Becoming a writer is an apprenticeship. It's important to realize this when you are submitting
manuscripts early on and it seems like you are getting nowhere and all you get is form rejections
that make you wonder if anyone has even read your work. It's not that you have no talent. It's not
that you're never going to get there. It's just that you have to pay your dues. You have to learn
certain skills before anyone will take you seriously as a writer. You have to learn what has
already been done and isn't interesting anymore. You get to know a few people who will vouch
for you. You join various guilds like SCBWI or SFWA. If it takes five years or ten years, that's
pretty normal. And that's from when you're serious about it, not when you're playing around.
From when you start querying to when you get published, plan on it taking a good long while.
And please don't be in a hurry about it. It will only make things worse.
Most writers spend time in school being praised for their writing skills. I know I was. I could
write an essay like nobody's business. And I could do it faster than anyone else. I typed fast (100
words per minute), but I could write fast long-hand, too. I could write a book report that would
make my teachers cry in high school. I wrote stories that won the PTA "Reflections" awards and
other various school contests. My essays were published in the school newspaper. And the same
thing happened in college. If a large part of a class's grade was based on essay-writing, I was
likely to get something above a B just for writing a paper. I'm not saying I didn't work hard. I
did. I was a good little student, following rules. But mostly, I wrote well because I liked writing
and did it a lot and maybe because I had some natural aptitude for it.
So when I started submitting manuscripts in the real world of publishing, I admit, I expected a bit
more praise than I got. Which is to say, I expected to be published pretty much immediately.
Yeah, I had that dream of getting the phone call every time I sent something out that first year. I
figured they were all just waiting for the chance to get their hands on my manuscripts and they
would all be published practically as I had written them in a first draft. Oh, there would be some
copyediting. But not much else because I was a good writer. And that was what I figured you
needed to be published.
I wrote these deep short stories that had "themes," unlike a bunch of the stories I was reading,
which were all plot. I had characters! The kind that you'd study in a literature class because they
were so ordinary and their lives were so depressing. I wrote with three-dollar words. I used empty
lines to mean something important. You could find meaning between the words in my stories.
And I was breaking rules right and left. I was creating a new literary history all on my own. No
one had done what I had done before. I was experimenting. I was a "genius."
Yeah. I was too big for my britches. I hadn't paid my dues. I had spent a lot of time studying how
to analyze literature in a way that might have gotten me published in a literary magazine. I was
writing query letters that were three and four pages long so that I could prove how well I
understood the genre and how I knew that I was breaking rules, but I was doing it on purpose. I
was smart and I wanted to prove it to every lucky person who got one of my perfect manuscripts.
Needless to say, I spent the next couple of years collecting a whole bunch of rejections. I spent a
lot of money on paper, sending out my manuscripts again and again to every name I could find in
the reference books I had access to in my library. I figured I was just waiting for the right person
who could see my brilliance. But the more rejections I got, not rejections with notes attached, not
rejections that encouraged me to send it to this other person at this address with a
recommendation from the attached, the more I realized that something was wrong. It took me a
while to figure out what it was.
I wasn't good enough.
I am sure you are laughing over this, but it wasn't funny to me at the time. I thought that once I
started actually writing stories, it would be a snap to find people who wanted to publish them. I
thought that I was just that much smarter and more talented than everyone on the planet. Or
maybe I was just so young and naïve that I had no idea how many people in America think they
have at least one novel in them. Ever been to a dinner party and counted how many people said
they wanted to write a novel someday, when they had time, when they retired, when their kids
were grown up? Ever asked for a show of hands in a classroom of English majors how many
people have a few lines of their novel written?
Here are a couple of truths that I took a long time to learn:
1. Being smart in college doesn't get you very far in real life. It's not just true in the writing and
publishing world. It's true in math, science, business, law school, and in medicine. Yes, you need
to be smart to be a good doctor and you need to be smart to get good grades in med school. It's
just not the same kind of smart. You might be lucky enough to have both naturally, but it's
2. Brilliant is a dime a dozen. I got a perfect score on the verbal portion of the GRE when I
applied to graduate school. That means I was in the top .1 % of people in the country supposedly.
But that leaves a lot of people with that score, because we're not counting just one year. When
you count all of the people with that score who are still alive, it's a lot of people. And it's
ultimately kind of a big yawn.
3. The people who succeed the most are the people with the greatest capacity for rejection. I had
no idea how much rejection I was going to get in my history as a writer. I really thought that it
was just going to be the first few years until I got my first book accepted. I believed (despite
several people who told me the contrary) that I was going to be so good that once they figured
out what I could do, publishers would just keep asking for more. Well, I've been rejected a lot
more since I got my first book published than I did before I got that book published. My agent
has rejected. My editor has rejected. My publisher has rejected me. Readers have rejected me.
Reviewers have rejected me. My own family members have rejected me. And guess what? It's
good for me. Ultimately, I have learned every time how to be a better writer.
4. No one is an exception. I'm sure you're thinking about the stories about Stephenie Meyer or
about another author like Diana Gabaldon who supposedly sold the first novel they ever wrote.
