I’ve always been a writer: From a young age, I was scribbling stories, characters, and even the occasional fantasy world, complete with its own rules, laws, and magic systems. Perhaps I only surprised myself when I reached the end of a novel draft while in college.
Even if looking back on my tale of a lonely social media influencer and her borderline blackmailing love interest with too many heavy-handed celestial metaphors makes me cringe, at least I wrote a book in the first place.
To this day, beyond the excitement of getting lost in a new story or joining my fictional friends on their adventures, each story I finish writing teaches me something new about myself or the real world.
Here are a few things I learned from the art of making things up that I hope inspire you to persist in improving a skill or simply reflect on your life. Because cringing at your past work, behavior, or personality means you’ve grown, right?
Persistence trumps talent
Even with all my writing experience, my first book was a true disaster. Before ultimately moving on to a new project, my years of querying literary agents without success proved that even if my work was good, this story wasn’t going to make my great big publishing debut.
But if I hadn’t found the determination to finish my first, I would never have written the second one, or the third… and I never would have grown my skills past those first drafts. I probably wouldn’t have had the confidence in my own skills to write this article you’re reading, nor any others. I’ve branched out into poetry, reviewed music, and written a new book I hold even dearer than the first.
On a related note, something I always try to remember is to avoid comparing your first attempt to someone else’s twentieth. No great writer is born that way—almost every published author out there probably has at least one book that never saw a shelf.
You can’t escape yourself
There comes a point in each draft when I realize, Oh, so that’s what this story is really about!
No matter how hard I consciously try to make my characters different from me and the people I know and love (or don’t like all that much), or put them in situations I’ve never quite experienced, some echo from real life—whether a line of dialogue borrowed from a real conversation, a relationship dynamic, or some thematic question—will always find its way in. When I strip away all external plot elements and focus on the character’s internal conflict, I’ve found that it usually points to something I’m struggling with in real life.
Most recently, this came out in the form of a character debating how to deal with a toxic person in her life, and though I hadn’t intended it, I immediately saw parallels to my own experience navigating a challenging relationship.
Whether this revelation centers around a particular relationship, past mistake, or personal crossroads I currently find myself at, seeing my problems through my characters’ lenses gives me enough distance to accept my flaws and try finding a better ending, for both worlds.
Lean into fear
Sometimes I’ll know exactly what needs to happen in a scene, but doubt my ability to convey it—whether it’s a thorny description or story elements that could be uncomfortable for myself or readers. But just like anything else in life, avoiding that fear creates bigger, more troublesome consequences.
While drafting my last book, for example, I tried taking the easy way out of a fight scene by keeping it to a minor scuffle. No serious injuries, everyone walked away to live another day. I’d never attempted a fight before (all that physical movement makes fighting a writer’s biggest fear) and it really wasn’t a big plot point, but a wonderful editor’s feedback told me things needed to go up a notch.
I dreaded revisiting it (because… bodies and choreography and physical pain) and perhaps caused myself a fair bit of emotional pain by going darker than I thought possible, but pushing past my own ideas of what I could do meant I felt myself improving. Now, I can’t imagine the story without the escalated version.
During those moments when I leaned into the challenge, I’ve leveled up as a writer—and on top of that, readers usually find those sections the most powerful. Big win.
Take responsibility for change
No one wants to follow a passive, reactive character who keeps fighting the same battles and facing the same problems. In my own writing, even if a character faces trauma the story has to be about more than the awful things happening to her—maybe it’s how she changes that world, escapes, or perhaps most mirroring real life, realizes she can’t and figures out some way to survive.
Perhaps because it’s so hard for us to change behaviors, we want to watch a hero tackle their external and internal conflicts rather than someone who sits back and lets things happen to them. That’s why every character has to have a relatable goal and clear sense of agency. Through following their personal journeys, we can find our own ability to change or take action.
It’s a reminder that when the book ends, we can be the ones in charge of turning our own pages and overcoming our own obstacles.