7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by A.B. Westrick

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by A.B. Westrick, author of BROTHERHOOD) 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: A.B. is excited to give away a free copy of her novel 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: leadrian won.)


AB-westrick-author-writer         brotherhood-westrick-cover

A.B. Westrick is the daughter of southerners who sought to leave the South
behind. Raised in Pennsylvania, she later moved with her husband to Virginia
and spent hours walking Richmond’s brick streets, wondering how her ancestors
had fared during and after the Civil War. Her debut novel, BROTHERHOOD
(Viking, Sept. 2013). grew from those wonderings. She has been a teacher,
paralegal, literacy volunteer, administrator, and coach for teams from Odyssey
of the Mind to the Reading Olympics. A graduate of Stanford University and
Yale Divinity School, she received an MFA in writing from Vermont College
of Fine Arts in 2011. She and her family live in Virginia. Find her on Twitter.


1. Stop trying to find time to write. Instead, make time. When you’re in “trying-to-find” mode, you’re not giving priority to your writing. Identify the time of day when you’re the most creative, then claim that time. Show up at the page. Get up early if you have to. Lock a door if you have to. Turn off your phone and Internet. Whatever it takes for you to carve out your time—do it. Make writing happen.

2. Keep handy a to-do list. It’s for jotting down all of the extraneous details that pop into your head while you’re writing, such as remembering to pick up a loaf of bread… making an eye doc appointment… returning a library book… whatever. Yes, these things need to happen, but not during the sacred time you’ve carved out to write. Jotting down these details allows the brain to let go of them, knowing they won’t be forgotten. Tell your brain you’ll attend to them as soon as you’ve finished that day’s writing.

(What to write in the BIO section of your queries.)

3. Show Don’t Tell = Action. Early-on, I thought “show don’t tell” meant showing every little detail in a character’s life. It doesn’t. It means that when you’re writing a scene, you describe—physically—what your characters are doing. You don’t interpret the characters’ actions for the reader. You don’t label their emotions, such as, “Stephanie felt sad or angry or frustrated or confused.” Instead, you show what Stephanie does and let readers infer the meaning of her actions. So you might write, “Stephanie slammed her fist into the wall” or “chewed the left side of her lip until it bled” or whatever. You draw the reader into a scene using the five senses—taste, smell, sound, sight and touch.

4. Sensory details beat writer’s block. And speaking of the five senses, they’re a great way to get yourself unstuck if you experience writer’s block. When I’m stuck, instead of walking away from a manuscript, I’ll try to move more deeply into it. I’ll identify the odors in my character’s life… the textures… the sounds… air stirring in an overhead duct… a mosquito feasting on an ankle… dogs barking in the distance… etc. I’ll give my character something to eat, then I’ll savor the taste. I’ll notice the angle of light, the quality of air, the temperature of skin. I’ll write down everything my character experiences through the five senses. Then I’ll consider my character’s desires in that particular moment… and I’ll relish them… and see what emerges. I don’t necessarily insert all of those details into the scene, but the exercise of identifying them loosens me up, getting me unstuck. Sometimes insights emerge. Sometimes the character takes the story in a new direction.

5. Voice is all about having the confidence to claim the page. I used to think “voice” meant opening a novel with a character who was super strong or engaging, sarcastic or kick-ass, funny or idiosyncratic—whatever the trait, it was in your face. I thought this awesome “voice” would hook readers and keep them turning pages. But whenever I tried to write such a “voice,” it sounded forced. I’ve since come to realize that’s not at all what “voice” means. Rather than pertaining to a character, “voice” pertains to the writer and the writing. It has to do with a writer’s confidence to claim the page—a confidence that comes from knowing the characters inside and out, believing in their story, and daring to tell it as honestly as possible. The writer must believe that s/he was meant to tell this story, or that this story called to him/her, or that it’s the story only s/he can tell. The qualities of confidence and honesty in the writing will grab readers and hold them fast, infusing the manuscript with “voice.”

(Headed to a conference? Learn how to approach an agent.)

6. Think of chapter one as an invitation. An author invites readers to enter into a particular character’s story at a particular time. A book is like a party: it’s great when you arrive and the place is already hopping. No one cares that an hour before start-time, the hostess was still scrambling to dust windowsills, or stuffing biscuits with ham. Arrive too early, and you’ll wish you hadn’t. Arrive in the middle of the action, and you won’t want to leave.