It's a lie. It's a story that has been created as painstakingly as the story between the pages of the
book you bought. Because no one wants to buy a book from someone who has been working for
twenty years on the same novel. That doesn't make good copy. You want to buy a book from the
exception, from the person who broke all the rules and who was so brilliant, she wrote a book
based on a dream and it just sold to the first person she sent it to. Yeah, no.
5. The journey really is the best part. You think that getting published is what will validate you,
but it doesn't. Not really. What validates you is learning important things, growing as a writer
and being able to tell stories you never dreamed you would be able to tell. And there's no way to
rush that. There's no "prodigy" badge that is going to help you in any way. Being younger than
everyone else isn't a good thing in the writing world, even if you're writing YA. Being good is
what makes you good, nothing else. And there's no fast track to getting there. So enjoy the
journey because how you get to publication is going to make a real difference in how long you
stay there. The tougher you are, the longer you'll last. I don't envy people who publish their first
novels. I suspect they end up giving up because they don't realize how much rejection is perfectly
In another time and in another world, a craft like storytelling had a more formal apprenticeship.
You would follow around a professional and do grunt work. You would practice your perfect
handwriting and get cramps recopying the perfect retelling of this story or that one. You might
spend your valuable time bringing a pillow or a refreshing mug of ale to the true genius. And you
might wonder why you were doing any of it, since it wasn't teaching you squat about storytelling.
Ah, but it is. Mr. Miyagi is teaching you something, even if it's only how to be tougher and how
to learn some humility about yourself and your aspirations.
There are a lot of things you need to learn, and they're not just about how to use grammar
properly. Just because you sailed through your college English class and even taught freshman
how to write beginning level essays, technical writing, or grammar, that doesn't mean you are
now an expert. It doesn't really even make you a journeyman. It makes you competent at one
You've got a lot of other things to learn. You need to spend several years reading what is being
currently published. It will be useful if you are following some people in the business on social
media. And you are on social media yourself and have interesting things to say. It's useful if
you've got connections to other writers who might blurb you or just talk about your book when it
comes out. It doesn't hurt, either, if you've got a couple of other books or ideas that you are ready
or nearly ready to sell.
Imagine you're an apprentice to DaVinci and he makes you take notes about his random
thoughts. You're writing down stuff about airplanes, which is basically insane, as well as
pigment for paints, urine drying leather, and human anatomy. It makes no sense to you and you
feel like you're time is being wasted. But if so, you're the one who's not making the most of your
apprenticeship, not DaVinci.
Learn from every conversation that you ever hear. Take notes on how people walk, talk, interact
with the world. When you're watching TV or movies, watch attentively. Write a review for every
bite of food you take. If you have a car accident, think about how the experience changed you,
how time passed at the moment, how the pain blossomed gradually. Nothing is wasted if you are
a good apprentice. Write bits and pieces. Write novels. Write series of novels. Write your one
million words. And then write another million words, if you have to.
And send things out. Be brave. Seek out chances for rejection, because those are also the only
chances for acceptance. You can't get what you want unless you are also willing to take a chance
in not getting what you want and in feeling truly hurt. That whole thing about aiming for the stars
and landing on the roof is crap. Aim for the stars because you want the stars. Don't ever be
satisfied with the roof.
Some of the lessons that helped me move past my apprenticeship and into what I consider a
1. Be humble. I don't mean this just advice for how to get along with other people in the world. I
think it makes you a better writer. It allows you to take things in, to truly experience the world, to
see other people in a haze of wonder that will come through in your work.
2. Acknowledge other people who have helped you. You don't have to do this in print on your
book, though that's not a bad place for it. But remember your editor, agent, copyeditor, publicist,
your writing friends, your family.
3. Don't take it personally. Of course you will be hurt by a nasty review. Don't respond to it. Get
on with your work. Someone who doesn't like what you've written is simply not the audience
for your work. It means nothing more than that.
4. By the same token, don't go around making declarations about how other writers are "ruining
literature." I say this as someone who spent far too long thinking that I knew what good writing
was and being unable to make friends with those who couldn't write what I loved. It's not about
them. It's about me/you.
5. Look to the future, not to the past. This applies not only to your writing, but to your life.
Spending less time trying to rework a piece you originally conceived as a kid might not be as
useful as thinking up something new. By the same token, you may need to let your relationship
work from now on, rather than holding people hostage by their previous acts.
6. Do your work. No one is going to discover you. No one is going to pull that perfect novel out
of your head. You have to do it yourself. Yes, it's hard. Apprenticing is hard. Your fingers may
get burned from all the heat splashing you. It's the way it gets done.
7. Take care of yourself. Be physically active. Eat healthy food. But also take care of yourself
emotionally and spiritually. Find out what makes you happy and do that a lot.
8. Don't feed the trolls. Just don't engage people who are there purely to be negative. Try to
figure out as quickly in an interaction as you can if someone is capable of hearing you and
changing. If not, stop talking.
9. Keep your passion. If you aren't passionate about what you're working on, work on something
else if at all possible. Or try to inject something you're passionate about into what you have to
work on, though that's definitely a second choice. Everyone can tell if you're not having fun, if
you're work isn't joyous.
10. Break the rules. Yes, I get to break rules. But only because I figured out what they are and
what they were there for. Yeah, it sounds arrogant, but it's true. People who know the rules are
usually smart enough they can work ways around them.
Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison