This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Shannon Gibney, author of SEE NO COLOR) 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.
Shannon Gibney is a writer, educator, activist, and the author of SEE NO COLOR (Nov. 2015, Carolrhoda Lab), a young adult novel that won the 2016 Minnesota Book Award in Young Peoples’ Literature. Her writing appears in numerous anthologies, and in other venues including Al Jazeera America, The Crisis, and Gawker. Gibney is faculty in English at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, where she teaches critical and creative writing, journalism, and African Diasporic topics. A Bush Artist and McKnight Writing Fellow, she is currently at work on her second YA novel, DREAM COUNTRY (2018, Dutton), about more than five generations of an African descended family, crisscrossing the Atlantic both voluntarily and involuntarily.
1. Things Will Happen When They Are Supposed To. I had all kinds of stops and starts on my way to getting published. I got picked up by a reputable agency and agent in my 20s…and then was summarily dropped when they didn’t like revisions on my first novel. Years later, I thought a small press was going to publish the same book, and then they folded. Eventually, I was introduced to an editor and publisher who really “got” what I was trying to do, and could really push me to produce my best work. But the most honest two things I can say about the road to publishing is that: A) it is generally not a pleasant process for most writers I know; and B) it just seemed like an accident—one which I had little to no control over.
2. Which Means You Need to Just Keep Working. Because the publishing world is capricious at best, fickle at worst, it is not a good idea to place your identity as a writer at its feet. (Which is, of course, easier said than done.) I have found, however, that the best way to do this is to focus on whatever project(s) you are digging into, and establish a regular writing schedule when you can.
3. But Also, Be Prepared for Anything, And Say “Yes” When You Can. You know that cliché about opportunity being one part preparation, one part chance? It’s true. All of it. I wrote a short story for an anthology I was solicited for, even though I had no time to write it and no idea what I would write about when I said “yes.” Somehow, between nursing a newborn and caring for a preschooler, I completed the story. Then, my editor heard me talk about it on a panel, and after reviewing it, inquired if I had ever thought about turning it into a novel. And now I am working on it under contract. Which is all to say that you never know where something is going to lead, so you should always take that leap and try to do it if possible.
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4. When You Can’t Say ‘Yes,’ Definitely, Definitely Say ‘No.’ This is a rule that I, and most insanely Type A personalities struggle with, but it is nevertheless quite important. Simply put, you just can’t say “yes” to everything – especially when you know that doing so will mean that you won’t get that project done which has been calling to you for years, months, even decades. Make sure you get your work done; and by that I mean your critical work as a writer.
5. Deadlines Are Your Friend. We all need a little push to get some words down on the page, to make progress on our goals. Most writers I know, myself included, frequently use soft deadlines and even occasionally hard deadlines to help us get to where we want to be. If you’re working with an editor, they will often assign you a deadline (usually, it will be soft). If you’re working with an agent, you can ask them to assign you a deadline, and to then check up on your progress periodically. The deadline itself can be arbitrary, it doesn’t matter. The point is to create a set of conditions that have the greatest likelihood of spurring you to produce those all-important pages. Along those lines…
6. Learn What Works For You. Don’t Judge. Then Do It. I tell my students all the time: If you discover that you can’t write on an empty stomach, don’t write on an empty stomach. If you write best late at night, fine: write late at night. If you need to turn off your Internet and lock away your phone for two hours to dissuade yourself from the temptation of checking your various social media accounts when you should be getting deeper into the atmosphere and characters in your novel, then that’s what you should do. Which brings me to my epic conclusion that…
7. Writing Is Work. It not often glamorous. It’s not often about that all-knowing, all-encompassing muse coming to your aid in your darkest, blankest-pagest hour. The cold, banal truth of the matter is that day in, day out, writing is just about as sexy as doing your laundry. Or teaching that class. Or weeding your garden. It’s a practice like any other, an activity that takes our commitment, time, attention, and yes: our labor. And while there may be something mystical about the creative impetus, there is nothing particularly mystical about sitting down at the table every day, trying to write clear, lucid prose. It’s just something we do, something that needs to be done. Writing is the work which makes us as we make it. And for this, we can be thankful.
Check Out These Great Upcoming Writers’ Conferences:
- Oct. 28–30, 2016: Writer’s Digest Novel Writing Conference (Los Angeles, CA)
- Nov. 19, 2016: Las Vegas Writing Workshop (Las Vegas, NV)
- Feb. 11, 2017: Writers Conference of Minnesota (St. Paul, MN)
- Feb. 16–19, 2017: San Francisco Writers Conference (San Francisco, CA)
- Feb. 25, 2017: Atlanta Writing Workshop (Atlanta, GA)
- Feb. 26–March 3, 2017: Writers Winter Escape Cruise (conference/cruise departing Miami)
- March 25, 2017: Michigan Writers Conference (Detroit, MI)
- April 8, 2017: Philadelphia Writing Workshop (Philadelphia, PA)
- May 6, 2017: Seattle Writers Conference (Seattle, WA)
- July 22, 2017: Tennessee Writers Workshop (Nashville, TN)
- Aug. 18–20, 2017: Writer’s Digest Conference (New York, NY)
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