Been Writing for Years? You Still Have A Lot to Learn

Many of you already know my writing history.

Awful poetry at the age of 5.

A part-time gig at a weekly newspaper at the age of 19.

Writing sex toy reviews by the age of 22.

And now, at the age of 31, I’ve created content for online magazines, alternative newspapers, both regional and national print magazines, and a slew of blogs.

Not too shabby.

What I’ve always wanted, however, is to write a book. A book that garners interest from traditional publishers, and that eventually ends up on the shelf at Barnes & Noble or McNally Jackson or the Trident Bookstore/Cafe.

Up until recently, however, I didn’t do a damn thing about it.

A year or so ago, however, I co-authored an ebook with sex counselor Ian Kerner. And after that sold surprisingly well, he asked me to ghostwrite an ebook for another client. Once I’d completed those two projects, it occurred to me: I just wrote two books. Maybe this whole long-form thing isn’t entirely out of the question.

So in the late summer / early fall, I began working on a book proposal and, at the end of November, I began querying agents. And then, almost immediately, I received a handful of responses from agents who were actually interested in seeing the full proposal.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, the rejections I subsequently received were both kind and constructive, and I filed their comments away in the back of my mind for future use. But it was my most recent rejection that rang especially true. What this brilliant agent told me was that my proposal was pretty solid… but my sample chapters were where it all fell apart. I was long on narrative and short on scene, making my chapters seem pretty flimsy. It touched upon something I had already suspected.

In Naked, Drunk, and Writing, Adair Lara wrote that “overly fluent writers, those to whom words come fast, have trouble going deep in their writing.”

It was true. I’d been spending so much time writing service pieces and listicles that I just didn’t know what it took to build a scene in a long-form book.

So though I’d read it only a year before, I read Lara’s book again, in its entirety. (It’s all about writing personal essays and memoirs, and has an entire chapter on scene-writing.) I also simultaneously read a memoir (Claire Dederer’s Poser), so I could pay extra attention to how other writers built scene and arc and character. Now, I’m ready for a massive rewrite (followed by a bit more slash and burn from my writing partner).

I’m not a terrible writer. Even though I began questioning my ability to write this book, and bemoaning the fact that I’d squandered my chances with several agents, I know there are areas in which I absolutely shine.

But even when you’ve been writing for years, there’s something new to learn, or something old and valuable to revisit.

Which aspects of writing do you feel you still have a lot to learn about?

Related: Spill It: How Do You Handle Rejection as a Writer?, How to Increase Your Chances of Landing That Book Deal, Breakneck Book Report: Adair Lara’s Naked, Drunk, and Writing, Has the Editing Process Crushed Your Soul?, Walking in Someone Else’s Shoes

You Need To Wear Many Hats… But You Shouldn’t Wear Them All

You can't wear ALL the hats. You'll just look silly.

Last month, I wrote a piece on spec for a new online startup. I wouldn’t typically do such a thing, but I was excited about the forthcoming website, and the project was backed by several companies I admired.

When the piece was killed, I was disappointed, but the editor I was in contact with assured me it had nothing to do with me. She told me that her and her superiors liked my writing style, and wanted to give me another assignment. Despite misgivings, I went ahead with it, working my ass off to get the piece done before deadline.

Then, the second piece was killed. We like your writing, the editor wrote to me, but the two posts you’ve written for us fail to demonstrate an understanding of what people are interested in or intrigued by.

Lemme tell you. That email really ruined my day.

Yes, I was angry at myself for doing work on spec. Twice. But I was more upset because I felt insulted by the implication that I didn’t know what people wanted to read… and I was the target audience!

I started to doubt my abilities as a writer. (Surprise, surprise.) I knew that anonymous commenters and online trolls were best ignored, but editors? Where could I go from here?

Then, a well-paying job floated in from a new client. Another regular client approached me with several more projects. I talked another editor into doubling their rates for me. I landed a new coaching client.

I realized:

I can’t please everyone. Nor should I want to. Because when you try to write for everyone, you end up writing for no one.

I’m not implying you should ignore contrary comments from your editors because you’re awesome and perfect and poop word glitter. No. Please do take that constructive criticism from the editors whose judgment you trust, and use it to become even awesomer.

What I am saying is that you can’t be the right fit for every editor. And that’s okay.

Take what you excel at and for the love of god run with it.

Have you ever received criticism from an editor that gave you pause? How did you bounce back?

Related: They Hate Me! They Really Hate Me!, The Vulnerability of Writers, Has the Editing Process Crushed Your Soul?, Walking in Someone Else’s Shoes