[process] Advice for mid-career writers, and the lack thereof

From yesterday’s Link Salad:

How to soar when you’re already in flight… — A.M. Dellamonica asks a really interesting question about how writers talk to one another. My facile answer to her is that aspiring writers outnumber established writers by a ratio of thousands:one, so the audience is distinctly different. But that’s a lousy answer. I need to think on this.

This one’s still on mind. First of all, to address my lousy answer of yesterday, I’m going to throw out a couple of numbers. It’s early, and I can’t be arsed to do real research right now, so take these with a small grain of salt.

In the field of sf/f publishing, I estimate there are less than 2,000 active, working professionals. (If I’m wrong, it’s certainly not an order-of-magnitude error.) The bulk of those are writers — novelists, short fictioneers and us multimodal types — but I also include agents, editors, publishers, critics and whatnot.

Now, consider that the last time I looked, a trade publishing house might get 20,000 novel submissions a year from aspiring or early-career writers. (Again, if I’m wrong, I don’t believe it’s an order-of-magnitude error.) So figure that not every one of the same trade houses gets all the same novels at the same time, let’s say there are in any given time period 50,000 would-be novelists with enough gumption to complete a novel and send it out. Let’s take a flyer and say there’s another 50,000 would-be short story writers pursuing their craft and submitting to those markets.

So what I said yesterday is wrong. The ratio isn’t thousands to one, it’s fifty to one. That is, 100,000 aspirants to 2,000 working professionals.

Still, that’s a very different audience than mid-career writers. There are probably hundreds of aspiring and early-career writers who read my blog. If more than a few dozen mid-career writers read my blog, I’d be surprised. Just by the numbers, I can reach more people and hopefully do more good offering advice and examples to the larger audience.

All of the above and a $1.25 will buy me a Coke.

More to the point, Alyx observes in her original posting on this topic that people who’ve arrived at the mid-career point generally have developed enough awareness of their own process and craft to self-direct their developmental issues. With rare exceptions, this is notably not true of new writers, or, frankly, people new at any complex undertaking. That’s why we have critique groups and con workshops and (sometimes) editorial feedback. To guide people whose vision of themselves is not yet suited to the task.

There is a complex interchange between ego, motivation and experience, and I’ve generally found that more established writers are less certain of themselves than people just setting out. That phenomenon is probably a good thing, given the psychotic persistence that it takes to succeed in this field. If you approach writing without a lot of ego strength, or some fungible substitute such as alcohol or money, you are in for a rough ride. Again, there are always exceptions, but they are rare.

For my own part, I find that Alyx is right about developmental issues. I’m painfully aware of certain deficits in my craft, just as I’m aware of my strengths. A few examples of my deficits: I still don’t write female characters as convincing as my male characters, I skim over the depth of relationships and emotions that could really make my work pop out, I haven’t mastered the subtleties of POV as well as I’d like, I rely on rhetorical tricks and clever language to wallpaper over cracks in my work. A few examples of my strengths: good world-building, clean line-level prose, a strong sense of style, a protean literary voice, decent mastery of the telling detail/crunchy bits.

As Alyx asks, how can someone dispensing generic advice on the Internet address my issues as a mid-career writer? The further along I get in my career and my work, the more idiosyncratic those become. All new writers need to learn about manuscript format, submission processes, what editors really do, storytelling basics and intermediates, the whole process of ‘breaking in’, and so forth. Mid-career writers are like Dostoevsky’s unhappy families; each is developing in their own way.

I’m not sure what I’d say if I were dispensing advice to mid-career writers. I think I’d talk about meta-issues of ontology, self-critique and the learning process of writers. Or cite cases in order to extract principles. It would get pretty airy pretty fast, methinks. Still, I wish I knew the answer.

What do you think? What advice would you offer me or Alyx? As she asks, Is there something about character or plotting that’s general enough to make a good post but so advanced it’ll spark growth in someone really seasoned… a Cory Doctorow, say? A Connie Willis?

16 thoughts on “[process] Advice for mid-career writers, and the lack thereof

  1. Fran Friel says:

    Hmm…it seems the biggest pitfall of any mid-career craft is to keep the work fresh. Taking risks, stepping outside of comfort zones, turning left when we’re used to turning right, etc. I suppose it’s like any relationship–we have to keep working on the love and passion or it can become dullsville and methodical.

    Not sure this is what you’re looking for, but it’s just a thought.

  2. shawn says:

    At some point I had to let go of the writer I thought I was going to be and accept the writer I am. I think as a beginner you try so hard to find that magic key that it’s easy to over complicate the process, when really all it takes is time and effort and usually a lot more time and effort than you first expected. Even when I’m writing stories that my fellow writers are telling me are excellent and editors are taking notice of, there’s still that nagging voice in the back of my mind that’s telling me I should have a better grasp on this whole writing thing–that the key is still out there. That’s usually about the time I have to let go again, and not worry too much about grasping so hard, and just enjoy writing for what it is and not what I expect it to be.

