Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Writing Apprenticeship

Something a commenter wrote on the blog got me to thinking. In a discussion about learning the business of publishing, one reader made the comment, “In many industries, there are apprenticeships where you get paid to learn. That doesn't happen with writing. You write it - it might take years - and then you try and sell it. Not the other way around.”

And that got me thinking. Why not? Why can’t publishing and writing be an industry of apprenticeships. After all, I have interns who I teach how to write reader’s reports, evaluate manuscripts, and review contracts, and of course they help me by doing things like filing and keeping up on proposal reading. Why couldn’t writers hire interns or apprentices for the very same purposes?

As we’ve all discussed on this blog, there’s a lot more to being published than just writing a book, and I think an apprentice could be very useful in this process for writers. An apprentice could help file, research information for the book, research information for publicity and marketing, handle things like mailings, etc., and yes, an apprentice could also help act as a second reader for the writer and by doing so learn why certain things work or don’t work in a book. Yes, absolutely, you are not going to learn how to write a book by following someone else around, just as you aren’t going to learn how to be an agent by simply watching another agent work. But you will learn a whole heck of a lot about what it takes to be a published author, and isn’t that what an apprenticeship is about?



Anonymous said...

Writers can have mentors, absolutely. I've been mentored by a few people and informally mentored others.

But I'm not sure about apprenticing. "Okay, so now we've written the query letter. And now we wait three months."

Informal mentoring of beginning writers takes place all the time in writing groups and online writing forums. I'm not sure about having someone else do the research and such for me, though, because in order to write it, it has to all be in your own head, and many times it's the extra tidbits you find during research which seem unimportant which add depth and flavor to whatever you're writing. They might not be important enough for an assistant to put on an index card, but the writer herself would leverage that into a human touch that makes a character become real.

Someone to handle marketing and publicity, though -- that would rock. :-)

Kimber Li said...

There are a few authors out there with massive websites full of help and who take time to mentor via online workshops, personal emails, and such.

I've been blessed by both these ladies-

Kimber Li said...

Susana Mai said...

what a neat idea! But I've got to agree with @anonymous...there's simply too much time where the apprentice wouldn't be doing anything.

then again, i think that mentoring should be made more easily accessible somehow. Some authors are professors for example, which is kind of one form of mentoring, but it'd be pretty neat to be in semi-regular correspondence with a writer you admire.

Nishant said...

the writer herself would leverage that into a human touch that makes a character become real.
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Mira said...

I think this is a terrific idea! I love how you think outside the box, Jessica.

There would be some potential for exploitation, so people would have to be careful.

But as for what the writer would do in the downtime - they'd write, of course!

Actually, I've frequently wondered why publishers just don't simply employ their authors. Writing full-time would significantly increase a writer's productivity and allow the publisher to edit earlier in the process - saving time.

But, anyway, in terms of apprenticeship, I'd love a mentor. Where can I sign up?

Dibs on J.K. Rowling. :)

Marilynn Byerly said...

Unofficial mentorship is very common in romance. That's one thing that RWA gets right with its writers' education, and some of its chapters have set up published/unpublished mentorships.

I've unofficially mentored dozens of writers as a writer and even more as a writing teacher, and I'm the go to person for friends who are very successful in the business but not so informed about the working of publishing.

One thing that sf/fantasy does that I'd like to see romance do is the pairing of an established writer with a talented unpublished author in a novel. It's been the start of some great careers.

Anonymous said...

John Irving thought it was interesting idea:

Anonymous said...

I studied a BA in Creative Writing which included a large amount of 'apprenticeship' style work for writers... we would spend time learning about writing techniques and how other writers used them, experiment with them during workshops and then we’d have to implement them in our own writing for coursework.

We learned to evaluate the works of others, learned to evaluate our own writing. There were no stuffy boring lectures and slow seminars; instead in small groups (15 in each workshop) we studied prose writing, scripting, journalism and advertising copy. More importantly our lecturers weren't the stand at the front of the room and talk types - they sat and joined in too - leading by example, as with all good mentors (I've never learned much from anyone who hasn't had enthusiasm for their subject, or a willingness to join in.)

There was never a moment when I wasn't learning something, either from the lecturers, or from the visiting writers. We’d regularly discuss other matters too – changes in publishing, the arrival of the e-book, how not to approach an editor/agent/publisher. We were also sent out on placements with newspapers, small presses, and companies created to support and develop writing.

We were warned that the BA wouldn’t make us overnight award winners, but that it could help. I find that it does. I’m certainly a better writer now, than I was before the degree. I admit though, it’s not the path for everyone to take, after all it takes three years and costs a small fortune in fees, and it doesn’t promise instant success… but it worked for me.

