How long does it really take before a writer is ready for publication? Does it take years? And how many books does a writer need to finish before they’re ready?
Recently Writer’s Digest had an article titled “Put in the Time” by author Sue Grafton. In it she says this: “My big gripe about newer writers is they’re not willing to put the time in. Somebody’ll write one book and they’re asking me who my agent and my editor are, and I’m thinking, Don’t you worry, sweetheart, you’re not any good yet. Give yourself time to get better. Writing is really hard to master. . .”
On the one hand, her bluntness made me a chuckle. But on the other hand, I realized how discouraging that kind of blanket statement would have made me feel earlier in my writing career.
The longer I rub shoulders with other writers, the more I believe length of time and number of books are mostly irrelevant factors in the quest for publication. I’ve met writers who land an agent after trying for ten years and others for two. I’ve seen writers get a contract on the first book they’ve ever written and others who don’t get contracted until the twentieth.
So, in an effort to encourage aspiring writers, I want to throw out the reminder—each writer’s journey to publication will be different. There’s no magic formula for years and books necessary to acquire an agent or book contract.
But—you knew that was coming, didn’t you? Time and number of books may be different, but mastery of basic fiction writing and story-telling is a common denominator.
I’m a judge this year for the Genesis Contest, a national fiction contest sponsored by ACFW. One thing that’s struck me about the entries I’ve read so far is the lack of application of basic fiction writing skills.
If any writer hopes to make it to publication, they must excel in the foundational skills of the job. The same is true of any profession—surgeons, pilots, mechanics—at the very least, they all have to master the basics of their career. I sure wouldn’t want to have a surgeon operate on me if he didn’t know his job inside and out. Would you?
Why should we as writers think we can acquire book contracts, if we haven’t mastered the basic skills of our profession? We often want the process to be quicker and easier. Sometimes we fool ourselves into believing that somehow we’re different than the masses of other writers, that we have what it takes, that we don’t have to study hard, that learning fiction-techniques are somehow beneath us.
However, the writers who are well on their way to publication are the ones who’ve put concerted time and energy into learning, studying, and practicing the craft of writing. It might take months for some and years for others. The point is, those who succeed have worked hard at mastering the foundational concepts of fiction-writing.
For most of us, gaining proficiency takes writing more than one book. My first books were my “growing” books, the ones in which I practiced all I was learning. They weren’t of publishable quality. But they were the stepping stones to get me to where I’m at today.
Like any profession, no matter where we’re at, we should be continually striving to improve. That means even under contract, I’m always on the lookout for good writing craft books to add to my personal library. I love reading blog posts about writing techniques because even if the information isn’t new, it helps keep me sharp and striving to practice what I’ve learned.
My advice in a nutshell? We need to do whatever we possibly can to master the basics of fiction writing. Devour craft books, practice what we’re reading. Learn, learn, learn. Write, write, write. Ad infinitum.
What do you think? Have you ever been discouraged by comments about “putting in your time”? Do you agree or disagree with me that it’s less about putting in your time and more about learning how to write well? How much effort have you given to mastering the basics of fiction writing?