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7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Sally Koslow

Categories: 7 Things I've Learned So Far, Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents Blog, What's New.

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Sally Koslow, author of THE WIDOW WALTZ and other books) 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: Sally 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: Sunshine1117 won.)


Screen Shot 2014-06-18 at 12.22.16 PM         Screen Shot 2014-06-18 at 12.22.06 PM

Sally Koslow is the author of four novelsTHE WIDOW WALTZ was recently
released in paperback—as well as a nonfiction book, Slouching Toward Adulthood.
She has published essays and articles in The New York Times, More, Real Simple,
O the Oprah Magazine, other magazines and two anthologies, teaches creative
writing at Sarah Lawrence College and through the New York Writers Workshop
and works as an independent writing coach. Previously, she was editor-in-chief
of McCall’s and other magazines. Find her on Twitter.



1. Use exercise to kickstart your creativity. Nothing strategic. No Zumba, which is all about fancy footwork or Pilates, where your brain needs to concentrate on sucking in your gut—pardon, your core. Definitely no team sports, golf, tennis or walking with a chatterbox. Pick something repetitive like solo walking, running, biking or swimming, when you space out and mimic a dream state. When I run, I feel as if I’ve pressed my writing on button. I’m that geek who stops running to scribble ideas.

2. If you write fiction, cross-train your brain by trying non-fiction writer or vice versa. For fiction, imagination is the glue. For non-fiction, it’s curiosity. Memoir is a hybrid that needs a big scoop of both.

(What should you do after rejection?)

3. Picture your scenes as a movie and take notes on what you see and hear. Don’t make your dialogue too writerly. Most American speech is choppy, even rude, as we interrupt one another and forget whatever we know about grammar.

4. Your computer is your friend (thank you, search engines and spell-check) but only up to a point. Don’t reread your work exclusively on a screen—it will look too finished. Print it out, more than once. The longer you work on something, the greater the fatigue-factor. It’s normal to get sick of your writing after a while. Every time you print, switch fonts to trick your eyes into seeing your work in a fresh way.

5. Read your work aloud. You may sound full of yourself, but this is the best way to listen for rhythm–or lack of it, to zone in on klutzy spots and to hear words you may overuse: all, always, just, so, usually, very, perhaps, really… If you repeat words, be intentional about it. This reminds me…

(Are you writing middle grade, edgy paranormal, women’s fiction or sci-fi? Read about agents seeking your query.)

6. Keep a running list of words you overuse. When you’ve finished a chapter or draft, use your writing program’s find/replace feature to see what you can cut or change. Make it a head game. Who needs Candy Crush?

7. When you’re “finished,” put your writing aside to gel. Rushed writing is rarely your best work. Read, rinse, repeat–again and again.

8 (BONUS!). Remember that a published book has at least five sales hurdles. #1 is to yourself, when you decide your manuscript is ready to be seen by agent. #2: an agent agrees to work with you and presents your book to a select group of editors. One or more of them fall in love with it—there may be an auction–and try to convince a colleague committee to acquire the book. With luck, you make sale #3—to a publisher. The publisher’s sales team works to place your book in stores and other venues: sale #4. The most important sale, #5, is to readers, though you may be lucky with bonus sales to foreign publishers, television or Hollywood.

GIVEAWAY: Sally 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: Sunshine1117 won.)


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Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:


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19 Responses to 7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Sally Koslow

  1. Kathie says:

    I’m a big fan of #5. I have taught this technique to several nieces and nephews masquerading as college freshmen. They asked for my help in writing those first essays, because the teachers in their college courses were much stricter than high school. They actually expect students to follow rules! No matter the subject, vocabulary, or skill level, reading their essays out loud helped each of them find their own mistakes. Reading this article helped me connect this practice into my own writing. If it works for essays, it should work for me, too!

  2. AngieMangino says:

    Thanks Sally for sharing such excellent tips. While I already practice many of them, the one that jumped out at me was to change fonts when printing out my work to see it with fresh eyes at each edit. What a fantastic trick of the trade, that now seems so obvious, but was something that I never thought of doing!

  3. Mary Beth says:

    I love my computer (#4) and it’s a workhorse, but I agree you’ve got to get out of the saddle sometimes. Changing the font before reviewing your writing, then printing your work so you can scribble your changes freely on paper refreshes the process — write, print, edit, repeat. You are right (#1) about exercising kickstarting creativity. I love to bike but, sorry, can’t give up those Zumba exercise classes.