Robena Grant said...

Jennifer Crusie hasn't actually mentored me, but has been extremely generous with information, and answering questions. She even offered to read my first chapter of a novel several years ago. That critique was awesome. Whenever I have a question she's the first person I ask, and I trust her answers.

Also, some RWA chapters have mentoring programs where an unpublished author works with a published author. An old friend of mine was lucky enough to have Debbie Macomber mentor her in the early nineties. She's forever grateful.

Kristan said...

I love this idea... If/when I get to the position where I can do this as an author for an aspiring writer, I'd love to give it a try!

I also had thoughts about making a sort of "dorm" for aspiring writers -- something between a residency and an MFA program, I guess. Obvious these thoughts are still in the incubation stage, lol.

Kate Douglas said...

RWA was my apprenticeship, but now that I'm published, and as much as I know an apprentice could help me with all the business of promotion and that sort of thing, I'm too much a control freak to turn any of it loose. I do, however, mentor lots of beginning writers, just as I was mentored by those who'd gone before me and finally found success. I think of it as paying it forward, though it's obviously not a formal process. It's just one writer passing on what they've learned to the next in line.

Hart Johnson said...

I think the publishing machines, like what is going on with James Patterson is an apprenticeship program--I mean sure, you have to prove you can write first to get in, but it is a training ground for writers early in their career. XYZ with James Patterson ensures it SELLS, the system makes sure it has all the elements it needs... the writer grows so soon she can fly alone...

I'm in fact mid process auditioning to write a cozy mystery series, and likewise--that is an intensive collaboration with editors who KNOW what the genre takes. (I suspect similar systems work for many of the big selling genres).

Now these aren't novice apprenticeships... but then again JOB apprenticeships only happen after finishing college so all the tools are in there, too.

Lexi said...

You don't think such a system might make for writers who were all rather samey?

In my more cynical moments I think this is what publishers are after in these hard times - a novel just like the last best-seller, only slightly different - but I can't think it would be good for literature as a whole.

And if this happened widely, before you know it, it would be as necessary to publication as getting an agent. A third hurdle to leap.

Bethany C Morrow said...

I think mentors are invaluable and have had the benefit of several. It's one thing about being affiliated with the academia, no matter what your major (mine was Sociology). Thank God for liberal arts where professors outside of one's major can "discover" you.

Anonymous said...

Why not?

Because it has no monetary benefit to the people who hire them.

Like I always say: Don't base your career on doing something that other people are willing to do for free.

Phoebe North said...

I have an MFA, and, bar none, the best things I got out of the experience were the relationships with faculty members (IE, working writers) and the writing friendships I forged with my peers.

That being said, while the faculty connection is nice, I've probably learned more from my peers (both in the MFA and outside of it) than I have from personal relationships with "master" writers. Writing is such a varied task that there's no telling when someone's advice is going to be helpful to you. And someone can be a wonderful writer but absolutely terrible teacher/mentor, or their writing might come out of methods that are totally different and incompatible from yours.

And of course, the act of writing is essentially a solitary one.

You don't think such a system might make for writers who were all rather samey?

This is actually a common criticism leveled at MFA programs, and from someone who's been there, I find it an entirely valid one. Having been through the experience, I actually prefer things more informal--for the apprentice writer, as it were, it allows him or her to cobble together advice from a variety of resources to figure out what best fits his or her writing style.

ElbieNy25 said...

I have already had one meeting with a published author who offered to do a read through of my ms.

A goal of mine has always been to pay it forward, that is once I get established as a published author try to find a new and aspiring author to mentor along the way. Why not?

Eileen said...

I'm published and I hire a college student a few times a year to help me with various projects. (she'll make a mailing list for me of local bookstores or update, call and get the names of any YA librarians at various chapters etc) In return we often go out for coffee and she asks about the business side of publishing and I give her what advice I can. I've also read some of her work. She finds the experience really interesting and it beats temping and I find it helpful to have someone do some of the legwork especially around book release time.

Priya Parmar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anna Banks said...

Mentoring is a great concept, but paid apprenticeship is probably unnecessary. There are too many emerging writers who would do it for free just to absorb the experience and learn from it.

Lisa_Gibson said...

I think that's an awesome idea Jessica. Great post.

Kristin Laughtin said...

The difference between apprenticing in any other practice and in writing is that with any other practice, it is generally expected that the apprentice will then be paid to do the work learned in the apprenticeship. Apprentices to mechanics become mechanics. Apprentices to cobblers become cobblers. Apprentices to literary agents could, I suppose, become literary agents. These people are learning a skill that they can then directly apply to have a career.

