4 Major Differences between Amateur Writers and Professionals

1. Amateurs get ready. Professionals get to work.

Amateurs attend workshops, read writing books, get an MFA, build their author website . . . do anything but write their book—because they don’t feel ready.

Professionals, on the other hand, know they will never be ready, so they dive in anyway.

At some point you must trust yourself as a writer. You may not know exactly where you are going, but you have to set out, and sometimes, without calculation on your part, the reader will honor the effort itself.

Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction

“Perfection is less interesting.” —Anne Carson [Tweet This]

2. Amateurs beat themselves up. Professionals forgive.

Professionals know that to write is to be in a constant state of imperfection. They know that most of the time they’ll be stumbling around in the dark, hitting one dead end after another. To professionals, writing is business, not personal.

Amateurs, however, use every wrong turn and misstep as fuel for their running commentary on why they can’t, or shouldn’t, be a writer.

Elizabeth Gilbert, best-selling author of Eat, Pray, Love, says self-forgiveness is the most important writerly virtue:

Your writing will always disappoint you. Your laziness will always disappoint you. You will make vows: “I’m going to write for an hour every day,” and then you won’t do it. You will think: “I suck, I’m such a failure. I’m washed-up.” Continuing to write after that heartache of disappointment doesn’t take only discipline, but also self-forgiveness . . .

3. Amateurs cling to lost causes. Professionals let go.

In my guest post for storyaday.org I discuss Adele and Gwen Stefani and their recent successes. This year Gwen released her third solo album, and it debuted at number one on the Billboard charts. Adele also released a new album, which surpassed the worldwide record-breaking success of her second album. But both Adele and Gwen struggled for a long time. They worked on their albums for years, scrapping song after song, until they finally found the ones worth keeping.

It’s hard to throw stuff out when you’re an artist. Even when you know it’s not good, you cling to it; you want proof that you’ve accomplished something. Professionals, though, grit their teeth and toss out the junk—giant slabs of it if required. They know that the only work worth sharing is the work that moves them.

“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” —Maya Angelou [Tweet This]

4. Amateurs talk about how hard writing is. Professionals write.

In 2012 a young author named Julian Tepper wrote an article for the New Yorker called “In Which Philip Roth Gave Me Life Advice.” At the time Tepper worked at a deli that was frequented by his writing idol, Philip Roth. Tepper recounts getting up the nerve one day to give Roth his newly published first novel. Roth congratulated him and then said:

But I would quit while you’re ahead. Really, it’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself.

Best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert responded to Roth’s advice with her own article:

[S]eriously—is writing really all that difficult? Yes, of course, it is; I know this personally—but is it that much more difficult than other things? Is it more difficult than working in a steel mill, or raising a child alone, or commuting three hours a day to a deeply unsatisfying cubicle job, or doing laundry in a nursing home, or running a hospital ward, or being a luggage handler, or digging septic systems, or waiting tables at a delicatessen, or—for that matter—pretty much anything else that people do?

Not really, right? . . .

Becoming a novelist is not some sort of dreadful Mayan curse, or dark martyrdom that only a chosen few can withstand for the betterment of humanity. . . . If you’re lucky, you might be able to make a small living out of this thing. If you’re exceedingly lucky, other people might come to appreciate your gifts. If you are phenomenally lucky, you might become lionized in your own lifetime, like the great Philip Roth himself.

And if that should ever happen to you—if you should ever find yourself both successful and loved—please do try to keep in mind that you have been blessed, not blighted.

Take the First Step Today

If you don’t feel ready to write, if you don’t know what to write about, or if you can’t overcome your inner critic, then simply take one small first step:

Start writing every day.

Don’t expect anything of yourself other than a few sentences—no word limit, no time limit, no editing, no judgingThe goal is to slowly build your writing muscle. At first you’ll feel flabby and foolish and sloppy, but you’ll get stronger.

And how will you know when a certain piece of writing is worth pursuing? I wrote about that in my guest post on storyaday.org: The Real You: What Every Writer Needs to Know about Adele, Gwen Stefani, and Seinfeld.

If you want to give your writing a serious jump-start, check out Julie Duffy’s Story a Day May—a challenge to write a short story every day this month. The point is to write so much that your momentum snowballs, your inner critic gives up, and you get comfortable.

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The Fastest Way to Jump-Start Your Writing Career: My Mentorship Story

“A lot of people have gone further than they thought they could because
someone else thought they could.” (Unknown)

A Shortage of Support

In the past, the driving force behind the fine arts was the “support group.” Artists would find mentors to show them the ropes, then the artists would acquire patrons to support their work, and then these artists would become mentors themselves. A miniature circle of life.

But a lot has changed since the times of da Vinci.

Nowadays, more than 80 percent of Americans want to write a book—that’s 250 million people!—so you’d think writers would have the biggest support group in the world, but in fact, far too many of them have no one to turn to.

The Devaluation of Mentors

Our current culture is obsessed with technology. Human interaction has largely been replaced by tweets, blogs, online courses, and self-help books. But here’s what I’ve learned:

One good mentor is worth all those combined—a hundred fold.

My Mentorship Story

I started this blog four years ago. For the first two years it felt like I was pushing against a brick wall. Then one day I published a post where I broke down Rowling’s outline for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and compared it to Stuart Horwitz’s methods in his book Blueprint Your Bestseller. Within a few months Stuart had contacted me and asked if I’d like to coauthor a chapter for his second book, Book Architecture. (Um, yes!)

