7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Sharon Short

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Sharon Short, author of MY ONE SQUARE INCH OF ALASKA) 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: Sharon 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: greenurlifenow won.)

 

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Sharon Short is the author of the novel MY ONE SQUARE INCH OF ALASKA
(Penguin Plume, 2013) in which a pair of siblings escape the strictures of their
1950s industrial Ohio town on the adventure of a lifetime and learn about the
power of embracing, and following, one’s dream. Opening chapters of this novel
earned Sharon a 2012 Ohio Arts Council individual artist’s grant. Sharon is the
Literary Life columnist for the Dayton Daily News, directs the renowned Antioch
Writers’ Workshop in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Learn more on Sharon’s web page,
Facebook page, or Twitter feed.

 

1. Follow your heart. Are you passionate about your idea? About your story? Fantastic! Write that! Early chapters of MY ONE SQUARE INCH OF ALASKA helped me earn a local literary artist’s grant; I used the award to attend a conference for writers of YA fiction. There, an editor (not mine!) told me that fiction set in early to mid-20th century America never, ever sells. (That afternoon, it was announced that a wonderful novel set in the late 1930s Midwest America won the Newbery Award.) I was not thrilled by her comment, but knew that my story had to be set in the 1950s, and I also knew that I just had to keep working on it. It was a story of my heart.

2. But also thoughtfully consider constructive advice. On the other hand, that same editor told me that she thought my novel’s concept and theme were better suited to an adult audience, with crossover appeal to older teens—if I’d think more carefully about my protagonist’s story goal. On my drive home, I realized that on this point she was right. I pulled off the highway to a rest stop and re-thought my novel, then went home and revised. That revision became MY ONE SQUARE INCH OF ALASKA. So, listen to feedback, dismiss what doesn’t resonate, but also carefully consider constructive criticism truly aimed at making your project a stronger piece.

(Meet agent Elisabeth Weed, who seeks writers of women’s, literary and upmarket novels.)

3. Your opening is probably not your opening. My least favorite part of creative writing is drafting that opening scene. It always feels so forced, so awkward. I have to get pretty far into the story before I know how it really should begin, and to realize (for the millionth time) that ‘dumping backstory’ is not an opening that will hook readers. As I wrote what I thought was the beginning of chapter 18 for MY ONE SQUARE INCH OF ALASKA, I realized I’d just written the opening paragraphs. Fortunately, I didn’t have to toss out everything I’d written for chapters 1-17. But I did have to write that much before I discovered the real hook of my novel.

4. Be persistent. When my daughters were younger and disheartened by all the “No!” responses to their attempts to sell Girl Scout cookies, I told them that one gets more “noes” in life than “yeses,” and to get to the “yeses,” one has to get through the “noes.” Selling books is a lot harder than selling cookies. Of course, now when I complain ‘writing/publishing is so hard!’ my adult daughters remind me of my cookie-selling advice. (And I also say yes to any Girl Scout who comes to my door, so at least I have cookies to help me through the woes of the ‘noes.’)

5. But also be realistic. On the other hand, if your project has received so many ‘noes’ that it really looks like it is time to move on… then move on. I know of a few writers who have spent literally decades revising the same project. At some point, you’re spinning your wheels. When you sense that is happening, review what you’ve learned from the experience of that project, and then move on to another one and apply those lessons.

6. …and open to change. I’ve been in the writing business in some form or another for more than twenty years, and the best opportunities haven’t been ones I planned or could foresee. For example, if someone had told me while I was writing contemporary mysteries that I would eventually write a mainstream novel, and a historical one at that, I would have scoffed, thinking I couldn’t plot without a mystery backbone. But once the idea for MY ONE SQUARE INCH OF ALASKA came to me, I just couldn’t let it go, or perhaps it wouldn’t let go of me. So, I committed to seeing it through. I’m so glad I did.

(Writing a synopsis for your novel? Here are 5 tips.)

7. Above all, breathe. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by large goals—write a novel! find a publisher!—or to feel distracted by too much writing/publishing advice. When that happens, slowly inhale, exhale, relax, and remind yourself that in this moment, you’re simply writing a new paragraph, or revising a page, or sending out one query letter. Focus, and remember why you got into writing in the first place—the sheer joy of creating a story or poem or article that will touch another human. Breathe, focusing on the moment. Those moments eventually add up to complete projects and a lifetime of the best journey I can imagine—the writing life.

GIVEAWAY: Sharon 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: greenurlifenow won.)

 

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If you’re interested in a variety of my resources on your
journey to securing an agent, don’t forget to check
out my personal Instructor of the Month Kit, created by
Writer’s Digest Books. It’s got books & webinars packaged
together at a 73% discount. Available while supplies last.