While writing well does require a large degree of skill, there are too many other factors that determine whether any writer has a successful career. You can teach technical skills, and the proper routes to pursue to be published, but you can't teach talent or luck, which are often a big part of success. I love the idea of mentorships, but I think that's all anyone can realistically offer to any writer seeking publication. "Apprenticeship" is too formal a term for the arrangement, I believe.

Jess Anastasi said...

Like many others, I'm involved in a mentorship arrangement with a published author through RWAustralia. I've learnt more in the past 12 months than I had in a lot of years before that. Once I'm publisherd and established, I fully expect I'll pass on the favour, taking on a new writer and helping them along the way.
But I do like your idea, Jessica, but more in terms of an actual paid position. Of course, there wouldn't be many authors who could actually afford to keep themselves, let alone pay someone else. But if I happen to 'win the lottery' and stumble onto a best seller and make oodles of money like JK Rowling or Stephanie Meyer, then I think I'd definitely pay someone to work as my apprentice while they learned about the craft.

Cath said...

What a thought-provoking discussion--I'd love some established writer to mentor me. Wouldn't it be great if there was a national program that hooked up published people with newbies? Dream come true. :)

Great post!

-Connie @

nova said...

Just write. It's okay. Just write.

Will magic happen as a result? Probably not. My book has ranked on Amazon between 1,000 and 20,000 in Fiction for 4 months. My Kindle sales are good. My reviews are good. I can't get an agent to read a partial. Thank god agents don't buy books.

David F. Weisman said...

That would be wonderful, but it seems there are many people who choose to do what you write about for free. In many ways this is a beautiful thing, but ...

Suppose you hire a paid intern, and the agents you are competing with get free help - from people who are as good as the one you are paying, or perhaps just almost so.

These agents have a financial advantage over you. When times get tough, they will have an edge paying the rent. I like to think your spirit and generosity will give you an edge in turn - but I've heard an unpaid internship is expected if you have no experience in the industry.

Or am I wrong? Have you seen it done?

Allison Williams said...

The more desirable the job, the less likely the interns/apprentices are to be paid. And the better the internship, the less they SHOULD be paid - they're trading their labor for experience and knowledge. It's like going to school and not having to pay cash tuition.

I run a very specialized theatre company - it costs thousands of dollars and you have to move to specific geographic areas to learn what we do. So interns are trading their labor - file this, fix that, research this, help with that - for training and experience that would otherwise cost them a lot of money. It took me 10 years of my professional life to get to the point where I had anything worth sharing, and I enjoy trading a head start for labor.

There is a widespread writing internship available to just about everyone - it's called getting an MFA, and it costs a lot of time and money. Even tuition-remission is generally based on teaching the crap classes no senior faculty want.

So that's why internships don't pay. Just like in a lot of other desirable fields.

Jeannie said...

I wonder how many writers even have the time to commit to something like that. I've done a little online mentoring, but found it bit into my writing time so bad that I had to quit.

Also, the potential for exploitation is, unfortunately, significant. I may have been reading Writer Beware for too long, but I can think of multiple ways offhand for the sharks to move in here.

Not that it couldn't work, but I'd be wary.

Meghan Ward said...

I know some professional writers who use interns to help with research. This seems to work best for nonfiction writers, though, especially those with a book contract already.

Unknown said...

This sort of apprenticeship/internship is a cool idea.

To the very first Anonymous on 3/31: yes, the research eventually needs to get "in the head" of the writer herself, but preliminary research and material gathering being done by apprentices is THE system used by lawyers. They're called associates and they're better paid than I am but essentially they research all day and all night and write reports (aka legal briefs) for their bosses who have the names and the reputations, and then their bosses take the whole thing to court.

@ Eileen Cook -- what a wonderful initiative to take with a young writer!

The thing about this apprenticeship notion is that it would have to come after the education or concomitantly; interns are still expected to have a college education and some specialization and so would apprentice writers. BAs, MFAs and workshops would all still be necessary because an apprenticeship is (by definition) about the business/selling end of craft.

We probably haven't adopted this model yet because so few writers can make their own living on the business of writing. And if you can't live on it then you can't pay an apprentice. ... although if there are any successful writers out there who want to pay me to be their PA while I write and try to publish, I'd be game for that job.

Angela said...

I did not go to a fancy college. I worked in a library for 5 years as a page and read everything that I could get my hands on. I am 34 now and have always wanted to get into writing. An apprenticeship would be like a dream come true to someone like me so that I could feel comfortable with my future and have a solid foundation instead of hoping that I am doing it right and praying that I don't do too many things wrong.