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  • Crystal McQueen

What I Learned about Writing during the Pandemic


For me, 2020 started just like any other year. Full of promise. Full of expectations, goals, and resolutions. Then, just when the weather started to warm up—boom! —enter the global pandemic.

Vacations canceled, plans postponed, and suddenly, I had more time on my hands than I knew what to do with. After all, I could only walk the same loop around our neighborhood so many times.

As I accustomed myself to the stark reality that my quarantine days would stretch far into the foreseeable future, the idea that I should write that book I have been thinking about for years seemed like a fitting project to fill the endless quiet hours.

Once I decided, I threw all of my energy into the effort. I spent weeks drafting, calling on a creativity I didn’t know I had, penning chapter after chapter without looking back. By the end of May, I finished that elusive first draft. With red pen in hand, I bundled up on the couch, ready to find those pesky mistakes and get this glorious work of art ready for publication when reality set in. My draft was terrible. Don’t get me wrong. Writing an entire novel is an accomplishment in itself, but as I tried to read through each rough patch of story, a glaring truth stared me back in the face. There is more to writing than putting words on paper, and I needed help.

Here are the four most eye-opening things I’ve learned during my first foray into novel writing:

Writing is more complex than just telling a great story.

Authors have to consider so many aspects of the craft when writing. There is pacing, style, structure, inciting incidents, narrative, multiple plot lines, dynamic character structure, the third rail, etc. I could keep going, but you get the idea. Without these essential story building elements, writing falls flat.

Writing is easy. Editing is hard.

Editing a book is like completing a major home renovation. It takes more time than you plan, the final product looks different than you imagined, and it isn’t as easy as they make it seem on TV. There are line edits, character consistency, dialogue review, in addition to those minor edits, misspellings and grammar corrections. In addition, an agent will have edits, corrections and suggestions before submitting to a publisher. That publisher will require further edits, and finally, the copy editor will review each page with a fine-tooth comb before the book goes to print!

Books could only take me so far.

After discovering that a riveting novel didn’t appear on the page as beautiful and eloquent as the harrowing journey in my mind, I devoured dozens of books dedicated to help budding writers like myself uncover the hidden secret so many writers seek: how to write that bestseller. While I found several of these books incredibly helpful—Lisa Cron’s Story Genius for outlining and plotting a story, and Jessica Brody’s Save the Cat Writes a Novel for key structural elements to keep the story moving—I still felt like they didn’t provide the foundation and background I needed to be successful.

An MFA may not be right for everyone, but it was right for me.

I know, I know. Insert promotional plug for the University publishing my blog here. But honestly, deciding to pursue a low residency MFA wasn’t a difficult choice for me. I knew I would never be the writer I wanted to be if I didn’t learn the craft. I was willing to invest in myself to become a better writer, and I wanted the accountability and community such an environment provided. Of course, there is no guarantee I will publish this book or any future work, and I am spending time and money evaluating critically acclaimed works and learning story fundamentals when I could be writing new pieces. I could continue to read books by authors touting success and secrets, and some of them might even be real. While that may be the right path for some, it is not for me. Besides, who can say no to a semester abroad in Portugal?

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