7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Dylan Landis

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Dylan Landis, author of RAINEY ROYAL) 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: Dylan 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: karinfuller won.)


Screen shot 2014-09-24 at 10.18.09 PM     dylan-landis-author-writer

Dylan Landis is the author of a novel, RAINEY ROYAL (Sept. 2014 Soho), which
was a New York Times Editors’ Choice; as well as a collection of linked stories,
Normal People Don’t Live Like This. She received a 2010 National Endowment
for the Arts Fellowship in fiction, and had a story selected for The O. Henry
Prize Stories 2014. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York
Times, Tin House, Bomb and House Beautiful. Find her on Twitter.



1. Start a file called 100 Rejections. Chris Offutt gave this advice from at the Wesleyan Writers’ Conference, back when I’d published exactly nothing, and it was so encouraging. He said: Make it your goal to collect 100 rejections, and you’ll feel like you’re doing your job as a writer with each submission, rather than crashing emotionally over each rejection. I took heart from this fact: Offutt nearly filled his own file before getting his first story in print. When I got my first acceptance, I tucked it into the Rejections file to leaven it. And then I just stopped counting, and kept submitting.

2. Be a dedicated reader for at least two people. Funnel some generous literary karma into the writing community by offering to be a reader, even if you don’t have a dream reader of your own. (Such relationships are often not mutual, anyway.) Never doubt that in your writing life, what goes around, comes around. Besides, critiquing the work of another writer hones the ability to self-critique. I’m fortunate enough to trade “Monday pages” with a stellar writer named Heather Sellers. It’s a work relationship so intense I call her my “writing wife,” but I also read frequently for another excellent writer who doesn’t read for me.

(11 literary agents share what NOT to write in your query letter.)

3. Pay yourself first. That’s how financial gurus put it, but here the currency is time. I learned the painful way to say no sometimes when friends invite me out. If you don’t pay yourself first, you’ll fall mortally out of touch with your work. Another way to pay yourself first is to turn off the TV. While some writers may be watching (admittedly excellent) television, you’ll be getting your novel written.

4. Don’t share work-in-progress with non-writers. Indeed, don’t even discuss it. Think of work-in-progress as an egg around which the shell has not yet hardened. I told my wonderful husband, a newspaper editor, my idea for a scene I wanted to write. “It sounds like a cliché to me,” he said. I winced—but as an editor on a daily deadline, his job is to derail weak ideas before they waste anyone’s time. As a fiction writer, mine is to trust my ideas, follow them around dark corners and see what turns up. Thankfully, I wrote my scene. The story won a prize that took me to Russia, ran in a top literary magazine, and was published in my first book.

5. Insomnia is a friend. So is commuting. Ditto long waits at the dentist’s office. At some point in mid-life I learned what it meant to be up much of the night, unable to sleep. So I got up and wrote, enfolded by silence. I thought, This time is gift-wrapped just for you. Other little packages of time for writing, and reading, are everywhere. My teacher, Jim Krusoe, turns the radio off during his driving time in Los Angeles and thinks hard about his novel in progress. And my husband carries poetry specifically to read on the New York City subway.

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6. When you think you’re done, read the work aloud. Yes, the entire book. Slowly and with beats and expression. Listen for every flat note, every jutting word. (My writer-friend Michelle Brafman read parts of my second book to me over the phone.) Your ear will pick up problems in language that your eye skims past: it’s just the way we’re made. I failed to do this with parts of my first book, Normal People Don’t Live Like This, and the copy I read aloud from is full of crossed-out words, lines and even paragraphs. So I read my second book, Rainey Royal, aloud twice (with Brafman’s help) before submitting it for publication. If this sounds extreme, know that some authors read aloud first as they write, and then again at the end.

7. Free yourself from ritual. If it’s just a matter of a quick meditation, that can be freeing—but take notice if you truly can’t write unless you light a particular jasmine candle, or hold your lucky pen from Paris, or swim a mile. At that point, your rituals may be running you. From there it’s not so far a jump to “I can only write in perfect silence” or “I can only write if the whole house is neat.” Time is a gift. Try not to throttle it with conditions.

GIVEAWAY: Dylan 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: karinfuller won.)


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11 thoughts on “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Dylan Landis

  1. Kirtida

    This is a stunningly good article. Dylan Landis’s advices are fun to read and extremely practical. I loved the advice to make receiving 100 rejection letter totally out of the box and brilliant!!

  2. whewlett

    Thanks for the great advice. I love the 100 rejections idea! What a great way to motivate yourself to send out your query letters. I know that I was very frustrated with rejections and it was one of the reasons I decided to go the self-publishing route. Reading this post has inspired me to try again.

    Wendy Hewlett

  3. Debbie

    I find rejections fuel me towards sharing with others. Both positive and negative testimony is still testimony, and I know it’s appreciated. Thank you for sharing yours.

  4. JanelleFila

    All of these are excellent suggestions. I love the idea of starting a rejection file so you feel like a winner every time you “collect” another suggestion. Paying yourself first is much harder, but if you can grasp that concept and practice it religiously, it really does wonders for both your book. It truly is like finding free time– and you don’t even have to get up at 4:30 in the morning to do it! (Although I do tend to get a lot of quality words when the rest of the house is asleep!) Thanks again for the great tips! Janelle http://www.janellefila.com

  5. jennhscott

    Not telling others details about my work-in-progress motivates me to write more often. When I have some idea burning inside of my brain, and I’m not allowed to talk to anyone about it, I’m kinda forced to write it down. Haha. This is a good thing, considering how much I struggle with #3!

    Thanks for the tips 🙂

  6. tatumrangel

    As tempting as it is to tell others about my works-in-progress, you definitely are right about not telling anyone–especially to non-writers–about your work. I know that I’ve made that error a few times. I will keep that in mind, from now on. I, too, have read my work aloud on occasions and realized what a difference it’s made (in reference to #6). Throughout my writing career, I’ve learned that, in the beginning, we’re going to write poorly; however, with revising, we’re going to get better. Thank you for these helpful tips.

  7. BarbraEShaw

    Great advice! However, the 100 rejections file doesn’t sound liberating as much as it sounds depressing and daunting. Why begin writing to be published when that’s looming over you? For me, I’d find it paralyzing having this expectation of 100 rejections, however realistic. Thanks for the advice and congratulations on the book.Can’t wait to read it!

  8. dymphna st james

    I have a regular writing routine and write six days a week. As far as writing partners and beta readers go I have had some bad experiences so I pay a professional to read and critique now. Good luck with your book! Your advice was helpful especially about not sharing works in progress with non writers.


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