The Lifelong Ladder

I started writing ‘seriously’ just over three years ago. At the time, I had one ‘child’ already flown the nest and another leaving school, heading to university. A new phase of my life was beginning and, wallowing in blissful ignorance, I knew which path I wanted to take - I wanted to write. I wanted to write novels. Lots of them. To be published. To have people read and love my words. To tell stories...I thought I knew what that entailed. Take out your laptop and er...write. I knew it couldn’t be quite that simple, but also naively wondered how hard could it be? I had absolutely no idea how steep (forget steep – try precipitous) the learning curve would be. How many twisted rungs the road to publication ladder would have? Hell, I thought ‘show and tell’ meant one of the girls taking their favourite cuddly toy into school with them.

Well, it was. That was show and tell. It wasn’t, Show, don’t tell. My first lesson in what a difference a word makes. And it heralded the beginning of my apprenticeship. It both showed me and told me how little I knew and hinted at how much there may be yet to learn. Three years on, several half hearted attempts at writing short stories and two full hearted attempts at novel writing - the muddied waters are not much clearer!

So, I ask myself how long this internship lasts? I mean, if I wanted to become a plumber, I’d have a set period of learning, both from more experienced mentors teaching me and from studying for set exams - which I’d be expected to pass before being allowed to fit a boiler on my own. The reality is, though my writing apprenticeship has many similarities, I can see no real end in sight. The internet has allowed me to surround myself with like-minded people at various stages within their careers, all of whom are generous with their teachings and experiences. There are countless numbers of self help books from which other writing skills have been and still can be learned. I could do a Creative Writing diploma or degree if I so chose. But I’ve decided to go it alone. And being in any learning environment, being able to continue confidently on a learning curve does require feedback. A plumber needs a pat on the back from his mentor and he needs to pass his exams in succession before being let loose on that boiler. As a writer, I’m no different. I need different forms of positive feedback en route. Early on, I needed gentle encouragement. ‘Hey this is good!’ from a fellow writer more than sufficed. Later, I needed more. ‘Tell me what’s wrong,’ I urged people who read my work. Now, knowing that I know a lot more than I did then, but still realising I have a lot more to do, I’d love an agent to consider the words ‘I LOVE your book’ or better still ‘I’m sure I can sell this!’

I struggle daily with the idea that every word must be considered and should count. Some days I lose the battle with my inner critic and become a lazy writer. I don’t care if I’m telling. To hell with the effort of showing. I want to TELL, okay? Sometimes it’s just easier to write :

‘What do you mean?’ she scoffed nervously. RATHER THAN
Her heart rattled behind her rib cage. ‘What do you mean?’ she said biting her thumb nail.

See for me, if I’m honest, the first example is easy. Words like this fall like Niagara from my fingertips. The second example, though it doesn’t perhaps flow as easily, does in my mind both look and sound better. It requires writing and re-writing. And three years ago, I wouldn’t have noticed the difference.

So today, after my third anniversary of writing ‘seriously’ has passed, I’ve decided that this apprenticeship is in fact a five year one. It's also time to diversify slightly and linking to Sam's post of yesterday, maybe try working on something other than a novel? After all good writing is good writing and should cross genres with some tweaking? (I can hear all the short story experts out there shouting at their screens 'No!' They're saying, 'That's another apprenticeship altogether!')

Maybe so, but by the time the next couple of years pass, I hope to have lured an agent/publisher into pointing a finger and saying ‘I WANT YOU!’ I'm hoping that the skills I'm gathering will make that possible. Perhaps not, but I do know one thing. I love this writing lark enough to tell myself if it hasn’t happened by then, that this is in fact a six year journey, or a lifelong one if necessary.

And if I have to resort to a further course on Jedi mind tricks? I'll find one.


Marcie Steele said...

Hmm, I'm still on the ladder after ten years. I can, however, like you, see how to make it better now with the words rather than keep changing the plot because I thought that was wrong. Well, at least I think I can, because your example of show not tell still creeps in more than is necessary!

Good luck with your quest! It's great to read about someone who doesn't think it will happen overnight, although ten years is a little bit too long for my liking...will it be worth it though?

Gina Rossi said...

And sometimes that ladder seems to be leaning backwards!
If you are doing what you love, and if you love what you are doing, and if you are prepared to keep learning the craft by whatever means possible, you will succeed.
I've only been writing full time for 18 months, hence the less jaded view - ha ha. When I started, I was stunned by the amount of work writing a novel involves. Getting c. 80 000 words down on paper is a big job.

Karen said...

Brilliant post. Like you, when I started writing seriously (six years ago) I had no idea how long and steep a learning curve it would be, and I still feel I'm learning now. The good thing is that as the years pass, you do start to get a 'feel' for what works and what doesn't, but the other problem is that it's all so subjective. To use your plumbing analogy, when you fit a boiler you've either done it right or wrong - there's no room for differing opinions on the subject!

It really is a good job we love what we're doing :o)

Fionnuala said...

L-Plate - ten years! (Am bowing in admiration!)

Gina, Keep going, keep going, keep going...

Karen, You're right of course - its the subjectivity that can allow doubt to creep in. Thats where Jedi mind tricks might help?!

Nicola Morgan said...