  3. There are a bunch of us up here who meet a few times a year, after consuming best-selling books. We then try to learn from the craft in those books. The mix is early to mid-career writers. It helps.

  4. Pam Adams says:

    It strikes me that most ‘mid-career’ advice that I’ve heard has been one-on-one or small group- over lunch, in the bar or consuite, through letters, phonecalls, or emails, etc. It’s one of the most powerful arguments I know of for networking with your peers.

  5. This is fantastic, and spot-on. My friend Liz and I talk about this all the time. We both consider ourselves to be mid-list writers (I believe myself to be at the bottom of the mid list, her to be closer to the top), and we both want to know where we go next to learn, since beginning classes are not helpful. We both teach as well, so we are always trying to advance ourselves as teachers, to teach beyond the basic and move into more advanced techniques. I think the best thing I can give my beginning to intermediate students is an understanding of their own strengths, since most of them don’t inherently know what they are.

    For me, I know my strengths and my weaknesses. I also, as you say, know how to cover up my weaknesses. What I want to learn is how to strengthen them. My critters help with that on a story-by-story basis, but I feel like I need some advanced craft lessons, maybe.

    Hm. I think I just got off topic, but those are the kinds of things I’m thinking about as I read this stuff!

    🙂 s.

    1. Jay says:

      It’s a lot of fun to chew on, frankly.

  6. I’m one of those aspiring/unpublished neophytes to which you refer, but I’m also an MBA student, and your post made me wonder how that experience applies here. In the undergraduate (aspiring) level, business students, as students in other fields, often learn primarily through pedagogical structures. At this stage they are learning the fundamentals, and basic applications.

    Successful MBA programs, on the other hand, have a very different approach: they are largely experiential, relying on case-based approaches, experiential exercises and other learning by direct application. The concepts are often the same as what might be taught at the undergrad level, but explored from a higher level and with more practical application.

    Is there a potentially analogous application for mid-career authors who want to take it to the next level? I guess you’d be doing workshops of some kind with other mid-careers – but you’d need them to be taught by masters and past-masters…

    1. Jay says:

      As several others have commented, the way it seems to work for most mid-careers is via social networking. There are a few mid-career workshops as you describe, specifically I’m thinking of Rio Hondo, for example, but they aren’t terribly common.

  7. Cora says:

    I still fall into the early career bracket (sold a few poems and stories, but haven’t managed to break into the more prestigious magazines yet; no novel sale yet either), but nonetheless I find that I’ve grown beyond the advice geared towards beginning writers, while I also regularly run across advice that is not yet relevant to me at the level I am current at (discussions of marketing and publicity, contract issues, how to plan/sustain a series, etc…).

    However, I have largely identified where my strengths and weaknesses lie. With some of those strengths, I am aware enough that I consciously know why something works or not, while in other areas I am still struggling to learn how to consciously control and analyze what I can instinctively do pretty well (plotting is one of those – I build good plots, but I’m doing it be instinct). I’m also still discovering notable improvement in areas where I didn’t even realize I had a deficit. Emotional depth is one of those – I recently had a breakthrough there, even though I thought I was doing okay.

    As for weaknesses, there are some I’m addressing directly, some I continue to avoid for now and also some areas where I have come to the realization that a perceived weakness may just be a different way of writing. For example, I have recently accepted that I will never be a lyrical writer known for beautiful prose. It’s not a competence but a voice issue. My natural voice just isn’t lyrical. I can do lyrical for poems or short prose passages, but after a few paragraphs my natural voice starts creeping back in. And voice is one of my strengths.

    As for finding writing advice that is insightful for someone at my level or even above, I look at a lot of blogs, writing tips sites, etc… by and for writers all across the genre spectrum. Because writers in other genres approach craft issues differently and sometimes they even address topics that aren’t even considered issues in another genre. For example, if emotions and relationships are one of your perceived issues, you’ll probably find more insightful posts on that subject from romance writers than in the online SFF community, because SFF in general often struggles with depicting emotions and relationships. On the other hand, romance writers with world-building issues could learn a lot from SFF writers.

  8. As one who is breaking through the bottom stuff, I guess what I’m looking for is more of the business issues side of things. Where as for those just starting out, learning the craft is more important. Once those details are (somewhat) settled, knowing the business side and how to navigate the shoals would be nice to know.

    1. Jay says:

      That’s an excellent point. I’ve attended a couple of very good workshops on business for writers, but they’re not common.

  9. David Klecha says:

    To be a bit of a pedant, those were Tolstoy’s unhappy families (from the opening of Anna Karenina) not Dostoevsky.

    To the meat of the matter, I’d be interested in what comes after that first book deal, as my friend Steve says, some of the business of the practice. I imagine it would be different for each, depending on how well the first books did, what opportunities arise on their own, etcetera.

    From the ‘art’ side, I wonder too about master class tips for characterization, evoking emotion. What lessons did you learn, what epiphanies were had about how to elicit an effect, if there were any at all.

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