7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Jessica Anya Blau

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Jessica Anya Blau, author of DRINKING CLOSER TO HOME) 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.

Jessica is excited to give away a free book to one random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US48 to receive the print book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Suzanne won.)


      


Jessica Anya Blau‘s second novel, Drinking Closer
to Home (Harper) was released in Jan. 2011. Her
first novel, The Summer of Naked Swim Parties,
was picked as a Best Summer Book by the Today
Show, the New York Post, and New York Magazine.
Jessica grew up in Southern California where both
her novels are set, and currently lives in Baltimore.
She teaches at Goucher College. See her website here.

 


1. Be fearless.
It takes courage to write when there’s only a chance that you’ll be published. It takes courage to be honest in writing, to present a complex inner life (of yourself or your characters) that is often dark, or unkind, or slightly crazy. It takes courage to write stuff that would make your mother gasp, your husband roll his eyes, and your children blush and hide. But if you want to write, you have to do it in spite of all this. Don’t show your writing to your parents and children, ignore your spouse, and pretend that no one will ever read what you’re writing. (This is what I tell myself when I’m feeling hindered by a projected response.) You are alive now, you have a computer, you can type. Banish the difficult people, including your publishing-obsessed self, from your psyche and write anyway. Be brave.

2. Be authentic. Here are the paradoxes of “false” writing: When you try to sound smart you sound dumb. When you try to sound fancy you sound provincial.  When you try to sound sexy, you sound unappealing. Readers can see right through writing that is contrived and false. They’ll stop reading. And why would you want to spend your time writing anything wasn’t coming straight from your heart and soul?

3. (And the best way to be authentic is to … ) Ignore your ego. Your ego is a nasty, furry, little bugger who will sabotage your writing. Your ego wants to broadcast facts about you, the author, through your story. Your ego wants to display how brilliant and educated you are. Your ego wants everyone to think that you’re virile, sexy, alluring. Whether those things are true or not, they have nothing to do with a good story. Ask yourself if what you’re writing really moves the story forward or conveys character. If it doesn’t, chances are your ego has silently slipped in and is trying to display its matted head.

4. Keep moving forward.
If you’ve ever traveled, you know what it’s like to be totally lost and slightly panicked because you don’t believe you have the skills (language, a good map, lots of money) to find the place where you think you need to be. The thing you don’t do, is sit on a street corner and wait for the place to come to you. You know that will never happen.  Instead, you start walking. Or you get on the subway. You might even hop in a cab. Eventually, after you’ve moved long enough, you end up somewhere. It might be the Musée d’Orsay instead of the Musée National Picasso where you originally planned to spend the day. No matter, you’re still somewhere interesting. Do the same thing when you write. If you’re stuck, just keep writing in any direction. You might not move your story to the place you originally intended, but you will be somewhere new. And somewhere new will lead you to somewhere else, which will lead you to another somewhere, until you’ve found your way to the end.

5. (And when you absolutely can’t move forward … ) Walk backward. Literally. Stand up and do a backward lap around whatever room you’re in. It will jiggle your mind a bit, loosen your senses. The first draft of the novel I’m working on now was spurred on by almost daily backward laps around my house.

6. Don’t take anything personally.
You are not your books and stories. You exist outside of them no matter what anyone says and does. A rejection says nothing about you, it simply says that a random person, whom you’ve probably never met, was feeling a certain way on the day he read your work. This is a statement about that person. It is not a statement about you. Accept your rejections and move on.

7. Be open to suggestions but at the same time have faith in yourself.
That bugger of an ego wants everyone who reads your work to rise and give you a standing ovation. This will, probably, never happen. If all you want is praise, read your work aloud to your dog and let him lick you on the face for it. If you want constructive criticism, however, listen closely to what your readers are saying. Then listen to your gut. Your gut knows how to ignore your ego (who wants to reject everything but applause). And your gut can weed out helpful comments from destructive ones. If your gut doesn’t believe what you’re being told, then have faith in yourself and carry on as you were: fearless, authentic, without an ego, and forward-moving.


