We all dream of finding our Yoda, the all-knowing Jedi master who will teach us the ways of “The Craft”. So we jump in, ready to take on the publishing world with this powerful force – the literary agent — that now sits upon our shoulder whispering cryptic messages in our ear. “You must unlearn what you have learned,” we expect them to say. But they don’t always tell us how.
My own writing story began similarly. I found my Yoda in Sarah Davies, a literary agent with the industry’s equivalent of 900 years in publishing. There was no question in my mind. I wanted to train with her.
And train I did, but not quite the way I had expected. It took me nearly a year of unsuccessful re-writes to understand the significance of my own role in my training, and that sometimes, we have to trust the voice inside us as much as the one over our shoulder.
“You’re overegging the pudding,” Sarah would say of my overwriting. She’d talk about the need to trust my prose and send me off to draft the story again.
And I did. Three times that year.
But for all that work, I still didn’t understand how to fix the problem. I’m smart. I was working HARD. I WANTED to learn. So why wasn’t I LEARNING this?
Then the true ROOT of the problem hit me like a light saber between the eyes. There was nothing Sarah could explain that would help me. Because I’m not an auditory learner. And there wasn’t a blog, textbook or reference diagram that would help me, because I’m not a visual learner. I’m one of only 5% of students classified as kinesthetic learners, those who process new information most effectively through hands-on experience.
My entire educational history made sense when understood through the lens of my learning style. In college, I’d struggled to pass any class requiring textbook-driven learning. I’d read countless chapters of text without recalling a word. I’d glazed over during lectures, my thoughts drifting far from the speakers at the podiums. On the other hand, I aced small, interactive, discussion-based classes, routinely led hands-on group projects, and soared through even the most high-pressure-on-the-job training.
I’ve always learned by doing.
But what did this mean for my writing? I couldn’t very well expect my agent to hop in her car, drive to my home, and physically demonstrate how to line edit my own work. But if I was going to learn to write, I needed my teacher to adapt her approach to my learning style, and that meant communicating my needs clearly.
I wanted to be an easy client. I wanted to be low-maintenance. But I also wanted desperately to succeed.
“I’m having a hard time seeing it,” I finally explained to her. Because visual learners see. I needed to feel. And to feel it, I needed to do it. “I need to work through a few examples. Can you make me a list of all the places in the first few pages where you see overwriting, and red-line the passages to show me how to fix them?”
And because Sarah is brilliant, and infinitely patient, she did just that. I placed her notes beside me, and rather than simply “accept” the track changes as my own, I duplicated them into my own manuscript… word for word… strike-out for strike-out… deletion for deletion… all the while reading the changes aloud to myself. Soon, I began to feel it. Tangible patterns emerged, and for the very first time, I could see my own mistakes. I rolled through those first twenty pages, building momentum through repetition, processing this new information, and LEARNING to line edit my own work. The rest of the manuscript came easily for me, and within a few weeks, I’d finished.
It paid off to the tune of a two-book deal with my dream editor. It was an incredibly eye-opening process for me, and here is what I’ve taken away from the experience.
Yoda Lesson #1: “What’s in there? Only what you take with you.”
In retrospect, most of us can identify our own learning style. Think back to the types of courses in which you were most successful, to the teachers you related to best, and to the various ways you prefer to incorporate new information. Patterns shed light on your learning preferences, but if you aren’t sure, you can learn more about the VAK (Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic) learning styles and take a self-inventory here. Knowing which method, or combination of methods, works best for you will help you identify the learning opportunities that are most beneficial to you.
Yoda Lesson #2: “Already know you that which you need.”
Communicate what works for you to your agent, your editor, and your critique partners. Let them know what type of feedback and learning material is most helpful, and in what manner you prefer to receive it. If you’re auditory, let your mentors know you benefit from phone conversations. If you’re visual, let them know that you prefer written notes or diagrams over verbal feedback. If you’re like me, and you learn by doing, you may prefer small intensive workshops over big conferences, or highly interactive critique sessions over one-way feedback.
Yoda Lesson #3: “If no mistake you have made, yet losing you are… a different game you should play.”
Have a plan and be ready to adapt. Your mentors may not always be able or willing to accommodate your learning style. Be ready to switch gears, and get creative with your own learning strategies.
Yoda Lesson #4: “In a dark place we find ourselves, and a little more knowledge lights our way.”
Be patient with your teachers, and with yourself. Your learning strengths may not always match up to the strengths of your teachers and crit partners. Communicate your needs as clearly as possible, propose reasonable solutions, and then give everyone time to feel their way through. (See what I did there?)
Yoda Lesson #5: “Always pass on what you have learned.”
We tend to offer feedback in the manner that is most comfortable for us, but your critique partner may benefit from a different approach. Challenging yourself to adapt to their style is a great way to become a more effective mentor.
When I first signed with Sarah, she explained that we were entering into a partnership in which we would have to trust and hold hands, and that we would walk down an uncertain road together. I am infinitely grateful to have found my Yoda, someone who trusts me to find my own answers, even if it means some stumbling along the way.