7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Leslie Jamison

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Leslie Jamison, author of THE GIN CLOSET) 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.

Leslie 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: Cathe won.)


Leslie Jamison is the author of The Gin Closet (2010),
a novel about “three generations of ‘wounded women’
in an exquisite blues of a novel,” says Booklist. Publishers
Weekly gave the book a starred review. Jamison grew
up in L.A. but currently splits her time between New
Haven and Iowa City. A graduate of Harvard College
and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she is currently a
PhD candidate in American literature at Yale University.
See her website here.


1. Remember what brings you joy. Whenever I’ve been stuck on a project, it’s always brought me solace to the return to books that moved me in the past. It’s a nice way to get outside my own head; and it brings me back to one of the most important reasons I write at all: to bring some pleasure to readers, to make them think or feel.

2. Dissect what brings you joy. Coming back to what you love isn’t just an inspirational venture, it’s a pragmatic one as well. Sometimes I read to lose myself, but other times I pay attention to the nuts and bolts of the work. How does it create suspense? When do I start caring about characters and why? Where am I surprised? Some works I know I don’t want to break open like this. They exist somewhere else for me, somewhere beyond this kind of probing. But plenty of books I only love more after I examine them like this. They can re-enchant my own work once it’s gone dead to me.

3. Take time away. After finishing a draft, no matter how rough, I almost always put it aside for a while. It doesn’t matter if it’s a story or a novel, I find that when it’s still fresh in my mind I’m either thoroughly sick of its flaws or completely blind to them. Either way, I’m unable to make substantive edits of any value. Instead of beating myself up for weeks, feeling like I’m not making progress, I’ll just force myself not to work on the piece at all—work on something else, or attend to the non-writing parts of my life (family, cleaning my house) in the interim. Then I come back to the work with fresh eyes, able to recognize its flaws and virtues more plainly—to trim those weak sections I hadn’t been able to imagine parting with, and find myself once more inspired by the strong writing I’d temporarily lost faith in.

4. Cut. For me, this follows naturally from taking time away. When I come back to work after a while, I’m not shackled by the same rigid notions of what it’s about—or what makes it good. I free myself up to feel out the energy of the piece—to follow what crackles and abandon what doesn’t. A story about a man and a giraffe might actually become a story about the same man and his spurned lover, twenty years before. (This happened to me once.) The point of view might change, or the central plot twist. With a bit of distance, everything becomes fluid again. It’s one of the most liberating things I experience in writing—letting yourself get rid of a gesture or character or plot point that always nagged, even if you couldn’t admit to yourself that it did.

5. Before you try to sell a project, start another one. This lesson was pretty simple. Before my agent sent out my novel to editors, I made sure that I was thoroughly excited about my next book project. This wasn’t for the sake of my career so much as for the sake of my own mental health. If I hadn’t had another project on the horizon—a project I felt genuinely enthused about, and committed to—I would have spent my hours doing nothing but obsessing over the fate of my book. Which offers a nice segue into my nice lesson…

6. Don’t lose yourself in reactions. My work has been dismissed so many times I couldn’t even begin to keep track of the rejections. People loved one voice in my novel or else they loved the other one. People thought the ending was too dark. People thought it resolved too much, too neatly. People have found my writing soulless and overly emotional and pretentious and melodramatic. At a certain point, I realized that if I wrote in response to these critiques, I’d be left pointing in every direction at once. Which isn’t to say: don’t listen. Only to say: give listening its due space, and nothing more.

7. Work with people you can talk to. The publishing industry, unsurprisingly, is full of different people who love different things and express that love in different languages. Find the people, the editors and agents, with whom you share some language, and some sense of what makes literature worth reading. Don’t go with an agent because he’s famous. Go with him because he finds your work important for the same reasons you do. Keep the famous agent waiting in the wings, by all means—other agents will care that he’s there, and interested—but really think about the kinds of conversations you’ll have with the people who bring your work into the world. You won’t want to spend your time defending aesthetic choices or priorities for the entire journey.

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20 thoughts on “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Leslie Jamison

  1. Shannon Chenoweth

    Good advice on not letting rejections get to you. It takes a lot of courage and strength to get out there with your work. You have to learn to just be open to thoughts and opinions, good or bad. It’s impossible to please everyone, and it’s a waste of time and energy to try to do so.
    Good stuff! 🙂

  2. Nicole

    These are great! #6 is especially: "give listening its due space, and nothing more." I love that.

    I’ve been interested in your book since it came out in hardcover last year! Definitely looking to read it in the future. 😀

  3. Kristin

    Joy. It’s the reason for reading/writing in the first place. Dissecting it to figure out why it is or why it works–that could be the hard part. But breaking it down doesn’t change the fact that the joy existed and can be rediscovered. This should be a no brainer, yes? But it’s not; it’s too easily forgotten. Many thanks for the reminder of why I write and exist.

  4. Nancy

    I loved this! I will definitely take advice #5 – start another project before you try to sell the first one. Having just finished my first novel, I can see myself obsessing over every little thing… but starting immediately on the next project is the perfect prescription!

  5. Molly Ringle

    These are great, Leslie! They resonate with me–I’ve learned them the hard way, and it’s good to see I’m not alone in doing so. #5, starting a new project before sending out the previous one, is especially important for me. I view it as jumping onto a new life raft so that in case your old one sinks, you aren’t going to die. (Let’s hope the new one is seaworthy.) Best of luck!

  6. Shawn Sproatt

    I really appreciate #5, because it’s something we can all learn from. Starting a new project before trying to sell your work is a great reminder that we write because we love it, and it makes us happy. Getting published may be the ultimate dream, but at the end of the day no one can take our writing from us and the joy it brings.

  7. Sharon Dossett

    Thanks for the tips!! I am just getting started on writing, and need all the tips and info I can find to help me along the way. Good luck with all your books!

  8. Nikki

    Don’t lose yourself in reactions…easier said than done, even if you have thick skin, it’s difficult to process other people’s perspectives when they are so vastly different than your own…but it can be done.
    Thanks for the article!

  9. Larry C.

    On #7: You’re absolutely right. Writing is a solo act, but publishing is all about teamwork. You have to find people you can work with and who will challenge you and make you better. That often has little to do with an agent’s popularity and everything to do with their sensibility and how it fits with yours.

  10. Alicia

    Great Advice. I especially like "Don’t get lost in reactions" because I’m going through that right now. One person will say change this and then I get someone else saying they love that part of it, but change this…it’s so irritating and hard to please everyone. Glad to see you broke through all that and were able to get published.

  11. Kristan

    Excellent advice, and it sounds like a wonderful book. (Congrats on the starred review!) I find #1 and #2 to be so valuable, personally. Motivation and learning — it’s all right where we started, in *books*.


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