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36 thoughts on “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Jessica Anya Blau

  1. Melissa Popp

    As I read your blog for the first time I realize this "fearless" advice not only pertains to my writing but my whole life. It’s time to break-up with my relationship that’s so holding me back from my writing and really living. I feel the more you let go and live the more you write and the better the writing. Thank you. I’m sorry to say I haven’t read your books yet but Borders will be seeing me today as I pick up The Summer of Naked Swim Parties. It sounds so me!
    Melissa
    Spiffythingz at blogspot

  2. David

    Dear Jessica, thanks for the 7.

    One thing that I’ve learned lately from burt at quantumjumping.com is;

    The Secret To Happiness

    If something makes you happy, then enjoy it.

    If it doesn’t make you happy and you can’t enjoy it, then avoid it.

    If you can’t avoid it, then change it.

    If you can’t avoid it and you can’t change it, then accept it for what it is.

    If you can’t avoid it, change it or accept it, then change your perspective.

    Thank you Jessica, keep moving, David.

  3. Katie Ferrier

    Wow. This advice came at a perfect time for me. I really needed to read it on this dreary day, and I am going to save it for future inspiration. Thank you.

  4. Jennifer Newell

    Thank you for sharing your tips! I will be trying the "walking backward" very soon. And I look forward to reading your book. Best of luck to you!

  5. Jessica Anya Blau

    It’s so great to read these comments–THANK YOU everyone for posting your thoughts!
    @ Jen, I find writing things like a synopsis, or even a bio, incredibly painful. Totally understand the pen-in-the-eye-urge. OH, and if you’re up for a drive to Baltimore, I’ll be reading at the Johns Hopkins Barnes and Noble on St. Paul street on February 17 and at MINAS on February 19th. The MiNAS readings always have loads of writers, so if you want to meet writers in the area, come!
    @Misti, great title! Anything with DISCO in it sounds interesting to me.
    @TRicia, thank you for reading The Summer of Naked Swim Parties!
    @Michele, yes, yes, GO and push past that comfort zone–don’t worry about your daughter, she’ll probably be IMPRESSED by your writing. (And remember, at 30 your daughter certainly knows all about sex and probably won’t be shocked by anything you write.)
    @Lisa, I love dancing, too. But I have no curtains downstairs and feel really stupid and dorky doing it alone. Sometimes I’ll do it in my bedroom but there’s barely room for the bed there!

  6. Misti Rainwater-Lites

    This is interesting snack food for thought. I don’t usually Twitter but I’m glad I did tonight and found this. I would love a free book! I don’t need another book but I want one. I’m working on a stream of consciousness novel entitled Chupacabra Disco. Liberation!

  7. Jen Zeman

    I’m reading this in the middle of writing a synopsis for my debut YA novel (and wanting to drive a pen through my eye as it might actually be less painful). So encouraging – I love #4. So true! You’re actually not too far from me – I live in Cecil County. Congrats on your writing success!

  8. Tiffany D.

    Great advice! Especially #6, it is hard not to get offended or take something personally when something negative is said about your work. I know I can take things a little too personally sometimes.

  9. Larry Caldwell

    Great stuff, Jessica. It does take a certain type of courageous writer to create something meaningful, while knowing there’s a good chance only a few people will ever read it. I especially liked your comments on the ego vs. the gut. Let your dog like your ego’s face, while your gut filters the helpful critiques from the useless ones.

  10. Kristie Cook

    I don’t know if this was one of the best 7 Things I Learned posts I’ve read or if it was the timing, but these really hit home. I’m struggling with my third book and I know part of it is ego and part of it is that I just need to keep moving in some direction and eventually I’ll get on track. I’ll be trying that backward walking exercise. Thank you, Jessica! These were great!

  11. Michele Stefanides

    I need to hear #1 over and over, and I do in my writers’ group. I never planned to write a novel, but I tried NaNoWriMo this past November, just for the experience. I started a "chick lit" book for women over 50. Eventually, the story arrived at a point where a sexual relationship was the right thing in the story. And I just couldn’t write it. I kept thinking of my family and friends, even my 30-year-old daughter, reading it and knowing that I had written it. My fellow writers in the group said to write it as though nobody would read it, which is probably the reality. But I need to write it to learn the discipline of going beyond my comfort zone. Thank you for making that practice the very first item on your list.

