Every once in a while, I think about my early days, and how I got to where I am now. I find it gives me perspective, especially when things aren’t going well, or I feel in over my head. Looking back helps me see the ups and downs I’ve navigated and leaves me feeling more capable of handling the road ahead.
We all had a ‘first step’ in our writing journey. In my case, I signed up for a mail-in writing course (yes, “mail-in.” This was a long time ago.). They paired me with a mentor; I would turn in assignments to him, and he’d offer suggestions for improvement and words of encouragement.
When I completed the course and got my certificate, I was SURE my author career was about to launch. All I had to do was find out how to submit these ‘wonderful’ stories I’d written during the course…how hard could it be?
Since I knew nothing about publishing, I joined a few writing forums. I discovered publishing was competitive, and many writers would use critique partners to help them get their stories as strong as they could be before submitting. So, I joined the Critique Circle. Soon after, I met Becca – we clicked right away, and worked to help each other improve. We decided to study writing craft together and as you know, eventually went on to publish the Emotion Thesaurus.
But between joining the Critique Circle and creating one of the most-loved guides out there, I almost quit.
It was the learning curve. It seemed like no matter how much I knew, it was never enough. There was always more.
Joining the Critique Circle showed me I had a long way to go. And that was okay; I was ready to put the work in. I did, too – studying, critiquing others, and writing more stories. I grew my skills over time.
Eventually I queried, got an agent, left them after a time, got another, went to acquisitions. And repeat, repeat, repeat. I became stuck in a close-but-not-quite loop, and it did a number on my head. I started to doubt myself. I felt like despite all my hard work to become a stronger writer, something was wrong with me–I wasn’t smart enough, or creative enough. Maybe this writing thing wasn’t meant to be.
(I’m guessing some of you can relate to my story.)
Thankfully, today the landscape is different. We have more than one path to publishing, and a successful career is more in the hands of the writer than gatekeepers. But one thing that remains the same then to now is the learning curve. A compelling story has a lot of moving parts, and there’s a lot to know. It’s easy to get frustrated when we hit a gap after gap in our knowledge.
At some point, the weight of what we’re trying to do hits us, and it can be soul crushing to realize just how much we DON’T know about storytelling. At that point in the learning curve, some writers flirt with giving up. Others do.
But the rest? They soldier on, because they can see the forest for the trees.
Storytelling is an art. It takes time to be good at it.
All careers have a learning curve. No one expects to walk out of med school after a year ready to do brain surgery. Yet as writers, our expectations are sky-high. We irrationally can feel like if we don’t master everything quickly and see success, something is wrong, and we’re the problem. No wonder rejections can hit so hard.
This mindset, that we’re only worthy if we succeed quickly, master the curve quickly, etc. can do a lot of damage, and it’s why I almost quit. I hadn’t yet learned the most important lesson: writing, like all creative careers, means ongoing education. There will always be more to learn, new ways to grow our insight and skills. And that’s a GOOD THING. It means we’ll never peak. We’ll always have a better story ahead. And that’s pretty exciting, don’t you think?
What’s the best shortcut for the learning curve?
So…there are no shortcuts. We must all learn what we need to, and it will take as long as it takes. However, there are ways to “shorten” the learning curve! Investing in the right help and seeking out the best sources of information can keep us focused and on task. Thankfully there are many great books, resources, mentors, tools, and more out there. One of the best all-round places to start would be this page.
I mentioned earlier that shortly after we met, Becca and I began studying writing craft together. We actually took a year off from writing fiction to tandem study the best writing guides out there, and it gave us a terrific foundation of knowledge. Since then, we’ve continued to be students of the craft, reading and experimenting. We’ve also taught and mentored, passing on the best lessons we’ve learned to others.
And now we’ve created a system for planning, writing, and revising a novel: a Storyteller’s Roadmap. It’s full of expert advice, hard-won lessons, tools, checklists, and more, taking you from that first idea to a publish-ready manuscript.
This is our answer to “How can I shorten the learning curve?” because we supply the information you need as you need it. We also direct you to the best resources to help you at each step, so you’re never wasting time looking for help or wondering what tool to use.
Our intention with this roadmap is that the more you use it, the more you sharpen your skills, and that means delivering even better stories to readers. And that’s what it’s all about. If you’re interested, here’s more about our Storyteller’s Roadmap and One Stop for Writers site. (TIP, use this 30% off code: CONFLICT until September 20th.)
Can you go it alone and be a successful author?
Absolutely! It just will take a bit longer simply because there’s so much to know about writing, publishing, and marketing, and so this means more researching and trial-and-error. Reaching out to others to benefit from their wisdom and experience shortens the learning curve.
What’s something you’ve done that really helped with the learning curve? Let us know in the comments!
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
Michelle Gregory says
I appreciate you and Becca. I found you back when you had the Bookshelf Muse blog (I think that’s what it was called). I’ve learned a lot from you. I have to be careful to not try “all the things” I can do to make the story better. I’m happier if I pick one thing to learn at a time, and then apply that to my story. Otherwise I’m overwhelmed.
BECCA PUGLISI says
Wow, you’ve been with us from the beginning! I’m so glad you’ve learned a few things along the way. I also struggle with wanting to implement all the lessons. It’s sometimes daunting for me to read craft or industry books, because there’s so much good information, and I just can’t put it all into practice. So I’m glad you’ve found a method that keeps you from being overwhelmed.
