August 2, 2018
Writing is an interesting sort of thing. You can spend years and years doing it, even getting published and paid, and there will still be a multitude of writing and publishing areas you simply know nothing about. In fact, the more we write successfully, the more likely we are to nestle deeply into our own spot in the writing universe and simply ignore the existence of everything else. As a result, you'll sometimes hear writers make absolute statements as if they are true for all people in all areas of publishing. Usually these statements are not true of all people in all areas of publishing, but are true for that writer in the spot where they nestle and work. When that happens, you can know you've found someone comfortable in their nest.
Nesting usually involves the spot where you find immediate (or first) success, but there will always be walls around you if you give in to staying in your first nest. You'll grow until you fill up that specific nesting spot and no more, not unless you're willing to peek out of your particular niche and considering dashing into a spot you know nothing whatsoever about. Growth, change, learning, and challenge makes us better writers. Nesting holds us at whatever spot we've grown accustom.
For greatest success, it's a good idea to make your first foray into somewhere "nest adjacent." If you have grown comfortable writing short nonfiction for children's magazines, then a good nest adjacent spot might be writing nonfiction for educational publishers. If you have grown comfortable writing short stories for young children just starting to read, then you may want to consider writing easy reader books or early chapter books. (And again, you may want to consider learning more about educational publishers, where it might be a bit easier to break in.) By moving "nest adjacent," you'll bring with you things you can already do well, and yet you'll find a wealth of new bits to learn.
My Own Nest
I made such a nest adjacent move about ten years ago. I'd been writing for magazines for a number of years. I had come to know a lot about magazines and how they worked. I understood why they had the needs they had. I understood where the industry was going. And I could write for it. I even led workshops on magazine writing, taught new writers to adapt to the market, and created a web magazine specifically about writing for magazines. My nest had some high, well-made walls. But, I could feel those walls and they were starting to feel tight. I wanted to move on, but I wasn't sure where. That's when two valuable things happened: I went to a writing conference, and I began to ask questions.
Writing conferences are wonderful places to learn about nest adjacent opportunities, as they are often full of little workshops and lectures on topics you simply hadn't considered. The one I attended had a workshop on the educational market, which was an area I had thought almost nothing about. I thought educational publishing was probably full of worksheets and textbooks, two areas that were not tempting for me. Still, I didn't really know anything about it, so I signed up. And I found the workshop fascinating. I fell in love with the idea of using the skills I'd honed in magazines, but having bound books at the end. Still, a teeny little conference workshop was not enough to answer the questions I had. So I started asking questions in discussion groups and blogs and pretty much every time I connected with someone who had experience in the field. I find education works best when I combine opportunities (like the conference) with serious researching on my own. Asking questions and doing research helps me know more, but it also has another benefit, an important one. People became aware of my interest.
Because I was asking a lot of questions about the field and doing a lot of research, a writing friend thought of me when an educational publisher asked her if she knew anyone else who might like to do some books as part of a big project. The publisher invited contact from me, so I made the jump right out of my nest. And as a result, I wrote 16 books in that project. And when I jumped from my first nest to a new one, I found a much bigger nest where I was learning all the time. I'm still in that one and I love it, but I'll admit, I'm starting to look around a bit. I'm starting to look at workshops on others areas where I haven't worked. I'm starting to educate myself beyond. Because learning is the first step to enlarging my writing tent, and it might soon be time for another jump.
Spread Your Wings
So, maybe you're looking for ways to find a new niche that makes you happy (and challenged). Or maybe you're still working on finding your first nest and know there are still things to learn. Where do you go for help?
Writing Courses: These can be especially helpful if what you need most is skill building. Most other learning places simply don't offer the long-term, slower pace you need when building your basic writing skills (or morphing writing skills picked up one place into the kinds you need for a totally different type of writing.) You may choose in-person courses such as those at a community college or through an MFA, or you may be more comfortable with the flexibility of distance learning, such as offer by ICL. (Click here to see if you qualify.)
Conferences: As I said above, these are especially good for learning a little bit about a lot of things. They can also offer very up-to-the-moment information about publishers and agents. And they are also good for networking, where you can learn from the other people at the conference and make connections with these other writers that will be beneficial to you both at a later date.
Single-Topic Workshops: These can be longer (sometimes several days to a week) and more tightly focused than a conference, but less involved than a course. They can offer up-to-date market information within a tightly focused area (though not all single-topic workshops look at markets at all). Longer workshops can also offer you a taste of the kind of one-on-one interaction you might receive from writing courses. Though longer workshops are often face-to-face retreats, you can still find a workshop even if you can’t do any road-trips. Online workshops like Picture Book Summit can offer the focused instruction with the flexibility of working from your home computer. Some online workshops are basically like a single session from a conference, which can also be useful in building your understanding of the topic, but often without the built-in high price.
Mentorships and Paid Critiques: These can also be learning experiences if you are someone who can look at specific corrections on one piece and generalize it to your other writing. Sometimes this can be hard for some who become laser focused on the single manuscript being critiqued and making it the best it can be, but then go on to make the exact same mistakes in the next story they write. So it's good to consider your own learning style and needs very critically. Look for the learning that works best for you.
DIY Learning: The Internet is absolutely crammed with free writing resources and many public libraries have a variety of writing books available either on the shelves or via inter-library loan. Beyond that, online sellers like Amazon can make still more books and eBooks available for a price. The DIY Learning method has the benefit of being cheaper and totally under your control, but it's only going to work for someone who is strongly organized and really determined to learn, because with no structured learning environment, it's very easy for life to get in the way of your learning.
Whatever way you choose (and the best choice might be a mix of options), remember that no one knows everything in the field of writing, which means all of us have room for growth. If you go forth with a curious mind and a teachable attitude, you may find the writing world that's right for you is bigger than you ever imagined.
Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Show us a sample of your work here.