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Learning As I Go

March 11, 2010

As with my fellow Wicked Writers, I’ve enjoyed thinking back on all the great advice I’ve received over the years and am inspired and recharged by my trip down memory lane.

The first best piece of advice I received came from an old boss. I was new at my first reporting job for a national magazine in Washington, D.C., and dying to prove myself. Soon after starting the job, I’d ended a particularly challenging week of juggling multiple tasks and deadlines and wanted my boss to know all about it, in plenty of rich detail that she could perhaps save for a future personnel evaluation. So I composed a long interoffice email summarizing my accomplishments. Within minutes of sending it, she was in my office, a concerned look across her face.

She took a seat across me and seemed to search for the right words, which ultimately were: “Supriya, your email had not one, but several typos in it.”

Huh?

I countered with, “But I checked all the work that’s going into the magazine, the actual work, and there are no typos there.”

“That’s great,” she explained, “but you’re a writer so everything you write in a professional setting, even casual correspondence, affects our perceptions about you as a writer.”

I probably wasn’t grateful for this advice at the time but over the years, I’ve learned she’s right. Writers should always triple check the work we send out, not only to agents and editors, but to fellow writers and potential readers as well. All of them are likely to make assumptions about the caliber of our writing, our level of professionalism, and how serious we are about our craft based on careless typos or poor grammar. Some would say this isn’t fair, but it does happen and is easy enough to correct.

The second best advice didn’t come in the form of actual advice as much as a sharing of an experience. A few years into writing, I had reworked Breathing in Bombay several times already, and although I knew revisions would be necessary, I felt a long way off from getting it right. A writing friend of mine told me she’d spent years working on her first novel yet had thrown away close to a thousand pages of previous rewrites. I’d read her book and it was terrific, making me realize that while the work isn’t always easy, the journey and the potential results are well worth it. The friend went on to rewrite that terrific book at least once that I know of, write several others after it, and now has a contract from a major publisher that would fill any novelist with envy.

And finally, I probably wouldn’t have made it this far on my own writing journey without CJ Ellisson, who is far more than my writing partner but also an incredible role model. She’s turned a lot of conceptions I had about writing, both the process and the journey, on its head. Though she’s a fairly new writer, what she lacks in years of experience, she makes up for with sheer raw talent, high energy, dedication to learning the craft, and her generous support of other new authors. I learned various aspects of craft from her, such as an efficient technique for outlining, ending a chapter at the start of a new scene rather than at the end of one, and so on.

More important, she showed me how writing fiction today involves more than just spending year after year mastering the craft but also a disciplined approach with an end goal in sight. I could have been writing for another 10 years before I felt comfortable enough even telling non-writers I’m working on a novel. Following CJ’s lead, the journey became practical−and fun.

Beyond all the useful writing advice, what CJ has taught me most of all is something all novelists require–an unwavering belief in one’s self and one’s work.

CJ jokes to everyone about being an “aspiring New York Times bestselling author.” The fact is that only a year after beginning her journey, she’s written a phenomenal novel AND acquired representation from a successful literary agent who recognizes what CJ has accomplished in such a short time and how vast her potential is. It’s no surprise that her new agent represents a number of NYT bestselling authors. If you can dream it, it will happen. Watching CJ succeed by believing in her abilities has given me the confidence to believe in myself and make my dream reachable too.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. March 11, 2010 9:31 am

    Lots of great advice, Supriya! You really hit on one of the most important keys to success with belief in one’s self.

  2. March 11, 2010 9:59 am

    Thanks, Wendy. I know the part about believing in yourself seems like a no-brainer but it actually might be the number one obstacle for a lot of unpublished writers I know (and even published ones, I’m discovering). We beat ourselves up a lot and go up and down the emotional rollercoaster of “am I good enough?” It’s hard to push through that while also doing the job. If anything is worth doing, let’s give ourselves the credit of doing the best work we can and putting ourselves out there. For me, I’ve realized this has been most of the battle.

  3. March 11, 2010 11:36 am

    Thanks for the memories, Supriya. And I’m sure CJ appreciates you as well or she will once her head shrinks enough to fit through a doorway again.

    I liked the advice your old boss gave you about being professional in all your work. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve cringed when I have seen typos, grammatical mistakes and misspelled words in memos and e-mails. It’s even worse in the blogging sphere because there are so many people just putting out words without editing them.

    Keep up the good work and I’m sure you’ll be on the NYT bestseller list with CJ, remembering guys like me as we hawks our books at garage sales and “Friends of the Public Library” auctions.

  4. March 11, 2010 11:37 am

    Oh, great. I made a typo myself. How unprofessional. That should be “hawk” not “hawks.” Egad, how embarrassing.

    • March 11, 2010 12:28 pm

      That’s it, you’re fired. But seriously, you have no idea how many times I proofed my post for today! And yeah, CJ’s been awfully quiet today. 😉

    • March 12, 2010 9:06 am

      BTW, Greg – did you know there was an edit feature under the comments section to correct your typos in comments? It’s on our admin page, I use it often 😉

  5. March 12, 2010 8:09 am

    Okay, okay. Sorry I was quiet. You know I don’t take praise well. I’m convinced someone’s going to jump out and scream “Fraud! Who the hell said you can write?”

    I’m full of confidence in myself, but art is always in the eye of the beholder, and writing, like all forms of art, is subjective to the viewer’s tastes and opinions. I’m grateful to the people that do enjoy my work, but I’m keenly aware there are going to be scores of them that don’t.

    The hardest part this past year has been trying to glean some useful advice from the people who didn’t care for my story. Sometimes the vehemence in their typed words made it impossible, other times I recognized places where my craft truly needed improvement. Like every aspect in life – it’s the delivery of the criticism that matters to the receiver and one should never use honesty as a way to hide their cruelty.

    We all know the people that may not say the words, but they are implied when they tell you something: “I’m telling you for your own good.”

    My inner thoughts on those types of people have always run toward: Really? Sounds more like you’re telling me because you can’t wait to get the nasty words out and feel self-superior.

    So thank you for the praise, Supriya. Yes, this may have been a round about way of getting to the point – but I don’t truly feel worthy. I’m just like every other writer struggling to make it. I dream, I worry, I obsess, I self-doubt and at times I hate my work. All of us go through it– but having a good group of friends can help you stay focused and on track, and I’m grateful for every writer I know and can call a friend.

    Trust me – I’ve run into way too many “peers” that told me I can’t write and that perhaps in a few more years of hard work I’ll be able to produce something worthy. You have to listen to your supporters and ignore the naysayers. I believe our group will make it in this business because we work hard and write well. There’s a lot of crap out there if you haven’t noticed.

    And pretty soon, there will be one more vampire book. Which of course, lots of people will tell you we really don’t need 😉

    Oh, and try to ignore my typos and punctuation mistakes (I’m learning, I swear!!), I need an editor in order to sound like I really know how to write. 😀

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