Jaye Wells

Craft Thursday: The Journeyman Writer

This morning my son asked, “Mom, how do you write a book all the way to the end?”

Keep in mind, this child lives in my home and watches me through every step of writing a book. He hears me belly-aching to my husband when I’ve had a tough writing day. He sees me typing on the computer like a woman possessed. He watches me slave over drafts with the Red Pen O’ Doom. Yet, somehow, the process still seems mystical and mysterious to him.

He’s not alone. “I don’t know how you do it,” people say to me all the time. They always look vaguely suspicious, as if they suspect dark arts are involved. Or they say something like, “I’d like to write a book some day.”

I always want to respond with a smile and, “Today is a day.”

The answer to my son’s question is this: You type a bunch of words until the story’s done.

But the real question is: “How do you write a good book all the way to the end?”

Now that, my friend, is a different answer altogether.

For a long time, I believed that becoming a writer was a lot like when priests claimed they were called to devote their lives to God. To my thinking, one just knew they were meant to be a writer. Sure, there was probably some work involved, but the knowledge that it was your calling made everything easier. It meant you knew the rules and had an innate understanding of how to craft a story.

Then I woke up.

The year I turned 30, I decided to finally stop nattering on about how I wanted to write a book and finally do the damned thing. I signed up for a writing class at the local community college and showed up with sweaty palms and a spiral notebook. Finally, I thought, I’ll find out the secret.

The only secret the teacher revealed was that writing a book is hard work. And that, if it feels hard, you’re probably doing something right.

It turns out this knowledge was incredibly freeing because it allowed me to finally give myself permission to be a novice.

With that in mind, when I wrote my first book, my goal was to just finish something. I didn’t worry so much about whether it would be the Great American Novel or if it was a very good novel at all. I just wanted to prove I could tell a complete story from beginning to end.

When I wrote “The End” on that book, I bawled. It was a watershed moment in the history of Jaye. I’d proven to myself that I had the stamina to stick to one thing long enough to finish. I’d also done something lots of people say they want to do but will never do.

Once I’d crossed that hurdle, I added new ones. With my next book, my goal was to finish a story that didn’t suck as much as the previous one. I managed that by taking more classes, reading every blog I could find about writing, I actively pursued critique. In short, I started collecting new tools for my tool box. Learning how to write novels became my job.

Every book since then, I have tried to push myself a little more. I still take writing classes all the time. I have a critique partner. I read everything I can get my hands on about the craft. Because even though I am a multi-published novelist, I am now and will forever remain a student of the craft.

Every bestseller was a novice at some point, too. Sure, maybe they were born with certain wiring that gave them skills with words and an ability to tell stories. But those are just a foundation. Building stories is a craft and all crafts demand dedication and commitment to acquiring the tools and materials required to get the job done.

Tiger Woods has an unmistakably innate talent for golf, but he still had to practice and learn the rules. He wasn’t born knowing what a bogey was or how to chip a ball out of the sand pit.

Stephen King wasn’t born knowing how to spell or create suspense using sentence structure or how to plot a novel. Those tools were acquired through work and education. Although I suspect in King’s case there really are some elements of dark magic at play, the truth is he’s a journeyman writer. He’s honed his craft, but there is always more to learn. Always. He was born with talent, absolutely. However, he still has to work at it, and I suspect, he’s also always striving to improve. Because …

Without craft, talent is as useful as a car without an engine or tires. It won’t go anywhere.

Don’t think once you reach the level of journeyman, writing will suddenly get easier, though. Its like plate spinning. When you start out, you’re struggling to keep one little saucer spinning. But with each new plate you acquire, the more difficult it is to keep them all spinning. Patience and experience will improve your coordination, but it’s still a lot of work.

Now, I’m not saying every writer, if they work hard enough, will eventually become Stephen King– just like every golfer can’t be Tiger Woods. But anyone can dedicate themselves to learning the rules and tools of the craft. They just have to be willing to do the work.

Anyone can sit down, open a Word file and start typing. Anyone can show up the next day and do it again, over and over until they have something resembling a complete story draft. Anyone can print out that book and try to make it better using the tools at their disposal. Anyone can decide they want to improve and go about  acquiring new tools by taking classes, reading writing books, or joining a critique group.

Mileage varies, of course. Some people will be naturally more adept at using some tools. Some will struggle with prose but catch on to the rhythm of the three act structure. Others will struggle with writing a cohesive narrative, but can write a sentence that will make angels weep. Some won’t be very good at any of it, but they’ll keep trying because they just love the challenge.

You want to know how to write a good book all the way to the end? You become a student of the craft. You experiment and make mistakes and learn from them. You constantly seek out ways to improve. But most of all, you write and you write and you write.

Most people will never become writers because they believe they have to be good at it before they’ve even tried. Perfectionism has killed more writing dreams than any editor or agent.

You want my advice? Give yourself permission to be a novice. But also understand that if you want to write a good book, it takes time, dedication and a tireless drive to always be improving.

But don’t begin by believing you have to know everything. You don’t and, frankly, you never will. No one has ever written the perfect novel. Instead, work with what you’ve got, or you’ll never start at all. And you certainly will never understand the thrill of getting all the way to the end.




19 Thoughts on “Craft Thursday: The Journeyman Writer

  1. Xid Trebor on September 15, 2011 at 10:33 am said:

    Another great post, Jaye – You’re a wonderful inspiration for aspiring writers.

