7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Jackie Morse Kessler

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Jackie Morse Kessler, author of TO BEAR AN IRON KEY) 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: Jackie 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, and international winners can receive an e-book instead. (UPDATE: Day Parker won.)



jackie-kessler-author-writer      To-Bear-an-Iron-Key-novel

Jackie Morse Kessler is the author of the acclaimed YA series Riders of the
Apocalypse, published by Harcourt/Graphia. The first two books in the quartet,
Hunger and Rage, are YALSA Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers; in addition,
Hunger has been nominated for several awards while Rage is an International
Reading Association YA Choice. Breath, Loss, and Rage are Junior Library
Guild selections. She lives in Delmar, New York. Jackie’s newest book is the
YA fantasy TO BEAR AN IRON KEY (May 2014, Month9Books).
Find her on Twitter or Goodreads.


1. An old idea can still be a good idea. Back in 1998, I wrote a short story about a witch and a thief who had to outsmart the fey king and queen. That story was never published. Years later, it was the starting point for what became the novel To Bear an Iron Key. Just because you shelf a story, don’t think it will never see the light of day. Time away from it can give you a new perspective.

2. Your process may be different with each book. When I first started writing, I was a “pantser”—I didn’t outline ahead of time. Then I started writing brief synopses before writing a book (usually at an editor’s request), but during the actual writing process, I’d scrap the synopsis about a third of the way through (shhh, don’t tell the editors). For my most recent project, I wrote a detailed chapter outline before I started writing the book. The process for the next novel might go back to pantsing. Or not. It’s nice knowing how a story will get from the beginning to the end. (Unless I change my mind a third of the way through. Shhh.)

(What are overused openings in fantasy, sci-fi, romance and crime novels?)

3. Finish the story. When I wrote the draft of To Bear an Iron Key, a specific situation came up in chapter three, one that was mentioned throughout the book…but I didn’t actually rectify that situation. Why? In my rush to finish the draft—and my focus on the big finale—I overlooked it. Oops. Thank goodness for revisions! In short, if you’ve got big, unanswered questions in your book, answer ’em before you type “The End.”

4. Revision is your friend. When I was working on the revision of To Bear an Iron Key, I not only had the chance to address the situation that I’d accidentally left unfinished; I also honed the POV so that it didn’t lapse out of the main character’s close third-person perspective. While I pride myself on writing clean drafts, there’s really nothing like revision to kick your story up to the next level. Before you decide to send your draft to an agent or editor, give it a clean read and see if there are any places where it could be stronger, clearer, or tighter.

5. Trust your editor. After spending weeks, months, or even years on a book, the last thing we want to hear is there’s more work to be done. Sometimes, we’re so close to our stories that we can’t see where there are structural and other problems. That’s where our editors come in. It was my editor for To Bear an Iron Key who pointed out that my world building was a bit uneven and that the antagonist’s motivation needed to be clearer. When you get your editorial letter, don’t panic. Take the time to understand your editor’s suggestions, and think through how to apply those suggestions to make your book stronger. And then…revise!

(If an agent rejects you, are they open to reviewing your revised submission?)

6. Deadlines matter. Once a book is on a production schedule, any delay could result in pushing back your publication date. Don’t blow off a deadline. If you’re the sort of writer who works well under pressure (I am; I also tend to overdo the chocolate under a deadline crunch), then you’ll probably be writing until the very last minute. If high pressure isn’t your thing, you should get an early start on that next draft or that revision, because you never know when life will throw you an unplanned power outage or week-long illness.

7. The best validation is your name on the cover. Being a writer means setting ourselves up for rejection. Whether it’s a “no” from an agent or editor or a scathing review, there will be times when it will feel like maybe we shouldn’t be writing. Don’t believe that feeling. Many people say they’re going to write a book. Fewer actually do so. Be proud of your accomplishment! When your book gets published, celebrate! Not every book will hit a list—but I promise, that book will look very sweet on your bookshelf, face out, at home.

GIVEAWAY: Jackie 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, and international winners can receive an e-book instead. (UPDATE: Day Parker won.)


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12 thoughts on “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Jackie Morse Kessler

  1. spirit1

    Being a first time attempt at writing, I wanted to get several paranormal events that
    happened to me out. The best way came from my inner voice, “write a book”. Well long
    story short I’m doing it. Authors like yourself have given me the courage and
    inspiration I lacked. Words fascinate me and I have three thesaurus dictionaries that
    get used often. Just learning the parts of a story intrigued me. Some authors say they
    hate revisions but I like revisiting the story and finding ways to improve. Which at
    the moment are many. I don’t have a deadline nor an editor yet. I am finishing my novel
    and have had people read the parts that are finished. They said they want to buy a copy when it is published, I told them I will gladly share one with them all. The most
    important thing to me as I write is to just get the story for others to read done,
    notoriety will come second. I jostle ranching with writing so far everything is moving along.

  2. bconklin

    Never heard of the term “pantser” before – thanks for a new word! My mother-in-law has advised me to think of writing like a chess game. You’re always thinking a couple moves ahead. Hemingway had a good technique. He would leave off writing in mid-sentence so as to have something to pick up with the next day.

  3. anfarmer

    This is a good list to think about, especially the bit about switching methods. I’m kind of running into the “switch-a-roo” right now. First draft was pants all the way. Second draft is overly planned, and the going is slow. I would be curious to see how you decide when pantsing is working for you, and when you need to revert to planning.

  4. DanielJayBerg

    Thanks for sharing. I especially appreciate #s 1 and 2, as both are encouraging for when things just don’t seem to be working exactly as planned 🙂 !

  5. Debbie

    In your first point, you talk about old ideas. Thanks for reminding me to use those thoughts thrown aside; it turns out they often fit a future puzzle. I appreciate all the tips.

  6. evoporto

    Excellent article, thank you Jackie. I am writing two books, and my biggest problem is how to combine a thriller with romantic affairs between the hero and heroine, not sure how much romance to put in my thriller and hot the romance should be on paper.

  7. Day Parker

    Thank you for the helpful advice. When I wrote ‘The Elementals: Fire’, I pants it all the way and had the time of my life it all came so easy, 534 pages later. I found an editor through The Writers Market and ended up learning the hard way how to write a book. After publishing it, I ended up with a 275 page count. The second book in the series has been infinitely harder to write seeing as how the mechanics of writing have been getting in my way. On this one, half way through the pantser technique stopped working and I had to resort to planning out each chapter, which helped. I just finished it and have taken a few days break before I jump into revising. I have found when writers block hits, it’s easier to take a break and go back to it, but how does that work on a deadline?

  8. philakramer

    Perhaps I am not doing everything wrong after all. Thank you, Jackie, your post helped me see that my writing process may not be as unusual as my writer’s group friends would have me believe. I find I often change the story as I go depending on what I believe my character’s motivations to be at the time. This has resulted in some loose ends as I go about editing the finished product, but it feels wrong not to pursue inspiration when it strikes.

  9. Dennis

    Thank you Jackie for your insights. I just finished the first draft of my first novel and did use a bit of an outline. Sometimes I brainstormed a chapter right before I wrote it but I did have an overall idea where the story was headed. I decided to just push the story out and not worry about editing as I went along. I am actually looking forward to the editing process, my own and what the editor I choose provides for me.


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