Stuart and I emailed back and forth throughout the year as we developed our chapter, which went so well that I also ended up beta reading and offering feedback on the rest of the manuscript. Even though I was excited when Book Architecture was done and ready to be published, I was also sad for the experience to end. I had learned and grown more in that one year than in my past two years of blogging combined.

So I felt incredibly lucky when Stuart contacted me yet again and offered me an internship—a first for him and his book editing firm, Book Architecture.

During my year-long internship, I delved into everything in the publishing world:

  • drawing up contracts,
  • creating style sheets, editorial letters, and agent databases,
  • walking through the entire self-publishing process,
  • and editing on all levels—developmental, line, and copy.

I also was a beta reader for Stuart’s third and final writing book, Finish Your Book in Three Drafts: How to Write a Book, Revise a Book, and Complete a Book While You Still Love It.

As the year progressed, Stuart and I found our collaborative footing and eventually my internship morphed into a mentorship. Unfortunately, not all internships are also mentorships.

In an internship, you’re simply learning “stuff”—a knowledge checklist. But in a mentorship, someone is getting to know you one-on-one and addressing your personal experiences and goals.

Along with all of the valuable “stuff” I learned, I also had mentor talks with Stuart. These talks revolved around any questions I had about the editing business as well as advice from him based on questions I should have asked but didn’t know enough yet to ask them.

In the end, I learned more during my one-year mentorship than I could have learned on my own in five years (or more). In fact, I have not found a single success story where the individual did not have some form of mentorship along the way.

Examples of Modern-Day Mentors

Lena Dunham was mentored by the late Nora Ephron. In a beautifully written piece in the New Yorker, Dunham memorialized Ephron:

[Nora] explained how to interact with a film composer (“Just say what you’re hearing and what you want to hear”) and what to do if someone screamed at you on the telephone (“Just nod, hang up, and decide you will never allow anyone to speak to you that way again”). She called bullshit on a whole host of things, too: donuts served in fancy restaurants; photo shoots in which female directors are asked to all stand in a cluster wearing mustaches; the idea that one’s writing isn’t fiction if it borrows from one’s life.

Oprah was mentored by Barbara Walters. In an interview with Walters, Oprah said, “Had there not been you, there never would have been me.”

Oprah was also mentored by Maya Angelou. At Angelou’s funeral, Oprah gave a eulogy and said, “I think mentors are important . . . Nobody makes it alone. Nobody has made it alone.

Usher has frequently spoken about mentoring Justin Bieber. In an interview with Pharell Williams, Usher paraphrased a line from Italian diplomat Galeazzo Ciano:

Success has a million fathers. Failure is an orphan. [Tweet This]

Now the Question Is: How Do You Find Your Own Mentor?

1. Never stop chasing your dreams.

Jon Hamm didn’t get a single acting gig for the first three years after he moved to Hollywood. Not surprisingly, his talent agency dropped him. Hamm gave himself five years to get his acting career on track; if nothing happened, he’d quit. He said:

I knew a lot of 40-year-old waiters and I didn’t want to be one of those.

In the nick of time Hamm landed his first big Hollywood movie, We Were Soldiers, and he was able to ditch waiting tables. A few years later he became the infamous Don Draper of “Mad Men,” which was voted the seventh best-written TV series of all time.

Paula Hawkins has a similar story. Hawkins got her start in the book industry writing a guide to finance. The publishing house that took on the guide asked Hawkins to also write some romance novels under the pen name Amy Silver. Hawkins said she never felt comfortable with the genre and realized that she wanted to write suspense and psychological thrillers. When her fourth romance novel flopped, she decided to try writing one last time before giving it up for good. The result was the fastest-selling hardcover ever recorded—The Girl on the Train.

How many people in history have given themselves a deadline, not knowing that success had been waiting just beyond it?

This mindset of “all or nothing” is not healthy or helpful. I realize we all must face reality—we have families, jobs, bills—but facing reality does not mean throwing away your dreams.

Maybe you have to figure out a different approach or perhaps you have to go at a slower pace, but at least you’re still in pursuit. Because if you’re not actively trying to help yourself, you have very little chance of finding someone who will want to help you either.

As Stuart says in Finish Your Book in Three Drafts:

If you look at the subset circle of people who didn’t make it, the entire subset of people who quit is contained within that.

2. Keep an open mind as to who your mentor could be.

The secret to success is not in having a mentor but in having the right mentor. Luckily, the “right” mentor can come in all shapes and sizes.

Don’t limit yourself by thinking that your mentor has to have higher credentials than you or has to be more successful than you or even has to be in the same field as you.

Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said:

Here’s an important warning: you don’t have to have mentors who look like you. Had I been waiting for a black, female Soviet specialist mentor, I would still be waiting. Most of my mentors have been old white men, because they were the ones who dominated my field.

And the CEO of General Motors, Mary Barra, said:

Don’t always look high when creating your mentor network. Colleagues have great insights about you that you may have overlooked.

Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou, John Glenn, and Walter Cronkite all had mentors who were either high school or elementary teachers.

One of Colin Powell’s greatest mentors was his father. Ansel Adams also credited his own father and so did Cal Ripken, Jr., who said:

I don’t know what value you can place on [a mentor], but the right words spoken at the right time from a person that’s been through it before can make all the difference.

