Mastery is a concept that many believe is subjective, especially when it comes to writing (novels in particular). There’s an insidious belief that what constitutes good or bad is a matter of popular opinion. Quality isn’t something we can measure.
This belief—that mastery is a matter of taste—has been around as long as the publishing business. Probably longer. If this wasn’t so, then vanity presses would never have made a single cent.
Yet, vanity presses arose to meet the needs of those who believed that the gatekeepers had gotten it all wrong.
Their book was ready for popular consumption, ripe for the public to eagerly hand over disposable income for the privilege of using up limited free time to consume said book.
Sometimes (albeit rarely) the author was right.
Yet, before the digital age, an author had to seriously count the cost of publishing too soon, even with a vanity press.
If one was going to hand over thousands of dollars to hold one’s book in hand? Then the author knew the gamble could either pay off big (The Firm), or that they’d end up with a storage unit filled with mouldering novels.
When I started writing seriously, the author culture was vastly different. Most writers aspired to mastery. It was a time when artists outnumbered entrepreneurs.
Granted, after a few brutal critique sessions, we pretty much all figured out we’d never craft the ‘perfect novel,’ but that didn’t mean we wouldn’t keep trying to get as close as possible.
Storytelling mastery included learning the basics. We had our worn copies of Strunk & White dog-eared, underlined, and held together with tape. There was a general sense we had to earn the title of ‘author,’ and we didn’t take kindly to shortcuts.
***This was why self-publishing took years to be accepted as a legitimate form of publishing.
Many of us wanted to become authors because we were, first and foremost, avid readers.
We loved books and stories. The idea of honing the same skill levels, attaining the same sort of mastery as our author heroes propelled us forward draft after draft, rejection after rejection.
In my early years, tapping out and deciding to use a vanity press or self-publishing was akin to literary blasphemy.
There was also an atavistic response to any kind of self-promotion. It smacked too much of self-publishing bottom-feeder egomania.
This overriding negative attitude was one of the major obstacles I faced early in my career. Trying to convince authors that—one day soon—they’d need an on-line platform to survive was akin to walking around L.A. wearing tin foil shouting the world was going to end (and expecting to be taken seriously).
In my early years as a social media/branding expert, authors believed the publishers would do all that unseemly marketing and promotion stuff. Their only job was to write excellent books.
Then, over time, and due to some seriously bad business decisions in traditional publishing (namely the multinational media conglomerates who called the shots), self-publishing exploded in popularity.
The Big Six betrayed their loyal mid-list authors, cast them into the dust. Amazon picked them up then weaponized them. Legacy publishing inadvertently legitimized what had once been anathema.
Within a decade, the tables turned. Authors in 2009 considered landing an agent the first step to success. After the agent, then the publishing deal with a ‘real’ publisher. Social media was for hacks.
In 2019, I run across more ‘authors’ who aspire for marketing mastery over storytelling mastery. They can’t figure out why they’re not selling any books even though they have a fifteen-book series.
Is it the promotion? S.E.O.? Maybe they need a bigger newsletter or a spot on BookBub?
Maybe. Yet, from what I’ve seen, the major problem—more often than not—is the product not the packaging.
is and King
I spent the first half of this month on the road keynoting and teaching, and the second half recovering from keynoting and teaching. This past Saturday was the first time I had a voice, and I’ve been so exhausted I could hardly move.
I’m STILL dragging.
Suffice to say, I put out MASSIVE wattage when I present, and often I present ten hours at a time. It’s no easy feat to keep an audience awake and inspired for ten hours when they’re sitting in comfortable auditorium seats under low lighting.
Anyway, while recovering, I was tempted to dust off my old copy of Stephen King’s On Writing, but I didn’t have it in me to read. So I bought a copy on Audible and listened to it at least ten times (namely the sections that have to do with our craft).
This line, in particular, stood out to me.
If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others—read a lot and write a lot.
This might seem like a ‘no duh’ statement, but I cannot count how many times I’ve encountered people who say they want to be a writer but they simply don’t have any time to read. Most of the samples I see? I can tell the writer reads very little if at all.