Yes, I have a problem with a steep learning curve, yet I managed to get a PhD. However, in order to achieve my goals I must use a range of learning strategies, among other strategies (to learn what I need to in order to achieve a goal), otherwise it’s a slow, painful grind. As a writer of fiction, I have struggled learning whatever I needed to learn to achieve my goal of finishing a novel and getting an agent; in fact, I’ve written 11 novels. However, I still don’t know everything or what I should know to be a ‘good’ novelist. I have read and re-read books on writing (apart from studying what published writers do and ‘copying’), among other books on writing. I must take notes; lots of notes; read the notes, find examples of what is talked about, as well as create my own. But what irritates me about reading books on writing is that every author of a book on writing has their own opinion on what’s good, better, best, or even what’s right and wrong. And now after years of ‘research’, I’m jade, even indifferent to what most people think a writer should or shouldn’t do. Why? Because the ‘experts’ do not view people as individuals with different learning styles. They are always very general or ridiculously vague. Or they riddle their ‘expertise’ with clichés and meaningless platitudes. You said “story telling is an art. It takes time to be good at it.” How much time are we talking? A year? Five? Thirty? As long as it takes, according to you. A example of a vague statement. You managed to get an agent, whereas I haven’t after submitting to many agents. Yes, one of my strategies was to build a list of agents who accept submissions in my genre so I wouldn’t send to the wrong agent. But still, not good enough. I’ve had beta readers who can’t decide among themselves what is good and what isn’t. I’ve had editors who’ve said it’s ‘good’ and compare it with successful authors, but I’m lost when an agent (requesting submissions in my genre) says it’s not for them. Or make ridiculous, empty comments like you’re almost there but never once say why it isn’t. You say it’s about soldiering on because the author can ‘see the forest for the trees’. A cliché? Or it’s about ongoing education. Ongoing education is a cliché when an editor says one thing and an agent says diddly squat, besides no. If there’s no certainty, you should say so and stop giving false hope to people who need definite answers to real questions. Lastly, I was a member of a group that claimed they had the right formula for getting an agent, but whenever an author got a rejection the group had no answer for it. Yes, they provided a training program but they got the members to ‘sign off’ on their query letter and synopsis, but the group never once claimed responsibility for any failure to get an agent. People paid large money for their truth but the group never claimed responsibility for it never working the way they claimed it would work. And they did claim it was the only truth and nothing but the truth about getting an agent. The group would never ‘sign off’ on an author’s query letter themselves; they got a member to do that, which conveniently absolved them of any liability. But they still wanted the money for the program. I think it was morally bankrupt of the owner of that group to make claims about its ‘rightness’ for everyone (as they did, claiming they were connected to all the agents and publishers) and then have no answer for why an agent wouldn’t accept the author’s MS based on the query letter they’d written according to the program’s guidelines. This goes on a lot. People make outlandish claims about a program or a course, advertising it as the right one for everyone but only a few people paying for it manage to get an agent to request a full MS. What strategy is left, I ask you, to get an agent if the method you use doesn’t work? How many methods should be used? But you’ve been told by many ‘experts’ that the query (one of many) is good? There’s nowhere for the author to go. Even if their books are considered good but no agent wants to buy them? What should an author do? If you say, more learning, then I’m afraid you have no idea what you’re talking about. More learning of what? How to string a sentence together? Which words to use to make an impact? Emotional impact? Plotting? Theme? Characterization? Editing? Self-publishing? Indie publishing? There are more questions than answers. And none of the answers come from the people with the answers: the agents/publishers. The people without the answers are making money from the gullible and the ignorant, from what I can tell.
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
Your frustration at the nature of this career is coming through clear, and embodies some of the biggest struggles writers have who pursue traditional publishing: separating one’s work from one’s worthiness, and knowing when the writing is “good enough.”
The problem with traditional publishing is that there are many things outside a writer’s control. Even if you target the perfect agent for your book, or the right publisher for your niche, there are no guarantees. It could be the agent has a client with a book like yours and so can’t take you on as it would compete. It could be that unbeknownst to you, a publisher is moving away from a certain niche that your story is in, or their list is already full. These are just two reasons of many of why it’s so hard to find a fit. A writer can have a fantastic book, and yet it still comes down to the right editor at the right publishing house, at the right time. That’s frustrating, for sure, and so it’s easy for a writer to interpret the inability to find a home for a book as some sort of personal lack. This isn’t the case.
I don’t know anything about you or your work, so I can’t comment on the quality of it, your targeting of best-fit agents, nor the ability of the beta readers you have chosen to accurately weigh in on your exact writing niche, but it sounds like to me you are doing the things you should be to put yourself into the best position possible to publish.
Every writer’s journey will be unique. There is no one way to write, no one way to publish, no one route to success. Those who say there is are likely just after your dollars. There is no easy button. All we can do is focus on what is within our control, not what is not. That means learning craft, studying the works of others in our genre and what makes those books work, being open-minded to feedback, and finding a way to apply what we know to others in order to better hone our instincts. This is one reason why I personally like giving critiques. We may be too close to our own work to be objective, but by studying another’s work and weighing in on how to improve it, we start to see new ways on how we can improve our own.
If you want to continue to try and traditionally publish, I’d suggest you try to think of ways you can get honest feedback from new sources, preferable writers who are at your level or higher. Look for people who are skilled in areas you may be weaker in. When those opinions come in, challenge yourself to see the story from their view, even if you don’t agree. Remove your emotions from the equation and try to understand how they read something in a certain way. You will either see that it’s an area you need to work on, or you can feel like you assessed it thoroughly and can chalk it up to a personal preference.
I would also be open-minded to self-publishing and look into it to see if it might be an option for you. Instead of a gatekeeper saying what is or isn’t a fit for their publishing house, your readers are the ones whose opinions matter. I know many people who were unable to find a fit in the traditional industry go on to self-publish quite well. If your work is ready and you’re willing to do the work to market your books by finding and connecting with your potential audience, this might be an option for you.
Hope this offers some ideas. Best of luck to you.