More than anything else, a successful mentorship is founded on mutual respect and admiration. One of Steven Spielberg’s mentors was George Lucas. Spielberg has himself mentored many people, including J. J. Abram. Spielberg said:

The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.

Stuart and I are very different people at very different points in our lives. We live over 1,400 miles apart and have never even met. But the mentorship has been successful. I attribute our success to the fact that we not only respect our differences but also capitalize on them—we treat them as assets rather than as deficits.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, who mentored Henry David Thoreau, summed it up best when he said:

What I need is someone who can make me do what I can. [Tweet This]

3. Look first for mentorship moments. Then let them progress naturally.

A mentorship is not something you can force. Don’t walk around asking people to mentor you—that’s like asking a stranger to be your best friend. It has to be a natural process that evolves over time.

Robert Herjavec, TV star of “Shark Tank,” wrote:

As you consider mentorship, I encourage you to take the pressure off.

Stop the “will you be my mentor?” emails and start being present to embrace the learning opportunities all around you. Ask your colleagues and executive team members for their points of view. Seek advice from your direct leader or leader once removed.

Start having conversations and soaking in the mentorship moments.

Three years ago when Stuart contacted me to coauthor a chapter, I could never have guessed that I’d end up where I am today with an editing business of my own. All I was focused on then was embracing the opportunity and learning as much from it as I could. Don’t be concerned if a mentorship moment doesn’t turn into a full-blown mentorship.

Herjavec also wrote:

When I consider mentorship, I see it as a series of moments with key individuals over the course of my career. Have I always had one individual guide me along the way? No, that wasn’t my experience. But there are multiple people that have offered advice or a sounding board along the way . . .

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, agrees with Herjavec:

Throughout my career, I’ve benefited greatly from the wisdom and experiences of mentors. Some executives credit one or two key people for coaching them to success, but I believe effective mentoring takes a network.

Different people see different aspects of us as we progress in our careers and handle the opportunities and challenges along the way.

Financial advisor Suze Orman, who mentors personal trainer Jillian Michaels, said:

Everyone in life can be your mentor whether they know it or not. [Tweet This]

4. Ask not what your mentor can do for you, but what you can do for your mentor.

The most important thing to remember about a mentorship is:

THE MENTOR DOES NOT NEED THE MENTEE.

Stuart has twenty years of experience as an editor. His book Blueprint Your Bestseller was named one of 2013’s best writing books by The Writer magazine and his clients are bestselling authors who have appeared on “The Today Show,” “The Tonight Show,” and “Oprah.”

Stuart mentored me as a favor—not out of necessity. But like all great mentors, he also treated me as an equal. Not once during my internship did he give me a go-get-the-coffee job. That’s not to say that all my work has been enlightening and rewarding and inspiring—every job has its drudgery—but a mentor shows you how to most effectively and efficiently tackle the drudgery.

In the end, you only get as much out of a mentorship as you put into it.

A mentor’s job is not necessarily to make your road any easier. It’s to show you that the road is worth taking.

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Rowling’s Life as an Author: What It Was Really Like to Write Harry Potter

Rowling has said that Harry Potter “simply fell into [her] head” and “all of the details bubbled up in [her] brain.” She “[had] never felt such a huge rush of excitement and [she] knew immediately that it was going to be such fun to write.”

Sounds like a fairy tale beginning to a fairy tale ending, doesn’t it? Perhaps that’s all ordinary readers need to know about Rowling’s path to literary fame, but us writers need more.

We need to know the not-so-glamorous version of what it was like to write Harry Potter. We need to appreciate how disciplined Rowling had to be to develop her idea into seven hefty books. We have to know that she wasn’t lazily sipping mochas for two decades while jotting down a continuous stream of words like a literary Fountain of Youth.

All too often we convince ourselves that we would write more if only we were well-known, or had more money, or could find more time. But none of that is what makes a writer a writer. It’s simply that a writer writes.

Below I’ve compiled the non-fairy-tale version of the story behind Harry Potter.

“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” —E. B. White [Tweet This]

Book One: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Even though Harry Potter strolled into Rowling’s head fully formed, she still spent several years outlining the seven books, and then she spent another year writing the first one, Harry Potter and Sorcerer’s Stone.

Rowling rewrote Chapter One of Sorcerer’s Stone so many times (upwards of fifteen discarded drafts) that her first attempts “bear no resemblance to anything in the finished book.” This was especially frustrating for Rowling because she was a single parent and her writing time was both limited and sporadic—entirely contingent on her infant daughter Jessica.

Whenever Jessica fell asleep in her [stroller], I would dash to the nearest café and write like mad. I wrote nearly every evening. Then I had to type the whole thing out myself. Sometimes I actually hated the book, even while I loved it.

Rowling had to deal with many other time-wasting nuisances, like re-typing an entire chapter because she had changed one paragraph and then re-typing the entire manuscript because she hadn’t double-spaced it.

Rowling also struggled with personal problems during this time:

  • the death of her mother,
  • estrangement from her father,
  • a volatile and short-lived marriage,
  • a newborn child,
  • life on welfare,
  • and a battle with clinical depression.

To top it off, Rowling’s support system was nearly nonexistent. She struggled with suicidal thoughts and eventually turned to therapy for help. Rowling once told a friend about Harry Potter and her friend’s response was cynical. Rowling said:

I think she thought I was deluding myself, that I was in a nasty situation and had sat down one day and thought, I know, I’ll write a novel. She probably thought it was a get-rich-quick scheme.

