7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Jen Michalski

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Jen Michalski, author of THE SUMMER SHE WAS UNDER WATER) 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.

Jen Michalski is the author of the novels THE SUMMER SHE WAS UNDER WATER (August 2016, Queens Ferry Press) and THE TIDE KING. She has also published two short story collections and a couplet of novellas. For more than ten years, she has run a literary journal, jmww, and also hosts a monthly fiction reading series, called Starts Here!. Her work has appeared in over 80 publications, and 2013 The Baltimore Sun voted her one of “Fifty Women to Watch.” She lives in Baltimore with her Boston Terrier and her human.

Jen-Michalski-author-writer The-Summer-She-Was-Under-Water-book-cover

1. Don’t judge yourself. One minute, we think that our novel-in-progress is a bestseller and that it’s only a matter of time before our greatness is recognized by the world. The next hour, of course, we spend berating ourselves—how pedestrian our writing is, how clichéd, the story we have to tell non-compelling. It’s easy to get caught up in these thoughts, and they’re damaging because we either 1) become overconfident and don’t give our work the critical, honest assessment it needs or 2) we second guess everything we write, removing ourselves from our own voice, not trusting our instincts. They’re are also damaging because the time we spend in our heads with our internal critic or cheerleader is time spent not writing.

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2. Don’t judge other writers. Just as easy as it is to judge ourselves, it’s equally easy to judge others, to wonder why their work has received attention or success and ours hasn’t. I believe that we have the success we allow—but to allow that success for ourselves, we have to allow it for others. We all come to be writers in different ways, and we all have different stories to tell. Some of them will inevitably receive more attention, for a variety of reasons, some predictable, some not. But we should allow—and want—all stories to be told. A rising tide does life all boats.

3. Be a student of the business. The most successful people in any profession are also students of it. And being a writer these days is more than writing a book—it’s branding and marketing, too. I’ve heard horror stories—from big- and small-press authors alike—of how they toiled for so long on a book, got an agent, signed a contract, and then were left on their own when the book came out, sometimes even before. Understand every step of the publishing process—from signing the contract to the publication date. Know where your book is in the production cycle, and know what you need to do a year, six months, a month, and after your book comes out. And if you don’t know—ask. Ask your publisher, your agent, your publicist, or other writers who’ve had books published. You don’t want to spend years writing your masterpiece only to fumble the exchange of your work to the public. Now more than ever, that exchange is the primary responsibility of the authors. Expect to contact media outlets, send review copies, pitch and write essays relating to the topic of your book, and schedule readings at bookstores and festivals. Knowledge is power—and so is being prepared.

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4. Practice literary citizenship. In addition to being an author, I also run a literary journal and a monthly fiction reading series. I do these things because I truly enjoy them, and I don’t expect anything back. That said, nothing can be more frustrating sometimes than being contacted by authors asking for a review of their book or to book a reading at my series when they’ve been completely MIA on the scene. Not only are they violating the spirit of the writing community, but they’re also missing out on meeting other writers and discovering new books, learning of other author’s experiences, and spending time with a group of people who uniquely understand the difficulties of being a writer. And a little can go a long way—participate in the local literary ecosystem in the way you feel most comfortable, for example, attending readings, buying another author’s book, or blogging or reviewing or tweeting about the book if you like it.

5. Read outside your comfort zone. There’s a joke in the writing world that genre writers are great at plot and not characterization and that literary writers are great at characterization but not plot. We’ve clung to our battle stations over the years championing one or the other, but I never understood why they had to be mutually exclusive. If there’s something about writing in which you struggle—characterization, scene, dialogue, plot—sometimes you need to go out of your comfort zone to see what others are doing. You may find answers in the most unlikely places.

6. Don’t force writing—watch it unfold. Your characters always know what’s better for them than you do, and so does your story. Even if you are a master outliner, even if you think your predetermined ending makes the most sense, if you find your work going in a direction you didn’t anticipate, go with it. Readers love to be surprised and challenged, and it starts with the writer challenging him or herself, going to uncomfortable places. And I think we learn more about ourselves—as writers and people—if we acknowledge that we don’t always know best. I always joke that I’m my book’s first reader, because even I don’t know how it will end until it does.

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7. Live. The best way to write is to live the best life you can—to gain experiences, wisdom, to learn how to feel and respond to the world. And finally, to have fun. Because the greatest story is not the one you write—it’s the one that unfolds around you.

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