7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Alexander Yates

 

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Alexander Yates, author of MOONDOGS) 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.

 

 Alexander is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the print book by mail. You

can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Kirkus won.)

       


Alexander Yates grew up in Haiti, Mexico, Bolivia and
the Philippines. His first novel, Moondogs, (Doubleday;
March 2011) was given a starred review by Kirkus,
which called it “accomplished … unusually involving.”
His other work has appeared in American Fiction,
FiveChapters.com and the Kenyon Review Online.
Alex has a website and is on Twitter.

 

1. Revision is important, but finishing your draft is more important. I learned this the hard way. It took me five years to finish writing my novel, but in retrospect two of those years were wasted (or at least used very ineffectively) on obsessive over-revision. I wrote my first few chapters and, realizing they weren’t very good, I began rewriting. And rewriting. What I didn’t realize at the time is that first chapters are supposed to stink. How could they not? By the time Moondogs was finally picked up for publication I’d deleted virtually all the early material I’d agonized over for years. Just because I’d been reluctant to hold my nose and push through to the end of the book.
My takeaway: Nothing compares to the perspective that a full draft (stinky though it may be) will give you. For all you know that scene you are pouring hours into revising doesn’t even belong in the book.

2. There is no substitute for time at the keys. This, of course, is a cliché. But it also can’t be overemphasized. Sometimes work needs to simmer away in your head, but the process of discovery happens much quicker when you’re struggling with your own raw sentences. Some writers will tell you: “Treat it like a job.” This is maybe a little extreme—writers like George Saunders and Charles Yu have written brilliant books while working full time at office jobs. But whether it’s eight hours a day, or two, you need to make them happen. Time at the keys is no guarantee of success, but it is a precursor to it.

3. The Internet is not your friend … unless you are way better at time management than me. But if you’re like me (read: a big and distractible baby) then the Internet is a major enemy to productive writing time. I got around it by writing my novel on a 90’s era laptop with busted Ethernet ports and no wireless. Even as I write this, my modem and router are unplugged. If they weren’t, I’d probably be watching videos of kittens wrestling puppies. Or ferrets, wrestling anything.

4. Listen to what people tell you. Here is a list of people who have told me things about my novel that I didn’t want to hear: my wife, my friends, my classmates, my professors, my agent and my editor. All of these people have been right. Not only that—they are right most of the time. The trick is to get far enough out of your own ego to see that. Sharing your work with friends or writers’ groups (formal and informal, they are run virtually everywhere) is an essential step. Not everyone will be helpful, but you’ll be tremendously served if you find even one careful reader whom you can trust.

5. Do not listen to what people tell you. Obviously, the point above goes both ways. Any writer who shares their work is bound to have experiences that are not only unhelpful, but flat-out discouraging. I once spent a half hour listening to a classroom full of people discuss the marketability of my novel. Four storylines? Set outside the United States? Over—wait, did you say over a hundred thousand words long? They told me confidently that in this market, the project was doomed. I was better off picking my favorite storyline of the bunch and cutting the other three. If (when) you hear stuff like this, it is up to you to say: Thanks, but no. Not helpful. Moving along.

6. Read more. Read better. This is not to assume that you don’t. But I didn’t. I feel like I am forever catching up, always trying to be a more careful and precise reader. More than a few aspiring writers have told me: “I don’t have time to read. I’m focusing on my writing.” It’s like a cook who refuses to eat.

7. Don’t be afraid of your fears. I’m not talking about your fear of rejection (though don’t be afraid of that, either; that is inevitable). I’m talking about the stuff it scares you to write about. The scenes you avoid with some clever exposition. The too-personal subject matter that you only dare hint at. As a writer, I’m capable to doing some preposterous acrobatics just to keep two characters out of the same room. Which is usually a sign to me that those characters need to get on stage together, and mix it up.
Of course, there’s good reason to be afraid. There’s a whole lot of crappy prose between you and that thing you’re avoiding. The trick is to trust that when you get there, when you really hit it right, it’ll be worth it. The trick is always to trust.

 

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24 thoughts on “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Alexander Yates

  1. Game

    Hi!. Thanks for the blog. I’ve been digging around looking some info up for a project, but i think i’m getting lost!. Google lead me here – good for you i guess! Keep up the good work. I will be popping back over in a few days to see if there is updated posts.

  2. kathy w.

    Thanks for this. My husband has actually been getting after me about the big personal something I avoid in my own writing. I guess I should listen to what he keeps telling me—he’ll be happy to hear it.

  3. Thomas

    That is great advice. I spent hours working on chapter 2 only to realize later (chapter 20) chapter 2 held no worth whatsoever. I hope to have my first crappy draft done by the end of June. Would love a look at your book. Good luck with it.

  4. Valerie Norris

    I have written a novel with four stories (all on the same theme) culminating in one huge disaster/solution at the end. I think it’s funny and touching, but have been given the same advice you were given–yank out Sheila’s story and go with it only. I will not. (One excerpt has won and award and been published in a literary journal, so I must have some idea of what I’m doing, right?)

    Thanks for this!

  5. A. R. Sago

    Thank you for pointing out the importance of reading. I get frustrated when I see new writers talk about how reading isn’t important, or they don’t like to read, or don’t have the time, etc.

  6. Jen

    I love that I found this on the internet while avoiding my novel. Let’s just say #3 resonated with me in a profound way. I appreciate your insight. Now I think I’ll vacuum the house, scrub the floors, organize the shoes in my closet by color and then, maybe, check my email before I finish working on my book for the day.

