When Your Career is in the Toilet
5 creative writing tips learned in a cubicle
I used to write about RV toilets. Fresh out of college with a creative writing degree and full of idealism, I took a job at an advertising agency. I assumed it would be a temporary gig while I wrote and published my first novel.
One year later, I hadn’t written a novel, but that full-time cubicle work had flushed away my optimistic notion that I would change the world one word at a time. Instead of making a difference with my trade, I felt as though the overhead fluorescent lights slowly sucked my soul from my body. Spending a significant portion of my time researching and promoting camper toilets didn’t help.
That year, I lamented the means of my paycheck, knowing I had better stories to tell than a carefully-crafted press release. But what I didn’t know at the time was that I was learning to write in a way my writing professors did not teach me.
On the other side of the cubicle wall sat my manager and mentor. He had to approve each piece of copy I wrote before anyone else (especially the client) saw it. In the days before electronic editing, I’d hand him a print out and he’d mark up the changes. Let’s just say that he must’ve gone through several pens those first few months.
With each press release, newsletter, brochure and website I wrote, the edits and advice he scribbled on each page became second nature. Over time, not only did my drafts receive fewer edits, but those lessons began leaking into my fiction writing as well.
Nearly twenty years later, I still see the influence of that guidance in my writing. The following lessons that I learned in that cubicle helped me become the writer I am today.
On those early drafts that sounded more like creative writing than marketing materials, my manager repeated, “Don’t bury the lede!” He instilled in me the importance of putting the essential information up front. I’d argue the same holds true in novel writing. Pull the reader into the story immediately. Don’t expect her to wait or wade through pages of even well-written, but not pertinent information. Everyone is short on time. Honor your reader’s time by getting to the point quickly.
Adjectives and superfluous information and descriptions can distract from the story. Be simple and direct. I perhaps took this advice too much to heart. As the first draft of The Last Carolina Girl came in under 60,000 words, I realized how accustomed I had become to writing lean. I know authors who struggle with being long winded. They have to work to whittle down page count, remove scenes and characters, and cut back on description and dialogue. Meanwhile I’m searching for ways to stretch, especially after the first draft.
Thankfully through more world building and character development, my novel grew to a much more desirable length of 80,000 words. And after more careful planning and intentionality, the my second novel stands at a similar length.
When writing for clients, the projects and end results belong to them. When writing fiction, I have to remember that not everyone will receive and engage in the text in the same way that I will. So, if I want to publish a book for a greater audience, I have to understand that I cannot control all parts of the story, nor readers’ reactions to it. For the sake of the greater story and the interest of the reader, I cannot become too attached to my words.
I was young the first day I walked into that ad agency. But I didn’t think I was. I thought I knew far more than I did. My mentor’s pen and the toilet account showed me otherwise. While I had hoped to jump from college to novel writing, I needed years of experience, observation, learning and life lessons to get me to a place of being ready to journey the long and winding path to publishing.
Writing can be a lonely business and I’ll admit that I don’t mind that most days. But it takes multiple hands to produce an end product. Crafting the story is only one part of the process, so listen to the expertise and wise counsel of your agent, editor and publisher. If you’re not there yet, find a critique partner.
My former manager proofed early drafts of my novels, providing me with pages full of comments, edits, questions and pushback (this time electronically instead of in ink). As daunting as receiving constructive criticism can be, it’s a necessary part of the process. Be humble enough to listen, adjust and edit, so the story appeals to an audience other than yourself, and can reach beyond your friends and family.
It took me about two decades longer than I thought it would for my debut novel to hit bookshelves. But during that time, with each word I wrote, each phrase I strung together, I learned a little bit more about writing. Publishing takes time and perseverance, and sometimes the pit stops along the way strengthen our craft in ways we couldn’t have predicted.
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