For writers, 10,000 hours is probably an understatement. The writing learning curve is no small thing. Writers twenty years into their careers will tell you they still have miles to go–so much landscape to cover, and so many discoveries to make. However, as any hiker knows, a solid plan, clear expectations and a backpack full of optimism are absolutely necessary to take the first step up a daunting mountain.
How you start, how you spend your time, and your overall mindset about developing your skill set can make years of difference in your writing learning curve.
The Publication Milestone
If we’re honest, when we start writing seriously, the milestone most of us aim for is publication. Writing is an art form, and art is meant to be shared. We might love writing for self-expression, for the sheer creative joy of it, for sharing with our students, children, family and friends, but we still long for that finished book with our name on the spine.
Now that I’ve been writing seriously for nearly twenty years, I see how aiming for publication as my first milestone was detrimental to my learning process. For one thing, I put my success (and honestly, my feeling of self-worth) squarely where it didn’t belong … in the hands of other people.
Okay, time out for a second. A voice in the back of your mind might be piping up, saying, “Well, yeah, yadda, yadda. I’ve heard this all before. Make goals that focus on process. But, time is short. I’m strategic. I’m determined. I can find the publication shortcut if I look hard enough.”
Yep. I absolutely agree. You might be the exception to the rule, and you might find a shortcut to publication. Let’s say you do find a publisher before you’ve deepened your writing craft. Now, your first book is out there, and it may not be representative of you as an artist. Or, you may not have the ability to follow it up with a next book. Or you might face any number of other problems that occur when the cart comes before the horse.
Or, let’s say that you experience the writer’s fairy tale. You work hard, grow as a writer, and are published without too much heartache. You carry on, growing and publishing regularly. This story is honestly the one that I wish for you, and it’s absolutely possible. It’s much more possible if you choose to focus on your craft from day one.
Here’s where the years of difference come in.
The Writing Learning Curve: An Early Milestone
Returning to our hiker for a moment, consider a trail map. The map highlights points of interest, giving you mid-trail mini-goals. However, the most memorable moments of your hike are often the ones YOU discover. You might spot a mountain lion in the distance, or unexpectedly find a four-leaf clover. In the same way, your personal milestones are likely to be the most meaningful as you develop as a writer. Still, it’s always helpful to watch for a few common milestones, as well.
An early milestone is the ability to clearly identify a craft problem in your writing. Rather than focusing on a specific story, and how to nudge a sentence or paragraph in one direction or another, you start to see patterns.
My characters don’t have the necessary depth to feel real.
My exposition pours out as an info dump.
The pacing of story questions and discoveries is too fast or too slow.
In order to make it to this milestone, writers need to have read, researched and practiced enough to:
Know what a well-crafted story needs
Build courage in their ability to solve problems
Have a body of work across which they can identify patterns
Courage may seem like the least important in that list, but I believe it is the key to unlock the others. No one wants to identify a problem he or she cannot solve. Daring to see a problem that goes beyond a specific story, to see an area of true growth for yourself, is highly difficult. You must admit that you have done your very best and still fallen short. Our subconscious flares up, playing all kinds of tricks to keep us from seeing the truth. If we haven’t proven to ourselves that a shortcoming is no big deal, if we don’t believe at a bone-deep level that with hard work, we can gain that next skill, we simply won’t be able to see the gap.
Have you made it to this milestone yet? Here are a few steps to speed up your momentum if you think you’re in this phase of growth.
Read and write regularly.
As you read and write, ask yourself questions that go beyond the specific story. If you notice that a character isn’t pulling his or her weight, ask yourself why. Then, step back and notice what this insight might mean on a more universal level.
Write small. One novel will take you a long time to write, and you won’t be able to see patterns as clearly in one piece of work. Instead, use at least some of your writing time to draft 10-15 minute stories. These low-stakes stories will help you experiment (which builds courage) and also to see patterns more clearly.
The Writing Learning Curve: A Next-Step Milestone
A next-step milestone is the ability to identify strengths in mentor texts. Once you see an area of growth, you can then turn to resources to help you develop that skill. The ability to see specifically how another writer has done what you aim to do will change the trajectory of your growth. Here’s where you truly cut years off your writing learning curve.
In order to make it to this milestone, writers need to have questioned, experimented, and explored enough to:
Identify writers they admire for strength of writing craft
Understand the strengths of their own perspective and writing voice
See past the surface of a story to the gears and cogs turning within
Again, the most important skill on this list deals with mindset. You can’t expect yourself to be teachable and willing to learn from master writers if reading their works closely will discourage you. If you don’t yet believe you have something unique to add to the conversation, you will feel as though you’re working toward being a shadowy copy of someone else. You have to know, without a doubt, that your stories matter. Learning someone else’s successful strategies allows you to stand on the shoulders of the greats, and from there, create your own beautiful, innovative, meaningful work.