They don’t have time.
Here, King and I are in total agreement. Anyone who doesn’t have the time to read doesn’t have the time—or the tools—to be a writer (especially a good writer).
Craft classes and grammar lessons aside, reading helps fill our toolbox. We are artisans, crafting people, places, worlds, and concepts with combinations of twenty-six letters.
Would you trust someone to build your house who only owned (and knew how to use) a hammer and saw? Or a doctor who only knew how to wield a scalpel, but skipped learning how to suture?
Yet how many writers are publishing books and they don’t even possess the basic fundamentals of our craft? And are more concerned with a new marketing plan then why people don’t WANT to read their work, let alone PAY to read it?
Is Fiction COMPLETELY Subjective?
To a degree, yes. But, really? No. Not as much as some might claim.
As I mentioned earlier, it’s impossible to write the ‘perfect’ book, to craft the novel ‘everyone’ will love. This, however, is no excuse to dismiss the true artist’s inherent obligation to pursue mastery.
Did Picasso break all the rules? Yes, but he apprenticed for years, studied the masters, learned the rules and THEN broke them. Like a master mason who’s so familiar with the composition of stone, the feel of its striations, that he knows where to put the chisel and where to steer clear.
Yes, I’ve heard how there are a lot of ‘bad’ books/authors who sell a ton of copies and have a gazillion fans. Yet, I imagine one could look at any one of their books and see the writer at least tells a coherent STORY.
Mastery Begins with Basics
Grammar, structure, vocabulary, punctuation, etc. is for the READER. When we don’t know what P.O.V. is, we’re strapping readers onto Hell’s Tilt-A-Whirl, then have the nerve to be angry when they stumble away green around the gills.
If we don’t punctuate correctly, readers become easily lost. Similarly, grammar is akin to literary road signs that help the reader know where they are and what’s happening.
No signs or confusing signs don’t make for a pleasant drive any more than a pleasant read.
When we botch the basics, readers get a headache trying to untangle what’s happening where and why and to whom. Reading should be a pleasant experience, an adventure the reader never wants to leave.
It is the height of hubris to blame readers if we’ve failed to do all that’s in our power to serve them an enjoyable experience. Stories aren’t simply for our own entertainment, unless writing is a hobby and we have no intention of selling that work.
Mastery takes time, study, practice, commitment, failure, more failure, and discipline. Sad to say we have devolved to a point where the slush pile has been dumped in the readers’ laps.
If we think it was tough to get people to read twenty years ago, what about now when there are a million plus books self-published every year (and most unedited)?
Self-Publishing & Mastery
If we take a good look at the runaway successes that have emerged out of self-publishing, we’ll see that most of the BIG ones are pretty incredible books. Read Hugh Howey’s Wool, or Andy Weir’s The Martian, and Wm. Paul Young’s The Shack.
Though The Martian’s hard-science-as-story might not appeal to everyone, it’s tough to argue it wasn’t well-written. Andy Weir simply told a story differently, to a group that NY publishers at the time didn’t believe existed…hard core geeks/nerds.
Weir, and others who’ve successfully self-published, have collected a fanbase because they tell stories other people want to read and can read.
Writing, like any art, has a learning curve. Sometimes, I believe this is what flubs so many of us up. Our culture believes that, because we possess command of our native tongue that OBVIOUSLY our first attempt at a novel should make millions. RIGHT?
Yet, strangely the same people who believe the first draft of our first novel should be made into an HBO series would never expect a child who picks up a violin for the first time to be ready for Carnegie Hall by the end of the year.
Singers and dancers endure years of training, coaching and have tens of thousands of hours of practice before we’re likely to know they exist.
Mastery in sports, medicine, law, and yes even writing takes dedication and sacrifice. We need training, guidance, practice, mentors, failure, success, and yes…talent and a little (or a lot) of luck.
First and foremost, if you write fiction then READ fiction. If you’re selling me a mystery then a crime better happen somewhere in the beginning, and I’m not talking about a crime against the written word.
