Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Apprenticeship


When I was given this opportunity to write a little advice for new writers, I paused and decided to research a bit of “advice to writers.” What I saw troubled me. There’s a lot of advice on how to build your platform, social media, how to get an agent, how to sell your first book, and so on. Yes, you need to know how to build your platform at some point—as well as all of that other stuff. But what I decided to advise you is this: step back from the market mindset, the social media, the how-do-I-sell-this-book mindset, and apprentice yourself.
If somewhat medieval images of working with no pay, learning your craft just for someone else to make the big bucks come to mind, that’s a good thing. Because that’s exactly what it is to learn your craft—at least at first. But you’re doing what you love, right? You’re diving deeply into learning about language, narrative, style and structure, right? This is my biggest piece of advice to any new writer: if this is not what you love about being a writer, stop. Stop torturing yourself. Ask yourself why you’re doing it. If it’s not for the love of it, you will be a very unhappy person.
If you’re lucky, during your “apprenticeship” you will have another well-paying job. If you are very lucky (like I was) you will have a job in the editorial field as an assistant where you can learn and soak every bit of it up. No English teacher anywhere could ever have taught me as much as an editor I worked with for six years at a non-profit in the DC area. Working as an editor, you get to know the language intimately. Knowing the ins and outs of language, style, grammar, syntax, will serve you much better than know if you know how to use Twitter. Well, at first it will. Ultimately, it will be your writing that sets you apart with an agent or an editor at a publishing house—and the reader, as well.-3
Not all of us live in New York or Washington, DC, or even a big city where there are places that hire editors, let alone assistants. If you don’t, here are some ideas for ways you can apprentice yourself that may not be traditional, but will help you out:
  1. Find local writers in your area. Be very careful about this. Select a writer that is published and has similar interests to you. Ask if you can help or assist them in some way. Maybe you know more about technology and could offer help. Maybe they need a babysitter a few hours a week so they can write. Offer to help and ask if they could read your work. When/if they read it, don’t be defensive. Learn from it. You can also do this virtually. Agree to be a virtual assistant.
  2. Take a poetry class. No matter what kind of writer you are, studying poetry will enhance your writing.
  3. Study your favorite writers intensely. Analyze a paragraph, a chapter, and so on. On average, how many words are in their sentences? How long are their paragraphs. Just take notice of this. Or write something in the same style—just as an exercise. If you find you have questions about their technique, email them. It may start a great conversation. Writers love to talk about their own work.
  4. Start your own publication or blog. Give it professional deadlines and standards. Soon enough, if you don’t have high enough standards, a blog audience will let you know.
  5. Take on any writing assignment. I’ve written about everything from math education to life insurance. Take on a ghostwriting gig. Learn to write for education publishers. Get out of your comfort zone. I’ve gone from writing cookbooks to writing mysteries. Allow yourself room to grow, try new things, experiment with new genres and forms.
  6. Along that same line: write. You are writing, aren’t you? I had the chance to hear the fabulous and successful Jeffery Deaver speak recently at a conference. It reminded me that the best thing you can do as a writer is to write. As he said, and I’m paraphrasing, even if you don’t sell your first few manuscripts, it’s a part of the process. You are writing. Learn from each struggle, each rejection, and move on. Make that commitment to yourself.
  7. Learn a foreign language. Latin is the best—but any foreign language will force you to know you own language more intimately. (That editor I learned so much from had a degree in Latin.)
  8. After you sell your book—and you will if you keep at it—the apprenticeship doesn’t stop. You might sell your novel and the editor wants you to cut 30,000 words from your manuscript. And you will do it, of course, without complaint. And it will be one of the best learning experiences of your life.
So much it writing is about processing what we learn, read, practice, and churn out to make better writing. We usually hear about the “overnight” huge successes, who somehow seem to make it look easier. But don’t let that fool you—for most of us, the learning never stops.

DSC_0219Mollie Cox Bryan wrote the regional bestseller  Mrs. Rowe’s Little Book of Southern Pies and  Mrs. Rowe’s Restaurant Cookbook: A Lifetime of Recipes from the Shenandoah Valley.  She is an award winning journalist and poet,  who lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia with her family. Please visit her at  



jenny milchman said...

What great advice, Mollie! On another thread I'm active in we're talking about the speed and ease of indie publishing, and what risks contained therein. One, I believe, is the loss of exactly the sort of apprenticeship you're talking about. Learning to write takes time. In my case, it took me 11 years--if you start counting from when I began seeking publication, not when I began writing, which was at age 5--and eight novels before I had something worth being read widely. Before that, a spark, a hint, but not a publishable novel. We lose this time of enforced revision and honing our craft at great peril, I think.

