7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Chris Howard

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Chris Howard, author of ROOTLESS) 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: Chris is excited to give away a free copy of his 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: ABLyttle won.)




Chris Howard was born not far from London but currently lives in
Denver, Colo. Before he wrote stories, he worked for the National
Park Service, and spent seven years leading wilderness adventure
trips for teenagers. He was awarded a Publishers Weekly “Flying
Start” in Fall 2012, following the release of his debut novel, ROOTLESS
(Scholastic Press, Nov. 2012), and he’s currently working on the
next book in this gritty sci-fi series that’s recommended for both
teens and adults. Find him on Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads.
ROOTLESS is about a brave 17-year-old on a futuristic earth who
sets off across a wasteland in search of the last remaining real
trees on the planet.


1. Write the book you want to read but can’t seem to find.

Of course, by doing this, you run the risk of writing a book that no one but you wants to read! But what the hell, right?!? There’s no guarantee that anyone else will want to read your story anyway! And seeing as you’ll be re-reading it and revising it for months, maybe years, you probably ought to like it to begin with, if only for your mental health! I also like to think that this technique will help make your novel as unique and strange, and hopefully as interesting, as you are. It’ll be something that’s not just a “cool version of something people have already read”. And I think there’s a good chance people will connect with your story if it’s an original one. And if they don’t?! Hey – at least you think it’s brilliant!

2. Find the readers you trust to help you edit.

There might be a dozen of them, or there might be two of them, but find people you trust to give an honest and worthwhile opinion. They don’t have to solve problems in your story, but they have to identify when problems are present. A simple “this bit’s boring” or “I don’t get this part” or “something’s missing” is all you need – then it’s your job to come up with the solutions! However, I’ve found it best to not get too many people’s feedback – it’ll freeze you from action … this writing stuff is subjective and too many opinions can just cancel each other out.

(Read a column on “The Value of Beta Readers” — and also check out “Seek Quality, Not Quantity, in Peer Reviews.”)

3. Take time off from writing.

Go for a long walk with no way to write anything down, and then see what your mind comes up with. Take a bike ride. Go skiing. Watch movies all day. Take a trip. Sometimes the best thing you can do for your story is NOT work on it or stare at it. Let your subconscious mind catch up – or get ahead of you! I believe in writing a lot, but not writing every day. Because sometimes, just thinking is what you need. Be patient, and let the words come when you sit down at the desk again.

4. Keep thinking about new stories.

Every time I’m working on a story, I’m consumed by it. I love it. To be perfectly honest, I probably think it’s brilliant and believe that others will too! But I’m in this for the long haul – I want to keep writing stories, and so it’s good to always keep your mind open to what might be that next story. You never know when inspiration might strike, so stay open to it. And who knows which story will be the one that you remember most at the end of your whole writing journey?

(Writing a novel? Check out our growing list of fiction agents.)

5. Realize you can only control so much.

Getting published was one of the coolest things that’s happened to me. Finding an awesome agent, and then getting a great editor who convinced people to pay me for my work? Awesome feeling, there’s no doubt. But at the end of the day, after that, there’s so much that can happen, or not happen, or maybe still might happen, or you wish hadn’t happened… and a lot of it is totally OUT OF YOUR CONTROL. You gotta embrace that, however hard it is to accept. You do your best to make your story the best it can be, to do justice by the characters and the world you create, but at the end of the day, published or not, the tides might be with you a lot, a little, or not even at all. If in doubt, remember #4 and “Keep Thinking About New Stories”!

6. Have fun – even with the hard stuff!

This ties in to the previous thought… Sometimes things get tough or go wrong or don’t happen and it’s out of your hands. This can be when you’re brainstorming, writing, revising, or with the whole business of finding an agent, selling a manuscript to a publisher, or selling books to readers. BUT, and this is huge, whether you’re writing full-time or in every moment of your spare time, remember that this should be hard, but you should also be having some fun! I’ve learned to treat each challenge as an obstacle on my quest as a writer, and to be grateful for everything I have going on.

(Will a literary agent search for you online after you query them?)

7. This is not a “normal” job. This is a dream!

It helps me to think of writing as “work”, because I’m going to put every bit of energy and all the time in the world into it. But it’s far from a normal job (if there is such a thing). It’s not like you show up, do your thing, and then leave at the end of the day. This is one of those jobs where you never really stop working, in the sense that your brain can always “go there” and think about your story or your prose. It’s the type of occupation that you dream about at night, where you wake up and hop out of bed so you can write down new ideas, where you can’t stop to sleep or eat because the inspiration has you soaring. I’ve learned it pays to remember that yes – this is a job, and it’s very hard work, but I’m living a dream when I’m writing, and too few people get to say that about what they spend the bulk of their time doing.