Read a lot, in your genre and out. Absorb the good and the bad. Learn the literary terrain and build your skills using observation. There are super successful authors who claim they never plot.
Yet, I will counter with this.
They have probably read SO many books that structure is hardwired into their brains. These authors gained mastery ‘by ear,’ if you will.
Some people learn piano with an instructor, others pick it up by listening and playing around on a keyboard long enough.
Both ways are hard work.
All serious authors should read (much like all serious musicians should probably listen to music). Yet, there are other tools at our disposal and here’s a list of my favorite in no particular order:
- The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler
- Save the Cat by Blake Snyder
- Story Engineering by Larry Brooks
- The Elements of Style by Willian Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
- Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance to Punctuation by Lynne Truss
- Scene & Structure by Jack Bickham
- Hooked: Write Fiction that Grabs Readers at Page One & Never Lets Them Go by Les Edgerton (one of MY personal FAVES)
- Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell
- On Writing Stephen King
- Danse Macabre Stephen King
Brilliant Blogs (Other than Mine 😛 )
- Jane Friedman’s Blog
- Writer Unboxed
- Writers Helping Writers
- Janice Hardy’s Blog & Fiction University
- DIY MFA
- Nathan Bransford’s Blog
- The Emotion Thesaurus (and ALL THE OTHER THESAURI as well) by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi
- One Stop for Writers
- Bad Lamb Academy (shameless self-promo here)
I’ve probably left out one or twenty other items I’d love to add to this list, but there will be more blogs, and this is enough to give any author interested in pursuing mastery a darn good start.
I read and reread these books because I’m always learning and growing. I’m far from the perfect writer, but every day I’m gaining on her (even if she IS a unicorn). I write an average of 2,000 to 4,000 words a day, depending on what I’m working on.
Additionally, I average 3-4 hours of reading a day. I do this mainly using Audible because, according to the laundry piles, I think I have people living in my house I don’t know about.
And I already can hear the howls of complaint.
I just can’t listen to books. They make me fall asleep. My mind wanders.
Mine did, too. I had to TRAIN myself to listen to books. The excellent ones, I buy in paper (or ebook) and read again the old-fashioned way. But audio books are portable. I can listen when waiting in a line, stuck in traffic, while doing dishes, and when working out.
Perfect is the enemy of the good and I’d rather y’all ‘imperfectly’ listen to audiobooks than not read any books. When we show up to the blank page with no tools, no reservoirs bursting with vocabulary and imagery, we risk looking ill-prepared or simply ignorant.
I’ve been both. It sucks to invest years into a ‘novel’ that is an unsalvageable mess. I keep my first ‘novel’ in the garage because it chews on the furniture and pees on the rugs.
Remember, we all start somewhere. Give yourselves permission to be NEW.
What Are Your Thoughts?
I love hearing from you!
And to prove it and show my love, for the month of NOVEMBER, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
In the meantime, treat yourself to a class!
Upcoming LIVE CLASSES Through November
Yes, I know most of us will be doing NaNoWriMo, which is why a FREE recording is included with your purchase.
Bite-Sized Fiction: How to Plot a Novella
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 8th 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST (NYC TIME). Use Bite10 for $110 off.
Dark Arts: Building Your Villain
November 12th, 2019 7:00 P.M. tp 9:00 P.M. EST (NYC TIME). Use Thrill10 for $10 off.
Tick Tock: How to Plot Mystery Suspense
THURSDAY, November 21st 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST (NYC TIME). Use Thrill10 for $10 off.
Why Are We HERE? Scenes that HOOK
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 22nd, 2019. Use Thrill10 for $10 off.
ON DEMAND CLASSES
The Art of Character: Writing Characters for a SERIES ON DEMAND
Use Binge10 for $10 off.
How do we create characters that readers will fall in love with, characters strong enough to go the distance? Find out in this THREE-HOUR class that also comes with detailed notes and a character-building template. Again, use Binge10 for $10 off.
