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Double Majors Don’t Publish Novels

Notes from a Novelist’s Life Justine Musk

Justine Musk is the author of three novels with a fourth on its way. She specializes in dark fantasy and the supernatural, and has written for both adult and young adult audiences. She lives the standard writer-fantasy: making a living crafting titles dealing with subjects that fascinate her.

I’m bringing Justine to your attention because she recently published a pair of insightful blog posts that dissect her journey into professional writing. This story is relevant to our mission here, as the goal of becoming a popular writer can be a stand-in for almost any quest to “become so good they can’t ignore you.” And as I’ve argued again and again, it’s this building of an outstanding ability — not the display of raw diligence — that ultimately generates remarkable lives.

I will leave the task of fully ingesting Justine’s posts to you. But I wanted to first mention a few key observations:

  1. She invested a staggering amount of practice.
    Justine wrote ten novels or novellas before selling her first.
  2. Her practice was deliberate.
    For half of these failed novels she sought out agent representation, and even succeeded with some, only to receive rejections from the subsequent publishing house submissions. In these cases, she actively solicited feedback that she then used in her next projects. She also maintained both writing partners and mentors. In other words, hard work, in isolation, was irrelevant to her journey. It was the realization that she had a long way to go, combined with a quest for feedback to push her along that path, that made it work.
  3. She was obsessively focused.
    “The art of any art is the art of obsession,” she said. “This is not something that people in general tend to understand. They encourage you to be well-rounded, which bemuses me in a society that tends to reward the specialists – the obsessives – those who decided to excel at one thing instead of becoming good at a hundred or competent at a thousand.”

To borrow Justine’s wording, it bemuses me that so many of my peers want what she has — a remarkable life fueled by an ability to do something interesting that people value — yet ignore almost everything important about her path to this end. They focus, instead, on proving their diligence with double or triple majors and meaningless pile-ups of extracurriculars, or tread water in what Justine calls a “gray area,” convincing themselves that they too could be remarkable if they only just applied themselves, spending their time day dreaming about defying the status quo, as if courage was the key to occupational reward, not the decidedly less sexy task of becoming excellent at something valuable.

If you’re suffering from what Justine describes as “lightning-strikes of yearning ripping through the different chambers of [your] heart,” take the time to read her posts in detail. They will help you better understand the subtle art of becoming remarkable.

32 thoughts on “Double Majors Don’t Publish Novels”

  1. Morgan, that’s because one title is the TITLE and the following is the subtitle. Titles and subtitles work together to convey a more complete idea about the piece. Try it. 🙂

    Thank you, Cal — I am surprised and appreciative.

  2. Sure, it’s great to use titles and subtitles. And there’s this wonderful thing called HTML which lets you do so with different styling. 😛 But seriously, a colon should be sufficient to introduce a subtitle.

    I’m just not a fan of your genre. But it’s all in good fun—congrats for the link and best of luck. 🙂

  3. This kind of relates back to what I’ll call forced success. Many students I have want to get everything absolutely perfect before writing a paper or starting a project. Instead I suggest that they just start with something then review it, learn from it and move on.

    As long as you’re improving each time it doesn’t really matter where you start!

  4. First of all: Justine, I like your style. 🙂

    Second: I appreciate this post following Cal’s post on practice. It drives home the point that failure is inevitable, but it’s not necessarily failure as long as you take everything you can from the experience and apply it to your next try. Awesome!

  5. For a blogger, a cardinal rule actually is to just get stuff out there and create and revise as you go. Otherwise you’ll never post anything.

    Morgante — thank you for informing me that a colon “should suffice”, and I recall that when I was your age I also knew everything 🙂 — but I will leave you to your titles and subtitles and you can leave me to mine. The world is big enough for all. 🙂

  6. There’s something so American about all this: the notion that we’re all special snowflakes, and all we have to do is to find a way to align our special snowflakiness with the market, and .. hey presto: made it!

    The trouble is, this leads to the kind of extreme conservatism that has made the US such an outlier amongst industrialised nations (to the extent that Obama, who on the basis of his policies would be labelled right to far-right in most of the world, is thought of in the US as ‘liberal’). Make it, or you’ve failed. Never mind the fact that the fundamental competetive nature of the economy is that most people are consigned to shining the shoes of those who have ‘made it’.

    Not that I have anything against Justine or Cal for ‘making it’ in their respective fields: writer and academic are noble pursuits, and good on you for working hard in your respective fields. But you cannot be examples to us all, and shouldn’t be held up as such.

  7. But how would you know your mistakes? Writing is subjective enough that it confuses me. I’m afraid of showing my pieces to any adults, because I don’t want to mask my work with an unnatural maturity or conformism. But I have no siblings or peers who write, that I can share critiques with.


    Note: If it helps, I’m in high school and write fantasies with a veneer of philosophy: a cross of the Arabian Nights, or the Shahnameh, and Hamlet or Montaigne’s Essays.

  8. Sorry for forgetting to add this before, but my writing process is just drafting: I write huge amounts, imitating my favorite novels, but don’t do any revision.

  9. I enjoyed this posting and read Justine Musk’s posting on hard work. Until I started following StudyHacks, I was convinced that success is a large part in your genes and that smarts are largely predetermined.
    Cal has convinced me that with smart preparation, study techniques and hard work, I can achieve my goals.
    The other factor that sticks with me is one learning from their experiences. Each time Justine wrote a novel, she reflected on it and seemed to get better. Similiarly in school and in life: being smart about learning from experiences and mistakes.

  10. Nice post, I can totally relate to it. Another person who proves your theory is MindCandyMan, an artist who started from rock bottom (couldn’t draw at all) and after a very short time of obsessive practice and dedication he got so good he started teaching others. Here’s his sketchbook thread that shows all his drawings from beginning to end, look at the first page then go to the last few pages. Very inspirational.

