7 Things I’ve Learned So Far: Diana Wagman

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Diana Wagman, author of THE CARE & FEEDING OF EXOTIC PETS) 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.

(Secrets to querying literary agents: 10 questions answered.)




Diana Wagman is the author of four novels (Indiebound links) and
numerous short stories, essays and reviews. Her newest novel is the
dark & humorous thriller, THE CARE AND FEEDING OF EXOTIC PETS
(Nov. 2012, Ig), which the Wall Street Journal called “…tense and
fast-paced,” while Publishers Weekly said “The story is perfectly
paced, with humorous breaks in the tension.” Diana’s second
novel, Spontaneous, won the 2001 USA PEN West Award for
Fiction. She wrote the original screenplay for the film,
Delivering Milo, starring Bridget Fonda and Albert
Finney. Find Diana on Twitter.



1. Take a walk. Sometimes taking a walk or doing the laundry or driving in the car is the best way to write. For the same perverse reason that when I don’t have time or money to shop everything looks wonderful, when I’m without my computer I have my best ideas. The Buddhists sometimes use a repetitive motion meditation—sweeping or scrubbing or walking in a circle—to free the mind and let go of angst. I’m not a Buddhist, but this really works for me. I have a “yard” of mostly dirt (who said writers are all gardeners?) but when I rake I do some fantastic writing.

2. Never quit for the day without being excited about what you’re going to write next. Forget finishing the chapter or getting to a good stopping place. It is absolutely imperative to stop in the middle. I get up only when I have the next sentence or event in my mind. That way, I’m anxious to get back to it. I’ll be thinking about it as I do other things (see #1 above) and the story and my characters will be calling to me. When I don’t do that, the next time I sit down I will face a blank page and I can spend the entire day wandering and wondering and never move forward.

(Fortune favors the bold. Be Bold When You Write.)

3. Use one perfect adjective, metaphor or simile, rather than two or three. The sky really might be as blue as her eyes, as the child’s crayon drawing, and as a cornflower in spring, but choosing and using only one—adjective, metaphor, or simile—is so much stronger. It gives the reader a clear picture. And just as important, you must choose one that also gives the tone/mood/attitude of what you’re trying to say. The sky was blue like a bruise has a very different subtext than blue as a child’s crayon sky.

4. Read it out loud to hear the rhythm. Good writing has movements and rhythms like good music. Short, declarative sentences convey action and urgency. Longer, languid descriptions give the reader time to reflect. Your sentences should convey the mood your story is in. Reading aloud is one way to find this. I stand behind my desk to read and I’m sure my neighbors think I’m nuts—I know my family laugh about it. But it works. And, if it’s awkward for you, the writer, to read a page of your own aloud, if you stumble over the prose, then something isn’t working.

(Learn more about The Value of Reading Your Book Aloud.)

5. Practice. Writing is hard. The flow doesn’t happen often. A lot of it is putting your butt in the chair and slogging through it. Too many writers want to sit in the café, drink coffee and wait for the muse to appear. A cellist wouldn’t do that. You can’t suddenly be a great musician. You have to practice. You have to play 4,000 scales, make a million sketches, shoot a zillion baskets before you’re YoYo Ma or Picasso or Lebron James. So practice everyday, whether it’s describing how the coffee tasted this morning or writing a paragraph about the weather out your window. Practice. Then when the muse does come (and mine is usually somewhere washing her hair) you’ll be ready for her.

6. Don’t be afraid. Go there. Go as deep and as far as you can. Write down your scariest, most outlandish thoughts. No one will see it but you, and you will find the truth for your story. Go to your character’s darkest spot. Would he throw himself in front of a bullet to save his wife or save himself? Put your character in jeopardy, take away the one thing she loves most, have him think the meanest thing possible about a friend. If you know the worst that can happen, you can pull back and write the ordinary—but it will be ordinary with a sharp, true edge.

7. Don’t give up. I had some early success, three published novels each three years apart, but this latest book just refused to come together. This one took nine years, three agents, 37 rejections from publishers, but now it’s out and doing very well. Many times I despaired. Many times I wanted to give away my computer and never write again. But I couldn’t. I can’t do anything else. I have to write. When I’m not writing I feel like my skin is inside out. So I kept at it. I threw away over 400 pages—truly—and went in a new direction. It worked. Persevere!

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for where to start? Look no further.
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Novel, 2nd Edition
, gives you
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to manuscript to bookstore.

Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:


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8 thoughts on “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far: Diana Wagman

  1. Mjeanne358

    I’m entering the Short Story contest and I came upon this. I couldn’t help but bookmark this for future “stuck and done” moments. Finding that I do most of these things you listed, I smiled while reading this. I also play piano and can relate to having to practice before being inspired, my fingers often fumbling and not moving as I want them to. Ugh. Well, anyway, I loved this and I’m so glad this was posted.

  2. JanetClare

    All fabulous ideas. Reading out loud is a must, Also, sometimes I print out several pages and take them into another room to read. Writing everyday, even if all you do is change a comma and, of course, is never all you do. Many thanks.

  3. JR MacBeth

    Great advice Diana!

    I think I really needed to hear #2. Too often, I aim to achieve completion; write a scene, a chapter, sketch out a story to the end, etc. But I have noticed that days go by after “finishing” something. On the other hand, I remember how different things are when things are left hanging. Those are the nights I dream of what my characters are saying and doing. Those are the times when taking that walk is so much more fruitful, as my mind continues working on whatever the problem is.

    I also need to really embrace #6. While I do feel like I “let go” sometimes (and those are good times), I also recognize that I tend to hold back.

    Thank you for taking the time to share your experience!



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