This class dovetails with my previous class:
Love this post! I have been honing my craft by writing short stories. At least that way I feel I’ve accomplished something! In the meantime I’m reading, reading reading!
I subscribed to your blog in the course of doing an Australian online course on building an author platform. The quality of what you’ve written here and your generosity in sharing your passion are well beyond what I was expecting. I’m looking forward to following some of those links.
Thank you so much! I put a lot of work into these posts because I really DO want you to succeed and the resources here are, by and large, a list of MY mentors. I wouldn’t have made it without them, especially Les Edgerton. His book ‘Hooked’ was the first time it all made sense, like tumblers in a lock. In fact, in my early years, I bought copies for every writer friend I had. Even gave a copy to my mom who wasn’t a writer, but loved the book because it’s much like learning how a master magician creates the illusion.
Great to meet you!
So many books! So little time! Is it possible that there is a season for all things – a season to read and a season to write? When I was younger I read voraciously. I still read but now it’s mostly research for what I’m currently writing.
So, if mastery is objective, what non-subjective metric(s) will tell me when I have it?
Cooking is also subjective. But if everyone who takes a bite refuses to eat more than one bite or gets ill, probably a good sign to keep working on it.
Excellent post, Kristen. We need to hear this message again and again. I love audible books but can only afford so many, so I listen to the text-to-voice feature on my Kindle and it’s a great way to keep up with reading. Your humor is hilarious. My favorite line: “I keep my first ‘novel’ in the garage because it chews on the furniture and pees on the rugs.” I might send my first novel to you to keep your first novel from being lonely. Hope you have a wonderful week!
LOve your blogs. Keep on truckin’
Great post, In my Facebook self-publishing groups, I see a lot of people who say they don’t bother with editors. Not worth the money. Or they say they just finished their book, uploading it tomorrow. It gives what I’m trying to do a bad name. I’ve been writing since 2003, taking classes, learned copy editing, and I read a load of books in my genre. I’m about to self-publish my first novel next year, but a professional will look at it first because I’m a terrible judge of how good my own work is.
I’m OK with the concept of developing mastery, having come from a family of creatives. It’s engrained in my DNA, though I may be the only writer in the bunch. My issue is perfectionism and knowing when to quit. (Maybe it has something to do with being a Virgo?) I got a wild hair to resurrect a book I started 30 years ago and actually finished my first draft in less than two months. But it wasn’t by accident or fate. In 2012, I started blogging for my own entertainment, added a second in 2014, and continued with both until last year.
Since I finished that first book draft, I have lost track of how many revisions I made. I’m an obsessive editor and never submit anything for public consumption without reading through it a hundred times. I’m also fortunate to possess an educated writer friend who edits for me. He helped me clean up the bad punctuation habits I’ve fallen into over the years, and wrangled the occasional awkward sentence. It’s now reached the point he’s sent back some chapters without corrections. As for other issues I know plague me, like show don’t tell, POV, or repeating myself too often; there is no way to correct those issues without approaching them as a reader, not a writer. It does help I’ve read lots over the years, in several genres. You can’t grow your vocabulary if you don’t read. I have a pet peeve for using certain words over and over (lack of vocabulary), and failing to use good action/power verbs. Anything except is/was/were/have/has/had. When I critique for others, I advise using those words in extreme moderation, like salt. Imagine my horror when I nearly finished revision umpteen hundred and fifty, and discovered a paragraph peppered with was/were. The horror! Turned out the manuscript was littered with those wimpy words.
I invented a variety of games intended to address my writing issues, and found them very useful in adjusting my lens. They gave me clear cut goals, plus a non-threatening and fun way to evaluate my work. Besides who doesn’t want to win a game? My current favorite is Whack-a-was. By setting up the game goal of finding and eliminating them, it cleaned up my first draft writing, because I’m now far more conscious about not using them quite so much.
I use ‘then’ often. I have to search and destroy every ‘then’ in each manuscript. It must be the way I speak in my head. I don’t even realise I am doing it in my first draft.