  2. JayeWells on September 15, 2011 at 10:39 am said:

    Thanks, Xid. In some strange way, these posts are like letters to myself when I was starting out. Glad you find them helpful.

  3. Cyndi Jones on September 15, 2011 at 11:31 am said:

    As always, your advice is wonderful. I’m definitely sending a link to this one to a friend of mine who always talks about “someday” being a writer. Maybe she’ll listen to you because I know she doesn’t listen to me.

  4. JayeWells on September 15, 2011 at 11:39 am said:

    Cyndi, don’t go too tough love on her. Having the courage to follow your dreams is not easy. It took me thirty years to overcome. I remember my husband said to me one day, “You always say you want to be a writer, but you never actually write.” It still took me a few years and the existential crisis of turning 30 (hey, it seemed big at the time) to finally overcome my fear of taking the first step.

  5. Funny enough right around that same time in my life is when I said to myself, “You always say you want to write but you don’t write. What’s that about?” Part of what helped me was going through The Artist’s Way with a group of like minded people with a facilitator to keep us on track. I’m still struggling with making consistent time for the writing but I have finally finished one project and have a couple other’s in process. Hearing working writers talk about this is always helpful. Thanks.

  6. JayeWells on September 15, 2011 at 3:22 pm said:

    Miss Bliss, I took an Artist’s Way workshop two years ago and absolutely loved it. I didn’t have the discipline to do it on my own, so having a weekly group to be accountable to helped a lot. Congrats on finishing your first project!

  7. Wonderful post! Perfectionism kills more than just writing dreams…I’ve seen people (myself included at times) that literally just stagnate because they can’t be “perfect” Inspiring message. Thanks!

  8. Jaye,

    I totally agree with you. My boyfriend and I started talking about doing an electronic literary magazine 5 years ago and that is exactly how long it took us to motivate and do it. http://raglitmag.com/ is now up an running. We like you make mistakes everyday and learn something new everyday. Everything is a process, a long one.

  9. No one could say this any better if they tried. I am currently at your 30-year-old stage, taking my first proper class (but I’ve written before now) and learning what I can to move to the next base. And this subject has just been taught on, and every time I come across it I leave with a smile on my face because I know, one day, I will cross that glorious end and actually be *happy* with what spilled from my pen!

    Thanks, Jaye!

  10. Thank heaven! I love reading “experienced” writer advice. It’s like getting advice from the runners who actually finish the race. “Perfectionism has killed more writing dreams than any editor or agent.” My first two attempts…I kept going back and fixing everything. Never finished them. With my third, I gave up that idea. If I changed the hero’s eye color in chapter 4, I made a note to go back and fix it later. And guess what? Yep. I finished it. It’s a novella. And it got rejected.

    Lesson for me: Rejection sucks. So does not trying. Dreams don’t fall into your lap, you have to go after them. Fight for them.

    And I intend to.

    Thanks so much for sharing with us!

  11. I came across a link to this post on Twitter and I have to say that it is very inspirational. Maybe it will convince me to start my abandoned projects again, everyone has to start somewhere right?

  12. Jaye,

    Just followed a Twitter link here for the first time. Yours is the best writing blog I’ve seen and this the clearest statement of the perfectionist trap I’ve read. ‘Give yourself permission to be a novice.’ Something in me relaxed when I read that. Thank you. I will be back.

  13. This really resonated for me. Good post!

  14. Wow! I really don’t know where to start. I have always wanted to be a writer and really just started last month actively pursuing this dream. I have a very good friend of mine who perusaded me to try. He also critques my stuff and gives me pointers. Yesterday, he sent me a draft back of a piece I wrote and I felt it was littered with mistakes. I did ask him to be very tough! I looked at it and I was so dissapointed. I told him just yesterday that I wanted to be perfect! I also told him perfectionism stops me from doing most things I try to do. This piece you wrote hss put everything in perspective for me. Almost like it was wrote just for me! Thank you so much for writing it!!

  15. I’m in the “stop nattering”–(I love that word: nattering)–“on about how [you] wanted to write a book and finally do the damned thing” part of the story. Thank you for sharing your insights from further down the road!

  16. Jaye, thank you for such an inspirational message.
    I struggle with idea of writing because I am originally
    from Russia, and I have been living in this country for only 15 years out of 49.
    At the same time I have a feeling that I have something valuable to share with other people, and it would be complete waste of my lifetime do not at least try to write a book. So far, I just wrote articles for Russian newspaper and good essays in the past.
    I am extremely grateful to you for sharing with your writing experiences. You literally changed my mind.

  17. Well said!I’m on the Journey-mon.(that is supposed to be in a Jamacian acent but thought I better clue you in!)

  18. Brilliant. You stepped on my toes and kicked me in the butt with this one. Can’t believe I just found your craft of writing posts. I’m binge reading them as I’m trying to figure out what went wrong in 2014, and how to get better results in 2015. I think your line “Perfectionism has killed more writing dreams than any editor or agent” is the key to my problem. I was an English professor before having a number of strokes. I taught academic writing, research, and lit analysis. Now I’m writing fiction and terrified it won’t be as good as what I once wrote. Thank you for the reminder that we are all life-long learners, and as students we shouldn’t be afraid to practice and set attainable goals.

  19. Pingback: Reflecting on 2014 goals… | Kathryn McClatchy: Unleashing the Next Chapter

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