 

Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:

 

Want to build your visibility and sell more books?
Create Your Writer Platform shows you how to
promote yourself and your books through social
media, public speaking, article writing, branding,
and more.
Order the book from WD at a discount.

 

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19 thoughts on “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Sharon Short

  1. Marie Rogers

    Good, down to earth advice. Maybe I’ve heard it before but you gave it a fresh voice. The best part was just after reading #3, something flashed in my mind. I pulled up the novel I’m working on and made a note on page one to rewrite the opening. I know how I want to handle it, too. Thank you so much.

  2. Soopergrape

    OK, I, 3, and 6. (I’m getting dizzy from scrolling up and down!) This is actually about #2.
    My heart is actually trying to save the USPS. I don’t seem to be able to do this in reality, so I thought I would just have my protagonist do it for me.
    I wrote most of a screen play (partly during Script Frenzy) and when I sent it to someone in that market they told me that my “directing” in the script drove them crazy! They said I needed to direct if I wanted that much control. Well…maybe it’s a book first and not a movie then. (Like I have a better shot at directing!) I am following #2.
    I haven’t really gotten rejected because I haven’t gotten anyone capable of rejecting it to read it.
    So on to #s 3&6. Having written it as a series of scenes with a lot of things already left out, now I am also considering sequences of events as well as fleshing things out and adding narrative. Reading the script it is hard to imagine a different opening, but I am open to that changing. I am NOT looking forward to is seeing it after I have transformed 3/4 of a script into a book, but when it happens I do hope I am able to see and accept it.
    Breathing is taken care of – I haven’t touched it in a couple of years and have entered a couple of shorts in the WD contest that should be announced shortly. I also spent the last three years trying to shove a same/next day delivery concept into the suggestion program. A final exasperated email to the inspector general pleading with them to fix their perfect program made me realize that this is a more viable option.

    This was only supposed to be a comment? Oops! I, uh, liked your thing…above. I also went and read as much of the book as Amazon would let me. Now I have to go find out what she saw over her shoulder!

    PS: At least your square inch wasn’t on the moon!

  3. Heather K.

    Thanks for the great advice! Openings can be such a stumbling block. I think sometimes it’s best to just dive in with a bad one and find the real hook later, as you describe.

  4. Priscilla Lynne

    Thanks for your lessons! I appreciate your writing only to have to reassess and revise comments…sometimes I think getting started is harder than anything else. I think we forget that it’s okay to write something you’ll end up rewriting, because we are all going to do that no matter how much we agonize over it.

    1. SharonGShort

      Priscilla–You’re very welcome! Definitely–writing is really RE-writing in so many ways. I think of the first draft as ‘making clay,’ and subsequent drafts as forming that clay into something hopefully useful and beautiful.

  5. bandpmom

    Thank you Sharon! This is exactly what I needed to know about starting to write the family memoir. I have been stuck with the thought that I need to write it perfectly from the beginning, which makes it hard to begin. I like your advice about the opening is probably not your opening. I want to write the first scene of the memoir, but I am having a difficult time of when in the family history to start. Your advice reminds me to just start anywhere, because where I think my book is starting may not be the place it starts when I’m done. Thanks again!

    1. SharonGShort

      bandpmom– you are very welcome! Yes, putting that perfection pressure on ourselves is just too much. You can always revise… and of course you (like every writer) should! Eventually, your family memoir will start taking shape.

  6. vrundell

    Hi Sharon!
    Congrats on your novel and thanks for the insight. I like the part about using your intuition to discrn the advice that’s applicable, even when it comes with criticism. And, I also struggle with opeings, so I can relate to discovering it in Chapter 18…
    Best of luck on this project and those to come.
    Veronica

    1. SharonGShort

      vrundell–thank you! Yes, we must trust ourselves to sift through the advice/criticism… we don’t want to through out any great nuggets that will help us become better writers, but we also don’t want to let ourselves feel discouraged. Writing, like life, is definitely a balancing act. Good luck to you, too, Veronica!

    1. SharonGShort

      Chuck–you are very welcome! I enjoyed writing it and greatly appreciate the opportunity to share a few insights with readers of your terrific and helpful blog.

  7. CynzWD

    Thanks for this, Sharon! Your last point–breathe!–resonated particularly with me. I often forget that meeting big goals is mostly a matter of hitting lots of smaller ones.

    1. SharonGShort

      CynzWD–I’m glad that ‘breathe!’ resonated with you. It’s so simple… yet so amazingly hard to remember at times, at least for me!

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