7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by James Tate Hill

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by James Tate Hill, author of ACADEMY GOTHIC) 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.

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Column by James Tate Hillauthor of debut novel, ACADEMY GOTHIC
(Oct. 2015, Southeast Missouri State University Press), won the 2014

Nilsen Prize for a First Novel for his debut novel. . His fiction has appeared
in Story Quarterly, Sonora Review, The Texas Review, The South Carolina
Review, and he serves as Fiction and Book Reviews Editor for Monkeybicycle.

Find out more at www.jamestatehill.com or follow him on Twitter.

1. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. No matter how fast you write, in the age-old showdown of the tortoise versus the hare, we are all tortoises in the race to be published. Also, there is no finish line, only a series of checkpoints. The writers I know do it because they have to, not because they’re trying to get somewhere. When I realized I’d be writing for the rest of my life, I finally stopped asking “Are we there yet?” and “How much longer?”

(Literary terms defined — the uncommon and common.)

2. Read what you love. I spent too many years trying to love what I read rather than the other way around. My own writing started to improve when I realized I could read for pleasure and read to learn at the same time. This isn’t to say I haven’t stretched my taste along the way. I regularly pick up books of different styles and genres, but I decided a while back that life was too short to finish books that don’t bring me some form of joy. Ultimately, you’re trying to write a book you yourself would love to read, and you want the shiver you get when you open whatever you’re reading to be the same shiver you get when you open that Word file.

3. Your early readers are probably right. Assuming your early readers are thoughtful people whose taste you admire, it’s more likely than not that what they say has merit, both good and the bad. If the people reading your early drafts aren’t people whose opinions about fiction you value, there’s not a lot to be taken from anything they say. When I was younger, my default reaction was to question criticism before gradually acknowledging its value. Years later, I’m instinctively skeptical of the “Atta boys” and “way to gos” when they aren’t accompanied by constructive criticism.

4. Join a writing community. This doesn’t necessarily mean get an MFA or move to New York. To borrow a line from Thomas Friedman, the writing world is flat. The community of writers online is as real and vital as any big-city coffee shop or academic setting. Opportunities exist for writers at every level to put ourselves out there. Over the years, I’ve reviewed books for Bookslut, interviewed writers I admire, read slush for Electric Literature, as well as a literary agency. For the past year or so, I’ve served as Fiction and Reviews Editor for the literary journal Monkeybicycle. Not one of these has been a paying gig, but each has been rewarding in so many ways beyond monetary compensation.

5. Social media isn’t a numbers game. People on Twitter and Facebook are actual humans, not coins to be gobbled up to increase one’s score in a video game. If you’re not making friends, are you really networking? Reach out to writers you admire, tell them you love their work. Since becoming active on Twitter, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know so many fellow writers, genuine people with a genuine love of stories and words, friends who have become sources for advice and reading recommendations; a few have become valued readers of my own work in progress. Having other writers in your corner makes the necessary solitude of writing itself so much more bearable.

(Definitions of unusual literary terms & jargon you need to know.)

6. Your first book probably won’t sell.  See also: perseverance. See also: rejection + time = gratitude that whatever got rejected never saw the light of day. My first, and to this day only, agent was an incredibly kind, old school gentleman whose client list included names most English majors would recognize. In our first phone conversation, when he called me “old chap,” a warm hand seemed to welcome me to the secret society of published novelists. I was lucky to have had such an esteemed advocate for that first book, a horribly underdeveloped romantic comedy partly set in the wacky world of professional wrestling, because when it didn’t sell I knew it wasn’t him but me. Taste is subjective. Perhaps the only objective truth in publishing is that the writers who do get published are the ones who never stop writing.

7. It’s worth it. The past year leading to the publication of my first novel has been a series of reminders that yes, it’s really happening, but nothing prepares you for the all-over tingle of opening the box containing copies of your first book. Sometimes the heart of a writer seems to have an entire chamber set aside for self-doubt, and why wouldn’t it? Writing is a never-ending series of decisions, and separating the right from the wrong—also known as editing—can be an exhausting affair. But when you reach the checkpoint of publication, especially that elusive book, it’s worth it to watch the fog of self-doubt disappear, if only until the next time you turn on the computer.

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