Great post. I have a horrible thing to tell you, though: the apprenticeship never ends. I can assure you that a published writer often faces horrible downs as well as ups, struggling to be read and reviewed, dealing with public negative comment, and sometimes being dropped by a publisher when sales don't match expectations. Many of the bruises remain hidden and authors put a brave face on it and smile for the camera, but inside a lot of us are not waving but drowning! It's like a very long walk up a hill - you think you see the top (publication) but when you get there all you see is more hills stretching ahead. Ooooooh dear, I AM in a cloudy land today!! No, of course, there are wonderful moments, but there are painful ones too.

Fionnuala said...

Great point Nicola,
Several of my published friends keep telling me to enjoy the non published status while I can! There's worse ahead!
I hope you have many more wonderful moments - bruises fade eh?

The Pineapple Tart said...

Congratulations on your determination to show not tell. It's nearly the hardest thing to do well. (Perhaps I should consider poetry?)

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Really enjoyed this, Fiannuala. :)

Caroline Green said...

Oh, I hear you, Fionuala and sometimes wonder the same thing. It really helps to think that it's a period that never really ends, even if you manage to 'make it', as Nicola says. I think Emma Darwin said on Sam's post yesterday that NONE OF THESE WORDS ARE WASTED and that is also a great way to view this pre-publication period. Great post.

Helen Black said...

I'm with Nicola in that I don't think the journey ever ends.

Certainly, even well into book four, I make horrendous boo-boos all the time. I guess the difference is a. I know they are there and b. I have a few ideas that might help solve them.

The only difference is that my learning curve is 'out there' for everyone to see.

Which is something I try not to think about...too often.

Old Kitty said...


What a timely post and absolutely true - "apprenticeship never ends".


I'm only now finding the joy in diversifying - short stories, poetry, flash fic, all sorts of genres - even romance short stories!

And I'm finding that attending writing courses, groups etc also goes a very long way to building my condfidence and enhancing and acquiring writing skills.

Great stuff


Take care

sonia said...

A friend of a friend read that before you get really good at something you usually need to have invested a certain numbers of hours in it. Allowing for living she worked this out to approximately ten years.

All the best - it's great when you write something and it feels like just for a brief while you've conveyed something that can move someone else. well illustrated show not tell - will bear it in mind when I get to rewrite stage.

Administrator said...

Why does Nicola have to go and ruin it all!

When i first started out, almost exactly 5 years ago, i had no idea it would take this long. And i'm still not there. So, you have to feel real passion for writing. I mean, i'm not sure i'd give an unsuccessful relationship this long!

Great post!

Colette Martin said...

Fionnuala, thank you for being so open and honest! As someone who is only a year into her own internship, I can entirely appreciate your journey and look forward to watching you succeed!

Nicola Morgan said...

Sam - I am sorry!! I know, it was a rather painful point, I was making, wasn't it? It's not something I'd say to someone at their launch party, of course, or on the announcement of their longed-for publishing deal, when obviously I'd be all positive and excited for them. But, I am feeling rather despondent about the state of the book industry at the moment, with the increasing void between the huge-sellers and the ones that don't make enough to pay for printer ink. I will take my gloom elsewhere and go and eat some chocolate!

Administrator said...

LOL, Nicola, you know i appreciate your comments really - and don't you dare go away if you are carrying chocolate:)

It's an interesting one though, isn't it - I picture me, 5 years ago, full of naive hope. Would i have started, let alone continued, if i'd known what the journey was really going to be like? I mean, part of the passion develops as your write, you don't have it all right at the beginning. So, if i'd known how hard it was going to be - i mean really hard, involving YEARS of rejection and despair, would i have ever got started?

I think the blinkered approach, initially, is a good thing!

Harvey said...

I agree - the learning never ends. It took me 5 years to work out the difference between showing and telling (so you're ahead of me on that one).

It then took another 10 years to figure out that, actually, tell, don't show is sometimes the right advice.

Still, the fact that novel writing isn't easy is the very thing that keeps us coming back.

Fionnuala said...

WHat fabulous comments from everyone - thank you!
Harvey, really interesting point re how to know if in fact the 'tell' should be employed...Thats a whole other blogpost eh?

Lydia said...

Don't you find every time you sit down you wonder whether you can do it again? I've not really pursued the novel market that much but I've had plenty of short stories published. Every time I sit to begin another one I wonder: can I still do this? I can't imagine the huge self belief it must involve to commit to a 80000 word work. Good on all of you for even trying!

Diney said...

I finished my first novel of 60,000 words last Sept and have had to harden up as the rejections plop through the letter box. It is great when you have work published (I've only had articles, and that was a few years ago as I've been focussing on the novel) and I thought it would be much easier to get a book noticed. Having just received a critique, I feel like throwing my 'baby' out of the cot and starting again, but we all have to take these knocks as constructive I guess?

Fionnuala said...

Lydia, kudos to you for the published short stories - something I'm still trying to master!
Diney, welcome and keep going with the novel. I could paper a wall with the rejections for my first one. Try to keep writing. Maybe start a new project?

Fiona Mackenzie. Writer said...

A friend of mine asked a publisher how long most writers took to get there. The publisher answered, ten, fifteen, twenty years. One or two he'd taken on had done it in five years or less but this was rare.

Cheery aren't I? (I'm at six year point but it seems longer)