Monday, January 19, 2015

9 Behaviors You Should Adopt If You Want to Grow As A 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 Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

Something I both love and hate about writing is that it's an ongoing journey. I'm never going to be a perfect writer. There will always be ways I can grow and deepen my skills. There will always be more practicing to do.

Which is why it deeply saddens me on the occasion that I come across a know-it-all writer ... who has only been writing for a couple years. If that. They ask for advice, but they don't want advicethey want validation that they should totally be published by now. They want you to critique their work, but when you do, they argue with every issue you bring up. You recommend a craft book or an online class that you took and found helpful, and they tell you they don't need it; they're already exemplifying all that advice in their manuscripts. Sometimes, in extreme situations, they offer paid critiques or have a blog that hands out writing advice ... even though they've never even finished a story.

You don't want to be that person, do you? Neither do I. And anytime I notice myself slipping into unteachable behavior, I try hard to shift my perspective and think What can I learn from this?



These are 9 behaviors I've observed in writers who continue to grow both as a writer and as someone who contributes to the publishing industry:

They keep reading.
There's a sad amount of published writers who say writing makes them too busy to read, or that they just can't enjoy a book because of their inner editor. Not only is this just not a smart move professionally (you've got to keep tabs on what's going on in your genre) but it smacks of arrogance.

They keep learning about writing.
Even after being a professional for ten years, when I take writing classes, listen to podcasts, or read craft books, I almost always walk away with something I can apply. I've certainly sat through some writing classes that were so boring, basic, or biased, I walked out without having learned a thing, but that's rare.

They spend more time writing than they do talking about writing.
Building onto that last item, it's easy to slip into the trap of spending most your time learning about writing and talking about writing and thinking about writing without actually, you know, writing. I've definitely been guilty of this. When Jill and I were putting together Go Teen Writers: How To Turn Your First Draft Into A Published Novel on top of maintaining the blog, I felt the balance tip too far away from writing. Maybe a season of life will look like that for you too, but don't make it a lifestyle. 

They don't compare.
I don't think we mean to do it, but us writers tend to group ourselves into different categories: Writers who haven't been writing long. Writers who have written a few books and seem close to getting an agent. Writers who are self-published. Writers who have an agent but no contract. Writers who have a contract. Writers who are multi-published. 

The danger with this comes when our perception of being "ahead" leads to us being jealous or angry when another writer who is "behind" us achieves something.

When Roseanna White and I met, we were in similar places in our writing journey. Both of us had loved writing for a long time, had written as teens, and we were both at the place where our writing was close to publishable. At the conference where we met, Roseanna walked away with an agent who was excited about her and an editor who loved her. I walked away with some mediocre leads and a very tired back. (I was quite pregnant.)

But in an odd turn of events, I wound up with a surprise agent and a three-book deal all within six months, while Roseanna had to bide her time for a few years while we waited for the first contract. Recently, contracts have been a struggle for me while they seem to tumble into her lap when she's not even looking. If we'd insisted on comparing ourselves to each other all these years, we would have become two bitter writer friends. That doesn't sound like much fun to me.

Nobody wins with the comparison game. We're all on our own unique writing journey, and it's best to embrace yours and learn from others when you can whether they seem to be ahead of you or behind.

They accept that all feedback is a gift.
At church a few weeks ago, my pastor talked about a time that he was deeply hurt by a critique. He went to his mentor, wanting what we would all want in that momentto be assured that the other person was a moron, and that he should just ignore the feedback. Instead his mentor told him, "All feedback is a gift."


That's rattled around inside my head these last few weeks as I go through the process of refining my manuscript with my agent. I don't like having my mistakes pointed out. (I'm much more fragile than I would like to be.) I want to have caught all my errors, and I want my manuscript to be perfect. I'm learning to embrace this idea, though, that all feedback is a gift. It all reveals somethingeven if it's just our heart or the character of the person who is critiquing for usand we're wise to be thankful for it even when it hurts.

They try something new with each book.
I used to think that as I wrote books, I would eventually land on My Perfect Book Writing System. A system that made my first drafts structurally sound and my edits organized and my hair from turning increasingly white. (When I picked McKenna up from school the other day, she had this huge grin on her face. "Mom! You have a white stripe in your hair just like Anna!" Why, thank you...)

