When you’re new to writing, it’s a thrill of firsts.
The first time you give it a serious try. The first time you plan, plot, or name a character. There’s the first time you type “Chapter One”, and the joy of scribbling “The End”.
As with doing anything for the first time, you have a lot to learn. So much that the most appropriate description for learning to write is this quote from Ernest Hemingway:
“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”
None of us will ever be master writers, only apprentices that will eventually find (some) things easier. But before all of that, you need to learn those things. And with any learning, there are mistakes that get made.
6 Things New Writers Get Wrong
1) Thinking The Draft For Your First Submission Is Ready
Three years ago I had a draft for book one in my YA series ready to send off to agents. I thought it was ready because I’d finished it (yay!), paid to have it edited, forked out money for it to be assessed for structure, plot, characters etc, and a handful of family and friends deemed it good. It. Was. Not.
This MS was rejected over the course of a year (such fun!) and I’ve since spent most of this year re-writing it. I changed the first three chapters, upgraded a character’s role, learned how to show and not tell, and how much of a difference deep POV makes. Was this something I expected to be doing back in 2015 when I completed my submission draft? No. Was this what I planned to be doing in 2018, right after I finished writing the fourth book in the series? No! But it’s a challenge I’ve embraced.
Through the magic of hindsight and re-writes, I know that first draft was never ready for submission. I had doubts at the time but figured the story was solid enough an agent would look past the info dumping, the telling, and the staccato writing style. They didn’t, and I shouldn’t have expected them to.
The takeaway: if your draft isn’t one hundred percent ready, don’t put it on submission. Wait until it is ready. It might take longer than you planned, but you’re always better off sending a draft you have one hundred percent confidence in.
2) Not Listening To The Hard Feedback
I get it. Someone has looked at your work and told you something other than “It’s fantastic!” and sent you spiraling into a chocolate binge. They must have misread your witty dialogue or missed that awesome plot twist in chapter ten. Unfortunately, probably not.
When I first started writing, I head hopped all the time, I switched tenses mid-paragraph, I thought I had to include every action the characters made. It was through hard feedback I learned what I was doing wrong and improved. Sure there are things I won’t change (my book starts with a dream and I’m keeping it that way), but swallowing my bruised-writer-pride and fixing what needs to be fixed has only improved my work, and it can be that way for you too.
The takeaway: it hurts to hear, but hard feedback will make you a better writer, and it will improve your story.
3) Believing You Should Make All The Changes
As a new writer, your writing confidence isn’t really there (and may never be—more fun!), so when you do get any feedback, it’s so easy to just follow it. You think the people advising must know better than you (and sometimes they do), but changing your work to match every single suggestion isn’t the right solution. Typos, unclear sentences, confusing action sequences—yes, take those corrections on board. Changing a character name because the person who read it doesn’t personally like it—not so much.
The takeaway: you know your story better than anyone else ever will. Fix what makes sense to you, don’t make changes if you disagree with them.
4) Thinking You Have To Do A Writing Course
Or pay big money for someone to teach you. Books can teach you—read your favorite novels or books about the art of writing. Other writers can teach you—learn from your favorite authors and from the writing community. The act of writing itself is the biggest teacher of all.
I’ve got a diploma in creative writing and a certificate in novel writing. They introduced me to the basics of writing and set me on a path that included a nine-year stint writing beauty articles. But I’ve also learned about writing working on my own stories, swapping beta drafts with fellow writers, and blogging—all free activities.
The takeaway: if you want to do a course and can afford it, go ahead. If you can’t, learn what you can on your own; the resources are out there.
5) Believing Your First Book Has To/Will Make Your Career
Maybe it’s a sign of the times. Maybe it’s because PR works overtime on successful new writers and makes you think every debut is an overnight smash. Or maybe it’s because your Instagram feed is full of writers who were signed by the first agent/publisher they submitted to.
The truth is, the first book from an unknown writer becoming a worldwide instant hit is rare. The MS you’re working on right now, the MS you have out on submission this very second, might not be the book that launches your career or gets you a publishing deal. It might be the fifth or the tenth book you write. It might not be any book at all.
Have expectations and goals to reach for, prove them wrong, prove me wrong. Just don’t set yourself up for heartbreak because you won’t consider the possibility your first book won’t reach the heights you want it to.
The takeaway: everything you write will make you a stronger writer, including your first full-length book. If it fails to perform like you hoped, just remember what it taught you and how that applies to everything you write after it.
6) Thinking You Don’t Have Talent
It’s so easy to fall into that trap. Rejections make you think it. Getting hard feedback from writers further along in their journey cements it. Basically, any encouragement that implies “you’ll get there” when you thought you already were there, cuts a hole in your soul that self-doubt fills in.
Don’t believe you suck. You might not be the best writer this second, but you can learn to be. By the time you reach the end of your MS, you’re already a better writer than the one who started it. It might take multiple drafts and/or multiple years to reach a publishable level, but that doesn’t mean you can’t or that you won’t.
You started writing that MS for a reason. You kept going with it because you (and others) could see something in it. You might not know everything when you’re a new writer, but it doesn’t mean you know nothing. You’re not Jon Snow.
The takeaway: just because you’re still learning the writing ropes doesn’t mean you’re void of talent. Never let anyone tell you that you can’t write.
Now to circle back to that Hemingway quote: I’m not a master writer—I’m not even a published writer yet. I have four books in various stages of drafting that I thought would be finished by now, maybe even under contract (before my naivety was crushed by reality). When I started writing them I was a new writer, one who hadn’t yet realized how much work those four books would need.
That’s the reason for this blog post. It’s part mistake confession, part regret, and one hundred percent advice from a not-so-new writer to other writers starting out.
Like me, you might think or believe these 6 things, but one day you’ll realize you were wrong. That’s not a bad thing (or so I tell my inner control freak). So go ahead, make your mistakes, learn from them and grow from them. They will shape you into the best writing apprentice you can be.
— K.M. Allan