Do you know how long it took for Buffy to become the Slayer? Just a few days.
Do you know how long it took for Veronica to become a badass teen detective? An entire lifetime of observing, practicing, doing it wrong and learning from her mistakes. By the time the show was cancelled (so. wrong.) little Ronnie was still figuring things out.
Why the huge difference in time for these two awesome characters to learn and develop their craft?
One is given powers by a mystical pure-demon entity of the universe while the other’s an ordinary girl who learns her awesomeness through time and trial and error.
At any one time there can be one (or two and I’m not even touching the slayer gang thing that happened in season 7) slayers in the world. You are not it.
But extraordinarily talented practitioners of a real craft? There can be many, many of those. And that’s what you, as a writer, should be aiming for.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m actually one of those who believes great writers have inherent creative talent. But that’s just a jumping off point. Even inherently great writers need to study and hone their craft in order to make it in publishing. What your “craft” is will be up to you. There are all sorts of writers and stories that make up publishing, so I’m not going to say any genre or style, etc. is better or lesser than another. But in this oversaturated YA market, you are going to need every possible advantage to get your manuscript read, signed and sold.
I’m done being frustrated by those who think they will write a novel in a couple of weeks, send it off and wait for the publishing riches to flow in. That’s just fodder for the funnies and our readership is way too smart to buy into that. But when’s the last time you took a good, honest look at how far along in your learning process you really are?
I only ask because I have discovered, after several months of reading for a lit agent, the intense disappointment that comes with hoping for a great manuscript only for it to fall short. And oftentimes the falling short is something that could have been remedied with more careful crafting, whether that means better writing or better plotting.
So how can you develop your craft and how long should it take?
The second part of that question is much harder to answer than the first. Maybe it takes you a year and two manuscripts before you really have it. More likely it takes a lifetime of learning, Veronica.
That doesn’t mean you’ve spent your life reading How-To books or attending creative writing classes. Which brings us to:
How to Develop Your Craft (pick two or more):
Read. For law’s sake, read. For most writers, the lifetime experience comes from this reading. We spend our youths longing for books as presents and getting around lights out by stashing a book and a flashlight under our pillows. Years and years of reading puts us in a literary mind-set. We learn how stories are built, how great sentences flow, how effective the right word can be simply by absorbing the contents of books. If you are new to reading, you have lots of cramming to do. If you are new to reading the genre you wish to write (or have never read in the genre you wish to write) don’t pick up a pen until you have a few dozen good novels under your belt. Please, for the love of all that is holy, don’t write in a genre you’ve never read. It’s glaringly obvious.
Study. I didn’t study creative writing as an undergrad (English, yes) and I have no plans to pursue an MFA in my lifetime. That doesn’t mean these methods of learning the craft aren’t valuable. They certainly can be. A program that focuses your attentions, forces you to write and meet deadlines and gives you probable writing assistance and peer feedback can be beneficial to developing your craft. Whether you decide on a formal course of writing study or not, you can enhance your learning by reading books about writing (including grammar and style guides) and dissecting or doing close readings of classic, award-winning or popular literature.
Practice. There’s a reason doctors do several years of residency training. On the job practice is the best way to learn how to properly implement the things they learned in Med school. There are very few careers that don’t take some amount of practice to be very good at (can anyone think or a single one???) and writing is certainly not one. One in many thousands authors gets that first ms published (see Buffy, above) but don’t assume that one is going to be you. I don’t mean for that to sound nasty. It’s nothing more than statistics. Don’t write thinking your story is going to be a throw-away, but do allow yourself to recognize if the first, second or twelfth novel isn’t “the one.” Those novels are your residency, the thing that’s going to give you an advantage over those who don’t practice.
In this tough YA market, you need to take advantage of craft-development opportunities and be honest with yourself about how far you’ve come in your learning process. Agent inboxes are overflowing with stories that have great concepts but poor writing or amazing writing but plots that fall apart. Ultimately, the vast majority of submissions fall short.
And then agents have to make sad puppy dog faces (this is totally true).