7 Things I Learned So Far, by Heather Sellers

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Heather Sellers, author of CHAPTER AFTER CHAPTER) at any stage of their career can talk about writing advice and instruction as well as how they possibly got their book agent — by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning.

GIVEAWAY: Heather is excited to give away a free copy of her book, CHAPTER BY CHAPTER, to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: Turtle8 won.)


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Heather Sellers is the author of two popular guides to the writing life,
Page after Page and Chapter after Chapter as well as a textbook for writers,
The Practice of Creative Writing.  Her award-winning memoir,
You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know was an O, Oprah book of the
month club selection.  She teaches creative nonfiction at the
University of South Florida. Find her on Twitter.

1. Don’t start with an idea. Start with an image. Readers want to enter your world. Too often, we writers start with our grand ideas, our glorious intentions. Start your poem, your essay, your novel, your screenplay, your love letter, with an image. An image isn’t static. It’s a scene, something taking place in real time–is a little micro-movie. It’s action that engages us on the sensory level.

2. Start with conflict right away. Don’t warm up, wander, or muse. Start with a battle: one character’s strong urgent desire set against, and directly opposing another equally “right” character’s strong unmet desire. Plunge into problem.

(Before you send out your query, look over a submission checklist.)

3. Come in through the side door. If you are too on the nose, you lose your reader. Coming in through the front door means your piece is about exactly what it says it is about. But our pleasure in reading is figuring things out. Set up the writing so your reader gets to be smart; trust that she truly wants to figure things out. Write so that the words point to your point but don’t spell it out directly. Readers are brilliant. And powerful writing creates an envelop for the reader to slip into. When writing about despair and meaninglessness, start with a bug. When writing about transcendent love, start with something as unexpectedly to the side as a sandwich.

4. Notice what you notice. My friends are always commenting on the notebook by my side, the note cards in my pockets, my habit of asking for a piece of paper and writing things down. I guess it’s weird but I can’t even walk down to the mailbox without a note card and a pencil in hand. At restaurants, at red lights, on hikes, kayaking, even riding my bike, I’m always pausing to take notes. It’s very difficult to invent convincing details on the spot. But more importantly, noting strengthens the observing mind, and that’s your gold as a writer, noticing what you notice.

5. Take care not to write solely for revenge or therapy or venting. That’s what your diary/therapist/best friend is for. Part of the point of literature is to help us see why annoying people are annoying. Write to learn; don’t write to unburden or to punish. Your work can be darkly honest and brutally exposing of injustice and it can still be fair, beautiful, and (when appropriate) kind.

(What query letter mistakes will sink your submission chances?)

6. Use lists in your work. If you give the reader lists of specifics (she loved roasted chicken, antique fairs, handing her husband his folded laundry and her dog’s head in her lap, that weight) you give her everything she needs. Quickly. Lists not only increase the tempo of your work, they can deliver an enormous amount of necessary information in an appealing rhythmic package. Try a list on every page: short lists, long lists, lists with surprises, two item lists, secret lists.

7. Billy Joel calls his working life “being in harness.” Every since I heard him say that in an interview, I’ve adopted it. “I’m in harness,” I tell my friends. I can’t go play. I’m in harness. You can’t live your whole life in harness though. You have to know how long the trip is going to be, or you are unlikely to saddle up. I write in four forty-minute blocks of time, with mandatory fifteen minute breaks in between. This kind of happens from 9-1, but not exactly. If I don’t hit my marks, I have to work at night. I’m in harness, but the milk runs are clear, definable, and they end. I can’t work without a timer. I can focus for 45 minutes. No more, no less. I’m half horse, half rider.

GIVEAWAY: Heather is excited to give away a free copy of her book, CHAPTER BY CHAPTER, to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: Turtle8 won.)



Get both of Heather’s informative fiction writing books
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39 thoughts on “7 Things I Learned So Far, by Heather Sellers

  1. Doropatent

    Thanks for the great ideas! I’d already started often using images to start, but I need to remember to ‘use the side door.’ I tend to feel I need to be sure my reader “gets it;” now I realize that’s not the best approach.

  2. Turtle8

    I don’t see the connection to the phrase “being in harness” for tip number seven. Unless it is a metaphor for an actual harness that makes the person stay in specific place for a specific amount of time just writing. Then I agree with the other comments in article about the tip that it is useful. It is very useful procrastinators like myself.

  3. rncarst

    Wonderful reminder of how to make your book resonate with the reader. I really like using lists: they not only impart a lot of information but can reveal a lot about the character.

  4. hats5

    Thanks for the great ideas. I loved all of them but tips 1 and 2 really resonated with me. I am trying to rework the opening of my book to start in the middle of the conflict instead of leading up to it. This gave me the boost I needed to keep working at it.

