The Writer's Apprenticeship: Why I'm Taking Steps to Improve My Writing.
I’m trying something new in 2018. But before I get into what that is, I thought it might be a good idea to tell you why.
I started writing novels in 2010 and have been writing seriously for the past 7 years. I’ve written five novels, 3 of which have been published by Penguin Random House, and two that have been trunked.
I did not study to become a writer in college.
I do not have an MFA.
I didn’t write seriously or even regularly until I was 38 years old.
All of what I know about writing I have learned by educating myself through research, practice, relationships with other writers, conferences, etc. While I’ve learned a lot, I’m not the writer I want to be, not even close. In fact, I am at a crossroads professionally speaking, a no man’s land where there is no guarantee that I’ll be able to get published again. So I’m taking a long, hard look at my career, where I’ve been and where I’d like to go. My goal is to publish again and for the rest of my life with greater success. This year is all about developing a plan that will help me achieve this, an apprenticeship that can take me from novice to master.
The Facts About My Career to Date:
I wrote exactly one trunk novel before I got published. At the time, I was literally Googling “How to write a novel” and had no idea what terms like “in medias res” meant or how publishing worked, or even much about plot structure or character development other than what I’d gleaned from being an avid reader all my life.
My first published book was the next novel I wrote and it was my best. It got good reviews, garnered a six-figure book deal, sold in three other countries, and was given a starred review and touted as “masterful” by Kirkus (disclaimer: all that masterful storytelling was purely accidental on my part). And while it performed well for a debut and garnered a few award nominations, it’s sales did not merit the advance I got. I will never earn out.
The next two books were not as good as the first and it showed in their dismal sales. I struggled hard with plotting them as well as overcoming the mental anxiety I felt working under deadline for the first time with reader/agent/editor expectations in place. As a result, I missed more deadlines for each book than I made. I will never earn out on these books either.
The last book I wrote was a work for hire, my first like that, and again, I struggled hard. They needed a highly commercial, tightly plotted book and I couldn’t deliver, not after three solid tries under tight deadlines. My contract was dropped. By now I was burnt out, a bit disillusioned, and utterly devastated by what I perceived as a string of failures. Any confidence I had in my ability to write was obliterated.
For the past two years I have been working on the same book (on spec), fighting hard against my fear and insecurity concerning my talent. My paychecks have dried up and I have been unable to sell anything on proposal since my last book came out. I will finish the third complete rewrite of this novel just before Christmas (each draft has been over 100k) and will have an extensive revision to do after the holidays to get it right and turn it over to my agent--FINALLY. If I don’t sell it or my next projects over the next year, I will have to go back to teaching by 2019.
I have struggled for the past four years to keep going, but I know in my heart and soul that being a full time, professionally published writer for the rest of my life is what I want to do. Telling stories is my passion and my purpose. And so, for the past year I have started earnestly working on getting better and figuring out what I need to do to get back in the game. There has been a lot of reflection and soul searching and healing and I am finally in a pretty good place head-wise and ready to gain momentum now.
Here’s What I Figured Out:
I had and have a lot to learn about craft. Instinct helped me write my best book, but it hasn’t helped me write the subsequent ones as effectively.
The learning I have put in is making a difference, but to really excel I’m going to need to focus better to radically improve. I will need to seek out mentors who can instruct and inspire me as well as maintain and grow the community of peers to support me who I can support right back.
Working in a creative profession is hard on the heart and soul and I need to find ways to push myself while also nurturing myself and finding balance, so I don’t burn out.
So now I am starting to develop what I like to think of as a life plan. I’m calling it The Writer’s Apprenticeship because I strongly believe that’s what I am, a student of this craft still in need of training and education. I think mastery is something I will be working the rest of my life to achieve. With that in mind, I see this new plan as a journey of sorts, one I will be on indefinitely. This is just one intentional step forward down that road. And, I thought, why not blog about it with the hopes that my journey will help someone else or a lot of someones who need it as much as I do?
The Plan In a Nutshell:
I am committing to write every single day this year starting in January—no days off, no exceptions. Because I write full time, I am committing to 1k per day for 365 days. I hope to do more on weekdays, but I feel like 1k is more reasonable for a daily goal since this includes weekends and I have a husband and kids and balance is part of this equation too. The point is the word goal is one I know I can achieve: hard enough to be a commitment, but not too daunting. This means I will write a total of 365,000 words which could mean completing at least three books next year.
I will read 4 books a month and listen to a 5th audiobook: 2 fiction books of my choice, 1 nonfiction book, 1 craft book, and one NYT bestseller for a total of 60 books minimum.
I will do one book study a month where I take the NYT bestseller I read and dissect it.
I will do one study per month on a Master Writer (I’ll be choosing commercial writers over literary ones for the most part since my goal is to be a more commercial writer myself) where I’ll look at their backgrounds, writing style, writing journey, etc. and create a profile.
I will also seek out inspiration and education from other media and masters of other professions in entertainment, business, and art through documentaries, podcasts, biographies, etc. and make notes on what I can learn from them.
I will commit to balancing my life by making time for exercise and leisure time each week as well as planning several “artist outings” each month to clear my head and renew my spirit (inspired by The Artist’s Way). Given that I don’t have regular paychecks coming in, these will most likely be small, free, creative pursuits.
I will make monthly goals and take daily steps to achieve them then evaluate my progress at the end of each month.
I will be posting about all of it and how it goes weekly.
The Monthly Posting Format:
Week One: The Roadmap—I’ll post that month’s reads and goals and announce what NYT book study I’ll be doing.
Week Two: The Lesson—I’ll post about something craft related that I’m working on or learning about. I’m starting from the ground up—back to basics—so these will have to do with everything from creating a solid concept to character development and outlining.
Week Three: The Writer Files—I’ll post a profile of a Master Writer.
Week Four: The Bestseller Dissection —I’ll post my NYT book study notes/thoughts and what I learned from that novel.
Last Day of the Month: The Monthly Wrap Up—I’ll post the results for that month on word count, artist date, and goals as well as a list of what I watched, listened to, and did that month.
I’m hoping some of you might follow along with me or create your own version of a Writer’s Apprenticeship and share your results with me. I’ll begin posting January 1, 2018 and continue posting once a week, every week this year. I hope you come come back to check it out. And if you decide to start your own writer's apprenticeship right along with me, let me know in the comments. Here's to a new year and loads of learning, writing, and growing!