm pretty sure people are tired of the same sort of plots over and over again and that they will LIKE your book for being different and refreshing.

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    2. Cait, that's a question I'd like to address in a separate blog post if you don't mind. Can I address it next week?

      And to your point, Mokona, big hits certainly have an element of "different" to them. While dystopians have been around for awhile (1984, The Giver, The Uglies) Suzanne Collins was bold and unique with her idea. We're all used to it now, but can you imagine the meeting in which it was pitched? "Well, they're teenagers ... and they fight to the death..." She took a risk, and so did her publisher. And it paid off.

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    3. A whole post for it? That. Would. Be. Awesome.
      It's really not a simple question/answer, because I'm in the middle of DOING it (pitching my "unique" book) and so far all I've been told is it "doesn't work". Heh.
      When I tell people about The Hunger Games, they still look at me like, "You READ that stuff?" ;) I can imagine Suzanne Collins got a loooot of that. And she turned out awesome.

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    4. Do you read Manga? If you don't, you might give it a try. But choose carefully. Manga will tell you that the best stories are the groundbreaking ones, and the groundbreaking ones are the radically different ones :)

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    5. Do you read Manga? If you don't, you might give it a try. But choose carefully. Manga will tell you that the best stories are the groundbreaking ones, and the groundbreaking ones are the radically different ones :)

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  15. Question: I'm a new blogger and i was wondering how many views GTW gets per day (on average)? I love your site and i was wondering as a comparision.

    (not that i'm much competition...)

    -Shaneene

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    1. I don't know about per day, but (currently) we get an average of about 16,000 views a week, half of which are unique (first time) visitors.

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  16. I'm probably the last person to reply to this, blame work. :( But this is totally something I've been thinking a lot about lately. My skill level has grown SO much since my last book (which I chose to shelve) and while I still have a lot to learn (who doesn't?) I'm excited for where things will go! I'm actually ashamed of the last two books I sent my beta reader.

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  17. I worked ten years on a novel (on and off) that I still haven't published. I was just too freaked out about "getting it right," and I gave myself the expectation that I had to finish THAT one before I would allow myself to start another one. I don't know if I regret that or not. I'm happy with the novel that became my debut and maybe I will revisit the first one someday. It wasn't that I felt the idea was beyond my skills; it was that I believed writing something as long as a NOVEL was beyond my skills. My inclination now would be to say, "Write the thing you are burning to write." Having passion for the idea really helps the writing.

    This is all such great content, Stephanie. I'm excited about what you do with teen writers! I'll definitely continue to share with readers, students and Teenwriters.

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    1. Thank you for sharing your story, Katherine. How interesting. I was the opposite - too quick to flit from idea to idea.

      And thank you for sharing Go Teen Writers :)

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  18. I have definitely had this same thought and many times!
    If it makes you feel better though, Stephanie, I read all 3 of Skylar's books and never once thought about that :)

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    1. Thank you, Alexa! I mention it so early in the series, before we have a handle on who her family is, so I doubt many think much of it. It felt very cathartic to put it out there publicly, though :)

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  19. I love this post since it incapsulates one of my biggest fears. I am not sure I will ever be able to publish my novel because EVERYTIME I read through it I find some little thing I want to change. I feel like I could continue editing for eternity and it would never be finished. When and how do you decide that your book is DONE?

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    1. That is a GREAT question. It deserves its own post :)

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  20. I love this! I do have one question, I'm working on a WIP but I have suddenly lost all passion for it. Should I continue, because it may be great practice, or should I move on since I do have a great novel idea I'm excited about?

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    1. I've had success with shelving manuscripts for a while. Sometimes I miss it and go back to it. Nothing wrong with trying to set it aside :)

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