As a book lover, I’ve always held authors in glowing regard.
They create entire worlds and seemingly wield superpowers to transport us through time and space. But as a writer working on my first novel, I had to get over my unflinching adoration for authors.
It simply wasn’t helping.
In truth, it wasn’t until I stopped trusting writers that I really started growing as one myself.
AUTHORS ARE JUST HUMANS WHO WRITE
To develop as writers, we must acknowledge the fallibility of authors, even great ones.
For me, the trick was reading unpublished work. Because when I started reading unpublished work, the flaws became obvious.
The biggest surprise was when I carried my critical eye to published novels. That’s when I noticed they had flaws, too. Fewer flaws, yes, but still imperfect.
It was such a relief to see that authors weren’t superheroes, but rather they were mere mortals who put in the work and published their stories, blemishes and all.
But if writers have any extraordinary abilities at all, I’d say they have powers that any writer could develop.
BECOME THE BEST WRITER HUMANLY POSSIBLE
The process begins with being critical of your own work.
Writing is revising but you can’t fix what you can’t see. And I discovered that more than anything, reading unpublished work can help us recognize the problems in our own writing.
For instance, when I was reading submissions for a literary journal, I found myself getting frustrated with stories that skimmed along the surface of character development.
Over and over, I jotted “PASS” on stories that felt unfinished.
You can imagine my surprise when I later went home to read some of my own short stories, and found the same shortcoming.
I promptly assigned myself more reading time on the topic of character development, and then I worked on revealing my characters’ motivations more effectively.
HOW TO ACCESS UNPUBLISHED WORK
There are two simple ways to get your hands on unpublished work on a regular basis:
1. Read For a Literary Journal
Reading submissions for a literary journal is a great way to hone your critical eye.
People submit all kinds of work. Some, I swear, read like they were dictated from a dream state and sent off without proofreading.
But it’s not the really bad ones you’ll learn the most from. It’s the endless deluge of okay prose that’s really eye-opening.
You’ll become highly attuned to what bores you. You’ll see repeated frustrating phrases like “very unique.” And you’ll hear your fellow readers say, “If I read ______ one more time!”
2. Join a Workshop or Critique Group
Writers tend to groan at workshops because we don’t want to spend our time giving feedback to other writers.
I get it, I do. We all have hectic lives. But don’t dismiss these opportunities just because you’re busy.
If you’re thinking there’s no way you could fit another meeting into your life, consider joining an online critique group that allows readers to post feedback any time, day or night.
Whether in person or online, workshops and critique groups push us to explain why we did or didn’t like something.
When you’re reading for a journal you can easily say, “This didn’t grab me,” and toss it aside. But when you’re part of a workshop or critique group, you must tell writers WHY something didn’t grab you (without making them cry).
So workshops and critique groups will compel you to dig in and really figure out what’s wrong in a scene or plotline. And once you develop this skill of analyzing stories, it will translate directly into your own writing.
STOP TRUSTING YOUR OWN WORK
Once I got over my author worship, I was able to apply what I observed about other people’s writing to my own stories.
Preparing to give informed feedback meant being diligent because I had to look for the myriad of things I learned in school – from split infinitives all the way up to story structure. It became a habit and before long, I began to see my own work in a new light.
I no longer read anything with the same trusting naiveté I once employed, and my writing is better because of that.
Some day I plan to read a novel I’ve published and find satisfaction despite my well-engaged cynicism.
And when I get there, I’ll be sure to thank my practiced distrust.
April Dávila is a writer living in Southern California. She is currently working on her first novel. Her blog, AprilDavila.com, was recently named one of Writer’s Digest’s 101 Best Websites for Writers.