When You Need Writing Help

When You Need Writing Help

One night, I did it. I finished my first novel.

And I was ecstatic.

I sat in my little office and relived that last scene in “Something’s Gotta Give”, when Diane Keaton types “THE END” on the last page of her play, throws her arms up in the air in triumph, and does a little chair-dance. I don’t remember if she poured herself a tall glass of wine, but I did.

I was thrilled. I did it.

So a week later, I sent out query letters to five agents. And shortly thereafter, I learned this: I didn’t do it. Not yet.

Turns out, there’s a difference between finishing a first draft (which sucks) and a second draft (which hopefully doesn’t).

Three of those five agents replied, and even though each one rejected my story, they also offered some kind and positive words that made me feel like I could make it better. And I wanted to make it better. I was determined to make it better.

But there was a problem: I had no idea how to make it better. I didn’t know what worked and what didn’t. I didn’t know if my characters were solid. I didn’t know if the voice was right. I didn’t know a lot, but most importantly, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. So I sat there for four months, playing with sentences and moving scenes and trying to figure out how to get from first draft to second.

And that’s when I realized I needed help.

I started researching writing coaches online, looking specifically for someone who specialized in young adult fiction. I looked into university extension courses. Private instructors. Weekend workshops. I found some great resources, but as a mom with two small kids and a full time job, I needed something more flexible.

Then I stumbled upon MediaBistro and that’s where I found an online class called “Young Adult Novel Writing”. The instructor was a senior editor with a major publisher and an author herself, and the 12-week class was exactly what I was looking for:

  • Entirely online
  • A skilled instructor who knows the craft and the YA market
  • Ongoing, in-depth feedback
  • Weekly deadlines of 15 pages
  • Weekly online critique sessions with the instructor and the class
  • Access to other YA writers

I admit, I was pretty skeptical about an online class, but the pros of a qualified instructor and deadlines I could commit to outweighed my concerns. I sent in my admission request and a writing sample.

When I met the instructor and the other students in that first class, I realized I had nothing to worry about in terms of quality. There were twelve of us, and I was absolutely floored by each person’s background. Even though we were relatively new to YA fiction, we were all professional writers:

  • Four had been previously published in adult or non-fiction
  • Two were currently working in publishing
  • Three were in marketing or PR
  • One was a trend forecaster specializing in tweens/teens
  • Two were frequent contributors to children’s magazines
  • Two were magazine editors
  • One was currently getting her MFA
  • Two were food editors
  • One had been a newspaper columnist
  • One was former journalist for Fast Company and Rolling Stone
  • Two were playwrights

Since that doesn’t add up to twelve, you can do the math—most of the students did multiple things on this list. I was one of the three in marketing (and yeah, I had nothin’ else). I didn’t expect to feel so out of my league, but honestly, I was thrilled about it. I was going to learn a lot, not only from the instructor, but also from my fellow classmates.

Perhaps most importantly, we were all in the same boat. We each held demanding, full time jobs. Seven of us had young kids. Three were overseas, and a 7:00p PST chat time meant they were online in the middle of the night. But despite our busy schedules, we were so committed to our stories, we were all willing to carve out an hour to chat, time to read each other’s work, and 15-20+ hours to write every week. It was a huge commitment that required all of us to step up our writing game, and required our families to support us in completely different ways.

I could go on and on about the quality of this class, from the amazing stories I got to read to the supportive guidance from our instructor. I learned how to focus on telling my story and keep my plot moving. I learned how to work a scene over and over again until every single word said exactly what I wanted it to say. And how to handle it when, during critique, I was told that it maybe didn’t work as well as I thought it did. I learned how to revise. I learned how to cut. And I learned about the SCBWI.

While I didn’t go into the class to find critique partners, I found those too. The class of twelve eventually dropped to nine, and we became a support group for each other; champions for each other’s work. We learned to trust each other throughout the class, and stuck together as a group after the course was over.

I should mention that there were only two of us who began the class with a partially complete manuscript. Everyone else was starting from scratch and working toward a finished first draft of a YA novel in twelve weeks. But now many of us are finalizing second drafts, seeking agents, revising with agents, preparing to submit to publishers, or working with editors.

