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Getting Past the Plateau

I received the following question by e-mail earlier this week:

It’s been a couple of years since I got serious about writing, and I feel a little stuck. I was wondering if you have any insights on how to improve as a writer. I write pretty much every day, as much as I can … But I feel like I’m not getting much better. I think at a certain point, I might need some guidance. Do you have any suggestions? What helped you? A class? A teacher? Any particular con that has great workshops? A book?

Yep, I’ve been there more than once. There were years I was writing away, submitting to every paying market I could find and getting nowhere. I felt stuck, like I had become a pretty good writer, just not good enough … whatever that meant.

It’s frustrating, it’s discouraging, and it’s normal. It’s not limited to writing, either. I’ve hit plateaus in everything from karate to yo-yo tricks. Here are a few of my thoughts on getting past them…

1. There’s a difference between “I feel like I’m not getting much better” and “I’m not getting better.” It’s hard to see improvement, especially when it’s gradual. But read one of your trunked stories from five years ago. You might be shocked at the contrast. (You might not, too. All of this is individual, and my experience is mine alone.)

2. Writing groups. In 2001, I started workshopping with four other local writers, and it helped a lot. I think the things that made the group work for me were:

  • We were all in roughly the same point in our careers, with one or two professional sales each.
  • We had similar goals: we wanted to sell fiction. (As opposed to wanting warm fuzzies or a mutual lovefest.)
  • We met regularly, giving me built-in deadlines.
  • I submitted work regularly, meaning they were able to see and point out trends in my writing.

The writing group eventually dissolved, and I don’t think a group would be as helpful to me today. But one way or another, most of us need feedback from people who know what they’re talking about.

2b. Other feedback. These days, I get that feedback from my agent, my editor, and a handful of other professionally published authors. It helps. How-to-write books can be useful (I started reading Maass’ book a while back), but I think in-person feedback helps more. And one-time feedback (such as a convention workshop) wasn’t as helpful to me as longer-term, ongoing feedback from someone who could see the patterns in my work.

3. Write something different. Challenge yourself. A few things I tried include:

  • Collaborating with a friend on a SF story
  • Writing a research-intensive historical fantasy
  • Trying to write tear-jerkers (I was most comfortable with humor)

The downside of these experiments is that sometimes you’re going to fail hard. But you’ll also learn from them.

4. Take risks. Avoid the “safe” stories. Write what scares you. Write what you’re passionate about. Write what you love. Rip open your heart and smear it all over the page. Heck, Goblin Quest might be humorous fantasy fluff, but I love that little goblin, and I’ve got an awful lot of empathy for the runt who gets tormented by the crowd. The story meant a lot to me, and I think that strengthened the book.

5. Other suggestions include reading widely, hanging out with other authors (for the energy, if nothing else), and remembering to think of it as a marathon, not a sprint. It can take ten years or more to sell that first novel. Be patient with yourself.

I hope this is helpful, and folks are more than welcome to chime in with other ideas and suggestions.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.

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( 38 comments — Leave a comment )
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(Deleted comment)
jimhines
Jun. 16th, 2011 01:58 pm (UTC)
I'm a little wary of absolute statements.

My writing group was very helpful for me. But not all writing groups are helpful, and not all writers need the same kind of support, or learn in the same ways.

In general though, I agree that a good writing group will probably be very helpful for a lot of writers.
(no subject) - kosarin - Jun. 17th, 2011 12:15 am (UTC) - Expand
snapes_angel
Jun. 16th, 2011 01:56 pm (UTC)
There's also a free program called WriteSparks-Lite (the full version, there is a charge for it, but I have the free version, and it's pretty good) which generates writing prompts, some of which are completely different from what I usually write.

http://writesparks.com/

There are a lot of writers groups on the Internet that can offer feedback. At least, a lot compared to the non-existent ones where I live. :p Depending on your genre, check the SFWA site, and even the Romance Writers of America. There's virtually something for everything, out there.
jimhines
Jun. 16th, 2011 02:42 pm (UTC)
I hadn't heard of that. Reminds me a little bit of a Writers of the Future exercise from the workshop, where they give you a story seed and you have 24 hours to turn in your finished story.

