7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Karim Dimechkie

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Karim Dimechkie, author of LIFTED BY THE GREAT NOTHING) 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 Karim Dimechkie, author of debut novel LIFTED BY THE GREAT NOTHING 
(May 2015, Bloomsbury). His novel was called “quirky, funny, often poignant”
by oprah.com and included in the Best Books of Spring. The Paris Review
claimed “It’s sharp and frank—and, like any good family, it stays with you.”
Karim Dimechkie was a Michener Fellow. Before that he taught English in
Paris. He lives in New York City. 
Connect with him on Twitter

1. I Need to Trust My Subconscious. It took me a while to understand that my subconscious mind is the creative foundation of a book, not my conscious mind. In other words, “trying” to build a novel from scratch is counterproductive.

Writing like the wind, letting my relatively doubt-free subconscious do the driving, has proven crucial to completing the first leg of the marathon: Draft 1. Only when that first draft is down, is it time for the conscious work–– the crafting, the cutting of the irrelevant, and the sweeping for gems my dream-mind has left for me, and that I couldn’t possibly have recognized as such until I saw the whole. If I hadn’t surrendered to that first stream of sloppy storytelling, I would still be working on my first book today. Concerning myself with pretty sentences or perfected concepts too early in the process is a guaranteed recipe for stagnation.

2. When I Think It’s Done, It’s Not. I honestly can’t count how many times I’ve thought my novel was complete, both while writing Lifted by the Great Nothing and the current book I’m working on. It only requires a short break to realize how far from done the book really is. My rule of thumb is to work everyday until I’m either wearied, scraping at the bottom of the barrel and in calamitous need of rest, or I’m under the impression that the whole thing is finished–– and then I put it away for a week. After that week, I’ll invariably see it’s not finished at all, and that it is still in need of substantial effort. Once I get exhausted or think it’s finished again, I put it away for another week. Next time, I put it away for two weeks. And the time after that, I put it away for three months. My promise to myself is to be four or five times as patient as is bearable, with the logic that I won’t ever regret taking the time necessary to make something great.

(Should you mention your age in a query letter?)

3. Be Careful with Feedback. Feedback is essential. But it took me a while to realize that I don’t want everyone and their father to read my drafts. It’s important to find readers who seem to really get my personality and what my book wants to be. I need to trust these readers in a very particular sense: Do we like similar books? Movies? Do I like the way they talk about art? Do our senses of humor agree with each other? Are they good at an element of writing and story that I’m not? Is our communication very clear and efficient? Are they unafraid to be totally honest, both in telling me what might hurt to hear and in what’s working well? Do they want it to be the best novel it can be?

4. Be Patient Finding an Agent. I had friends with agents, so it seemed obvious that I would get one of theirs. They would pass my manuscript on, and I’d have representation within the week. Well, it turned out getting an agent was the toughest part of the process for me. All of my friends’ agents rejected my manuscript, which was humiliating at first. Some of the agents said thanks but no thanks and others went into unnecessary detail to explain why my book didn’t move them in the least. I gave up for a while and revisited the novel. Ah yes, once again, it proved to not be quite finished after all.

A couple of months later, an agent who I’d never solicited contacted me out of the blue to tell me he loved my book. Apparently my girlfriend, to protect me from having to cope with further rejection, had forwarded it on to him in secret. Flattery and renewed confidence quickly trumped feeling deceived by my partner. This agent said all the right things about the novel, and I signed about a week later. The point is that it’s not because you have friends with agents or that your book is bubbling with potential genius that everyone will be clambering to represent you. Agents have to be extremely excited about your work to want to invest their time, energy, and reputation in it. Even if they recognize it’s a smart book, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re personally thrilled enough to take you on. And that’s okay. As readers, we know that most of what we read does not thrill us.

5. Keep Your Publisher Excited About You. Once I got a deal, I thought my work was done. Not so. I learned a little late that self-promotion, something that’s particularly painful for me, was one of the most important ways to stack the deck in your favor. The obvious reason is because the more people hear about you, the more they want to buy the book. The less obvious reason has to do with keeping a good in-house buzz at your own publisher’s. The time between selling the book to them and it being released into the light of day is at least a year for fiction. During that window it’s important to keep your publisher enthusiastic about you. It’s an incredibly fickle industry and a lot can happen in-house. Another book due out at the same time as yours can suddenly get an amazing pre-pub review or a blurb from a literary celebrity, inspiring the publisher to see it as the new winning horse that they should invest more of their marketing resources into rather than your book. So it’s important to remain likeable and to show them that you, too, can get attention, and that your novel is worth all of their best efforts.

(How to be an agent’s dream client.)

6. Read Slowly in Public. When nervous, it’s common to do a fast reading of your book, usually with the good intention of not wasting your audience’s time. But the truth is, your audience would much rather a good reading than a speedy one. When you read fast, people zone out. Take your time, and let your audience hear the story you’ve worked so hard on.

7. Life Doesn’t Change All That Much. Aside from the existential void that I felt after finishing my novel, life wasn’t dramatically altered by its publication. My world today is comparable to what it was when I was doing my MFA, working on my manuscript. I maintain the same quality of life as I did as a grad student and I spend most of my time in my room writing, reading, or planning to write and read. I believe this is the case for many of us, and it’s vital to learn not to be disappointed and to return to what’s long proven to be nourishing for the soul: the work.

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