Ask the Editor: Thoughts on Beginning Writers

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Today I don’t have a question, per se, but a topic that has been on my mind and which I wanted to talk about. It’s the beginning writer.

This will perhaps sound elitist, but when a manuscript turned up in my slushpile by a new writer, often I could tell. It’s not because they all make the same mistakes, but new writers often read new because they haven’t quite mastered the craft yet, which shows up in different ways, but there’s often a sense of being unformed.

I think, largely, the Internet has been a boon to new writers. You can learn SO MUCH so quickly, find community–it’s amazing! But it has a drawback. You can learn about publishing at the same time. And you work through a draft of a book or two and think now you know what you’re doing. And while there are exceptions (I know a few authors who’ve sold their first or second book) you start to focus on how to get published–after all, you’ve done it, right? You’ve written a book. You can check that part off on the road to publication–without ever remembering there are two roads. There is the road to becoming a professional-level writer, and once you’ve gone down that road, then you can take the path to publication. Many new writers are trying to walk those roads simultaneously.

Largely books get published because their authors have taken the time to become masters, not just to do something. A surgeon does plenty of practice surgeries in med school before she graduates and can start doing them for money, with the assurance she does indeed know what she’s doing. So why do so many authors think they can complete a draft of a book or two and suddenly they’re experts?

Writing a novel is a major endeavor. There are so many aspects and pieces to it. In most cases, it usually takes repeated practice to get even some of these elements right, enough to get published. I think the Internet and the age of self-publishing (and instant gratification) have lulled us into an expectation that we don’t need to put all that extra work in. That we can do a thing (one of my favourite memes is the tiny potato–“Do the thing!”) instead of we can repeat the thing over and over. It’s taken me a long time to figure this out. And I do NOT say it to put down writers who are learning quickly, working diligently, and putting their stuff out there. But I think more writers would benefit from a cocoon, from forgetting about publishing until they have learned exactly what they like to write, and how they write, what works for them. Until they are reasonably confident in their ability to convey the story they want to tell in the manner in which they want to tell it, and how to fix problems they may run in to along the way. Those are all skills of a professional and you need all of them. One of the first and best pieces of writing I got was Jenny Crusie saying keep the writing and the publishing separate, and new writers need to hear that. Let publishing go for a while longer. It will be there. It’s not why you’re here, writing, anyway.

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