7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Jennifer Latham

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Jennifer Latham, author of SCARLETT UNDERCOVER) 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 Jennifer Lathamauthor of debut novel SCARLETT UNDERCOVER
(May 2015, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers). Jen is an Army brat who moved
so much as a kid that books were always her best friends. She’s worked as a school
psychologist, yoga teacher, Montessori guide, autopsy assistant, and plenty of other
things, too. Her first novel got a starred review from Kirkus Reviews and her second,
Dreamland Burning, is scheduled for Winter 2017. Connect with her on Facebook

1. Writing is a craft: Stringing together sentences has never been hard for me. So when I decided to give novel writing a serious go, I figured it was just a matter of sitting down and making myself do it. Four complete manuscripts later, I can assure you I was w-r-o-n-g. Creating and constructing a novel (or short story or poem) is truly a craft, and the longer I work at it, the more I realize I don’t know.

2. Failing makes you better. However you define failure—agent/editor rejections, negative critique group comments, etc.—it always hurts. But every time you survive a hit to your ego, you’re a better writer. Every time you’re willing to honestly address critique comments, you’re a better writer. Every time you sit down to revise something you thought was already perfect, you’re a better writer.

3. Trust the process that feels right. If writing seminars and workshops and critique groups inspire you and keep your batteries charged, you should go to them. If they drive you up a wall, don’t. Write every day for a certain length of time, or until you’ve produced a certain number of words. Or don’t. Every writer has their own process, and whatever feels right for you probably is.

4. AM or PM? We all have busy lives, jobs, families, etc., so we write when we can. But chances are, if you ask a successful author “Early morning or late night?” they’ll know exactly what you mean. I wrote Scarlett Undercover between 5:15 and 6:30 am over the course of four months (before getting my kids up for school and heading to my job as an English teacher). And even now that I’m not teaching anymore, I still get up early to work. It’s when I focus best.

5. Researching an agent/editor is good; stalking them as a waste of time. When my agent sent out my first manuscript to editors, I spent hours and hours scouring the Internet for info about them, following Twitter feeds to see where they were every day, etc. What I realize now is that my digital stalking created the illusion that I was in control of something while I waited to hear back. But honestly, once a manuscript goes out, you’re basically living that scene in Fight Club where Tyler lets go of the limo’s steering wheel on the highway. So stalk if you must, but know that there are far better ways to spend your time.

6. Move your story forward. Writing is never, ever a waste of time. Not even when five hours of pacing and drinking too much coffee and staring at an empty computer screen or notebook page gets you a few hundred words that you delete the next day. You may not end up adding to your word count, but any time you consciously work to put words on the page, you are moving your story forward. Struggling and deleting and rewriting are part of the process.

7. Be patient. I’m not patient, and I like being in control. That’s probably true of most writers. But the reality is, it takes a LONG time to hear back from agents and editors. They get insane numbers of queries, and have to balance existing clients and manuscripts with acquiring new ones. Even after you have an agent and an editor, you’re still going to come face-to-face with long periods of radio silence punctuated by panicked deadline scrambles. But if you hang in there, if you can navigate crazy publishing rhythms and push yourself to get better, adapt, and keep going, then one day you may just catch a glimpse of someone reading your book, lost in the world you created for them. And that’s one of the best feelings in the world.

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