If you feel like you need more direction—or maybe just a push to keep you going—check out MediaBistro’s online and on-location writing courses. The next YA Novel classes starts on September 20. The next advanced YA Novel class begins on October 5.

Now I’m not saying I’ve mastered any of the things I learned in class. I’m still learning, and I always will be. But I now have one thing I never had before: feedback. I learned how to give it, and how to take it. And now, even if I don’t always know how to make my work better, I have people around me who can help.

Are you stuck? Do you need writing help? Go find it. Now. Please. Because you never know… the right kind of help might just change everything. It did for me.

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  1. […] I’ve shared the stories of the impact both organizations had on my writing career here and here. […]

  2. […] enrolled in a YA Fiction Writing class through MediaBistro (more on that experience here) and then spent the next six months working one-on-one with a writing coach and a series of […]

  3. Devora Penunuri September 15, 2011 at 3:50 pm - Reply

    I appreciate your post. It has the best rundown I have experienced for a while. Thanks for the tip 🙂

    • tamara September 15, 2011 at 4:45 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Devora! I’m so glad you found it helpful.

  4. Stephanie Sneddon September 8, 2011 at 3:25 am - Reply

    It has been so fun to be a part of your process. I wonder if we got lucky with our bistro class–so many talented writers and interesting people. I was a good shot in the arm to get more serious. Especially for you!!

  5. Karen Strong September 1, 2011 at 2:49 am - Reply

    Ah, I remember when you talked about this class at Big Sur. It seemed like such a great experience.

    It helps so much when you can get guidance. I didn’t even know these types of classes existed! 🙂

    • tamara September 1, 2011 at 3:45 pm - Reply

      Conferences are so great too, especially for the face-to-face, but this class was especially helpful to me.

      Big Sur remains my favorite writing experience to date. I met some many wonderful people there, including you! That one will be hard to top for a long time.

  6. Pamela K. Witte August 31, 2011 at 9:07 pm - Reply


    I cherish friendship and am blessed to have a handful of very special writers to call friends– you and several others, I met during our time with Media Bistro. These wonderful writers have helped me stay on track, given me confidence and shared their courage and wisdom.
    What I loved so much about the Media Bistro class was exactly that, the swapping of ideas, bravery and support. What a wonderful venue!
    Hopefully, through the course of our writer’s journeys, we will all meet and share the zest of life and the joy of writing.

    Until then, rock on writers, rock on!

    • tamara September 1, 2011 at 3:56 pm - Reply

      One of the best things from that class was the friendship I formed with you, Pam. You’re always inspiring, and I can’t wait to see where your writing journey takes you. I’m watching every step and cheering you on.

  7. Suzanne Kamata August 31, 2011 at 4:56 am - Reply

    It makes me feel better to know that you had already finished a first draft when you started the mediabistro class. Ha ha. I was one of those who started with nothing, yet although my previous attempts at novels (published and unpublished) took 2-3 years to finish, thanks to this class, I managed to complete a first draft in something like six months!

    I agree that it was a great privilege to share work with such accomplished writers (including our instructor). I’m looking forward to seeing all of your books in print!

    • tamara September 1, 2011 at 3:50 pm - Reply

      You may have started with nothing but an idea, but I was blown away by the quality of your writing and the progression of your story. Every week I wondered how all of you were managing to deliver such amazing first draft work. I did a ton of revision, but I definitely had it easier than the rest of you. And you know how much I love your story! I’m so glad you finished it!

  8. Michele Griskey August 31, 2011 at 4:52 am - Reply

    Thank you for the memories. 🙂 It was such a great class.

    I think the best part of the class and our ongoing group is this: We will not be satisfied with good writing. We expect more and encourage each other to do our best writing.

    It’s been so great watching your journey from classmate to (soon-to-be) published author.

    • tamara September 1, 2011 at 3:53 pm - Reply

      I completely agree, Michele! You guys are a tough group, and I’ve always been grateful for the high bar we set. I didn’t always agree with the group’s feedback at first, but a few days later, I always figured out you guys were right. 🙂 It’s been fun to follow your journey too! Fingers and toes crossed as you take the next step!

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