But I think even if such a system existswhich I'm no longer convinced it does because book writing is just a messy, creative businessthere would be a danger in it. When we think we have it all figured out, that's when we stop considering how we can be better. I learned from bestselling novelist Angela Hunt to intentionally look for something new that I can try with each book. There are countless new things you could try. A character who's darker than you normally write. Writing in first person instead of third. A different method of plotting. Present tense instead of past. More (or less) point of view characters. The list of new things to try is as limitless as your creativity.

They shut down thoughts like, "I should be published by now."
I have been an impatient, pre-published writer. I would read published books that didn't seem nearly as good as mine. Or writers who had written only one book were getting published when I was on my fourth and didn't seem any closer. When is it ever going to be my turn? I should be published by now!

Have you felt this way before? Let's say you're right. Your writing is excellent and that editor truly just didn't "get it." But what do you gain from the mindset of, "I should be published by now"? Nothing. This thought—or variations of it like, "My book should be selling better!" or "I should have another contract by now!"—has never produced a single healthy thought or action.

What does produce something useful is the question of why am I not yet published? This question can actually produce answers that help you. Is your genre a tougher sell than others? Is the opening of your story not interesting enough? Or have you just not been able to access the right editor or agent? 

They don't tear down other writers.
As with the behavior above, it just doesn't do anything positive for you. Maybe the book really does have a sucky plot and bad characters and a predictable ending. But if it sold to a publisher, or if it's on bestseller charts, it's smart to ask why. What is it about this book that reaches people? What can you learn from it? 

They don't burn bridges.
If someone in the industryan agent, an editor, a published writer, or even an unpublished writer in your critique groupgives you a "gift of feedback" that you didn't want, the wise writer says something like, "Thank you. I'll think about that," and doesn't (publicly) get more emotional than that.

The people in the writing world are a very connected bunch. If you claim to my agent that I recommended she look at your stuff when I really didn't, that's not going to get you what you want. (Unless you wanted a sternly worded rejection from my agent. Then it will get you exactly what you wanted!) Writers, agents, editors, and everyone else who makes the book world go round talk to each other, so guard your reputation by being kind, honest, and considerate to all.

Even writers who are very careful with agents and editors often burn bridges with other writers. Sometimes they do it in the name of honesty. ("It just wouldn't be fair for me to write you anything more than a 1-star shredding review on Amazon. My integrity is at stake here!") We value honesty around here, but honesty spoken with kindness and grace will get you much farther.

What's something you've done that has helped you grow as a writer?


40 comments:

  1. Something that's helped me grow as a writer was allowing myself a break when I needed one. A few years ago, I was tired. Not *of* writing, necessarily, just of the emotional investment there is in writing a manuscript. I felt like I needed a break. So I took a couple months off, caught up on my to-be-read pile, and came back feeling great. A month later, I wrote a piece that won a writing contest! So...if you think you need a break, allow yourself that. :) Thank you, Mrs. Morrill!

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    1. It's very important to be able to monitor your energy level and not burn yourself out. Great tip, Linea!

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  2. What has helped me grow is to critique more for other writers. At some point I felt that in between college life, writing, and reading, I had no time to critique or beta for others. Until I started to realise how valuable it was for both the other authors, but also myself. I've enjoyed Beta reading for a few authors last year and critiqueing for others. Others where glad to hear my thoughts and feedback, and I noticed myself that I was able to walk away with bits and pieces of advice for myself as well. I would say that was a win-win situation.

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    1. Great point, Arlette. I also noticed that when I started judging contests. That helped me a lot with marketing copy too, because I was able to see what worked and what didn't.

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  3. Well I think the one thing that helped me grow as a writer is learning more about writing, as stated above. I've taken writing classes a few years back, I'm part of the school paper, and I've also joined a few journalism contests.

    Aside from that, I never take writing too seriously and end up treating it as a chore. I write because I want to write, and I don't want to end up as a published writer who writes because she absolutely HAS to and ends up hating it.

    Anyway, thank you for this post! Super informative!

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  4. In the past I've struggled with finishing first-draft novels, thinking my novel isn't good at all or whatever. But I've learned to ignore those thoughts and remember that the first draft doesn't have to be perfect, especially when there will be time to edit it over and over later on.

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    1. I'm so glad you said that, Samuel. Yes, it's very beneficial to push yourself farther into the process.

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  5. I've struggled with finishing stories period. Finding an ending I was satisfied. But I found if I just wrote it,something would come.

    I like these points. We could apply them to all areas of our life - not just writing.

