Recently, I’ve been reading The Art of Slow Writing (Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity) by Louise DeSalvo. My writing speed alone should make me an expert on this subject—slow writing—but DeSalvo has a lot to teach me, and I’m soaking it up. An entire section of her book is about “A Writer’s Apprenticeship,” with thirteen chapters devoted to that thought. I’ve been in this apprenticeship mode for ten years now, and I’ve kept working to improve my knowledge of writing. Many times I’ve been discouraged, but I’ve also understood that getting better at anything takes time and patience. Reflecting on some of DeSalvo’s ideas, I’ve cornered four thoughts about my own writing apprenticeship.
First, I was wise to start small. Often new writers begin with a four-hundred-page masterpiece. Ten years ago, I began writing The Education of a Teacher (Including Dirty Books and Pointed Looks). It took me five years. I read a great deal about dialogue and creative nonfiction before I even began typing. I particularly wanted to learn about dialogue and scene structure. My first attempt was not a novel. Instead, I wrote fifteen stories about students who had influenced my life and my teaching. Each was a short story with a beginning, middle, and end. That experience taught me about fiction writing even though it was a memoir, and it especially helped me practice the structure of scenes. Imagining that I could write an entire novel was far beyond my scope back then.
Second, I learned over these years that writing is a solitary experience and also one fraught with disappointment and discouragement. The teaching memoir could not find a publisher because it was not about educational theory, a topic that could be sold as a textbook. Publishing is, after all, a business, and no matter how passionate I am about my book, publishers are in the business to make money. I finally decided that no one but me would publish this book. It was discouraging, but still I persevered and self-published. Then I wrote my first mystery, and I thought it would be possible to find an agent. That didn’t happen either, and it was not for lack of effort on my part. Only about 1% of authors have agents, and the odds are stacked against most writers. In fact, recently an agent told me that once I sell 60,000 copies of a book, he might be interested. I did find a publisher rather quickly for this mystery series, but a small publisher, which means I market my book. This publisher has been good to me, but a small company leads to a whole new realm of problems because without an agent or publicist or large publisher or best-seller status, most libraries and book stores are simply not interested. So, the writing business is a very up and down experience. The writing side continues to be satisfying and pleasant on most days, but the business side of writing is still discouraging.
Third, it’s important to keep learning. This is easy for me because I’ve always loved learning new things. As I write, I continue to read books about the craft and consider trying new techniques. My second Endurance book, Marry in Haste (2016), is much stronger than the first. The writing is more confident and the characters are evolving and changing, just like my understanding of writing. The suspense is also stronger. This has been difficult because it goes against my nature. I am not much on surprises, so to offer the reader plots twists and turns is difficult. Withholding information and teasing my readers is getting easier, and Marry in Haste has a real cliffhanger at the end. I’m smiling as I type this because I can’t wait for people to read that second book next year. Now, six chapters into the third Endurance mystery (yet to be named), I’m getting better at that. Hang on for roller coaster rides.
Last, I have always realized that peoples’ reactions to books are subjective. I’m pleasantly surprised and certainly thankful that thirty-six of the thirty-seven reviews on Amazon are positive toward Three May Keep a Secret. I don’t spend my time wringing my hands over the one bad review, as well as a couple more on GoodReads. I get it. People don’t enjoy the same books. On the other hand, my readers often make comments about something in my books that causes me to pause and think and smile. Everyone brings his or her own life to a book, and they also notice different aspects of that book. It’s what makes it so much fun to hear how people react to my memoir and mysteries … I’m often surprised, but pleasantly so.
So what does all of this mean? I am still slogging on and learning more and enjoying it most of the time. A ten-year apprenticeship has had its ups and downs, but I’m continuing the Endurance series until I become tired of it, and then perhaps I’ll write something else. We’ll see.
Excellent post, Susan. Well presented, accurate and above all, honest. Thank you. I’ll be sharing this one!
Thanks, Judy, and thanks for sharing. You’ve said in the past that we seem to have a similar publishing history, so this must have sounded very familiar.
Well, I’m behind you as far as the book publishing, but so far, yes, we’ve been on a very similar path!
Great blog. It was interesting to read about your process. It does indeed takes years, not months, to learn the craft of writing, and fiction writing has even so many more elements than nonfiction.
Ah, so disappointing. It took me years to learn to teach well. Unfortunately, I’m not twenty-one anymore. And how long does it take to learn how to be an editor, Lourdes?
Heck, I’ve been editing for 25 years, and am still learning!
The 10,000 hours “rule” speaks to this same issue. It postulates that it takes us about 10,000 hours of practice to “master” anything. Full-time working that would be five years. Half-time it’s ten years. In an age where we want instant gratification, it is important to keep in mind that it takes time and effort to be effective at whatever we are trying to accomplish.
Thanks, Jim. I’m glad to see that I’m at the ten-year mark overall, but only around the 5-year mark for mysteries. That doesn’t surprise me. And you are so right that the culture works against this. That is one of the reasons The Art of Slow Writing is so interesting!
This is good reminder to all of us to take the time to get it right. I admit that I fall to the temptation to think something is ready before it really is, and then I have to go back to rework it. Good advice and well presented.
Thank you, Susan, for the comments. The nice thing about taking your time is that you see more clearly when you write well or badly. Over time your intuition gets better. I think we’re all tempted to think something is ready too soon, so you have a lot of company in that realm.
It’s really helpful to hear the point of view of someone I trust. I’ve been toying with writing a book series for years. I’ve got a bunch of research pulled together, initial character descriptions, outlines, initial plot plans…even a hesitant first chapter. I’m hoping to start seriously dedicating time daily this summer to craft a draft of the first book. Knowing what you’ve faced, while frustrating for you, encourages me to not give up on this dream. 🙂
Connie, You are just inspiring. First you get an amazing degree and a new job, then you get a legal marriage, and now you are writing a book. Fantastic. You obviously have no limits! And, thank you for the kind comments. I’m glad to hear you are thinking of new directions.