Once the manuscript was finally finished, Rowling went on to collect a dozen rejection letters over the span of a year before Bloomsbury Publishing agreed to pick it up.

But even with publication on the horizon, Rowling was warned by her literary agent to find a job because her story wasn’t commercial enough to be successful. (“You do realize, you will never make a fortune out of writing children’s books?”)

In fact, Bloomsbury’s expectations of Harry Potter were so low that its initial print was only five hundred copies—three hundred of which were donated to public libraries.

Rowling’s first royalty check was six hundred pounds. A year later, she was a millionaire.

“You’d fail only if you stop writing.” —Ray Bradbury [Tweet This]

Book Two: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Both Rowling’s agent and Bloomsbury Publishing had to (happily) eat their words. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was so popular in the UK that Scholastica paid an unprecedented $105,000 for the American rights to the series.

Rowling, however, still faced major frustrations.

For one, she did not believe that her writing success was permanent. So while writing Chamber of Secrets, she also worked as a full-time French teacher (and cared for her now-toddler daughter). And it was during this time that she suffered from her first and only debilitating bout of writer’s block:

I had my first burst of publicity about the first book and it paralysed me. I was scared the second book wouldn’t measure up . . .

Despite Rowling’s personal skepticism, other lucrative contracts rolled in after Scholastica. The money pulled her out of poverty, but it also put incredible pressure on her “to fulfill expectations.” And furthermore, her sudden financial success resulted in a “tsunami of requests.” Everyone was asking Rowling for a leg up:

I was completely overwhelmed. I suddenly felt responsible in many different ways. . . . I was downright paranoid that I would do something stupid . . .

“A professional writer is an amateur writer who did not quit.” —Richard Bach [Tweet This]

Book Three: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

The second Potter book was even more successful than the first, and Rowling finally dove into writing full-time with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Prisoner of Azkaban was one of Rowling’s most enjoyable Potter books to write, but she still had to work very hard. Rowling said in a letter to her editor:

I’ve read [Prisoner of Azkaban] so much I’m sick of it. I never read either of the others over and over again when editing them, but I really had to this time.

Rowling added in a later letter:

The hard work, the significant rewrites I wanted to do, are over, so if it needs more cuts after this, I’m ready to make them, speedily . . .

But if these rewrites were difficult for Book Three, Rowling was about to be beaten over the head by Book Four.

“The desire to write grows with writing.” —Desiderius Erasmus [Tweet This]

Book Four: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Again Rowling churned out a book in one year, and again Harry Potter was a raging success. But Rowling celebrated in a rather unexpected way:

The first thing that I did when I finished Prisoner of Azkaban was discuss repaying the advance for the [fourth] book. Yes, you can imagine. People were a little bit shaken . . . I said: I want to give the money back and then I will be free to finish in my own time rather than have to produce it for next year.

Rowling has been open about her struggle to write Book Four, which nearly caused a “nervous breakdown”:

That was the period where I was chewing Nicorette. And then I started smoking again, but I didn’t stop the Nicorette. And I swear on my children’s lives, I was going to bed at night and having palpitations and having to get up and drink some wine to put myself into a sufficient stupor.

Rowling attributed her stress to the staggering pressure she felt to produce another Harry Potter worthy of global adoration:

I’m sure that I’ll never have another success like Harry Potter for the rest of my life, no matter how many books I write, and no matter whether they’re good or bad. I remember very clearly that I was thinking the same thing when the excitement over the fourth Harry Potter volume literally exploded. The thought was unsettling to me at the time, and I still feel that way today.

Rowling also struggled with her plot for the first time since starting the series:

The first three books, my plan never failed me. But I should have put [this] plot under a microscope. I wrote what I thought was half the book, and “Ack!”—huge gaping hole in the middle of the plot. I missed my deadline by two months. And the whole profile of the books got so much higher since the third book; there was an edge of external pressure.

Rowling faced “some of [her] blackest moments” with Book Four:

At Christmas I sank to the depths: “Can I do this?” I asked myself. In the end it was just persistence, sheer bloody mindedness. It took months. I had to unpick lots of what I’d written and take a different route to the ending.

The worst rewrite for Rowling was one particular chapter in Goblet:

I hated that chapter so much; at one point, I thought of missing it out altogether and just putting in a page saying, “Chapter Nine was too difficult,” and going straight to Chapter Ten.

Not surprisingly, Rowling also struggled with burn-out:

Goblet of Fire was an absolute nightmare. I literally lost the plot halfway through. My own deadline was totally unrealistic. That was my fault because I didn’t tell anyone. I just ploughed on, as I tend to do in life, and then I realised I had really got myself into hot water. I had to write like fury to make the deadline and it half killed me and I really was, oh, burnt out at the end of it. Really burnt out. And the idea of going straight into another Harry Potter book filled me with dread and horror. And that was the first time I had ever felt like that. I had been writing Harry for 10 years come 2000 and that was the first time I ever thought, Oh God, I don’t want to keep going.

“If I waited till I felt like writing, I’d never write at all.” —Anne Tyler [Tweet This]

Book Five: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Rowling stayed true to her word and went on vacation . . . kind of. She stepped away from Harry Potter to work on a completely unrelated book (which hasn’t been published). After a yearlong sabbatical, Rowling started on the fifth book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Rowling had written the first four books in a blisteringly fast five years, but she told her publishers that she didn’t want a deadline with Book Five, especially after dealing with the plot problems in Goblet of Fire. Her publishers had no other choice but to agree.