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    1. I'm similar. A lot of times I have to write a wrong ending (or two) before I can get it figured out.

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    2. I've done three - four different endings before. The last was the "right" one, but the others prepared it :)

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  6. These are all wonderful and really inspiring tips. I'm nowhere near close to having a book published, but when I do, I' know I'll keep reading and learning the craft. In fact, I think I'll have even more to learn once I do get published. It's hard to strike a balance between thinking and reading about writing and actually writing, but I'm working on it. I think I already accept feedback as a gift. I used to be really hurt by it and ignore it, but now I look for and embrace it in all my writing. I've also been trying new things with each novel. For my next novel, I plan to try something really big and really different. I want to hand write my whole novel. I know this might take a while, but I think it will help me slow down and actually think about what I'm writing instead of word vomiting on my document. Hopefully, that will lead to a cleaner first draft.

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    1. Thanks for sharing this, Ana. Sounds like you're in a great place :)

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  7. great list. need to work on the 'spending more time talking about writing instead writing'. :)
    I sometimes spend hours talking about the WIP I'm working on while spending only minutes actually writing
    every day. x)

    that's what I love about writing, it's a lifelong learning process, like polishing a diamond your whole life. :)

    I have a collection of various >how to write< books by various authors. even if some of the advice
    I've read of before, every author explains it in their own voice, painting the picture of a topic in a different
    colour until the painting is full of different colours and you see the whole picture to a topic. :D

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    1. Great point! Yes, it's wonderfully beneficial to see what a variety of writers think about a certain topic.

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  8. I completely agree with Keturah Lamb. These points are valuable not only for writing but also in other aspects of life!

    Something I've found useful in the writing journey is critiquing other writer's manuscripts. Pointing out areas of telling, content inaccuracies, even the occasional grammar mistake (when they ask for it), helps me to see these areas more easily when I write or edit my own novel. Also, reading books on the craft of writing has helped me to greatly improve my writing! I have an array of books on editing, worldbuilding, creating deeper plots and characters, and writing quickly. From reading each of them, I have gleaned something extremely valuable that has improved my writing, and I have been able to apply to writing.

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    1. Great thoughts, Megan! I agree, critiquing is a great way to learn.

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  9. Something that has grown me as a writer is the knowledge that I can start over. I had spent half a year working on a book and had it half way written, when I realized it wasn't going anywhere. I didn't know what to do about it though, so I just kept chugging on, hoping it would get better.

    About a month later, I went to Realm Makers (Where Jill will be teaching this year!). There had been a session where a lot of people where talking about why anti-heroes didn't work. Unbeknownst to them, it inspired me to change my story to a different characters POV, this character being more of an anti-hero than hero. I had to start the whole book over and change up my plot entirely (I only kept three characters), but the book is so much stronger and this POV far more in-depth.

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    1. Wonderful thoughts! Thank you for sharing that. As frustrating as it can be to start over, there's freedom in knowing that you don't have to get it right the first time.

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  10. I've never talked about writing and thought about the future. I just do it because it relaxes me. Because I learn things every time I sit down to write. It isn't a chore to do what I love when I have the chance to do it. I'm also brutally honest with myself about flaws, but only after I finish a lousy short story or reach a dead end in a draft. The honesty has made me grow the most. I learn things about my writing every day. I can tell myself what to nix, what I desperately need to revise, and what my process is.
    Reading a good book also helps me! Especially working in a library. I have to know book trends and how to give positive reviews no matter what.

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    1. It sounds like you have a very strong ability to edit, Kelsey. Thanks for sharing!

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  11. Something that's really helped me as a writer is critiquing other people's work. I'm on a couple of different writing forums, and I try to take the time to critique short excerpts (or query letters) when I can. Learning to critique other people's work makes it a lot easier to find those same mistakes in your own. Also, it's about reciprocity - giving as well as taking is important in writing communities.

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  12. I often do something new with a story. For example, with my newest idea- which I can actually plot- has an "unpleasant character" and after doing some brain storming I found a great way to add him to the plot.
    I always talk about writing, it's so wonderfully exciting, but when it comes to actually writing I often have writers block, which I eventually get past and write a few sentences.
    My newest idea has almost everything plotted out, except for the place I'm at. That needs brainstorming.

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    1. Yeah, when you hit those rough patches, pausing to brainstorm is the best thing to do.