The problem might be a little more complicated. Since having to teach the dead white male canon to high school students, I am beginning to understand a few things. First, writing is a process, a multi-stepped process, not a “one and done” event that seems to drive today’s society. Second: writing is about manipulation. You need to understand how to manipulate your audience with text that makes the audience FEEL something, which is no easy feat since so many seem to be walking dead.
I decided long ago that I was never going to be able to compete on volume and rapidity of new ‘product’ with the writers who fire out a new book every three months. My first novel took me ten years, the second looks like it’ll be a bit over two. But I’d rather produce quality than quantity. I keep asking myself: is this book better than the last? If not, how does it need to change?
Great post. I love the craft books you suggested. Les Edgerton’s, “Finding Your Voice, How to Put Personality in Your Writing” was my first craft book purchase. “Hooked” is now on my must read list.
Have you ever read “Activate” by Damon Suede? If not and you choose to, don’t drink any beverages while reading, there is a danger it might exit through your mouth and nose when you laugh. His writing is saucy. He also authored “Verbalize”, a power-packed thesaurus of transitive verbs. The eBook contains over 130,000 linked verbs.
You know how in “The Matrix” they could learn anything just by plugging a module into their neck for a few seconds? “I know King-Fu!” That’s how I want to learn writing. Ha! I guess I’ll have to settle for the “hard work” strategy. Like everything else in life.
As usual, you’ve provided great feedback here. I am happy to see that people still view content as king. Over the years I’ve run into so many resources that focused me on marketing and other things, that I sometimes get distracted from the actual writing. Since my career is not writing related, I’ve sometimes fallen into the trap of working toward career goals but not focusing on my creative endeavors or reading. I need to figure out how to consume more books…even though I somehow consume podcasts. I just need to do it. Allegedly, we aren’t getting any younger.
This is excellent advice. I read plenty of writing references to try to improve my mastery of writing. I wish I’d read even more before I self-published my first book. I have learnt an enormous amount since then. Every day I strive for improvement. Reading your blog reinforces that I am doing the right things to get there. Thank you. Kristen.
My first craft book was “How Not to Write a Novel” by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman. It really taught me a lot.
Now and again I need, but hate, to be reminded of all the potholes I have fallen into, still fall into and those I know so well I live there and try to ignore. Thank you.
Thanks for this great post. I’m an avid reader: fiction/non-fiction and, yes, writer’s craft books including many of those you listed as well as blogs. I’ve started two books one of which I’ve shelved mostly because I think that the theme has been overdone. Perhaps it is just an excuse but sometimes I feel paralyzed with trying to get all the elements right: plot, character arc, emotion, conflict, tension,etc. Yes, I know, we are told to just write then work out the rest in the editing and revision process. But this is exceedingly difficult to do. I’m envious of writers like you who can do 2,000 to 4,000 words a day, a goal I can only dream of.
Having given up on the novel I have decided to focus on trying to do short stories. Of course this has it’s own set of challenges.
A few craft books I have found helpful are: Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress, Dialogue by Gloria Kempton and Creating Character Arcs by K.M. Weiland.
I would also like to recommend The Writer’s Survival Guide by Rachel Simon, and Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury, if only for the mainline you will receive of joy.
How is it that every paragraph I read in this makes me agree MORE? *Rubs neck sore from nodding*.
I also like C. S. Lakin’s ‘Layer Your Novel’ for structure on writing. These are good resources!
I think Dwight Swain’s book is also a must-read…even though it can be dry as a stick. Taught me a lot. https://www.amazon.com/Techniques-Selling-Writer-Dwight-Swain/dp/B0087A25EY
Excellent post Kristen. I already have a few of the Mastery Manuals and am developing my skills. I love audiobooks too as you can quickly get totally engrossed in the story, as long as the reader and story are good! But I think you still have to read in print to pick up the technical nuances of writing in the early days. My personal gremlin is the humble comma 🙁 Grammarly is always reminding me I have a “Missing comma in compound sentence.” Eats, Shoots & Leaves is now on my Next Up reading list.