7 Things I’ve Learned So Far: Jane Higgins

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Jane Higgins, author of the acclaimed YA debut, THE BRIDGE) 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.

(Look over our growing list of young adult literary agents.)

GIVEAWAY: Jane 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: threetuis won.)




Jane Higgins is the author of the debut YA novel, THE BRIDGE, (Tundra
Books, 2012), a post-apocalyptic story about young people caught up
in a war. It won the 2010 Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s
Writing (Text Publishing) and the YA Readers’ Choice award in the
2012 New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards. In her day job,
Jane is a sociologist specializing in youth studies and writing nonfiction
about young people in transition from school. Recently she has turned
to writing fiction for young adults. She is currently working on a sequel.



1. Read great writing. Remember that book you loved so much as a kid that you reread it until the binding collapsed and now it’s a mess of loose pages with half a cover and no spine, but you still can’t bear to throw it out? That experience of being completely lost in a book is what made me want to write. It still does. Every time I read a wonderful piece of writing I get a rush of energy and think I want to write something good. Reading is the best way I know to get inspired, and to learn about writing.

2. Give your imagination space. In his Introduction to the wonderful collection Dandelion Wine, the late, and truly great, Ray Bradbury wrote: “like every beginner, I thought you could beat, pummel, and thrash an idea into existence. Under such treatment, of course, any decent idea folds up its paws, turns on its back, fixes its eyes on eternity, and dies.” Sometimes, looking away from an idea you are struggling with is the most creative thing you can do with it. Your subconscious is primed with that idea but you’re not trying to pummel it into shape. Surprisingly often, that’s exactly when it makes itself known, like something glimpsed in the corner of your eye. It can work for plot problems too. When I get stuck in front of a blank page and can’t think how to go forward, I go for a walk in the hills around my city. I say the problem to myself at the beginning of my walk, articulating it as clearly as I can, then I walk and let my mind wander. It’s intriguing (and helpful!) how often the answer has arrived by the time I trek down the hill.

(How to pitch agents at a writers’ conference.)

3. Go off the net – regularly. It’s part of giving your imagination room to breathe.

4. Write and write and write some more. Suppose I’ve read some great writing and got inspired, I’ve gone off the net, I’ve paced around the hills, and now I’m sitting at my computer trying to write. But what I’m writing is awful. Of course it is. First drafts are almost always terrible – at least mine are. But if I can get the writing down so that there’s something on the page or screen, then I figure I’ve done the hardest part. Now it’s time to play: it’s time to revise and rewrite until the story is approaching what I wanted it to be in the first place. Often, that’s good fun. It’s like being a potter working with a lump of clay: its early shape is rough and indistinct and it takes a lot of careful crafting to produce that final, polished ceramic jug or vase or sculpture.

5. Listen to reader feedback. When I’ve finished a draft (at last!), I revise and revise until I can’t see how I can make it any better. Then I give it to people to read (people who’ll be honest with me). And surprise! They come back with a whole lot of ways it can be improved. I go off and revise some more, until (again) I can’t make it any better, and I give it to them once more. With The Bridge, I went through that process three times. Ursula Le Guin says: “A story is a collaboration between teller and audience, writer and reader. Fiction is not only illusion, but collusion. …The reader makes it happen just as much as the writer does.” (The Wave in the Mind, Shambhala, p. 230). In giving these drafts to readers I’m trying to honour what Le Guin is saying. That means not clinging to what I’ve written, but rather seeing the manuscript as something independent that those readers and I can work on together to make the collaboration work.

(How to Seek Quality in Your Beta Readers.)

6. Enjoy. Why do we write? Because we love to, we’re driven to, we’re obsessed. So, don’t forget to enjoy every good sentence/paragraph/page that you craft.

7. Once it’s out there, it’s out there. It doesn’t belong just to you any more – as Le Guin observes (see 5 above). And because reading is a subjective process, not everyone’s going to like what you write. With luck some people will – you’ll connect with them and engage them and it’s fantastic when that happens. But the next story is beckoning. Time to get on with it.

GIVEAWAY: Jane 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: threetuis won.)



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25 thoughts on “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far: Jane Higgins

  1. Judi

    Thank you for this column. You make me feel “I can do this.” I’ve just finished my first novel and am starting on the edit/rewrite. Somewhere along the way my characters took over and changed the story, making it much better. However, it does mean rewriting the whole beginning, as the characters grew and many of the scenes I’d planned changed.

    This is a brand-new blog

  2. simeon

    Speaking to number 6, I love reading a sentence that I’d forgotten writing, like when I’m working on a new draft, and getting a chill or thinking, “Man that’s good writing. Can’t believe I wrote that.”

  3. Melissa Englesberg

    These are great. I especially love #5 and the quote from Ursula Le Guin. I am excited to check out the collaborative effort in your novel.

  4. threetuis

    Jane Higgins is obviously practising what she preaches, because The Bridge is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I’m not someone who reads books over and over, but when I finished it I went straight back to the beginning and started again. I tried to read it more technically so that I could figure out how she’d woven such great magic (to help my own writing), but the story sucked me in. It was impossible to keep a distance from it. I wish Jane every success with her fiction, and am very much looking forward to spending more time with these very likeable characters. Thanks, Jane!

  5. drdvader21

    In addition to reading good writing, I also read the intermittent “bad” book. I find that noticing the problems in another novel’s structure, character development, or use of language helps me find similar issues in my own work and makes me a better self-editor.

  6. drdvader21

    All of these suggestions are valuable. I would also add that a good writer also needs to read a few “bad” books every now and again. Reading works that are in some way sub-par provides an excellent opportunity to test what one knows about structure, character development, and use of language. It also makes the reader more aware of any potential issues in his/her own writing and a better self-editor.

  7. vrundell

    Good reminder about letting the ideas breathe a bit. I find jotting troubled plot points down and then letting them sit a day or so opens me to different paths than I had initially envisioned. Best of luck.

  8. rudebug

    I really like the concept of collusion between reder and writer. I had not thought of it in that perspective before. It makes the process a little less scary.
    Thanks for your references. I really admire and respect Ursula Le Guin as well.

  9. rudebug

    I really like the new perspective, to me, that the process is a collusion between reader and writer. I have a new look at either how the process should work and how the end result should be attained. It makes me a little less fearful of others reading my work! Thanks for your thoughts!
    Jeff “rudebug” Raudebaugh

  10. Lorig

    Thank you for your reminders about the love of reading and writing being a pair that inspire each other. As I read through your list I found myself shaking my head repeatedly in agrement.

  11. DavidABossie

    Thanks for the post Jane. I particularly enjoyed your advice to walk away for a bit rather than beating an idea into life.

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

  12. Lisa Lickel

    This is great and specific helpful hints, Jane. I’m one of those who thinks Dandelion Wine was the best fiction in the 20th century, and I love his quote. Thank you for sharing it.


  13. Christiann Bailey

    Thank you so much for this. I feel newly inspired, and not so fearful that this day that requires so much besides writing will be a total waste. I will now stop pummeling my story, let it recover for a few hours, and come back to it with kind words. crb dot writer at gmail dot com

  14. Heather Marsten

    Thank you for reminding me that my first drafts don’t have to be perfect. Your story sounds interesting. I’ve been reading more dystopian stories lately – the innovativeness is incredible.

    Have a blessed and Merry Christmas

    HM at HVC dot RR dot COM


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