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  13. Those are really good points, thank you! I like the trying something new in your writing. Instead of writing novellas or novels I've been writing a bunch of short stories, and while doing that I discovered I like writing in 3rd person better than 1st! It's always cool to figure out something new, and then wonder "Why didn't I think of that before?"

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  14. Thanks for the blog post! A good list of things to try for and be wary of. It makes me think of The Unlikely Debut of Ellie Sweet and the different types of people she came in contact with, like the person who told her to always say thank you, and Bronte. :-)

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    1. Ha! Bronte's character was born out of my feelings on a lot of this stuff :) There are definitely shades of Bronte in my personality, and writing her has really helped keep me in check.

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  15. Thanks so much for this post. There was a lot in here that I *needed* right now.

    I have always been someone who comes up with (what I think are) pretty interesting characters, or settings, or even a good plot point or two... but they never come all at the same time. If only the ideal story would land in my lap all at one time . :)

    And because of my tendencies toward perfectionism, I end up paralyzed and really write very little. It's like if I'm not writing the complete story from beginning to end, then what's the point. Of course, I know that's ridiculous.

    Two things that have really helped: writing exercises... using prompts, making lists, character studies; and critiquing/editing for friends... reading their work tends to be a motivation to do my own writing. One other thing that has made a difference has been making it clear to my family how much writing means to me, so that they can hold me accountable to my writing goals and help me as gatekeepers on my time (so that I make time to write).

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    1. I love how you've involved your family. What a great idea. And when we live with other people, it's SO helpful when they are in the loop on the writing thing.

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  16. Thank you for all the good reminders in this post, especially the part about My Perfect Book Writing System. I think I have this delusion, in writing/spiritual life/learning that if I can just find the right way and stick with it I'll reach the finish line, so to speak of being a writer/Christian/studious person when really the joy of those things is the journey.

    And thanks so much for the reminder about humility. I've been trying to combat the "book snobbery" - as my brother jokingly called it once - that I slipped into once I started reading writing advice. I wouldn't stop reading if you paid me, but I do wish I could turn off my inner editor sometimes about stuff like adverbs in dialogue tags. Which I was never annoyed by in Harry Potter or Eragon or my other favorite books until I learned it's frowned upon. I don't want to become someone who makes it their life purpose to bash Twilight on goodreads. (Okay, so probably no one actually does, but goodreads can be brutal.) I mean, books are for readers to read and enjoy, not merely for writers to dissect, and lots of people enjoy books like Twilight.

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    1. When the story is good enough, it's amazing what you can overlook. When I read the Harry Potter books, I thought about the dialogue tags a bunch for the first few chapters, and then afterward was able to accept/ignore it with no trouble. Same with Twilight, actually. There was something so intriguing about the storyworld that I could overlook the needless tags and such.

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  17. Great post! I definitely find myself falling into the "comparing" mindset often. But, like you said, it doesn't do anyone any good. And besides, if I actually am as good as I think I am and I continue to get better, my time will come. :)


    Alexa S. Winters
    thessalexa.blogspot.com

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    1. Which is something I have to say to myself quite often, Alexa. That I need to be open to what in my craft still needs improving, keep working hard, and the rest will work out.

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  18. This is such a great post, Steph. I learned so much of this the hard way. I would have LOVED a post like this back before I was published. :-)

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    1. Thanks, Jill! I think that's part of the natural cycle. I notice my daughter, who's 7, growing increasingly impatient when I try to explain something/answer a question/guide her in a new task. I think we all grow unteachable for a time before we realize that's not a very satisfying way to go about life.

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  19. All these posts are wonderful, but some of them seem extra timely or crucial, and this would be one of them.

    I definitely make it a point to try something new with every story, every time I edit, etc. and I totally keep reading and learning about writing, but I also know I need to work on a few of these things. Probably the "talking about writing more than actually writing" and the comparing, even. If I'm honest, I'm at a point where I've learned so much about writing that I can slip into pride way too easily. I need to remember, especially with others who are around my age or a bit younger, that I was once a clueless yet hopeful young writer who needed a lot of encouragement and support, too. Even when I'm careful with what I say to them, I should be careful of the thought I am allowing as well.

    So, thank you for the reminder. :)

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    1. The pride thing is an easy mistake to make when you're so excited about what you're learning. I have to really watch myself too.

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  20. I really loved reading this. It helped me a lot. My brother (and sometimes sister) have been major critics, and it really makes me mad but reading this helped a lot with that. Thanks!

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