GIVEAWAY: Chris is excited to give away a free copy of his 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: ABLyttle won.)


Screen Shot 2013-09-17 at 4.12.53 PM

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for where to start? Look no further.
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41 thoughts on “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Chris Howard

  1. Jamie Beck

    First, congratulations on finding success with your dream. Love this article. I feel similarly. The hardest issue for me is #5!! But I’m slowly learning to let go of anxiety over what will or won’t happen next…or who may or may not enjoy my work. I know, in my heart, that the biggest reward of all is the feeling I get when I finish a story.

    Best wishes for your continued success!

  2. boyd8

    Just started writing while in Thailand and I look forward to being back in Alaska for the peace and quite I can have after just a short bicycle ride. Plan to take rides, make a pot of tea and write.

  3. Jane

    Thanks for these! Sometimes I have to stop and remind myself to step back a bit, let the words fester, stew in their own order before going back and stirring things up again. While I’m excited for the end product to show up, I’m equally excited about the process. Thanks again!

  4. Di

    #4 – Sometimes I wish the ideas would stop coming so I can actually finish writing something to start experiencing #5 and #6. My day job reminds me that there are several things out of my control and I’d like to think I’m flexible enough to go with the flow and smart enough not to fight it and feel like a salmon swimming upstream. Life is too short not to have fun. Thanks for the post!

  5. writer147

    Dear Chris,
    Great article…just what I needed at the right moment! Thank you for your wonderful words of wisdom. I find that, sometimes, when a fellow writer “makes it” in our industry, they tend to keep the tricks and secrets that they learned held close to their chest. After all, it most likely took them years (just like most of us!) to learn them and to hone their craft; it is valuable information. Just the fact that you wrote this piece and most likely learned to share at a young age makes you a “cut above” the rest. You’re a good man. I can’t wait to read your book and many more to come. Thank you,
    Shawn (@writer147)

  6. humblebee

    I loved these 7 things! I think reminding ourselves that writing is work, also helps to keep us on track and take ourselves seriously. Remembering that it’s work helps me in keeping the end goal in mind when there are a million different ideas trying to claw their way out…or the fantastic 7 Things I’ve Learned So Far feature gets posted but I should really be working…. 🙂


    Looking forward to ROOTLESS!!

  7. lanieww

    4. Keep thinking about new stories. My goodness, I can’t turn it off! I lie awake at night with ideas swirling around in my brain. Often I have to get up and jot things down.

  8. hotwriter

    You never know when you will be hit with a great idea for a story. But I have also discovered that it is staying with that story and writing and rewriting it over a long period of time that determines how much you want to write. You can work on smaller projects at the same time. After all, writers never run out of words, right? I love the novel I am writing and think it is the best thing that happened to me. I have revised it a few times, have had beta readers look at it, and have had it read by an online writing critique group. Sure, I would love to get it published and have heard from some people to not care to tell it well and get it in front of agents. I am the only one who will know when I am ready to send it out though I have a feeling that time may be soon. The last two years I have worked on this I have learned so much about myself, I have been tested, and I have learned so much more about writing. I would not change any of it. Also, good luck to you.

  9. mkattkitty

    I can say I can relate to thinking or rather wishing a book I would write would be unique, and everyone would want to read it! Funny, I labeled my blog Original Thought Perhaps Not, because I think my writing is unique,but I don’t want to assume that’s it original, and I don’t want to assume other people will think it is original thought. It seems somewhere it’s probably been said somewhere before. Never the less this is the year I want to find out what a writing career could look like. I would love to read this book!

  10. serendipitous2

    Those are very interesting points and I agree with all! I so, especially, agree with #1. Also, #7 is a very interesting point. I never thought of describing it that way. Awesome tips, I’ll keep it in mind.

  11. jnaszady

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and process. I agree it’s exciting to write a book that you want to read, the kind you can’t bear to see end. That opportunity doesn’t come along often enough. I would like to read Rootless. Your plot sounds intriguing. We share some common interests. I have a background in natural resources and education also. Keep on doing what you do!

  12. vickielb

    Chris, I know you love Rootless, and I bet I will, too. Since I’m a starving college student and unpublished writer, I may need your help for that.
    I fall in love with what I write, and read the words so many times I think I could quote them, but I can’t. That’s because the characters are telling their stories and living their lives, and they control what happens. I supply the typing or the pen and ink. Many times I wait for what seems like forever before the story begins in my head. I must quickly start writing, or I will miss the characters and their whispering. That’s when doing something else helps, since that allows my subconscious mind to work out the details. I am in search of the trees while doing laundry.

  13. SpeedyG

    Yes, writing is much more than a job! I find it a joy to write more about the characters and the places and events that will encompass their existeance in my literary work. Writer’s Block? Thankfully, I haven’t experienced it much. I just go along with my characters and see where the adventure will take me; then I write about it. In an interesting way, THEY end up writing the stories – I only record them down. Thanks for the great and informative article, Chris.

