When we embark on learning a new craft, it’s tempting to look up what our idols say, to see if we can apply their advice to our own process.
My writing idols are J.K. Rowling, Leigh Bardugo, Michael Crichton, and Stephen King. In fact, when I first started out writing middle-grade (MG) fiction, I tried to emulate J.K. Rowling chapter-by-chapter. I hunted down her outline for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix:
When I was plotting my own novel, I counted the number of words in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone — 77000 — and divided by 120 days to set my daily Scrivener word target for finishing a draft in four months. (Of course, I ended up replotting halfway through! But it was a useful exercise that got me started.)
Like many other writers, I searched the Internet for any tips & tricks my idols could offer. I fired up Google. Before long, I found exactly what I was looking for, on J.K. Rowling's homepage:
Ten Habits All Best-Selling Writers Have In Common.
These Five Tips Will Transform Your Writing!
Follow J.K. Rowling’s Golden Rules For Success!
I clicked. I scrolled. Among J.K. Rowling's Frequently Asked Questions on writing:
“Do you have tips for others trying to write?”
I haven’t got ten rules that guarantee success, although I promise I’d share them if I did. The truth is that I found success by stumbling off alone in a direction most people thought was a dead end, breaking all the 1990s shibboleths about children’s books in the process. Male protagonists are unfashionable. Boarding schools are anathema. No kids book should be longer than 45,000 words.
I have to say that I can’t stand lists of ‘must do’s’, whether in life or in writing. Something rebels in me when I’m told what I have to do before I’m fifty, or have to buy this season, or have to write if I want to be a success.
That awakened the rebel in me: writing without rules! I could play along with that concept. It makes sense that you can’t just follow ten rules to success; if it were that easy, everyone would be doing it!
Leigh Bardugo is another great writer. Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom have some of the most diverse casts and real I-can-see-it-in-my-mind worldbuilding in all of young adult (YA) fantasy. Let’s check her list:
1. Banish perfection. Commit to writing a terrible first draft and get it done.
2. Read outside of your comfort zone. You can learn about story and language from every genre and it will help you develop your own voice.
3. There is no expiration date on your talent.
4. Find readers you trust and learn to walk the line between arrogance and humility.
5. Ignore all of the above. Everyone is different. There is no “right” way to write a book. If you’re working, if you’re writing steadily and finishing projects, then you’ve found your process. Protect it.
The last point left a lasting impression: There is no “right” way to write a book.
Two of my favorite writers saying essentially the same thing is enough for me. Trying to distill successful writing into a series of tips or lists oversimplifies the process and misses the point. It isn’t about finding the process. It's about finding one that works for you.
I was trying to find the silver bullet. I sought magical squares to structure my novel, followed by the cheat code for signing with an agent. But what I should have been seeking was my process for improvement, my system for practice.
So how do you master writing? How do you get better at telling stories to teens and 'tweens?
In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize economist Daniel Kahneman names two basic conditions for acquiring expertise:
・An environment that is sufficiently regular to be predictable.
・An opportunity to learn these regularities through prolonged practice.
Remember this rule: intuition cannot be trusted in the absence of stable regularities in the environment. Whether professionals have a chance to develop intuitive expertise depends essentially on the quality and speed of feedback, as well as on sufficient opportunity to practice. (p. 241)
The key terms are quality and speed of feedback and sufficient opportunity to practice.
Quality and Speed of Feedback
“Informed feedback is useful and necessary.” ~J.K. Rowling.
You don’t need generic advice from people who aren’t in the trenches with you. You need writing feedback from creator-consumers you trust. This feedback group or critique partner can provide support during your darkest moments: writer’s block, rejection letters, or self-doubt. But its true value is simulating your target audience and telling you when your delivery isn’t quite reaching its intended audience. This "first reader" can tell you whether your points land, and where you need to improve.