Have you made it to this milestone yet? Here are a few steps to speed up your momentum if you think you’re in this phase of growth.
Create a vision for who you are, at core, as a writer. Collect artifacts–stories, scenes, beautiful lines, anything that helps you see and hear your unique voice. You may even want to make a list or a collage to keep in your writing space, a touchstone to remind you of the simple truth: there is only one you, and only you can tell your stories.
Read with your writing objectives in mind. Notice when an author stands out as a master in a skill you want to develop. Keep those mentor texts on a specific shelf or on your desk. Also, consider reading twice. Read once for the experience, and a second time, more slowly, to notice the inner workings of the story.
Begin to practice the art of reverse-engineering. Underline specific lines that show a strategy in motion. Consider what the author is doing, why, and how you might do something similar (in your own words) in your work.
Setting Milestones Provides Momentum
When I started my MFA at Hamline University in Writing for Children and Young Adults, people told me that my study would take years off my writing learning curve. Hamline is a magical place, and working with my incredible mentors there delivered exactly what they promised. If you’re able to invest in an MFA, I strongly recommend it. The mindset challenges I noted above, especially, are more easily overcome with close guidance and encouragement from a distinguished mentor. Also, writing critical papers on mentor texts pushes you to do the necessary work to make this progress possible.
That said, with or without an MFA, these milestones will make an incredible difference for you. It feels counter-intuitive to take precious writing time to write small, or to closely examine someone else’s work. However, if doing that work is like turning on a headlamp to pierce through your internal fog, think of how much more quickly you can make it where you want to go.
If you’re a longtime reader of the Writerly Play blog, you’ve likely spotted that the skills explored here are foundational in the Writerly Play Library. If you’re curious to dig deeper into how to individualize, map and problem solve your creative development, you might enjoy reading about what Writerly Play is, or how the Writerly Play Library offers creatives an opportunity to strategically develop their skill set.
As writers, one of the best ways for us to support one another is to share our insight. Have you found any mentor authors? What book has helped you grow as a writer, and how has the text specifically helped you? Let us know in the comments section or tag me on Facebook or Instagram. I can’t wait to learn from your experience.
When my best friend, Emily, told me she chooses fiction rather than nonfiction in order to learn and grow, a lightbulb lit up for me. I, personally, am a fan of self-development books but she is NOT. As a writer of both fiction and nonfiction, her point wasn’t lost on me. Stories invite us to step inside a character, to experience growth through the specificity of their circumstances. Brain scientists now confirm that when we read, our synapses fire in a way that mirrors the actual experience of living through the same events in real life. So, in many ways, reading fiction is rehearsal for personal growth.
What’s in a Writerly Play Book Flight?
Because of Emily’s insight, and also because of my love of books ranging from kidlit to scientific tome, I decided to play around with this idea of Writerly Play book flights. What three books–fiction and nonfiction alike–might provide a deep dive into a specific skill or mindset? In the Writerly Play Book Flights, I aim for one nonfiction title, one middle grade title, and one YA or adult work of fiction. I like the mixture of whimsy, life experience, depth and hopeful resilience that this particular mix offers.
How to Enjoy a Writerly Play Book Flight
I realize that not everyone has hours set aside for reading, and if you’re an avid reader, you probably have a towering TBR list. Remember, you can find audio versions of books on Audible or through your library. You might decide three books is too many to take on, and yet, the idea of a book flight enchants you. Might you pair one of these books with something on your TBR to create a more cohesive and deep-dive reading experience? As in all things, there is no one right way to be a reader. Explore. Savor. Do this your way.
Here’s a first Writerly Play book flight to get you started:
If we had a Richter scale for the magnitude of a stuck story, I wonder if I could take my lesser moments of frustration more seriously. Maybe I could be more strategic about tackling them for what they actually are … stuck moments. Consider the possible scale. A 4.0 stuck moment causes disturbance and noise, but not too much damage. A 6.0 stuck moment is powerful, and may cause serious problems depending on the situation. Any stuck moment 7.0 and above creates visible shockwaves, destruction and often topples entire projects. Most of my stuck moments register around 4.0. They don’t destroy my momentum, but they still cause disturbance and noise.