7. Writing is more passion than talent. My dad used to say things like, “So-and-so got stuck behind the door when God was giving out the [insert talent here]” … brains… or athleticism… or whatever. I grew up thinking that writing was a God-given talent, and my failure to produce perfect pieces off the top of my head was proof that the Big Guy hadn’t bestowed this particular ability on me. But I couldn’t stop writing. I had a passion for it, if not the talent, and eventually I came to realize Dad’s little quip had its limits. Writing can be learned. There are techniques. It’s an art, a craft, a discipline, a practice. There’s a lot to be said for the wisdom of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and the idea that we need to put in the hours. Sure, talent is nice, but if you’ve got talent, you risk falling into the trap of believing that writing comes easily. It’s not easy. It requires butt glue. Perseverance. Focus. Talent will tease you, and passion will propel you toward success.

GIVEAWAY: A.B. is excited to give away a free copy of her novel 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: leadrian won.)



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28 thoughts on “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by A.B. Westrick

  1. JudeShoe

    I enjoyed the way you defined these terms we see too often and don’t think about enough. Thank you for the article. Reading it felt as though we were in the same room chatting.

  2. Debbie

    If only the mind could read its own mind. Sometimes, the creativity is so deep, it takes days to dig it out. How nice it would be to know that you know, but just need more time.

  3. RobinLynnGriffith


    As a writer who is new to the formal and professional aspects of writing for the public domain, I am trying to soak up every piece of information I can find. You should see the size of my OneNote file around tips and tricks. I greatly appreciate having tools of the trade that are provided in such a way that I can put them to use immediately without having to decipher how to actually use them.

    Ms. Westrick, I love the cover art shown here for your debut novel “Brotherhood”. Thank you for your sharing.


  4. Marci Rich

    Terrific suggestions! Anne once shared with me her tip of keeping paper at my writing desk, so I can jot down intrusive items without having them sidetrack me; it’s a practice I maintain to this day. And even though I was trained early on to “show, don’t tell,” it pays to be reminded of this. I’m going back to my manuscript later to sift out any such sins. Thanks for publishing her list!

  5. tamibrown

    So much fresh insight in this spot on list! Your explanation of “show don’t tell” is so clear and exactly right. And from now on I’ll dive into a sensory detail exploration whenever I get stuck in a scene. Thanks!

  6. ABWestrick

    Thank you, everyone, for your great comments! I really enjoyed writing this post. And as for the Vermont College MFA program — I can’t say enough about how positive it was. It’s a demanding program, but also supportive and encouraging.

  7. Haypher

    I LOVE ‘butt glue”!! Nailing my shoes to the floor wouldn’t work – I’d take them off ;o) But, butt glue, I think I’d be staying right there in the chair LOL

    Thanks – great points.

  8. Amyithist

    I always make time to write. It’s not easy, but it’s important. I think being passionate about writing helps. It’s like making time for anything else you REALLY want to do. Finding time isn’t an option for me. There will be at least an hour from my day every day for what I love.

  9. DanielJayBerg

    Thanks for sharing. I’ve never had someone explain “voice” or “show don’t tell” so clearly before. I’ll use both to help my approach to writing.

    Best of luck!

  10. yellowroses

    My first draft of the first novel and I’m getting bogged down on page 112. I have never been so eager to clean out the garage or all the closets. You are right. Sitting my butt down and just starting kept me going on two other stalls. Today is a stall but you have inspired me to keep going. That garage really does need organizing, though.

  11. vrundell

    A.B. you, my dear, have nailed voice.
    Thanks for the great article.
    Thanks for your great insights.
    Thanks for making me laugh this morning.
    I’m stuck in the butt-glue, writing my way into authorhood.
    Best of luck to you!

  12. Alec

    Great column, and helpful points. As a busy full-time student, and a busy employee, It’s difficult to find productive time to write my novel. These points mirror things I’ve found myself, but perhaps had yet to realize 😀 thanks! Looking forward to your latest book.

  13. Just a Daydreamer

    Wow, this is extremely helpful. I love how each point you make you explain thoroughly. I’ve heard of these points, but hadn’t really understood them and how to be better. I’m especially sucky at #1, and it’s something we all have trouble with once in a while. #7 is especially inspirational. Overall, great post! 🙂

  14. Joe Snoe

    A.B. – I finally was moved to register for Chuck ‘s website so I could tell you how much I liked your post. I’m a mini-failure on points 1, 2 and 6 ; but I really do buy in on your points 3, 4 and 5. I’ve never heard anyone put it the way you did; and I think you nailed it – on all three. I’m still not sold on 7 – but I do agree with “It’s an art, a craft, a discipline, a practice.” – Joe

    1. leadrian

      I think #7 goes along with the idea that even the most brilliant writer will fail without motivation to continue and without the perseverance to see it through. And even a mediocre writer, with enough confidence and passion, can make up for lack of “raw talent” simply by never giving up.

  15. annemarielacy

    Thank you, A.B.! That was one of the most inspiring posts I’ve read in a great while. I would love to know more about your experiences in the MFA program at Vermont as I am thinking of applying there myself. Maybe another guest post about that?


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