7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Carrie Vaughn

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

Carrie is excited to give away a free copy of her 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: Diane won.)


Carrie Vaughn is a New York Times-bestselling YA
author. Discord’s Apple (Tor Books; starred review in
PW) was recently released in paperback, while Steel
(HarperTeen) is her new YA book released in March
2011. See Carrie’s website here.

1. Have a plan. Have a picture in mind of the kind of career you want, the kind of writer you want to be. This will help you make tough decisions when you reach crossroadschoosing an agent, deciding to accept deals. If you find other people wanting you to do work that doesn’t fit with your plan for yourself, you may be better served staying true to yourself.

2. Learn to say no. There was a time I thought I’d never say this, when I’d grab every opportunity to come along. But you may find yourself getting overbooked and burned out, like I almost did. It’s okay to say no to projects and deals. Writers can feel pretty powerless in the big corporate world of publishing, but sometimes our greatest power is the ability to say no.

3. Go big or go home. Don’t hold back in your writing. Take risks. Go ahead and tackle that crazy idea that you think will never fly, because that may be the one that makes you stand out from the crowd. Keep pushing the envelope. Don’t go with your first or second idea, go with your fifteenth or sixteenth. I have a little voice in the back of my head, and when it says, “This is crazy, no one will go for it,” I know I’m on the right track.

4. Set goals you can actually accomplish. “I will finish the new novel and start submitting it by the end of the year” is a good goal because you can control what needs to happen to accomplish it. “My new book will hit the New York Times bestseller list” is a terrible goal because you have no control over it. It’s a good milestone to aim for, but don’t set yourself up for feeling like a miserable failure if it doesn’t actually happen.

5. Aim high. Keep aiming high. Query your dream agent. Submit to the most prestigious, highest-paying market first. Tackle the big project that scares you.  If you sell yourself short before you even start, you’ll never know how far you could have gone. Ambition is a wonderful thing, and has gotten me farther than I ever thought I’d go. To quote one of my favorite characters in science fiction, Miles Vorkosigan: “Aim high. You may still miss the target, but at least you won’t shoot your foot off.”

6. Plot and character are the same thing. A story’s actions should arise out of the decisions and reactions those particular characters make. Different characters would drive the story in a different direction. Why are these things happening to these particular people and not someone else?  Changing the characters, the kinds of people they are, would change the story. If the events of a story would happen no matter who the characters are, then the characters have no impact on what happens, and why should I want to read about them?

7. Read, and analyze what you read.
If you love a book, why? If you hate a book, why?  Is it the language, the tone, the characters? The idiot plot? Bad dialogue? If a book is so beautifully written it makes you cry, look at it paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence. How did the author do that? How can you do it? How can you avoid other writers’ mistakes? If you hate it when books do x, y, or z, for goodness sake don’t do that in your own writing!

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23 thoughts on “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Carrie Vaughn

  1. Shely Immel

    Thanks, Carrie. I appreciate the mix of career and writing advice. And it’s always good to meet another Miles fan. I read the series aloud to my husband. (Yes, we’re adults, and we do that sort of thing.)

  2. Deb Brunell

    I have been writing just about my whole life but have never been published, never tried really. So here is my 7 Things I Have Learned So Far about writing and what I have to do to get where I want to be.

    1) Write ~ Just do it. There have been long periods in my life when I did not write, and although I try not to regret things in my life, this I do. To me they are creative-less gaps of time. And because I was not even journaling, I feel I have lost precious memories of my children as well as ideas that never had a chance to be developed. They have now faded in to the recesses of my mind.

    2) Write ~ No matter what, no matter where. I always carry some kind of notebook and a pen with me. That way if I find free time or think of an idea I don’t want to forget, I can jot it down. But there is also my phone, which has MS Office on it, also post-it notes, a voice recorder, a camera if there is something visual I want to remember.

    3) Need a few good readers ~ My oldest daughter loves to read and discuss my book. She is my grammatical proofreader too. I have a few friends in mind, that I want to ask to read what I have so far and offer feed back. I think seeing how other perceive my story will help me make it better, and finish it.

    4) Don’t put off today what could have been done yesterday ~ I have caught myself willing do work on a 2nd, 3rd dare I say 4th drafts of a chapter rather than work on a 1st draft of a part I know will be difficult. Hence, my book is not finished yet.

    5) Put yourself out there ~ Another hard thing for me. I would love to find even just a little success as a writer, but if I keep hording all my work in a folder, no one will ever read it. So I moved outside my comfort zone and posted some of my poems on Facebook and I recently started a blog.

    6) Read ~ I love reading books and often when I finish one, I am motivated to work on my own book. Plus, reading it is a good way to see how other authors interpret plot and character and how they weave their story. I once almost changed my whole book to be one perspective. After rewriting one page I knew a lot would be lost, so I didn’t do it, but reading a book in that perspective led me to explore the option. Next time it might work.

    7) Don’t give up ~ After years of working on it, even if no one else ever reads my book, it is one of my life goals to finish it. One day I will.

  3. Amy

    Thanks for the great advice. I am going to share this with my other writer friends. I loved your advice about going big with the crazy idea. My first manuscript breaks some ‘rules’ and I often doubt whether it will sell, but your words help to shut the door on my cynical inner critic.

  4. Kirkus MacGowan

    It’s good to read number five for me as well. It’s not yet time for me to send out query letters but I was trying to decide where to start, number five was what I was thinking, but seeing someone with experience reiterate the idea gives me confidence, thanks.

  5. John Shearer

    I love to analyze what I read – why I liked something, why I didn’t give something more than 30 pages, or why I liked or didn’t like the characters. It keeps me involved on all levels.

  6. Cresta McGowan

    I can certainly resonate with #2! Learning to say no is one of the hardest things to do. I always feel like I’m letting someone down, but if I don’t say no I’m only letting myself down! Glad to hear I’m not alone.

  7. Ruth Knox

    Loved this: "I have a little voice in the back of my head, and when it says, "This is crazy, no one will go for it," I know I’m on the right track." Yeah, I know that voice. This is solid advice!

  8. Kristan

    Love #3! I think Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games series really opened up my mind to that principle: go big, don’t pull punches.

    And my mom raised me on #5, so I love that one too. 🙂

    Gorgeous cover, by the way!


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