Getting Past the Plateau

I received the following question by e-mail earlier this week:

It’s been a couple of years since I got serious about writing, and I feel a little stuck. I was wondering if you have any insights on how to improve as a writer. I write pretty much every day, as much as I can … But I feel like I’m not getting much better. I think at a certain point, I might need some guidance. Do you have any suggestions? What helped you? A class? A teacher? Any particular con that has great workshops? A book?

Yep, I’ve been there more than once. There were years I was writing away, submitting to every paying market I could find and getting nowhere. I felt stuck, like I had become a pretty good writer, just not good enough … whatever that meant.

It’s frustrating, it’s discouraging, and it’s normal. It’s not limited to writing, either. I’ve hit plateaus in everything from karate to yo-yo tricks. Here are a few of my thoughts on getting past them…

1. There’s a difference between “I feel like I’m not getting much better” and “I’m not getting better.” It’s hard to see improvement, especially when it’s gradual. But read one of your trunked stories from five years ago. You might be shocked at the contrast. (You might not, too. All of this is individual, and my experience is mine alone.)

2. Writing groups. In 2001, I started workshopping with four other local writers, and it helped a lot. I think the things that made the group work for me were:

  • We were all in roughly the same point in our careers, with one or two professional sales each.
  • We had similar goals: we wanted to sell fiction. (As opposed to wanting warm fuzzies or a mutual lovefest.)
  • We met regularly, giving me built-in deadlines.
  • I submitted work regularly, meaning they were able to see and point out trends in my writing.

The writing group eventually dissolved, and I don’t think a group would be as helpful to me today. But one way or another, most of us need feedback from people who know what they’re talking about.

2b. Other feedback. These days, I get that feedback from my agent, my editor, and a handful of other professionally published authors. It helps. How-to-write books can be useful (I started reading Maass’ book a while back), but I think in-person feedback helps more. And one-time feedback (such as a convention workshop) wasn’t as helpful to me as longer-term, ongoing feedback from someone who could see the patterns in my work.

3. Write something different. Challenge yourself. A few things I tried include:

  • Collaborating with a friend on a SF story
  • Writing a research-intensive historical fantasy
  • Trying to write tear-jerkers (I was most comfortable with humor)

The downside of these experiments is that sometimes you’re going to fail hard. But you’ll also learn from them.

4. Take risks. Avoid the “safe” stories. Write what scares you. Write what you’re passionate about. Write what you love. Rip open your heart and smear it all over the page. Heck, Goblin Quest might be humorous fantasy fluff, but I love that little goblin, and I’ve got an awful lot of empathy for the runt who gets tormented by the crowd. The story meant a lot to me, and I think that strengthened the book.

5. Other suggestions include reading widely, hanging out with other authors (for the energy, if nothing else), and remembering to think of it as a marathon, not a sprint. It can take ten years or more to sell that first novel. Be patient with yourself.

I hope this is helpful, and folks are more than welcome to chime in with other ideas and suggestions.