Practice Makes Perfect: Why you shouldn't expect to be a great writer on your first try
When we decide to learn a new skill, we usually understand that it will take lots of practice and a good teacher to get us to the point of mastery. Take the guitar, for instance. You wouldn’t sit down with a Fender and expect to bang out “Stairway to Heaven” on your first day (or even in your first month). Usually, a novice guitar player will hire a teacher, buy a “How to Play Guitar” book, or find YouTube videos that teach them to play. They will practice daily for quite some time before they dare to play for anyone other than themselves. Guitarlesson.com indicates that you can expect it to take two years to get good enough to learn most songs you come across, but you can expect to play for five or six years before you reach mastery. That’s a lot of hours of strumming.
We see a similar progression when we learn to cook. We start out at our mother’s or father’s side, watching and helping and learning. As we improve, we move on to cooking by ourselves, but often with the help of a cookbook. Only after we have been cooking for quite some time do most of us feel confident enough to wing it without the help of a recipe.
No one would expect to be invited to join a band or be a chef at a restaurant when they are first learning how to play the guitar or cook, yet I meet authors all the time who expect to create a successful, publishable book the first time they sit down to write, with little or no training. Why is this? I think it is because we have all been exposed to stories our whole lives, so it is easier to come up with the idea for a story than it is to conceive of a new recipe or imagine ourselves rocking out on the guitar. That story seems so fully formed in our minds that we think it can’t be that difficult to get it down on paper. But there is so much more involved with writing a novel than simply having a story to tell, and most writers will need some training and lots of practice before they are able to create something that is ready for public consumption.
So how do we get this training? Most of us don’t have parents who can teach us to write the way they can teach us to cook. What is a fledgling author to do? The first thing you can do is read good books, lots of them. When you read a well-written book, you absorb some of the basics of good writing and storytelling without even knowing it. If you read in the genre you are hoping to write in, you will also learn the conventions of that genre (e.g., romance novels must have a happy ending). Reading bad books can be helpful too in learning what not to do, but it isn’t nearly as enjoyable. Either way, reading is a great place to start your writing training. Hopefully, you have already been doing this your whole life and love it. This is easy homework.
But reading will only take you so far. Many times, you will recognize that something is working well, or not working well, but you can’t pinpoint why. You don’t have the vocabulary to describe what you are experiencing. You may have felt really close to a certain protagonist without realizing that it was the author’s use of first-person narrative that drew you in. You may feel disappointed in a book’s ending and not know that it was the author’s failure to supply a satisfying character arc. You need to know more about the craft of writing to apply these skills (or eliminate these mistakes) from your writing. This is why I strongly recommend that writers read books on writing, especially when they first begin to work on their own manuscripts. There are so many things to master when writing a novel: plot, pacing, character development, and point of view, as well as the skills involved in actually getting the words on paper. You can find books that focus on one aspect of writing such as character development or plot pacing, or you can read books that give an overview of the entire process of writing a novel. Here is a list of some of the ones that I’ve read and found helpful:
Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King
The Essential Guide to Writing a Novel by James Thayer
Out of Sight, Out of Mind: A writer’s guide to mastering viewpoint by Ken Pelham
The Art & Craft of Fiction by Victoria Mixon
Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story by K.M. Weiland
There are many more available. Read several to find the ones that are most helpful to you. You could also consider taking a writing class—either in your town if they are available, or online—if your budget allows.
The last step to reaching a level of mastery in your writing is the same as it is for every skill you hope to learn: practice. Write. Write a lot. And accept that your first attempts may not be up to snuff. It is not a waste of time if your first novel—or your first three novels—are never published. Stephen King had four novels rejected before Carrie finally broke through, and he did okay. You learn something from each book you write, things that you will apply to the next novel and the next. Good writers are always learning new things, no matter how many novels they have written. Write, get feedback from beta readers and editors, be honest with yourself about the quality of your book, then take what you have learned and move on to the next book.
Writing a novel is hard, but if you approach it the way you would learning how to play the guitar—with the expectation that it will take a while before you are good at it—you will be better able to enjoy the process. And there’s no point in spending years learning how to do something if you don’t enjoy it, right? So snuggle up with a good book on writing and then get to work! Your future fans are eagerly awaiting the masterful books you will someday write.