  7. Leanne Beattie

    I can relate to taking 5 years to write a novel, except for me it was 6 months of writing and 4 and a half years of procrastination. Best of luck with the release of your book!

  8. Andrea Pawley

    I loved this post! It made me smile. I’m so glad you got your book published. You give me hope for my four storyline, semi-historical novel that is over 100,000 words. Thanks for the honest interview!

  9. Megan (Best of Fates)

    Great advice – though I always find it hard to distinguish what is something I’ve been told that I should ignore and what I should get over myself and accept. Silly grey areas.

    p.s. It keeps telling me my email address isn’t valid, so I’ll use another one, but I swear it is!

  10. Eric Sasson

    Excellent points, Alex. As I’m just now starting the second novel, they resonate with me, especially numbers 1 and 2. Trying to get in 1000 words a day at least 4 days a week. Number 3 I take issue with, but I’m still researching my novel; still there’s no doubt that the internet totally interferes with writing time.

    If I win your book, I’ll just give it as a present–I’m stopping by an indie bookstore this week to pick one up 🙂

  11. Susannah Loiselle

    Very helpful. I am learning that writing is an intuitive process and I have to trust what my brain spits out. I am just writing out my first draft–fifteen chapters now. I write it in longhand (love the physical act of writing, bad pensmanship not withstanding), and then put it into my computer. I am writing it freely, no perfectionist tendencies allowed, just to get it out there. (Anne Lamott suggests that we can have a "shitty first draft.") One thing I have observed is that our brains immediately go into an editing mode and noticing mode. I take notes as I go along to retain the suggestions. When I go from longhand to typing the suggestions drop down. AS I go along I worry less about how everything works. Its spomewhat like getting into a vehicle for a ride. Lately I get doubts and blocks but increasingly I tell them to "take a number,"

  12. Juliana

    Great tips! Reading them actually makes me want to read your book (what are those four plotlines? Which country outside the U.S.? Are there any aliens?). By the way, I write on a 90s era no-Internet laptop as well. Otherwise I’d spend all my writing time reading articles about writing, but not actually writing anything.

  13. Kirkus MacGowan

    I thought you were writing about me when you were talking about over editing. The one comment that caught my attention was the part about spending time editing a scene that might not even be there when you’re done. I did that very thing the other day, spent about an hour editing a few scenes then clipped them the next day. Thanks for the info!

  14. Ryan

    I connected with your point about not listening to people/readers TOO much. Feedback is good and can be helpful if you’re trying to figure out if a scene/chapter/story works the way you want it to. (And to help with proofreading.) But ultimately it is YOUR book and only YOU can write it.

    To continue the culinary analogy, too many cooks in the kitchen = blahblahblah soup. It is YOUR story. Tell it. If you’re happy with it, to hell with the haters and doubters.

    Don’t forget what novelist/screenwriter William Goldman says in his book ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE:

    1. NO ONE _KNOWS_ ANYTHING
    2. IF IT WORKS, IT’S RIGHT

    So do your thing. Stop running around thinking about writing and finishing that novel and actually FINISH it. Don’t worry, there will be another one along soon.

  15. Linda

    All good points – I’ve heard it said over and over, if you want to write you have to be a reader. I like the analogy of a cook who doesn’t eat… The whole Internet thing, though, is only as bad as you make it for yourself – if you are able to manage your time, are committed to your writing, and are aware of the potential that exists in that media, then it can be your friend. Writing has to be the most important thing to you or it doesn’t matter to anyone else – you included. Writing is my passion and now am into publishing other’s work – my work has only increased because of my desire to lead and set an example. Thank you for posting and good luck with your book. Happy writing everyone!

  16. Nikki

    These are really great tips/pointers. I love that you included listen to people and don’t listen to people.

    Also, I find that treating it like a job works. I don’t exactly treat it like a job, but I committed to myself that I would write a certain amount of words each day, good or bad, and I haven’t let myself off the hook yet. Personal accountability and much less sleep than the average person has kept me focus.

    Thanks for this. I enjoyed your thoughts.

  17. Rachel Giesel

    I completely agree with just getting the first draft out there. With any of my work, I’ve always over-editted before it was finished, and never completed a novel. Once I completed NaNoWriMo in November, I stopped editing and just wrote. It helped me finish! Of course, once I went back and edited there was tons wrong with it and I had to scrap most of the content anyways. But that’s a different story.

    Also, with the internet NOT being your friend. I agree, and disagree. Agree with what you’re saying in that it is easy to become distracted and waste valuable time that could be spent writing. But it’s still good in the sense that it can gain your followers and fans for your book and content and the like. I guess it just has to be used appropriately, with good time management skills. How to do that? Well, I’m still figuring that out.

    Great post. Awesome tips. Thanks! Hope I win that copy!

  18. Tyrean

    Excellent advice. I have done some of those acrobatics while trying to avoid putting any romance in my stories. I’ve had characters suddenly have allergic reactions to anything romantic just to avoid the possibility. It’s sad.
    And the internet, a distraction? Obviously, or I wouldn’t be here.
    I’ve been down the over-revision road before too. I really appreciate NaNoWriMo for getting me past that this last year – now I have to figure out how much revision is enough for the whole draft.
    Thanks for your insightful and humorous post.

  19. Alicia

    Great advice. I struggle a lot with over revising before I’m done. And yes, the internet is a huge distraction from my writing. Like right now, I’m procrastinating. So, I’m closing Firefox and going back to my book. Thanks for the inspiration.

    aliciacald(at)gmail(dot)com

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