Each summer, most sporting good stores here in Colorado have some type of ski equipment mega-sale. Most of the previous year’s unsold skis, boots, and gear are heavily discounted, and thousands of people flock to these events. But when stores overcrowd quickly, no one gets the deal they thought they would.
Writing is no different. Today’s literary markets are exploding with new possibilities for writers – especially in the realm of digital and self-publishing. Because anyone with a word processor and an internet connection can publish, the market has flooded with books. At first, this sounds great – no more gatekeepers curating, controlling, or forbidding creative expression. But this coin has a flipside: many, many, many bad books.
We don’t expect doctors to operate before years of medical school, and we don’t expect professional athletes to perform without years of training. Why then do we flood the literary market with first attempts at books without at least some education and training? Can we be so surprised when our books don’t sell or receive bad reviews? Like with any endeavor worth taking, take the time to learn, develop, and improve your writing craft and skill. Writing skill is cumulative – even when you fail, you’re still adding something.
Not one single creative endeavor is a checklist of steps, so you can’t approach writing like a To Do list. Creativity is about learning the rules – all the rules – and then breaking them strategically. Not only is learning creativity a long process, it’s a cyclical process. Writing is about saying what you need to say or telling the story you want to tell. It’s not about obeying your editors (even me) or having a great marketing plan, and it’s certainly not about a social media platform. Yes, all of those things help a good book move forward, but they do not help create a good book.
I’ve been editing with Blue Square Writers for almost a decade now, and the biggest mistake writers make is publishing too soon. And I don’t mean they publish before sending their manuscript to a proofreader (though that is all too common). I mean they publish their work before their writing craft and skill are good enough to stand out. I can hear your rebuttal already: “It takes years to learn all that.” And my answer is, Yes, that’s correct. Take the years it takes.
Many of the writers I’ve worked with – nearly all of them, actually – have great ideas for books. If you’ve ever thought to yourself, “I’ve got a book in me” or “I’ve got a great idea for a book,” that’s great... but it makes you exactly average. If you sat down and actually wrote your book, that makes you slightly above average. If you edited and revised your book, you’re now slightly above that. But lots of people in the market are at your level. Craft will separate you from the rest.
You may have read a book and thought, “I can write better than this” or “How did this trash get published?” It’s true, lots of bad books do get published. But those books and authors were likely plucked from obscurity and it’s unlikely they recouped their investment. If you say, “I can write just as well as John Grisham” that’s probably true and that’s great... but the world already has a John Grisham. That spot is taken. Worse, there are thousands of other writers thinking the same thing. You don’t want to bank your literary career on the luck of the draw or on being the best imitation of another popular author. Don’t be the “next” anything. Be the first you. Learning to write like yourself takes time.
All writers have good ideas. Many have grit and actually finish writing the book. Some have natural talent. But it’s the rare few that have all these attributes and approach the act of writing as a way of learning, not just a checklist to publication. Ask yourself some general questions: how many creative writing classes have you taken? How many books on writing have you read? How many times have you written merely as an exercise? How often have you challenged yourself by practicing an unfamiliar element with complete foreknowledge that you’ll never even show anyone a word of it? Have you educated yourself and practiced the skill?
I once heard an editor say that the most difficult part of her job was rejecting so many “good” books exactly because there were so many of them. Rejecting the bad book is easy. Accepting the “Great” book is easy, though rare. But it broke her heart when a good book just wasn’t good enough. The differences between Good and Great are often nuanced and subjective. The more you know the rules and nuances and the craft, the better the probability of success. Take the time to learn the skills, to learn the craft, to develop your talent. People will be reading books forever. You have time. Take it.