  5. Adan Ramie

    Tips #3, 4, and 7 really resonated with me. Coming in through the side door is something I really need to work on; I think I do too much telling in trying to get my point across. (I think part of it comes from trying to teach my children; they will make an ever-explaining monkey out of you, if you let them!) As to tip#4: I used to carry a little notepad around with me wherever I went, but I let teasing from my friends and family kill the habit. And the idea of being in harness rings true. I’ll definitely have to try the 45-minute writing chunks with mandatory breaks, although I’m not sure how well it’s going to work with small children underfoot.

    I look forward to reading Chapter by Chapter! I also have Page by Page and The Practice of Creative Writing in my To Read list.

  6. writerontheroadway

    I like the first statement, “Don’t start with an idea. Start with an image.” This is very helpful and true advice. As I near completion of my second novel, there were and still are moments that I have had to pause and visualize a chapter as a snippet from a movie. This not only helps to propel the story, it gives the idea a fresh appeal while making it more enjoyable to move the work forward.

  7. ckwallis

    What timely info! I’m just re-working the first chapter of my wip, as it is much too long, introducing too many characters and story lines. But, since it starts with an image and conflict, I am pleased (and relieved) to say I won’t be changing that.

    Most exciting for me, however, was tip #6, as one of the passages I’ve been wondering if I should cut is a list. I’ve been concerned that it was corny, a literary faux pas only an amateur would commit, but every time I read it, I like it–I like the way it picks up the pace, and it packs so much info about one of the main characters into one (admittedly long) sentence that cutting it left me with the dilemma of how to work that information into the story. Now, dilemma solved–the list is staying! Thanks.

  8. Russ64

    I’ll take 6 of you ideas and add my terrific idea #7. Leave Billy Joel out of this. He’s not a struggling writer like the rest of us. He a very rich guy, a talented song-master, and a guy who can do whatever he wants to do.

  9. geekyblueyed1

    Thanks for the advice! I’m struggling to find my rhythm for writing, mainly because life gets in the way. I think your words here will help a lot!

  10. PaintedWriter

    Great advice, Heather! And I absolutely love tip #5! Writing has always been a “form of therapy” for me, and it has helped me unleash a lot of emotion. A lot of my poetry has been darkly honest. But I want to branch out, and have started a novella of sorts. However, I am still trying to figure out how to come in the side door! Thank you for all the wonderful tips!

  11. Shauna Rybolt

    Thank you so much for number seven!

    My biggest roadblock is (of course) myself – making time to write without feeling guilty I’m missing time with family or friends, or that I should be exercising towards a healthier body instead of exercising my mind. I always imagine “real” writers spend hours and hours a day honing their craft, which seems overwhelming to me and so I don’t even commit to half an hour. Reading that you make your time in these blocks, with shorter blocks in between to break, is so inspiring. I have three breaks at work each day. Two fifteens and a thirty. I should absolutely be spending this time writing, and now I will! And I’ll work on constructing a writing schedule for my time outside of work as well.

    I do well with schedules, but I have never incorporated them into my writing. I always write only when I feel inspired with a great idea. Inevitably, that idea starts to dull and I become bored with it as I sit there typing, and I’ll abandon it after a dozen pages or so. Then I explode with a dozen new pages when I get the next idea, until I feel that one dull as well. And so on.

    I need to commit to shorter cycles, and to finishing what I start. At least that first full draft.

    I really think taking your advice in number seven is going to help me to do this. Thank you!

  12. Debbie

    Your advice on where to start and harnessing make for great beginnings and endings. I’m excited to open the side door, turn on the engine, and strap on the harness…and, hopefully, the brake doesn’t hit until I’m satisfied with my mindful adventures. Thanks so much for all the good tips.

  13. Charii

    Thank you for all the great advice, I love hearing it from those who have been there. It’s great to to know I follow much of the advice given. I’ve discovered the authors social media world and I LOVE following authors and aspiring writers like myself. It’s even better getting to know and chat with them personally. I suggest this for all the aspiring writers like myself. 😀

  14. Micheleann

    Thank you for the advice, I discovered that most of these steps are already true of myself and my first novel in the works so I have a bit more confidence now.

  15. jhawley

    Thank you. I need to adopt #4. I’m always forgetting the things I saw or thought about that would help create setting or character! I also appreciate #7. I will try it to stay focuses w/o distractions

  16. Yankeedoodle30

    I like your comment #3: “Come through the side door”.
    I agree: Readers are smart & they don’t deserve to be bored by ordinary straight-forward story telling.

    The writer also needs to remember: A reader has to identify thousands of little letters and squiggly punctuation marks and make sense of what they mean – immediately. Don’t make it difficult for the reader to do his job. Let them enjoy what you have chosen to write.

    And finally, think about this: The reader has to wade through an art so difficult that most people don’t ever master it. So make it enjoyable to read.

  17. profwriter189

    I read Chapter by Chapter years ago and re-read it each time I set out to write a new novel. I particularly like the idea of having six “guides”: three craft books and three books like the one I like to write. I also like the warning that thoughts will occur to pull me away from the current project.
    I also use The Practice of Creative Writing in my university classroom (for Introduction to Creative Writing), because Sellers provides such practical advice and the exercises are great–I use those for the two journals the students keep.


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