Columns > Published on November 9th, 2017

Five Tools for the Journeyman Writer

A couple of months ago, I had an idea for a new book with no vampires in it.

This is actually pretty unusual for me. For my entire writing career, I’ve stuck almost exclusively to the urban fantasy genre, which is my happy place. I love what I do, but after twelve books of writing…well, not the same thing, but related things, I figured it might be time to go outside my comfort zone, maybe try something a little more literary. To do that, I decided I would need to spend a little time improving my writing.

There was just one problem: I had no idea how to go about it. Which is when it came to my attention that there just aren’t many resources geared toward mid-career writers.

This is the opposite problem from when I first began writing fiction. For better or worse, beginning writers can now access approximately seven billion different resources to learn how to write and publish their first novel, from free online articles to expensive writer conferences. Learning how to write a book in the first place is difficult, but help is out there.

Improving your writing after years of experience, however, is like trying to repair a boat in the middle of the ocean. Think about it: if I were an engineer, a teacher, or a doctor, there would be conferences and certifications I could take to bone up on the latest methods and technologies in any given year. But once you reach a certain point in your writing career, where you’ve published a number of books and found some success, the general assumption is, okay, you’re done. You are a writer. Congratulations, now keep churning out those words.

Some people would probably say “just keep writing,” and that’s not a bad strategy. Of the twelve books I’ve completed, I like to think that I’ve learned something on each one, whether it was honing a skill, experimenting with a technique, or just expanding my research. At some point, however, I hit a wall with what I could learn by myself. So I spent way too much of my designated worktime researching how to improve my work.

If, like me, you’re a mid-career writer wanting to improve (or you’re on your way to this point), here are some of your options:

Once you reach a certain point in your writing career, where you’ve published a number of books and found some success, the general assumption is, okay, you’re done. You are a writer.

1. Continuing Education Programs

Although I have a Bachelors degree in English Literature, I didn’t write a word of fiction until I was twenty-three. Luckily, I live in a city with a pretty big university, and that university has an extensive program in continuing education classes for new writers. These are non-degree courses, workshops, and seminars that are designed to work around a fulltime job and/or family. Because of the time constraints, they tend to be relatively inexpensive, bite-sized affairs (sometimes just a two-hour class on a Saturday) that target one area of your writing. For example, you can take a class just to work on dialogue, or setting descriptions, or character backgrounds, and so on. If you happen to be aware of a specific weakness in your writing, these classes can be a great way to address it. Occasionally a noted writer will be brought in to teach a specialized subject, or there’s a deep-dive into something you can use.

If you live near a decent-sized university, poke around the website and see if they offer something similar. Pay special attention to the courses marked “Master Class.”  However, make sure and read all class descriptions closely, because many of these classes are still geared toward beginning writers –or to “all levels,” which is often code for beginning writers. If you’re not careful you might find yourself in a room where you’ve got as much knowledge as the teacher, and that’s a waste of everyone’s time.

2. Online Courses

If you don’t have an in-person option where you live, many, many universities offer online versions of those non-credit classes. There are also literary arts centers and online education hubs (COUGH COUGH Litreactor COUGH) devoted specifically to writing. These can be great for working around your writing schedule, but again, make sure you find the right course to challenge you. You may have to wait a bit for one to come up.

3. Workshopping

The idea is simple: get a few writers together, exchange manuscripts, and give each other notes on what’s working and what isn’t. Many of us have to try workshopping in college or grad school, and there are plenty of successful writers who keep this method going during the journeyman phase of their careers.

I, however, am not one of them. In a group of writers I admire, workshopping feels like showing up to a final exam naked, and in a group of writers I don’t know or respect…well, why would I care what they think?

So no, workshopping isn’t for everyone, and it’s okay if you’ve decided it’s not the right strategy for you. There are other ways to make use of your friends: for example, I’ve found it helpful to ask other writers which books, blogs, or articles on craft they have found most useful. If, however, you found workshopping useful at a different point in your writing career, maybe give it another try with a friend or group of colleagues. If you do, I recommend trying to find someone who’s at a relatively similar point in your careers, or slightly more advanced.

4. Writer's Retreats

A writer’s retreat is exactly what it sounds like: you go to a certain location and work on your project away from all your daily distractions. There are many reasons why writer’s retreats are helpful—for me, anytime I spend money to travel somewhere, I am motivated by guilt to work my butt off—and if you have a good attitude about it, you’re likely to come home with a fantastic amount of work output.

The harder question, though, is whether this method will actually advance your writing. There’s a good chance that doing more of what you’ve been doing won’t really develop any new skills. Considering the often-astronomical cost of retreats, you may find it just as useful to buy a few new craft books and hole up at a hotel for a few days.

If the idea of someone else organizing a retreat appeals to you, though, I’d focus on the options that include a learning element, such as lectures from a noted instructor or advanced workshopping.

5. Residencies

Writing residencies are a little different from the more laid-back “retreat.” Residencies are arranged through colleges or non-profit organizations, and most of the good ones are highly competitive. You have to go through a tedious application process, complete with letters of recommendation and writing samples, and there’s often a fee just to apply.

The good news, however, is that if you do get in, the residency itself will usually have a reduced cost or no cost at all. And they can be educational—many include workshopping, feedback from writing professors, or even just access to libraries filled with craft books.

Because of their non-profit status and the competitive framework, though, residencies tend to come with a lot of rules, so be sure to read all the fine print before you mail off that application check. The other aspect to really consider is the time commitment: there are a handful of one-week opportunities, but I found that most residencies last from two weeks to three months. If, like me, you have kids at home, this can be highly impractical.

For more specific information about all of these options, I also recommend looking at websites for writing magazines such as Writers Digest or Publishers Weekly. There is information out there for mid-career writers, and new classes are beginning all the time. Most of all, don’t be afraid to leave your comfort zone, even if it means admitting a weakness in your skill set. Many of the best novels in the world wouldn’t have happened if a writer hadn’t been willing to take a leap.

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About the author

Melissa Olson was born and raised in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, and studied film and literature at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. After graduation, and a brief stint bouncing around the Hollywood studio system, Melissa proved too broke for LA and moved to Madison, WI, where she eventually acquired a master’s degree from UW-Milwaukee, a husband, a mortgage, a teaching gig, two kids, and two comically oversized dogs, not at all in that order.

She loves Madison, but still dreams of the food in LA. (Literally. There are dreams.) Along with her Scarlett Bernard novels Dead Spots, Trail of Dead, and Hunter’s Trail she has also released a mystery novel, The Big Keep. Melissa’s work has been published in the Daily Trojan, the Chippewa Falls Herald Telegram, The International Journal of Comic Art, The La Crosse Tribune, U-Wire, Women on, and the compilation Images of the Modern Vampire. She has also presented or been on panels at the Midwest Popular Culture/American Culture Conference, the International Association of the Fantastic in the Arts Conference, OdysseyCon, and EncountersCon in Wichita.

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