  4. jrickard72 says:

    I really liked all the tips in this read! Number 3 was great! I forget sometimes and try to make things too perfect and that’s when the characters loose their identy. Thanks for the reminder.

  5. Pizzos3.com says:

    Sally, thank you for the advice. All very good and helpful. I will be printing this one off for my writer’s toolbox. I particularly liked number 4. It confirms my practice and adds the varying fonts with a twist. I will definitely be trying that today with my two completed children’s books.
    ~Many Blessings

  6. W Brown says:

    Great advice – especially about the overuse of words. I once read a book where I was constantly aware of the same phrases over and over. It really made it seem like the author was lazy, although I know it was probably just an oversight.

  7. pulcetta says:

    I particularly appreciate #2 and #6. Thank you!

  8. Debbie says:

    I have to be honest with you — I was attracted to this blog because of the cover of your book. I love the dog! I love dogs. Now, I know that’s not what your blog is about; however, once the wonderful cover reeled me in, I began to read your tips. I’m so glad I did. And, each point you made was short and sweet, simplifying understanding. Thank you for the pointers and the visualization.

  9. Sunshine1117 says:

    #3 is precisely what I do when writing fiction. I am an accountant in my other life, so my writing tends to be stiff and formal. I have learned to relax and envision my work as a scene on stage and record it as it unfolds. Great tips!

  10. uphillidaho says:

    I am a fan of #6, revise, revise, revise

  11. DanielJayBerg says:

    Glad to hear I’m not the only one doing #6.

    Thanks for the helpful list!

  12. Excellent advice. I really like #3 — it helps me to picture the scene like a movie!

  13. Risa Nye says:

    It’s always helpful to review “best practices” every now and again. The tried-and-true tips like reading out loud and letting things gel sometimes get overlooked or cut in the interest of time–not a good idea! I like the idea of looking for overused words. I know I’m guilty of that (and using too many “that’s” is something I try to watch!), so thanks for the reminders to take time, slow down, and let the mind work in a dream state. Corny and outdated as it sounds, I’ve found a session of ironing (what??) helps me “space out” and think.

  14. Joe Snoe says:

    Excellent advice, Sally.
    I used to walk an hour every day. Need to get back to that.
    I’ve done a lot of research writing my novel in progress. I see imagination, research and discipline all required for any writing.
    I have noticed changing the type or viewing different screen formats changes how a chapter reads. Some screens make it look fantastic. In any view, different problems appear. Printed pages are the worst. Often my paragraphs look disjointed.
    Reading aloud is a great idea. The limited times I’ve done it, it was easy to catch sentences that dragged on too long. Just thinking how long it will take to read a whole novel aloud and make changes tires me out.

  15. shawnyce14 says:

    Wow, I never thought about kick-starting creativity using physical activity. It all makes so much sense though, as my imagination is in high-gear whenever I’m on the treadmill or walking a trail. I can’t believe I never put two and two together, but thanks for the great piece of advice! Sometime we just need to hear it, or read it. ;)

  16. shawnyce14 says:

    Wow, I never thought about kickstarting creativity using physical activity. It all makes so much sense though, as my imagination is in high-gear whenever I’m on the treadmill or walking a trail. I can’t believe I never put two and two together, but thanks for the great piece of advice! Sometime we just need to hear it, or read it. ;)

  17. barnmouse says:

    Ok. Apparently I need advice from ANYONE on the best novel writing software/ writing program! I am old school at writing! I must change my slow ways!
    Great article with needed advice!

  18. bconklin says:

    Sally, thanks for the tips, especially #4. It’s true, I reach a point when working on a novel when I get a little “sick” of it. Usually, it’s a matter of momentum, hitting your stride. I like the double entendre of your novels’ title, given your character’s name. Her predicament reminds me of a time I was working as a customer service rep for a mortgage company. A woman called in whose husband had just died and she thought the mortgage insurance she had been paying all along was to pay off her house in such an event. I sadly had to inform her that it was really just a guarantee to the bank against foreclosure. Completely distraught, she wondered how she was going to keep her house without her husband’s income. I felt badly for her, but there was nothing I could do.

  19. burrowswrite says:

    love this column i have sticky notes framing my friend with words I use to much.

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