But even then, Rowling still struggled to keep up.

She has said numerous times that she wished she had better edited Order of the Phoenix:

I think [it] could have been shorter. I knew that, and I ran out of time and energy toward the end.

And it’s no wonder. During the two years Rowling wrote the 870-page Phoenix, she also:

  • got married,
  • had another baby,
  • fought a bogus plagiarism lawsuit,
  • started several charity organizations,
  • consulted for the new Potter films,
  • and ran around fulfilling her endless PR obligations.

Worst of all, Rowling was drowning in a never-ending deluge of paparazzi.

Rowling’s fame had grown to such bewildering heights that the attention had become relentless. This was quite a shock for her, especially since she had thought that Harry Potter would only appeal to “a handful of people”:

Everything changed so rapidly, so strangely. I knew no one who’d ever been in the public eye. I didn’t know anyone—anyone—to whom I could turn and say, “What do you do?” So it was incredibly disorientating.

The paparazzi were digging through her garbage, hiding in her hedges, and camping out in front of her house. One reporter even slipped a note into her daughter’s backpack at school.

It’s very difficult to say . . . how angry I felt that my 5-year-old daughter’s school was no longer a place of . . . complete security from journalists.

Rowling was “racing to catch up with the situation” and “couldn’t cope” with the loss of her private life:

I couldn’t grasp what had happened. And I don’t think many people could have done.

Among the uproar, Rowling was expected to churn out yet another Harry Potter home run.

“The secret of becoming a writer is to write, write, and keep on writing.” —Ken MacLeod [Tweet This]

Book Six: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Again Harry Potter exceeded all expectations, smashing records left and right, but no time to celebrate: it was on to Book Six.

Rowling was pregnant with her third child while writing Half-Blood Prince, but she wasn’t nearly as stressed as she had been with Book Five. In fact, she probably put some fans in a panic when she said:

I’m in a very lovely position. Contractually, I don’t even have to write any more books at all. So no one can possibly write that I have missed a deadline, because I actually don’t have a contractual deadline for Six and Seven.

Of course Rowling did write Book Six, which was “an enjoyable experience from start to finish.”

Rowling’s critics, however, were now growing as vocal as her fans:

I found death threats to myself on the net . . . I found, well, people being advised to shoot me, basically.

The paparazzi problem was also spinning out of control. After the birth of two more children, Rowling couldn’t even step out of her house without being stalked by photographers—she was “completely trapped” and felt like she was “under siege or like a hostage.”

Rowling went so far as to sell her house and move her family, and she again turned to therapy, as she had years ago when Harry Potter was in its infancy:

Sometimes I think I’m temperamentally suited to being a moderately successful writer, with the focus of attention on the books rather than on me.

“You just have to accept that it takes a phenomenal amount of perseverance.” —J. K. Rowling [Tweet This]

Book Seven: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Even with enormously high expectations, Book Six was astoundingly successful, and Rowling immediately began working on the seventh.

Deathly Hallows was the series finale, but Rowling had many other responsibilities to fulfill besides writing: being a mother to three children, giving interviews, overseeing the Potter movies, and running her charities, to name only a few.

Ironically, Rowling’s notoriety and wealth had cut her writing time in half—from five days a week to two and a half. She said:

There are times—and I don’t want to sound ungrateful—when I would gladly give back some of the money in exchange for time and peace to write.

The media marathon hadn’t slowed down either, which was exceptionally draining for Rowling:

Fame is a very odd and very isolating experience. And I know some people crave it. A lot of people crave it. I find that very hard to understand. Really. It is incredibly isolating and it puts a great strain on your relationships.

One of the media’s particular criticisms of Rowling was her appearance:

I found it very difficult, when I first became well known, to read criticism about how I look, how messy my hair was, and how generally unkempt I look.

Rowling worried about how such criticisms might affect her children:

Is “fat” really the worst thing a human being can be? Is “fat” worse than “vindictive,” “jealous,” “shallow,” “vain,” “boring” or “cruel'”? Not to me.

I’ve got two daughters who will have to make their way in this skinny-obsessed world, and it worries me, because I don’t want them to be empty-headed, self-obsessed, emaciated clones; I’d rather they were independent, interesting, idealistic, kind, opinionated, original, funny—a thousand things, before “thin.”

Somehow, in the middle of all this cacophony, Rowling finished her seven-book series. After nearly two decades, it was over. Rowling said:

I cried as I’ve only ever cried once before in my life, and that was when my mother died. It was uncontrollable . . .

My feeling is, if you really want to [write], you will do it. You will find the time. And it might not be much time, but you’ll make it. —J. K. Rowling [Tweet This]

Embracing the Journey

This post is not about glorifying Rowling, or pitying her. This post is about learning to appreciate wherever you are in your writing journey. It’s only human to think that the grass is greener on the other side—to think that if only you had a certain amount of money or a certain kind of life, you’d finally get down to writing. But books aren’t written in a vacuum. Life doesn’t stop moving even for the most famous and successful. The best time to write is now—because that’s the only time you’ve truly got.

For of all sad words of tongue or pen,

The saddest are these: “It might have been!”

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Finding Your Confidence: An Interview with Indie Author Jenny Bravo

There’s something inspiring about talking to a writer who has just published her first book. It reminds us that all the pain is worth it in the end.

