Remember when you wrote your very first story for someone else to read?
Somebody asked you, “May I read that?”
And you felt terrified. Would they hate it? Because if they did, your life was over.
Because you had put your life into that story. If they loathed it, they loathed you.
Flash forward a few years. You’re about to read your story to a writing group. You want their comments, but feel the same mortal terror. ‘Please go easy on my story. It’s my soul.’
Here’s an alarming truth: the fear never goes away.
I know because, for the past five years, I’ve been a coach to more than 6000 writing students. Either they enter their short stories in my fiction contest at Writers’ Village, or they join my course and follow a structured mentoring program and get my feedback on their assignments or work in progress.
And everybody tells me, in effect, ‘Please go easy on this passage. It’s not just an exercise. It’s me.’
Now for the good news. The fear is something you’ll learn to welcome. It grows your success as a story writer. Because it shows you how to write. Overcome the fear, and every rejection will teach you something valuable and new.
You also discover that while it’s fun to write a story that you love but nobody else will read, it’s sheer joy when somebody else reads it and they love it too. Because they’ve essentially said, “I love you.”
I love you.
It’s the feedback every author craves – even when they’ve become a household name.
Why else does J. K. Rowling continue to write when, having built the Harry Potter franchise to around $15 billion, she can afford to retire to her own island, equipped with yacht and helipad?
Last year, she braved the critics to put out her first adult crime novel The Cuckoo’s Calling. She published it under a pseudonym.
Did she need the money? Of course not. She wanted validation for her craft skills, and for herself.
Had the success of Harry Potter been a fluke, she wondered? If so, she wanted to know! And no, it wasn’t a fluke. The Cuckoo’s Calling gained good reviews even under the pseudonym.
An author builds a world for the reader to live in. Then the reader builds a world for the author to live in.
That’s why, as serious writers, we write. (The money be darned.) But how can we build a world that many readers will love, while steeling ourselves against the pain of rejection?
Here’s how to succeed as a writer.
#1. Set up your own coaching program.
Trust yourself. Be your own mentor.
Don’t give yourself a hard time. License yourself to write drivel, at least at first. Tell yourself: ‘Nothing I write is either good or bad, just a piece to be improved.’
Just get that story written – on the back of a Kleenex, if need be! Only when the story’s done should you put on your mentor’s cap, criticize and edit it.
Many stories new writers attempt never get past the first paragraph. The writer thinks ‘I hate it. And I hate myself.’
But here’s a secret: many award-winning authors feel precisely the same, every time they write. Their pain and anxiety never goes away.
#2. Find an expert writing ‘buddy.’
You want somebody who’ll read your work and give you honest feedback.
You know they love you. So when they say “This story sucks” they’re not rejecting you.
Stephen King had his wife Tabitha as a buddy. She rescued his first novel Carrie from the trash can and told him, “This story sucks, but here’s what you can do about it.” The rest is history.
A tip: do not confide your story to just any convenient friend. You don’t want to hear “It’s so lovely and so you.”
You need to hear “The opening doesn’t grab me, the story’s full of syntax errors and your third scene shift is clumsy.” Not many friends can do that. Find one whose advice you can trust.
One of my program members, Simon, reads every chapter of his novel aloud to his wife. (That’s one patient wife!) He says she flaps her hand whenever she’s confused, or the story sags. Simon can also hear it himself, when a sentence is clumsy or the dialogue sounds unnatural.
That’s another good tip. Read your work aloud, if only to yourself. Not only will you catch awkward constructions, you’ll also be able to rewrite your story in the natural cadence of the spoken voice. Immediately, it will ‘flow.’
#3. Join a writing group …
But be prepared to leave it quickly.
A good group should comment on each member’s work constructively and impartially. If you find a writing world as supportive as that, congratulations!
But run, don’t walk, if you hear too many comments like “Your character doesn’t work because he reminds me of my uncle.” Or “That story did nothing for me. Nothing!”
Find a better group.
Of course, a Google search will reveal many online writing groups that offer mutual support. Membership is often free and, no doubt, some groups are excellent. But its members know no more than you do.
Expert advice on your story? Hmm…
#4. Get professional coaching.
By now, you’ve come a long way in your writing journey. You’ve acquired skills. Your stories are probably ‘good’ by anyone’s standards. What now?
It’s time to invest (a little) cash in your writing future.
No, don’t take a Ph.D in creative writing. I’ve been that route (and it was a joy) with a doctoral thesis in the practical techniques of story and novel writing.
Apparently, no postgraduate had ever asked the obvious question: what must an author do today – truly, honestly – to become commercially successful? I answered it and got my doctorate cum laude.
But it took me five years – including an M.Res and M.Phil on the way – and cost $48,000.
A better idea, if you can afford it, is to pursue an MFA (MA) in creative writing.
It gives you a structured program, a schedule of assignments, and a supervisor who’s paid to read your work and be kind to you. It works. Many hundreds of best-selling authors have gone this route and emerged, at the end of the year, with a publishable novel.
One virtue of investing (a little) money in a coaching program is that you’re now committed to achieving your goal, whatever that might be. It’s your money on the line, plus your pride. So the work gets done.
Problem is, a one year MFA (MA) at a reputable college will cost at least $10,000 for tuition alone. Add on living expenses and you could be facing $24,000. That’s a big investment.
Solution? Set up your own writing school!
Subscribe to quality sites like Write To Done that will regularly deliver ‘how to’ ideas to your mail box. But don’t just read and delete those emails. Instead, edit the posts, print them out and organize them in a ring binder under titles like Characterization, Dialogue, Pace, Setting and the like.
The mere act of editing them will impress their contents on your mind. And every page can prompt a new writing exercise.
A do-it-yourself program costs nothing, but it has a downside. It can be hard to find the motivation to keep working on it.
Free is fine, but you get what you pay for. There comes a time when serious writers look for professional coaching.
The secret to succeeding as a writer is simple.
Learning. Practice. Feedback.
Rinse and repeat.
Tell us what you’ve found helpful in improving your skills as a writer. Leave a comment and share your thoughts!