Why are mentorship programs like Pitch Wars so popular? Yes, the mentors have been there: they have queried, agented, and published. But more importantly, they are
- not being paid or sponsored to provide that feedback, removing one motivation to sugarcoat or read,
- creators like yourself, so they can share tools like dialogue, in medias res, or foreshadowing when suggesting a fix,
- good readers, people who can stand in for your target audience, including the middle graders consuming your series or the agent that may read your query.
Pixar, the animation studio behind Toy Story and Monsters, Inc., has been as deliberate as any creative company in optimizing an environment for feedback. Their early storytellers — John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, Lee Unkrich, and Joe Ranft — started a group called the Braintrust, that allowed each director to give other directors feedback on their stories-in-development. Separate from daily standups or morning screenings, these Braintrust meetings were designed to provide candid feedback on story without ulterior motives clouding their feedback: friendly pats-on-the-back, monetary motivation, boss-to-employee directives, or personal ego in winning arguments.
Ed Catmull, Pixar’s co-founder, describes the Braintrust as a feedback system to help directors find their story. In Creativity Inc.:
“We’ve locked down the first act, but we know the second act is still gelling,” [the director will] say. Or “The ending still isn’t connecting like we want it to.” Then, the feedback usually begins with John. While everyone has an equal voice in a Braintrust meeting, John sets the tone, calling out the sequences he liked best, identifying some themes and ideas he thinks need to be improved... Everybody jumps in with observations about the film’s strengths and weaknesses. (p. 94)
From the filmmakers’ point of view, “To a one, they regard these sessions as essential.”
Michael Arndt, who wrote Toy Story 3, says he thinks to make a great film, its makers must pivot, at some point, from creating the story for themselves to creating it for others. To him, the Braintrust provides that pivot, and it is necessarily painful. “Part of the suffering involves giving up control,” he says. “I can think it’s the funniest joke in the world, but if nobody in that room laughs, I have to take it out. It hurts that they can see something you can’t.”
Ed Catmull says there is no shame or guilt to the fact that our stories start as “ugly babies” that “need nurturing — in the form of time and patience — in order to grow” (p 131).
Finding that level of trust and candor of feedback is easier said than done. Some people don’t find it until they query an agent and receive rejection or representation. But the earlier you find it as a writer, the faster it is to iterate and improve. Think back to Kahneman’s ideal conditions for mastery: “quality and speed of feedback” and “stable regularities in the environment.”
For writers, a stable and regular environment is a reader or critique partner that can tell you when your writing doesn’t deliver for its intended audience. Knowing this as you write helps you improve faster than waiting for an agent to reject you, after you've written the entire manuscript.
For Stephen King, his first reader is his wife, Tabitha. Ideally, many of these first readers are also writers and storytellers trying to reach the same audience as you. As such, they understand some of the disconnects your readers may face.
If you find people you trust, who have no ulterior motives like money, superiority, or sycophancy at stake, then embrace their feedback.
Because, as Ed Catmull writes, “As much as I admire the efficiency of the caterpillar in its cocoon, I do not believe that creative products should be developed in a vacuum” (p 141).
Creative products — movies, books, games, anything with a story — are meant to be consumed. Getting feedback from consumer stand-ins is one of the hallmarks to improving quickly.
The other hallmark is practice.
Sufficient Opportunity to Practice
Sometimes you have to write even when the muse isn’t cooperating. ~J.K. Rowling
Different writers practice in different ways. Michael Crichton does his research and plotting beforehand, then powers straight through his draft. Michael Ovitz, Michael’s agent, wrote in his memoir, Who Is Michael Ovitz?:
Research was the phase Michael enjoyed most. After putting off writing as long as possible, he went at it eighteen hours a day, seven days a week until he was done. He banged out Jurassic Park in a fury. It was like he’d been in hibernation, amassing energy for his signature work (p 216).