Here’s my interview with the energetic and thoughtful indie author Jenny Bravo!

Tell us a little about yourself and about your book.

Hi there! I’m Jenny Bravo and my book is These Are the Moments. I’m a twenty-four-year-old Louisiana native with a B.A. in Creative Writing and a writing blog called Blots & Plots. Fun fact about me? I once was a safari truck driver at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

These Are the Moments, also known by its hashtag TATM, is a YA/NA crossover novel about the love story between Simon and Wendy. It’s an on-again, off-again relationship of a couple brought back together through a mutual friends’ wedding. Can people really change? Can they actually make it work? You’ll have to see!

Is this your first book?

Yes, it is! First published, that is. I do have an unpublished, unedited manuscript that is somewhere collecting dust. But maybe one day, I’ll get back to it.

How did you come up with the story idea?

Originally, I had the idea of this couple when I was still in high school. I wrote about their story in a very elementary kind of way, as I was still developing my writing skills. I loved the idea of a couple reunited over time and thought it would make for interesting tension. After I graduated college, I remembered the story and started writing. From there, I added layers over layers of plot, and it became a real, fully-fashioned story.

How long did it take you to write TATM?

I started writing in March of 2014 and finished that December. It took me about three months to edit before sending it away for developmental editing.

What is your writing process? (Are you a pantser, plotter, or something in between—a plontser?)

I’m definitely a plontser haha! In the first draft, I just let the story take me where it wants to go. It starts out as a collection of scenes, and through my second draft, they blend together into a story. From there, I plan. I have a more concrete idea of the story arc, and I map the scenes to fit. Then it’s edit, edit, edit, and somehow, it makes a novel.

Do you keep a writing schedule?

I don’t have a writing schedule. With a full-time job, I just do my best to find the time. Word sprints are my very best friend. I can write about 1,000 or more words in 30 minutes, so I try to make the most of the time I do have.

What were some of the bumps you hit along the way while writing TATM?

For me, the hardest part was knowing when to stop. I could edit my heart away, and I spent an entire weekend just holed away in my room, working for hours on end. At some point, I just had to call it a day. I had to accept that writing is a fluid art, and it’s never necessarily “finished.” I had to be proud of myself, and then hand it over to its readers.

Why did you decide to indie publish? What have you liked about it? What has been difficult?

Jenny Bravo Blots and Plots Pic

I love indie publishing, but I had no idea how amazing it was until I started researching it. After graduation, I had big plans to publish traditionally, as most writers do. Then I found indie authors and started listening to their stories. I was so excited to pick my own publishing team and take my book in the direction I wanted it to go.

I’ve loved this experience. It’s amazing to learn the work and time that is required for a book. The whole experience can be difficult, but I was very stressed when it came to creating my own timelines. I wanted to launch it in the right way, and I was scared I wouldn’t give myself enough time. Thankfully, it all worked out perfectly!

What advice do you have for writers who are struggling to write their own first book?

If you’re struggling to write, there could be a number of different factors. Maybe you haven’t found the right story or you are second-guessing yourself. My best, overall piece of advice is to give yourself permission to write poorly. It’s okay for your first draft to be all over the place. It’s okay for you to doubt where your story is heading. Just write something. If you need more tailored advice, I suggest visiting my blog or shooting me an email. I’m happy to help!

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Why Being an Amateur Writer Is an Asset

“The less you know about a field, the better your odds. Dumb boldness is the best way to approach a new challenge. —Jerry Seinfeld” Tweet: The less you know about a field, the better your odds. Dumb boldness is the best way to approach a new challenge. —Seinfeld @RiteLikeRowling

Modern-day society is so dependent on proof: Where’s your degree? Your certificate? Your salary? Your followers? Your award? Your little piece of paper that says I can listen to you?

The only credential you need to write is that you write.

In fact, being an “expert” isn’t always an asset:

We’re all terrified of being revealed as amateurs, but in fact, today it is the amateur—the enthusiast who pursues her work in the spirit of love (in French, the word means “lover”), regardless of the potential for fame, money, or career—who often has the advantage over the professional. Because they have little to lose, amateurs are willing to try anything and share the results. They take chances, experiment, and follow their whims. Sometimes, in the process of doing things in an unprofessional way, they make new discoveries. “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities,” said Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki. “In the expert’s mind, there are few.”

—Austin Kleon, Show Your Work

Finding Fans

In today’s selfie-obsessed world where we call our blogs “platforms” and our Twitter followers “contacts,” it’s important to remember that we’re not supposed to be somebody to everybody.

Stop worrying about how many people follow you online and start worrying about the quality of people who follow you. Don’t waste your time reading articles about how to get more followers. Don’t waste time following people online just because you think it’ll get you somewhere. Don’t talk to people you don’t want to talk to, and don’t talk about stuff you don’t want to talk about. If you want followers, be someone worth following. . . . Make stuff you love and talk about stuff you love and you’ll attract people who love that kind of stuff. It’s that simple.

—Austin Kleon, Show Your Work

Sharing Your Work

Where should you start, then, if you’re an amateur?

The best way to get started on the path to sharing your work is to think about what you want to learn, and make a commitment to learning it in front of others. . . . Be on the lookout for voids that you can fill with your own efforts, no matter how bad they are at first. Don’t worry, for now, about how you’ll make money or a career off it. Forget about being an expert or a professional, and wear your amateurism (your heart, your love) on your sleeve. Share what you love, and the people who love the same things will find you.