My prompt was Scott Nicholson's beard.
(no subject) - snapes_angel - Jun. 16th, 2011 03:01 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Jun. 16th, 2011 03:04 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - snapes_angel - Jun. 16th, 2011 03:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
zornhau
Jun. 16th, 2011 02:05 pm (UTC)
The three most useful books on writing I ever read...
Robert McKee "Story"
Stephen King [guess]
Dwight V Swain, "Techniques of the Selling Author"
jimhines
Jun. 16th, 2011 02:39 pm (UTC)
Re: The three most useful books on writing I ever read...
I've heard lots of good things about the King book, but haven't grabbed it yet.

I've got the Swain, but it didn't click with me as well as the Maass one I'm reading now. I may give it another try, though.
jimvanpelt
Jun. 16th, 2011 02:09 pm (UTC)
Interesting question and good comments, Jim.
jimhines
Jun. 16th, 2011 02:41 pm (UTC)
Thanks! I like it when other people come up with blog ideas for me :-)
kthanna
Jun. 16th, 2011 02:16 pm (UTC)
Great ideas.

I've been fighting writer's lethargy for about twelve months. Mind you I have yet to sell anything, largely because I don't submit much, if at all.

However I also found it very useful to take a different approach to the way I write. I usually pants most of my stories, and run out of steam, or fall to the mercy of my characters so often that I never finish what I start.

I recently detailed character outlines, places, things and a detailed step by step plot outline. And Voila finished writing my story in short order.

Sometimes it not only helps to step outside of your genre, but your usual practices, I think.
jimhines
Jun. 16th, 2011 02:41 pm (UTC)
Oh, definitely. Part of learning how to write is learning which processes work for you. Outline or no outline? Revise-as-you-go or save that for later? Write in long, six-hour blocks, or smaller chunks of time (assuming your schedule allows it)?

It's a great idea to try different processes and see which works best for you personally.
samhenderson
Jun. 16th, 2011 03:11 pm (UTC)
I have found #4 to be particularly true - in general I've found that going with the wacky, seemingly-unsellable idea produces better stories overall.
jimhines
Jun. 16th, 2011 03:16 pm (UTC)
Yep. Looking back, I think some of my best stories were the ones that were hardest and scariest to write.
cathshaffer
Jun. 16th, 2011 03:13 pm (UTC)
Very nice. Workshops are great. Try Clarion, Odyssey, Viable Paradise, WOTF, etc.
jimhines
Jun. 16th, 2011 03:15 pm (UTC)
I tried to try Clarion! Twice! Why do you keep tormenting me with your Clarion Superiority? :-(
(no subject) - cathshaffer - Jun. 16th, 2011 03:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Jun. 16th, 2011 03:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
margaret_y
Jun. 16th, 2011 04:05 pm (UTC)
It's helpful to know that this is very, very normal. As beginning writers, we progress rapidly at first. The first 80 or 90% of the way to "good" happens quite quickly, within a year or two if one is writing every day. But then progress slows and you start fighting for every percentage point.
jimhines
Jun. 16th, 2011 05:35 pm (UTC)
Karate followed the same curve for me. The initial progress was easy to see, and felt like it came quickly. These days, it's harder to see the changes ... but that doesn't mean I'm not improving.

On the other hand, in the beginning, I was learning the easy stuff. The basic movements. Now I'm trying to master the more difficult things, and that does take more work.
(no subject) - margaret_y - Jun. 16th, 2011 06:26 pm (UTC) - Expand
mtlawson
Jun. 16th, 2011 04:31 pm (UTC)
I think it's safe to say you've made it as a writer when you've got people asking you for advice. When is the "Write Like a Goblin" book due out?
jimhines
Jun. 16th, 2011 05:36 pm (UTC)
I've toyed with the idea of rounding up some writing-related blog posts and putting those together as an e-book. Don't know how much interest there would be, though. It's a back-of-the-mind project right now.
julieandrews
Jun. 16th, 2011 04:55 pm (UTC)
A book of writing exercises might be good. Try things like writing without an 'e'. Or to write in the style of a particular author. Things like that.
hand2hand
Jun. 16th, 2011 06:06 pm (UTC)
I think your suggestions are awesome!

I would add that if you get into a writing group, either face to face or online (and I have used both), try to make sure that at least some of the people in the group are better writers than you are; ahead of you on the learning curve somehow. I always learned more from people way ahead of me.