On the other hand, Stephen King practices more methodically. He closes his door every morning and aims for ten pages a day, which amounts to 2000 words. That’s 180,000 words over a three-month span. In his memoir, On Writing, he writes,
The closed door is your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business; you have made a serious commitment to write and intend to walk the walk as well as talk the talk (p 155).
Anthony Trollope, a clerk at the British Postal Department famous for his humongous novels like Can You Forgive Her?, famously wrote for two and half hours each morning before leaving for work. As Stephen King describes it, “This schedule was ironclad. If he was in mid-sentence when the two and half hours expired, he left that sentence unfinished until the next morning. And if he happened to finish one of his six-hundred-page heavyweights with fifteen minutes of the session remaining, he wrote The End, set the manuscript aside, and began work on the next book.”
Different writers have different ways to force themselves into the seat, and forcing their fingers to type.
Leigh Bardugo fights through writer’s block by starting with what she feels:
My best solution to this is to simply start writing what you’re feeling. “I don’t know what this scene is supposed to be about. I want to write this book but I don’t know where to start. I know the hero meets the villain somewhere in here, but where? Should it be in a palace or a forest? Okay, let’s say it’s in a palace.” You write the intention of the scene and find your way into it. You trick your fingers into starting to type. You tell yourself the story.
One of Pixar’s animators, Austin Madison, wrote the following advice to fellow creators in his Notes Day memo:
97% of the time I am in the frustrated, struggling, office-corner-full-of-crumpled-up-paper mode. The important thing is to slog diligently through this quagmire of discouragement and despair. Put on some audio commentary and listen to the stories of professionals who have been making films for decades going through the same slings and arrows of outrageous production problems. In a word: PERSIST. PERSIST on telling your story. PERSIST on reaching your audience. PERSIST on staying true to your vision.
Practice is both as simple and as hard as sitting down and doing it, repeatedly, through thick and thin. Finding inspiration in anything you can. Tricking your fingers to type. Showing up day after day.
It’s not glamorous or popular advice because the media can’t glorify a writer at her computer. Editing a manuscript or carrying a conversation with your character doesn’t make a viral YouTube video.
But it’s the practice that leads to better writing.
“The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.” ~Ed Catmull
Carrying this over to writing, you should recognize and embrace your creativity. If an agent or editor rejects you, then pin that rejection on your wall and get back to writing —and rewriting. Query the next agent. Show up to your next Braintrust meeting. Exceptional individuals incorporate feedback, and iterate.
Search far and wide - on the internet, at book signings, in writing classes, at conferences, Pitch Wars - for people who will work with you. Build trust over time. Apply their feedback.
Some sites help writers find other writers:
As Ed Catmull writes, “The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.” Find those friends. Trust them. Open your writing to their feedback.
For over a decade after their heyday of Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and Beast, and The Lion King, Disney Animation Studios failed to deliver films that resonated with audiences. According to Ed Catmull the studio had started prioritizing non-story elements like cost-cutting and schedule over candid feedback on developing story. When Ed Catmull and John Lasseter introduced the Braintrust, those same Disney animators that churned out the failed films were able to start trusting each other again. They learned new behaviors that would help them find better stories. “Largely the same people” succeeded with Tangled and Frozen:
If you’re a writer doubting yourself as you struggle, PERSIST! You’re not alone, and you’re not incapable. As Catmull insists, “everybody has the potential to be creative... Kids are instinctively there. But a lot of them unlearn it. Or people tell them they can’t or it’s impractical.”
As a whole, the human race has been telling stories since cave paintings in prehistoric times, and our minds are wired to weave stories. Our task is to master it.
What I've learned is that it isn't about following rules. Structure may help you get started, but feedback and practice are what help you finish. Instead of seeking out tips and tricks or advice from the best, seek out
・An environment that is sufficiently regular to be predictable.
・An opportunity to learn these regularities through prolonged practice.
Find your feedback group, your Braintrust, your first reader.
Practice your process. Mine your motivations, Trigger your discipline.
And write! ✍️