  14. Marie Rogers

    I will have to keep reminding myself of # 5. Regarding the other points, I had been operating this way out of my own stubbornness, so I’m glad to find someone who agrees with me. Thanks.

  15. takikoazn

    I’ve never thought about #7 in that way before, but it is definitely true. As for #1, it is a risk, but whoever said being unique = playing it safe. Thank you for the words.

  16. cdzuvich

    I like # 7 personally. I like your background and because you were a park ranger, I think I’d like to take a look at a book called Rootless. Thanks for your persistence.

  17. ABLyttle

    Thanks for the great advice, Chris. Sometimes it’s hard to remember to have fun through the whole process, but that would be the point of it all, wouldn’t it?

  18. kimmarc

    Hi –
    It’s so nice to hear someone say that thinking is important. I do so much of my ‘writing’ in the thinking stage: crafting dialogue and setting too and when I sit down to write, I have it all planned out. Thank you!

  19. turtlewilson

    I like all of the reminders. We know these things, however, we often forget. It is a business and though we don’t like the rejections it is part of the business and friends who are willing to edit your work are also great sounding blocks when you need to vent sometimes.

  20. ktoksu

    Great post. I totally agree with #3 — writing every day isn’t always the best idea. Sometimes it can make your writing predictable because you’re not giving yourself the mental space to leap in an unexpected direction. I’m
    looking forward to reading your book!

  21. AnnieMac

    Dream, Chris? For me, it is really a nightmare, un pesadilla, un cauchmar, ein auptraum when I sit and the muse is silent. I have to write. I stare for long periods of time into space and my brain free floats through all the ideas I have. Knowing other languages creates chaos for the muse; she remains quiet. I wait, I doze, I shuffle papers from one end of the desk to the other and yet, the dumb muse sits. Time’s up. Back to my other job. The wicked muse sings with glee and the words tumble free because I cannot stop to write when I stand in front of my students. Next time, she sits in silence, I may hog-tie her and drag her along on a walk in the sun.

    Good advice though.

  22. Grey Muir

    Taking time away from writing is a good suggestion. I would add that while you are away, do not obsess on the fact that you are not writing. It undoes the good of being away from the desk. Thanks.

  23. fbxwriter

    Good suggestions. I particularly agree with #3. I love to go backpacking to clear my mind of clutter and let it wander. Rootless sounds interesting. I’ll have to get it.

  24. dlock

    Write what we like is very important, as you indicated. “If we are in for the long haul,” it needs to be something we are interested in doing. I enjoy reading and writing historical fiction, and look for a new slant on a subject, and that spark that keeps us going.

  25. mjputnik

    Hmm, what’s that old saying, “if you want something done write (hee hee) do it yourself!” My daughter would enjoy this story. I’d love for her to read it, then give you feedback. I know I love it when her buddies read my books and either high 5 me or hold their noses 😉 Congrats on your novel. Wishing you many more!

  26. Doropatent

    Great suggestions–I especially like #3–after taking a workshop with Peter Matthiessen, who always carried a notebook and pen in his breast pocket, I’ve tried always to have paper and pen handy wherever I go, ‘just in case.’ I think I’ll leave them behind next time I go for a long walk to stretch my legs after too much sitting at my computer!

  27. mikkib

    Great tips – especially writing the book I can’t find. Following the trends is not my thing…march too much to the tune of my own drum. I just hope as I go along, others will join the parade…all the instruments make the band.

  28. Deborah Schaumberg

    Thank you Chris. I agree with #3. I get inspired when I run, by myself, headphones on. Good luck with your book, sounds great. I saw your name on the Big Sur Writing Conference website – I was considering going to that.

  29. bibliogirl8

    Writing the story you want to read and cannot find is a great idea I think many people do or try, but no one talks about. Why write it if you wouldn’t want to read it. I love all this advice. Thanks.

  30. LovesKangol

    I definitely do #1 and always write the book that appeals to me, but can’t find it on store shelves (with all the nuances I like), so I write it myself. Your books sounds original. Much luck with it.

  31. carolyndrummond

    I love the last tip. I’m trying to get into a writing routine that makes it feel more like a job so I can meet deadlines and write more, but it’s still important to remember that during those hours I’m living the dream.

  32. missnelso04

    I agree, #1 is my favorite – I can’t wait to do this! I like #4, too. I think an endless bounty of ideas is the best thing a writer can ask for. 🙂

  33. vrundell

    Great thoughts, Chris! Point 1 is an awesome bit of wisdom–having revised a novel (now several times), I’m glad that I still love it…
    ROOTLESS sounds like a great read. Best of luck!


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