7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Kay Kendall

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Kay Kendall, author of DESOLATION ROW) 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.

GIVEAWAY: Kay is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: annemarielacy won.)


kay-kendall-author-writer      desolation-row-kay-kendall

Kay Kendall is an international award-winning public relations executive
who lives in Texas with her husband, five house rabbits, and spaniel Wills.
A fan of historical mysteries, she set her debut mystery DESOLATION ROW
during the turbulent 1960s. A young bride, Austin Starr, must prove her new
husband didn’t murder the draft-dodging son of a U.S. Senator. The novel, 
the first in the Austin Starr mystery series, was published in April 2013
by Stairway Press in Seattle.



1. Keep reading. Just because you’re writing your own book, that doesn’t mean you can stop reading other ones. In fact, I’ve read more, not less, since I began to write fiction. I submerged myself in the mystery/suspense genre for almost two years before I started Desolation Row—An Austin Starr Mystery. Picking up the tricks of the trade by osmosis suits me better than gulping a dozen dry how-to tomes. Of course, I read those too!

2. Keep a writer’s notebook. Brilliant thoughts are fleeting. You need to pin them down before they get away. Because I write about the sixties, I often find character traits and plot points when reading obituaries in the New York Times, for example, and if I don’t capture those flashes of insight, they will leave me. I annotate my clippings and put them in my bulging notebook. Some ideas are for the second book I’m writing now, while others will fit in the third or fourth of my Austin Starr series. I’ll be delighted to find the clippings a few years from now when I start writing the relevant stories. My mind is like my bulging notebook, and sometimes things fall out because of crowding. It’s far easier to keep the physical clippings together.

(What does that one word mean? Read definitions of unique & unusual literary words.)

3. Keep note-taking material beside your bed. I learned this lesson the hard way. Early on in my transition to becoming an author, I’d be on a hot streak writing a first draft, go to bed, wake up at two in the morning, have a fantastic revelation about plot, turn over and go to sleep, confident I’d recall everything in the morning. Wrong. Scintillating night thoughts went poof in the light of day. A few episodes of this were enough to teach me to keep paper and pencil on the night stand. Whatever the technology you choose, be sure to keep it handy. A tiny voice recorder would work too, or making notes on your cell phone or tablet.

4. Keep up with your pals. Writing can be a lonely pursuit, and trying to get published these days is a killer. I needed all the support I could get, and my friends stepped up and stayed there right beside me on my journey. They kept me going through the darkest days and have been my staunchest supporters and shared my joy upon publication. I’ve also made new friends as I’ve joined writers’ critique groups and associations. Many writers are said to be introverts, but I’m not. Two new pals who write mysteries are extreme introverts, and I keep in close touch with them and actively encourage them to mingle with other writers. I’m a staunch believer in the truth of what Barbra Streisand sang back in the sixties. Remember this? “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.”

5. Keep walking the dog. Or running, spinning, or dancing. Whatever exercise you used to do before you became an avid or full-time writer, don’t stop. Health gurus are adamant that sitting all day is a terrible habit that can lead to early death and/or dementia. Besides, when I’m on my exercise bike, I zone out and then, given enough time, ideas for my writing zone in. The mind-body connection is worth protecting with sufficient exercise. Even when I’m on a deadline, I try to stick to this rule. However, it’s time for a true confession. I have trouble with this one, actually walking the talk.

6. Keep the faith. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.” When I first saw that quote on a coffee mug for sale at Whole Foods a decade ago, I was too scared to pick it up. How dare I think I could write a novel? But I forced myself to buy that mug, and after using it for two years and writing my first manuscript, I began timidly to call myself a writer. I began to have faith that I would finish a book and eventually get it published. When the first one didn’t sell, I wrote the second. My friends (see #4 above) helped keep me going. I persevered until the second manuscript sold and became Desolation Row. Now my work in progress is Rainy Day Women, and I’m outlining the third, Tangled Up in Blue. I have faith I will complete those because I’ve pushed through the dark times, “getting by with a little help from my friends.” Footnote to the Beatles for that one, plus maybe you can tell that my amateur sleuth Austin Starr is a huge fan of Bob Dylan.

(Writer’s Digest asked literary agents for their best pieces of advice. Here are their responses.)

7. Keep on keeping on. Once I found what works to make my writing life roll along as smoothly as possible, I’ve kept on doing it. Sometimes I find guidelines in how-to articles suggesting that my way is not the right way. The best writing coaches add the caveat, though, that there is no perfect method of writing a novel.

I’ve now been at this venture long enough that I’ve come across some authors who do have habits similar to mine. While most experts advise that a first draft should be done as rapidly as possible, without editing as you go. I find I cannot do that. Just can’t. Feeling a little guilty, I wrote my way through Desolation Row, editing obsessively, until one day—lo and behold—I found an interview in which the bestselling author explained that he always began his writing day by editing what he’d written the day before. Well, what a relief! I was okay. Now I count this as a lesson learned. As we used to say back in the day, just keep on truckin’.

GIVEAWAY: Kay is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: annemarielacy won.)



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10 thoughts on “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Kay Kendall

  1. dabester

    Great clues. I especially appreciate #s 2 and 3. Besides keeping a notebook handy next to my bed, I also am ready to whip out my Notes app on the iPhone to jot down ideas, write paragraphs and story lines as they pop into my head. Since I have the phone with me always, I never lose an idea. Even the bad ones. 🙂

  2. Debbie

    It appears you are suggesting to continue with life as normal – use the routine as fuel while in the midst of evolving thoughts and plots. That brings comfort to the effort. Thank you.

  3. Vibibi

    # 3
    I was driving out of town, listening to music, thinking about my first novel. I had an inspirational idea and I promised myself to remember it. The following day I just couldn’t remember. I vowed right there to by a voice recorder for similar moments I’m sure will happen in the future.

    Thank you, this definitely has helped me ease my nerves about writing my novel.

  4. kdiggs

    I have been back and forth of novel writing and screenwriting. Right now I have a novel that I need to get finished but the characters are no longer speaking to me. But, I was able to write an entire screenplay in three weeks. Well, the first draft of it anyway. Reading this article has given me the motivation to get this novel completed. I’m glad that you mentioned to keep reading. I have been reading a lot of books for school that I forgot about my fiction books! I have plenty of paperbacks and books on my kindle. I will get cracking. I really enjoyed this article. Thanks for sharing your story.

  5. Kayleen West

    Hi Kay,

    Great read and I love that fact you mentioned exercise. It is hard to fit in for me sometimes but so important in such a sedentary occupation.

    I am in Australia so don’t qualify for the entry, but wish you well with you book.

  6. annemarielacy

    Kay, thank you so much for your article. It was exactly the positive, practical advice I needed to read. I am in the middle of writing my first novel, and I alternate between feeling thrilled and overwhelmed. Your column has started the day off right and given me the encouragement I needed. Thanks again!

  7. BrettMichael

    I just recently restarted the manuscript for my first novel and I have to agree with everything said here. If it weren’t for my outside reading (done mostly at my ‘day job’) and the ability to talk about my ideas to other people, I think I would have either given up or gone crazy. Perhaps both.


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