A couple of books that I found very useful were "The Weekend Novelist" by Ray, which really helps with realistic organization and scheduling (my biggest problem is procrastination), "Writing Down the Bones" by Goldberg, for inspiration and exercises, and "The Artist's Way" by Cameron for dealing with various blocks and things like being jealous of other writers and worrying about success or "making it." Ray Bradbury's book of essays is also very good. I also enjoyed Ursula Le Guin's two books of essays; especially the ones that describe her own process, which is mostly a matter of LISTENING.

I also love the various internet lists you can easily find of the Forty Common Plots or the Seven Common Plots or however many there are!

Thanks for the post.
jimhines
Jun. 16th, 2011 07:48 pm (UTC)
Thanks!

It's interesting ... I like working with people who are a little bit ahead of me, but sometimes if the person is *too* far ahead, it's not as helpful. Partly because it can skew the group dynamics (breaking it down into "leaders" and the not-as-published followers), and partly because someone with ten books out and two series under contract is in a completely different world than the person working to make their third SFWA-qualifying short story sale, if that makes sense?

Not saying you can't learn from people who are way ahead. I got to have dinner with David Feintuch once when I was a wee writer. He glanced at the first few pages of my work-in-progress and tossed off a tip that changed how I wrote dialogue ever since.
sixteenbynine
Jun. 16th, 2011 06:37 pm (UTC)
I'd like to comment on this, from the POV of someone who is slowly, agonizingly, making the transition from "self-published author" to "published author".

#3-#4 from Jim's list is the first thing that comes to mind. You must, must, MUST get out of your comfort zone. This does /not/ mean writing about topics that squick you. This means taking challenges that are a notch or two above what you've been content to take on so far.

Por ejemplo: If you've only written stuff in the first person, do some third-person (or vice versa), and seek out material that presents a good justification for doing so. (My own justification: First person is for people with a "writer's voice" of their own. Third person is like using a "down shot" in a film: you use it to add an omniscient perspective because the material demands it.)

Another thing I'd recommend is challenging your READING comfort zone. I actually read a lot of nonfiction these days and find that to be more useful for stimulating my writing urges than fiction in any genre. Go pick up a nonfiction book about a subject that interests you and see where that leads you. You might not end up writing about anything that's in the book itself; the point is to just set out in a wholly new direction.
jimhines
Jun. 16th, 2011 07:51 pm (UTC)
Libriomancer will be the first fantasy book I've done in first-person. It's definitely different ... but it feels good to flex a new set of writing muscles, even when I'm grumbling about having to learn how to do it.

Definitely agree with you about reading as widely as possible. Both to learn from other authors, and because you never know where you're going to find that line or detail that inspires a story...
stevie_carroll
Jun. 16th, 2011 08:02 pm (UTC)
I can relate to all those suggestions. Great reply there.
green_knight
Jun. 16th, 2011 09:00 pm (UTC)
I'd encourage anybody who feels ready to move up a level to find their greatest weakness - the thing that readers stumble over in their writing - and to face that problem down and tackle it. Improving overall is all very well, but I wish I had taken the time ten years ago to *really* look at the problem and identify its root cause, which lies in the way I imagine the story in my head. In the meantime, I learnt a boatload of other things and how to edit the problem, step by step, into a semblance of decency; but I *really* wish that I'd taken the time then to question my understanding when I started out, because the problem didn't mysteriously go away merely by doing all the valuable thing you list above..

rymrytr
Jun. 17th, 2011 12:11 am (UTC)
Choice of Genre


For someone who takes all this advice to heart, what are the chances of success, without writing in the current popular genre's?

Most writers here seem to be into SF; Horror; Vampires; Ghosts; Slash; Fantasy; Wizards; Dragons; - How's the market for "Feel Good" stories?

My favorites are things like A Single Shard and So B. It; Maugham's humor like "The Verger" etc.

A story that requires a finger to your eye, to wipe the mist or single tear...


jimhines
Jun. 17th, 2011 12:16 am (UTC)
Re: Choice of Genre
It's impossible to say. (And depends in part on your definition of success.)

I broke in primarily with humorous sword & sorcery, which is pretty far from what's popular in the fantasy genre these days.

I think in general, if the stories are good enough and you stick with it, you've got a good chance of finding a market and an audience.
Re: Choice of Genre - lenora_rose - Jun. 17th, 2011 03:06 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Choice of Genre - rymrytr - Jun. 17th, 2011 07:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
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