Writing well is hard. So many elements go into it: pacing, structure, vocabulary, voice, not using filter words (words like feel/smell/saw). I feel like I finally get the hang of one element and then another pops up that it turns out I’m not good at.
One day when I was moaning to my husband about the multi-layered challenges of writing compelling children’s literature, it occurred to me that it is a lot like our efforts (his and mine) to get better as competitive sailors.
Hear me out:
The basics of sailing are pretty easy. Figure out the direction of the wind, push the tiller to the right to go left, left to go right and you are all set.
Same with writing: Basic story-telling and punctuation is taught in school, but also absorbed by those of us (I include most writers I think) who love to read. It doesn’t take much to be able to put words on paper.
But to get better (in either case) takes time and practice:
In sailing, we call it “time at the tiller.” You’ve got to sail enough in enough different conditions to know how to handle them. Is the wind light and flukey— meaning coming from first this direction and then that direction? Strong and gusty? You have to have sailed enough, practiced enough to know how to handle those conditions.
In writing, I would compare that to “butt in chair.” I can only speak for myself, of course, but I venture to guess that many/most writers spend an awful lot of time procrastinating rather than actually writing. When you struggle with plot or structure or just feel unmotivated or not sure where to go with our writing project, it’s easy to wander on to your favorite social media account rather than doing the hard work of figuring out, does this piece you want to write work better as a picture book? Middle grade? Non-fiction? Should you tell it from first person point of view? Third person? But the more time you spend with your butt in the chair, the more writing you get done and the better you get.
You can’t control everything.
In sailing, you can’t control the weather, just like as a writer you can’t control whether an agent or editor will want to take your work on. All you can do is practice enough and perfect those things that are under your control, whether that is reading the wind or writing the best book you know how.
In both pursuits there are others as good or better than you. I will never ever forget a throw-away comment my dad made to me once when I was very young. I was feeling very proud of getting to be first chair (flute) in our school orchestra. I wanted him to be proud of me. He didn’t want me to get a swelled head (I guess), so his response was, “don’t forget there will always be people better than you.” Thanks Dad!
But he wasn’t wrong. There are lots of good sailors out there just like there are lots of good writers. But in both cases you can learn from your fellow sailors or writers. The difference is that in writing, one person’s success does not prevent another person’s success. And, while it’s true that in any race there will only be one winner, every time you go around the racecourse you have an opportunity to learn something, whether about your boat, the conditions or your own psyche.
You may never be the “best” sailor/writer, however that might be measured. But you can always improve. And that’s what makes both of these undertakings both challenging and also rewarding.
In both writing and sailing (as in most everything!) there are support systems and communities, if you want or need them. With the Flying Scot, we have an entire community of other racers from whom we can learn from, commiserate with and celebrate with. Within writing, it’s the same. I would not have learned as much or had as much fun without my many critique groups and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, which I’ve been a part of since I first had the idea I might like to write for children.
Do you have a pursuit or passion that would also fit this model?
Looking for an action-packed and uplifting story about “girl” power? Read my non-fiction story for young readers about the magnificent filly, Rachel Alexandra. The book “Alexandra the Great: The Story of the Record-Breaking Filly Who Ruled the Racetrack,” is published by Chicago Review Press. Buy it at your favorite independent bookstore or here.