—Austin Kleon, Show Your Work

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The Best Advice for a Beginning Writer

If you could give a budding writer only one piece of advice, what would it be? Below are some of the most well-known and talented writers of our time who tackled the question.

Writing Advice from the Greats

The most important thing is to read as much as you can, like I did. It will give you an understanding of what makes good writing and it will enlarge your vocabulary.

—J. K. Rowling

You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written . . . Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.

—Stephen King

Above all else, the writer has to be a good reader. The kind that sticks to academic texts and does not read what others write (and here I’m not just talking about books but also blogs, newspaper columns and so on) will never know his own qualities and defects.

—Paul Coelho

If you ask me what I am reading on any given day, it is most likely going to be a work from a great author from long ago. Every writer stands on the shoulders of the old authors who have shaped and refined language and storytelling.

—Laura Hillenbrand

A Different Perspective: You Don’t Have to Write Every Day

If you’ve had a bad writing day, or if you’ve been struggling with your writing recently, I found this article by Cal Newport to be a reassuring read. I think Newport’s point of view is an important counter to Stephen King’s (who says you absolutely have to write every day).

In the end, the goal of advice should be to help you figure out what works for you, not what works for someone else.

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Foreshadowing: The Secret Sauce of Best-Sellers

Humans read stories to make sense of life—to make sense of chaos. Stories revolve around “plots” and the simplest definition of plot is cause and effect: “Because this happened, that happened; and because that happened, another thing happened.”

Real life, however, is chaotic and often times doesn’t make sense: “You ate a piece of toast for breakfast and then you got kidnapped at lunch.” Wait, what? And that’s why humans love stories. Because stories make sense.

But having a story make sense fulfills only the most basic requirement of storytelling. Readers expect more, especially from fiction. They want stories that are engaging, suspenseful and, ironically, unpredictable. How can a story both make sense and be unpredictable?

Here’s where foreshadowing comes in. You could say that foreshadowing is the more genteel cousin of cause and effect. Foreshadowing prepares readers for unexpected events in a story by dropping hints about them earlier on. That way the story makes sense, but it’s still unpredictable.

Foreshadowing, however, requires slight of hand. It’s a literary magic trick, and just like any magic trick, the more you study and practice it, the better you’ll get at it.

The most important thing is to read as much as you can, like I did. It will give you an understanding of what makes good writing . . .

—J. K. Rowling

Why Beginning Writers Struggle with Foreshadowing

The most difficult part about properly executing foreshadowing is learning to trust your reader. New writers tend to be heavy-handed with their foreshadowing because they don’t trust their readers to put the pieces together.

(On the other end of the spectrum are new writers who don’t connect their story events at all—but that goes back to understanding the first storytelling requirement of cause and effect.)

An experienced writer knows that the human brain is highly sensitive to the smallest story details. Even if readers aren’t consciously putting the pieces together, they are subconsciously. This understanding of the human brain is what allows writers to pull off a story twist that feels both unexpected and inevitable.

Going to School for Free

The great thing about being a writer is that you can study the masters for free. You don’t have to pay thousands of dollars to learn their tricks; you just have to pick up a book.

One of the most celebrated and well-known examples of foreshadowing is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. (If your Gatsby is rusty, here’s a quick SparkNotes summary.)

Let’s look at how Fitzgerald uses foreshadowing to prepare us for Daisy Buchanan killing Myrtle Wilson in a hit-and-run. This is an extremely important event in the story that needs to feel inevitable yet unexpected.

[Another example of a foreshadowed story twist is Sirius Black’s death in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.]

Foreshadowing in Dialogue Banter

Fitzgerald connects cars with death right away in Gatsby on page nine (2004 Scribner paperback edition). He cleverly puts a twist on this first connection by having it be a joke—and aiming that joke at Daisy, the character who will eventually commit the hit-and-run. Daisy used to live in Chicago but had recently moved to East Egg, New York. The narrator, Nick Carraway, is visiting her at her new East Egg house:

I told [Daisy] how I had stopped off in Chicago for a day on my way East, and how a dozen people had sent their love through me.

“Do they miss me?” she cried ecstatically.

“The whole town is desolate. All the cars have left the rear wheel painted black as a mourning wreath, and there’s a persistent wail all night along the north shore.”

“How gorgeous! . . . .”

Not only does this foreshadowing link Daisy with cars and death (“a mourning wreath”), but it also shows her need for attention and admiration. This need makes her decision to flee after hitting Myrtle seem inevitable because, with her character, she couldn’t very well stop—otherwise she’d risk losing the good opinion and love of others.

The best foreshadowing is based on character development, since it’s the characters who act out the plot. The more a character believably embodies the action required to foreshadow an upcoming event, the more believable the entire story is. And a story twist will feel inevitable even if it’s a surprise because it’s based on the personality of a character. As Fitzgerald himself said:

Character is plot, plot is character.

Foreshadowing in Minor Details

Daisy’s bruised knuckle is another instance of Fitzgerald using character development to foreshadow the hit-and-run. Only three pages after he connects cars with death through a joke, Fitzgerald then links Daisy, the future hit-and-run assailant, to pain.

. . . [Daisy’s] eyes fastened with an awed expression on her little finger.

“Look!” she complained; “I hurt it.”

We all looked—the knuckle was black and blue.

“You did it, Tom,” she said accusingly. “I know you didn’t mean to, but you did do it. That’s what I get for marrying a brute of a man, a great, big, hulking physical specimen . . .”

Daisy’s outburst shows that her immediate response to something unwanted, like pain, is to blame someone else. This early development in her character builds to the later event that she won’t stand up and take responsibility for killing Myrtle.

Foreshadowing in Setting

On page twenty-five Fitzgerald introduces us to the doomed Myrtle. We meet Myrtle in her husband’s car repair garage, which is the same location where she’ll later be hit by Daisy. Fitzgerald’s first description of the garage is:

The interior was unprosperous and bare; the only car visible was the dust-covered wreck of a Ford which crouched in a dim corner.

After describing this “wreck,” Fitzgerald brings Myrtle, the future hit-and-run victim, into the scene. We might not consciously register this connection, but our subconscious takes note. (Fitzgerald later has Myrtle’s lifeless body lying in this same garage after the hit-and-run.)

Fitzgerald brings us to this garage by way of Daisy’s husband, Tom, who insists on introducing Nick, the narrator, to Myrtle, Tom’s secret lover, while Myrtle’s oblivious husband is standing right next to them.

The impropriety of the whole situation is glaringly obvious, and it’s through this scene that Fitzgerald shows both Myrtle’s and Tom’s impulsive, selfish characters. This character development, in turn, creates a feeling of inevitability when Myrtle gets hit as she impetuously runs at Gatsby’s car because she thinks Tom is driving it.

Foreshadowing in Actions

After Myrtle’s introduction, Fitzgerald sends her, Nick, and Tom to an apartment in New York where Fitzgerald gives us another example of Tom’s and Myrtle’s selfish, impulsive natures.

While partying at the apartment, Tom gets angry at Myrtle and breaks her nose. The fight starts because Myrtle is shouting Daisy’s name. Then Tom, in a moment of grotesque chivalry, says that his mistress doesn’t have the right to say his wife’s name, and he breaks Myrtle’s nose for it.

Notice that Myrtle gets hurt because of Daisy, foreshadowing that Myrtle will get hurt again because of Daisy (except next time it will be fatal). And notice that Tom hits Myrtle to defend Daisy, which foreshadows the scene where Tom is protecting Daisy after she’s killed Myrtle:

Daisy and Tom were sitting opposite each other at the kitchen table, with a plate of cold fried chicken between them, and two bottles of ale. He was talking intently across the table at her, and in his earnestness his hand had fallen upon and covered her own . . . There was an unmistakable air of natural intimacy about the picture, and anybody would have said that they were conspiring together.

Foreshadowing in Minor Characters

The most recognized example of Fitzgerald foreshadowing the hit-and-run is the scene during one of Gatsby’s many extravagant house parties when a car slams into a ditch and rips off its wheel. Standing by the disheveled car is a character named Owl Eyes. Nick, the narrator, asks Owl Eyes about the accident:

“But how did it happen? Did you run into the wall?”

“Don’t ask me,” said Owl Eyes, washing his hands of the whole matter. “I know very little about driving—next to nothing. It happened, and that’s all I know.”

“Well, if you’re a poor driver you oughtn’t to try driving at night.”

“But I wasn’t even trying,” he explained indignantly, “I wasn’t even trying.”

An awed hush fell upon the bystanders.

“Do you want to commit suicide?”

“You’re lucky it was just a wheel! A bad driver and not even trying!”

“You don’t understand,” explained the criminal. “I wasn’t even driving. There’s another man in the car.”

The shock that followed this declaration found voice in a sustained “Ah-h-h!” . . .

This mimics what will happen later when Gatsby is wrongly accused of hitting Myrtle. And just like the wheel of this car is “violently shorn,” so is Myrtle hit so hard that her left breast is ripped and “swinging loose like a flap.” This incident also serves to connect Gatsby with cars and chaos.

Foreshadowing in Summary

In another small detail foreshadowing the hit-and-run, Fitzgerald includes a long list of names of all the people who come to Gatsby’s wild parties. Among the names is a man named Snell, who was at one of the parties “three days before he went to the penitentiary, so drunk out on the gravel drive that Mrs. Ulysses Swett’s automobile ran over his right hand.”

Again chaos follows Gatsby, and again it involves a car.

Foreshadowing in a Story within a Story

Fitzgerald even connects car accidents to the past of Tom—Daisy’s husband and lover of the doomed Myrtle.

Jordan Baker, Nick’s girlfriend, tells Nick about Daisy and Tom’s courtship and relates a story about Tom’s first known extramarital affair, which he had only a few months after marrying Daisy:

Tom ran into a wagon on the Ventura road one night, and ripped a front wheel off his car. The girl who was with him got into the papers, too, because her arm was broken—she was one of the chambermaids in the Santa Barbara Hotel [where Tom and Daisy were staying].

Here another tire is ripped off in a car accident, and just like Myrtle’s foreshadowed hit-and-run, the victim is a mistress of Tom’s. This information only adds to the escalating trend that girls who get involved with Tom get hurt: Daisy’s knuckle is bruised; Myrtle’s nose is broken; another lover had her arm broken; and soon Myrtle is going to pay the ultimate price. Tom is both a bad guy and bad luck.

These are only a handful of examples which illustrate the many ways that Fitzgerald used subtle details and character development to deftly foreshadow story events that needed to feel unexpected yet inevitable. This practiced sleight of hand is what can turn a good story into a great story.

All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.

—F. Scott Fitzgerald

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