Society of
Children's Book Writers
and Illustrators

“Writing is like Prospecting” by Matthew Lasley

Writing is a lot like prospecting. There is a lot of lonely work and many more disappointments than successes. So why do you do it? Because there is the promise that if you do it enough, you will learn to find what you are looking for.

The secret to being a good prospector: go where the gold is.

The same can be said for a good writer. You have to know where the material is. If you don’t, you will wander the wilderness of words until you get frustrated and give up.

A few summers ago, I went to one of my favorite places to go panning. It isn’t hard to get to, so there are often numerous people there. On this particular occasion, there were about a dozen people panning away along the creek.

I stopped and said hi to some of them and it turned out that most of them were part of a family on vacation in Alaska. They had picked up a guidebook that told them they could find gold on this creek, bought a few gold pans and set off to pay for their vacation (their words, not mine).

They worked hard. Pan after pan they dug up the stream bed and bank in an effort to find gold. Yet they found nothing. They knew that either they didn’t know what they were doing, the guidebook lied, or they were on the wrong stream.

Upstream I spotted two guys that I knew frequented the area often and went to say hi to them. They told me that the family had been there for nearly an hour splashing around the creek making all kinds of racket.

As I watched them, I could tell that they were cold and they were getting discouraged. But funnily, not one of them went up to the two guys who were obviously working material from a different location.

I went down to the family and talked to them. Many of the younger kids, teenagers mostly, had given up; this was their parents’ dream. I gave them a few tips and they seemed a bit more excited again when I reaffirmed that there was in fact gold in the creek.

I took them downstream from my two prospector friends and up the bank to a section of the creek that had been mostly worked over by those that frequented the creek. There, I found small sections of the material that still could contain gold. I dug them each out a panful and let them borrow my classifier to sort the material.

All but one had gold in their pan. The gold had always been there, but they were panning the wrong material. It wasn’t a motherlode, but within a half an hour, each one was walking away with a few flakes of gold in their vials and a story to tell when they returned home.

Writing is much the same. You can know how to write, but if you don’t know how to get the right material or understand the rules, then you will soon be tired and frustrated.

If you want to find were the material is, talk to those that are in it frequently. If you are lucky, you will come across a miner, but even if you don’t, prospectors know where to look. And here is the biggest secret of all: miners and prospectors learned by failing first themselves.

Whatever your stage of writing, don’t be afraid to get with fellow writers. Every person brings something to the table, but you will never know what that is until you ask.

Writing and prospecting are both far more enjoyable when you have someone there to enjoy it with and keep you accountable. The journey does not have to be a lonely one.

And if it turns out that you are the experienced prospector, never be afraid to share what you know. Those newbies may take a little gold, but there is always more in the ground (and you know how to find it).