  11. Snake — do you want to email me at [email protected] and I can see if I can help you with your questions (which are really good ones)? So much of writing is done in solitude, but a big piece really does have to do with finding community — the right kind of constructive community (even if it’s just one or two other people) since the ‘wrong’ kind can do way more damage than good.

    I hope you keep writing, and I hope you start showing your work to people — it’s not always easy, and not everybody will like what you do, but the great thing is that not everybody has to. And the rewards are worth it.

  12. “When I was your age…”??

    Man, what an ugly attitude. The comment was about writing style. It doesn’t warrant such a personal response.

  13. Hey snake, I’d recommend the Absolute Write forums. There’s an entire section of teenage writers there and tons of great advice. It’s a great place for any writer in general.

  14. A writing forum that I absolutely loved for many years was Zoetrope — I met a lot of really talented people there, we learned a lot from each other, and a surprising number of us went on to become published writers. I don’t know what it’s like now, but it’s definitely worth checking out.

    I agree I got a bit edgy, Victoria — and I regret it. On the other hand, you can’t so gleefully and publicly insult a writer’s style and then backtrack and say it’s “all in good fun”. Fun for whom, exactly? This is why writers are not supposed to react to bad reviews — but sometimes we slip and can’t help it (witness Alice Hoffman’s recent debacle) — and then get castigated all over again. 🙂

  15. Great post, Cal. Inspiring. It’s years too late for me not to have been a double major in college, and I seem to be stuck living in a post-grad double major, being both a business owner and a writer. But I can still drop some of the distractions and time-sumps from my life. I love your clarity, Cal, and it helps a lot. Terrific comments, Justine.

  16. Cal, thanks for this very motivational blog on Justine. I needed that. Justine, your persistance and focus highly inspires me, and gives me added fuel towards my own personal pursuit. I will definitely check out your blog.

  17. Cal, thanks for this very motivational blog on Justine. I needed that. Justine, your persistance and focus highly inspires me, and gives me added fuel towards my own personal pursuit. I will definitely check out your blog.

  18. By the way, Justine, how did you compromise writing with school while you were there? I don’t know if I can get more than an hour of practice on every school day while retaining an A.

  19. Snake (I love that name, btw) — an hour of practice a day is awesome. Do that every day instead of watching TV or hanging out at the mall and you’ll be amazed at how far it can take you. Practice accumulates.

    There’s a famous writerly anecdote of how Scott Turow wrote on the train — 20 min back and forth from his 70 hr/week job in a law office — he composed a novel that way, PRESUMED INNOCENT (really, really good), which sold huge and pretty much invented the whole legal-thriller genre.

    We live in a culture that loves the big jumps forward, the overnight success, the instant fortune, etc. But in truth it’s more like small steps forward every day. Do just a bit every day, improve just a little bit every day, the key emphasis being “every day”. Entire empires are created (and conquered) that way.

    Good for me to remind myself of that, it’s a point that bears repeating.

    Oh — and to answer your question about school — I’m, uh, not really a role model for that. I excelled in the handful of subjects I really liked (thanks to all the reading & writing I did on my own & the skills & critical thinking it gave me) and rebelled, skipped classes and got average-to-low grades in everything else. I still managed to win a scholarship to a great university because I was the kind of “specialist” they were looking for at the time (my writing saved me, basically), but that was luck, and I regret now my lack of math/science background…Education in general (no matter how you get it) feeds into your education as a writer — it’s important to have something to say, as well as knowing how to say it.

    Okay, end of preaching! This has been fun. 🙂

  20. Hey justine, i’m curious after reading some of your posts and impressed with your writing, how involved were you with reading in high school/college(particularly authors considered having “literary merit”)?

    And to morgante, I believe you’ve misinterpreted the idea of art. you seem to use the word “artistry” as an insult, whereas the use of language as a means of expression can be considered art in itself. You might mean “mathematical” although I still fail to see a precise connection.

  21. Hey, why has no one mentioned that Justine was married to Elon Musk and is independently wealthy? Might that not have some bearing on her ability to write without any distractions?

  22. Getting hard focus is pretty hard. I should try to devote a couple of hours on writing only. Should write for 4 or 5 hours in a row, just to try it.

    But I have the same problem as Snake, I don’t want to revise all of my writing. Maybe I am not all about writing, but about ideas-vomiting.

    Should give it some thoughts.

  23. I practice dancing once a week and record it and put it on youtube. I think I get better with each youtube post I deliver and get good feedback with constructive criticism. Hope this works!

  24. Alan — I read obsessively as a kid & a teenager, but it was mostly popular fiction (and some literary YA) — I didn’t truly develop a taste for the literary stuff until I hit college. A lot of the stuff I had to read for school didn’t resonate with me, but reading is so personal that no one book or writer is going to appeal to everybody.

    Nothing — yes, I am very fortunate that way, but money doesn’t mean there aren’t distractions — there are tons of distractions (and before my marriage I was broke, carrying student debt and working fulltime). You’re always giving something up — usually with me it’s my social life and TV. What money *has* allowed me to do is to continue to write when I have five small children, and I am grateful for that.

    TV eats up so much time. If you really want to read and write, throw it out.

    Dottywine — you’re wise — and brave — to do that! All the best with it!

    And finally, just to clarify — it was my understanding that Morgante is a teenager, hence my comment about her age. It was an edgy comment, but it actually wasn’t meant as an insult.

  25. This is a nice blog post. My one quibble is that I’m not sure the criticisms of double majors is justified. Learning two related and complementary subjects in depth (e.g. math and physics, math and cs, or economics and political science) can give you a unique perspective on both. But I’ll agree that many (most?) people who double major have only shallow reasons for it.


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