Best of luck and congratulations on completing your apprenticeship!

Mollie Bryan said...

Thanks, Jenny! I agree completely. There are some fabulous Indie authors out there who understand all about apprenticing and approach their work professionally. They hire editors, book cover designers, and so on. But there is a danger there in leaping forward before the work is ready. Savvy readers won't buy another book if they've been burned on the first. ;-)

Miranda Parker said...

I agree, Jenny. Great post and I hope more authors read this before they become published. I've been on staff at RT Book Reviews Magazine for five years before I became published. And before that I was and still am a journalist (15 years). I've also been a book awards judge, book reviewer, a marketing consultant for publishing house, and a reader for two publishing houses before I thought about writing a novel. The more you know the more prepared you will be.

Mollie Cox Bryan said...

You are living quite an apprenticeship, Miranda. I can't wait to read your first novel. Cheers!

Ellen Stanton said...

You know that I'm a fan of yours!
Great advice!
Can't wait for your next Scrapbook novel to be published!


Mollie Cox Bryan said...

Thank you Ellen! The next book (SCRAPBOOK OF SHADOWS) is scheduled for a January 2013 release. Have a great day!

Di Eats the Elephant said...

Dead on about studying Latin. I wish my children could have taken it in high school like I had. It greatly improved my knowledge of the English language (and my ACT/SAT scores when they through a new word at me). I like your list, and am so glad you wrote this post. Thanks!

Di Eats the Elephant said...

I can't believe I wrote "through" for "threw" -- I do know the difference, lol. Too early in the morning; the editor is still asleep.

Mollie Cox Bryan said...

Happens to all of us Di! No worries! I preach to my kids to take Latin, but they are more interested in French right now. It's all good. No matter what foreign language you study, it will definitely improve your "relationship" with English.

Sheila Webster Boneham said...

Terrific advice, Molly! I've done all those things (mostly before I even thought about writing fiction), and you're right on target. Another way to learn is to teach: volunteer to teach a free writing workshop or class at a library or bookstore or ???, help other people get started, and learn. The preparation for a class and the questions that come up push teacher/writers to refocus in new ways on things that seem to be old hat. Anyway, I'm sharing the link to this excellent post. (Now I want an assistant! ;-))

Mollie Cox Bryan said...

I want an assistant, too! Teaching is a great way to learn and I really should have that one in my list. Thanks for commenting.

Mollie Cox Bryan said...

Thanks, Di. I've been preaching to my daughters to take Latin, but they like French. It's all good, though, right?

Anonymous said...

MOLLIE.....May I share this article with about 80 other writers who may or may not need this information but might be willing to share it with a novice they may know? Thank you.

Dennis @ Moneysaver Editing


Mollie Cox Bryan said...

Certainly! Please attribute accordingly. Thanks so much.

Jackie Conquest said...

Really enjoyed reading, helped me to relax, some ; lol. Definitely encouraging.

Mollie Cox Bryan said...

Good to know, Jackie!

Samuel Thomas said...

Very cool post. I remember reading a piece by Stephen King who had grown very tired of people saying to him, "I've always wanted to write."

"Then sit your butt down, and write. It's not like being a brain surgeon."

Mollie Cox Bryan said...

Thanks, Samuel!

Amber Green said...

I seldom find a list of bullet points I so strongly agree with.

Writers are the best tutors for writers. The most focused coaches. The most supportive friends. But sometimes they're the best enemies. Don't let talking about writing become a substitute for the practice of writing.

Poetry teaches the ultimate efficiency in using language to invoke emotion.

I heartily recommend buying good used books in pairs. Cut up the pages of one. Color the verbs, or the adverbs, or the sentences that are more than fifteen words long. Count the words in a sentence, the lines in a paragraph. Read aloud a few powerful lines and highlight the echoed letters that make them flow. Study assonance and consonance. Find the power and the poetry invoked by simple rhythm.

Nothing teaches a person more about her native language than learning another. The process of learning Latin involves learning rather a lot about how the English language works, but Spanish is more accessible and for most a more pragmatic choice. German also has much to offer. For that matter, so does ASL.

And, as this article emphasizes, take the study of writing seriously. Practice. Don't stop practicing. Don't stop learning. Because if you do, you'll either stop writing or stop writing anything worth reading.

Mollie Cox Bryan said...

Thanks so much. I LOVE your idea about cutting up books and highlighting. "Study assonance and consonance. Find the power and the poetry invoked by simple rhythm." Absolutely!

Jeremy Bates said...

great post!
i especially agree with number 3, and studying authors u like.. a good exercise is to copy out a few pages of an author's novel to get a feel for the flow etc
great post!