A Stuck Story
I’m busy with a number of content development projects, so recently I haven’t spent a lot of time on my latest novel. I’ve accepted that ebb and flow in my creative process. However, I haven’t been taking 15-minute experimental moments to simply noodle around with my novel. I normally would play around that way in any demanding season. I’d find that exploration joyful. Even if it’s not the moment to do full-scale revision, I’m still a writer. And writers need stories to engage their imaginations–always. Except that I haven’t been doing those healthy, creative things. I’ve been in a 4.0 stuck moment.
The trouble had to do with the climax. Usually, when I start a story, I see the climax as an image or a movie in my mind. I brainstorm, plan and write toward that vision, leaving room for surprises along the way. In my current novel, I had an image, but it happened six chapters into the story. Thus, I was adrift when I passed that moment into the heart of the plot. Not to be discouraged, I wrote my way into the fog, and finished a draft.
The climax turned out to be a battle of wills. Physically, this moment was utterly anticlimactic. My finished draft left me disappointed and unimpressed. Now, I’ve written eleven novels at this point, so a little disappointment isn’t enough to register a 7.0 stuck moment. I figured it wasn’t a big deal. I’d come back when I had a better idea.
The Stuck Story Lingers
Except I didn’t have a better idea. Worse, I started feeling fuzzy around my edges. I knew something was lacking, but didn’t know what was wrong. The problem? I was a writer without a story. My imagination was bored.
This weekend, I went to see Wrinkle in Time for a second time. One thing I explore in Writerly Play is the value of using the Library. This means looking closely at art–books, paintings, music, performances, film, sculpture, you name it. In particular, I considering an artwork a second or third time is significant. The first time through, we’re caught up in the experience. We ought to be. However, follow-up experiences can be more intentional. We can think about the what, how, and why.
While watching the climax scene in A Wrinkle in Time, I understood what had been bothering me about my standoff scene in my novel. The obvious realization that “something had to happen,” may sound trivial, but the value of the discovery was in the specificity of the movie’s successful climax. First, watching a well-crafted, active climax involving a battle of wills made hope glimmer at the end of my tunnel. It could be done. Second, the colors, shapes, movement, pacing and dialogue gave me concrete elements to consider. How might each of those elements play out in my story?
I used to be so afraid of imitation that I limited my creativity. I’ve started to see that examining the specifics of a beautiful artwork helps me to take my own work to another level. As I’ve become more confident in my own voice, I’ve learned how to gain insight from masterworks while remaining true to myself as an artist.
For me, the next step seems to be making a practical connection between 4.0 stuck moments and intentional exploration of lenses. Rather than walking away from stuck stories and hoping my subconscious will reengage, maybe I could seek out doorways into that exploration. Little stuck story moments may not be earth-shattering, but they are still uncomfortable, and life would be happier and more colorful if I could limit them. Lenses invite my imagination out to play. They aren’t about responsibly fixing problems, but rather about the process of discovery.
What Lenses Might You Try?
I’d love to hear your ideas. What lenses have helped (or might help!) you see your work in a new light? Please share in the comments or tag me on Facebook or Instagram. Let’s inspire one another … and banish those stuck stories!
How did Writerly Play come to be?
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thrown up my hands and wailed, “I know I’m capable of more … but what’s the next step?” Sometimes it feels like genuine creativity glimmers on the horizon, just out of reach. For a long time, I scurried from project to project, wondering when I’d finally feel like a real artist, one who was grounded, thriving, and successful.
Fortunately, I didn’t let myself wallow in those questions.
Instead, I dug deeper. What did I mean by grounded, thriving and successful? What did being a real artist mean to me, and what was the gap between where I stood and where I hoped to be?
I reflected. I talked to a lot of peers and students. I even sent out a survey on the creative life. The results were astonishing. No matter how far along artists are in terms of professional success, the majority of us perceive a gap between where we are and where we intend to be. For me, this was a wake-up call. I might never reach a point where I felt like a real artist, at least if I kept defining that identity through external professional success. I needed a practice, a way of living the creative life on a regular basis. I needed a way for day-to-day wins to count, so that I could gain a sense of momentum.
I needed a way to clearly see the creative process.
That’s what Writerly Play is: a framework to help us individualize, map and problem solve the creative process. I call this blog Writerly Play because every post is part of my personal deep-dive exploration of what it means to live as an artist, and the beating heart at the center of that exploration is Writerly Play. What exactly is the Writerly Play framework, and how can it help you live as a grounded, thriving, successful artist? Come on over to my recently revised Nuts and Bolts of Writerly Play series, and explore the possibilities with me.
Here’s to you and your creativity,