  12. Lisa Romeo

    Love the "be authentic" paragraph above the most. Readers can tell when a writer is TRYING hard to be…funny, overly sincere, intellectual, etc. It always backfires.

    The backward walking is a riot – I’m too much of a klutz though and fear I’d break an ankle or piece of furniture. But I do sometimes put on a concert DVD and (attempt to) dance when really stuck and frustrated. Curtains closed first, of course.

  13. Shannon Schuren

    Thanks for the advice, Jessica. These are all great reminders, and I think they apply to life as well as writing. And I have never heard number 5 before, but I am definitely going to try it!

  14. Jessica Anya Blau

    Thank you ALL for reading this!
    @Tammy, I’m so glad you liked the first book!
    @Dara, I’m sort of California-y in that I believe in sending "vibes," so I’m sending you all good vibes for the new project you’re starting!
    @Shawn, yes, IGNORE the rejections and carry on. I could wallpaper my entire house with the rejections that have been sent to me.
    @ Suzanne, you’re very funny–you made me laugh! I actually got the "walk backwards" idea from an article in the Science Times section of the New York Times. Someone did a study on this and they found that creative thinking can be brought forth from backwards walking. I will try sidling, though, it’s not a bad idea!
    Again, I appreciate all the comments!

  15. Doni Molony

    I printed this list and posted it right in my face. It contains advice that applies not only to writing but to life, e.g., "Don’t let your ego get in the way!" and "When you absolutely CAN’T move forward, walk backward." So true. Thanks for the list, Jessica. I am eager to read DRINKING CLOSER TO HOME.

  16. Suzanne Morris

    That was some of the best advice I have read in a long while. OOPS! You would rather have a little constructive criticism, I get it. Well . . .

    I think walking backwards around your home to be odd. Why go backward when you can go sideways? Sideways you can still see your way and look in all the other directions at the same time. Or, close your eyes on the way and see nothing. Use your hands and feel your way. But backwards, you can trip and fall, land on your rear causing feelings of doubt just like that rejection from publisher BigPages.

    Other than that, I like your advice and will use most.

  17. Shawn Sproatt

    I really appreciate you sharing your insights, especially because they are so true. I’m at a place right now where I can really connect with number 6, because after getting 30+ rejections it can be hard not to take it personally. You’re absolutely right; it’s about that person, and how they were feeling on that day. It says nothing about you.

    ~Shawn

  18. Laurie A. Will

    Jessica,

    Thanks for the list. They are all great reminders. I especially connected with number seven. Sometimes as a writer we can get so much conflicting feedback that the only place we can turn to is our gut. A person could go crazy trying to please all readers and sometimes it’s hard not to get caught up in trying to please everyone and then we can lose contact with those gut feelings that never seem to steer us wrong.

    Laurie

  19. Dara Sorensen

    Thank you so much for this. #1 was really what I needed to hear today, especially since I’m embarking on a new project that’s going to challenge my comfort level.

    Thanks again! I think I may print this off to look to for future reference too 🙂

  20. Sarah Allen

    Thank you so much for this! I really appreciate the personal experience and advice. I’ve been working on these things, especially about being authentic. I want to write things that can be taken seriously, but also that I very much enjoy myself. I’m working on finding that balance. I also love the idea of winning a free book, so I’m here for that too 🙂 Thanks!

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  21. Beth Charles

    So much great advice! Today it was really helpful for me to hear the reminder about being fearless–so often I worry about an audience might perceive something I write, and get stuck. It is so easy to lose sight of the reason I love to write when I get caught up in ego, disappointment, and self-criticism. I think I am going to print this out and put it near my desk. Thanks for your great thoughts!

  22. Tammy Subia

    Thank you for the advise! I loved loved loved your first novel, and I’m excited to see that you’ve written a second one. I’ll definitely be checking it out.

    -Tammy

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