When I wrote my first short story, I got lucky. A character and plot came barreling out of my mind without effort. After this story got published, I believed that it would be easy from here on out — I’d simply type up a tale, press send, and presto: publication!
But it turns out, this is pure fantasy. The acceptance rate for literary magazines is 1% on average, and winning a writing contest can be even harder. Rejection after rejection has taught me that, while good fortune exists, commitment to the craft is definitely more important.
And when you’re in it for the long haul, and especially if your goal is to publish a book, writing becomes like a road trip — full of bumps. While we may not be able to take a real trip right now, this post will show you how to navigate the hairpin turns as you hit the open road of your creative writing journey.
1. You need to map out the route beforehand.
Mapping is essential. We’ve all been on trips with that person who insists on winging it, refusing to even use Google Maps to double-check the route. All those tears and gas stations later, you’re lost in some ghost town with half a granola bar between you.
Let’s be honest — a GPS is a lifesaver. So is a book outline. You might say that that kind of organization will crush your creativity. But does a map kill the adventure? No, it gets you where you want to go. A book outline delivers a similar promise: to steer you steadfastly to the final chapter. And if you’re still not convinced, know that some of the most inventive authors of our time, like Joseph Heller and J.K. Rowling, were smart enough not to skip this step.
2. You should be realistic about the distance
If you drove non-stop, it would take you about two days to travel from the East Coast of the United States to the West. But factoring in sleep and various driving breaks, such a fast arrival would be impractical.
The same goes for writing. How often have you thrown around claims to be “writing a novel,” without pondering the true meaning of that statement? A novel, on average, is eighty to ninety thousand words. You’ll need to understand just how long that will take you, and build a writing routine that allows you to stay motivated and healthy.
3. You have to bring a playlist
Shawn Mendes. Bieber. Lizzo. The Complete Mamma Mia 2 Mega Mix? Ten-hour stretches would be horrendous without them. And a therapeutic belt of “I Don’t Care” out of a sunroof is almost a necessity. They are comforts to help gauge the passage of miles and maintain your energy levels.
Think of writing tools like Grammarly and ProWritingAid as the craft equivalent of the all-important road trip playlist. They’ll help chart your hyphens, fix your apostrophes, and eliminate passive voice. An app like the Reedsy Book Editor, meanwhile, is perfect for collaborative editing — and editors and cover designers can be the companions who belt along the songs right by your side. Always nice to have some support on your journey, right?
4. You can’t take your eyes off the road
A day of driving is enough to put you straight to sleep. But imagine driving all day and then dozing off while coasting the cliffs of Northern California! There goes that trip.
The same applies to writing all day, in that you need to preserve your energy and make sure your eyes are on the road at critical moments. Research shows that elite achievers perform their best work at 3.5 hours maximum, so try not to exceed that all at once, or you’ll feel your focus start to dangerously slip.
5. You’ll need to refuel every once in a while
Gas runs out. Sentences do too, so it’s important to refuel with new perspectives and ideas. For example, screenwriter Miranda July once interviewed strangers to combat her writer’s block. Through these self-directed prompts, she met Joe Putterlik, whose story became part of her final script. This procrastination passion also became a book called “It Chooses You.” Of course, if you don’t have access to a horde of strangers to interview, you can always try some good old-fashioned writing prompts.
6. You need to be ready for trouble spots
Be prepared for three (no, four!) flat tires — for our purposes, a world in which your book simply won’t sell. This scenario necessitates that, even if you have Pulitzer Prize-winning material, you have a good marketing plan to serve as your “spare tire.”
If you’re traditionally publishing, you’ll have help from your publishing house. But self-publishers have the power to make their own marketing decisions, and the best way to market your book is to research your ideal reader and find them in droves. They’ll be more likely to jive with you and recommend your book to others. Plus, large media outlets source their stories from tiny blogs, subreddits, and Twitter. Catching the attention of small-but-devoted fan communities increases your likelihood of getting picked up as a major story.
7. A friend or two can make the entire journey better
Some writers forget to ask for edits before they submit to literary magazines. This assumes that the story a) makes sense and b) resonates with others. This is a large bet! But you know what’s better than a bet? Beta readers. Be sure to share your writing with someone you trust before you submit it. After all, a few good friends make all the difference.
As you practice all these skills and use the tools, it’ll start to make writing feel muchless like hours of painful driving and more like an adventure. Think of it as accepting the mystery of the writing journey. The more comfortable you become with the unknown, the freer you’ll be to write.
Desiree Villena is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Desiree enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories.