7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Jordan Jacobs

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Jordan Jacobs, author of SAMANTHA SUTTON AND THE LABYRINTH OF LIES) 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.

(Find more middle grade literary agents.)

jordan-jacobs-writer-author      samantha-sutton-and-the-labyrinth-of-lies

Jordan Jacobs has loved archaeology for as long as he can remember.
His childhood passion for mummies, castles and Indiana Jones led to his
participation in his first excavation, at age 13, in California’s Sierra Nevada.
After following his passion through education at Stanford, Oxford, and
Cambridge, Jordan’s work for the Smithsonian, the American Museum
of Natural History and UNESCO Headquarters in Paris has focused on
policy and the protection of archaeological sites in the developing world.
He lives in San Francisco with his wife and daughter. His debut novel,
the acclaimed middle grade story SAMANTHA SUTTON AND THE
LABYRINTH OF LIES (Oct. 2012, Sourcebooks Jabberwocky) was
called “A groundbreaking first book” by The Washington Post.



1. The Internet is a raging superstorm of conflicting advice (much of which probably does not apply to you).

Yes, of course it’s an insanely valuable resource for writers, and I pity our forebearers for going without. Seeking the standard format for a query letter? The internet will help you. Curious about a particular agent’s submission requirements? Check their website and adhere.

(How can writers compose an exciting Chapter 1?)

But beyond the purely informational, travel safely into that storm, my friend–ideally in one of those heavily-modified, steel-enforced, homemade tanks. I don’t care what they say over at onlyiknowhowtowrite.com: there are no fixed rules about chapter length in middle grade adventure books. Sorry, chiponshoulder.net, but an adverb or two won’t hurt anybody.

There’s great advice out there, to be sure, but there’s a lot of nonsense whirling around, as well. Peruse what’s out there and consider it. But trust your instincts over anything you read on-line.

2) Loose lips…

For me, the surest way to kill a scene is to describe it aloud to someone before I’ve gotten it down on paper. My unwritten ideas are squirming little things–raw, and pink and vulnerable–not ready to withstand much handling. They’ll waste away if I give voice to them too early, and it’s not always possible to coax them back to health.

3) Celebrate along the way.

Poor Sisyphus: dragged out again and again for tired metaphors (I mean, the guy’s got a job to do, after all). But the comparison works. In fact. the publishing process seems crueler than anything cooked up in Hades.

Better get an agent, we writers tell ourselves when we finish a manuscript. All that effort will be wasted without one. Got representation? Now get a book deal–and quickly!–or we’re back on the banks of the Styx again. Land a book deal? Promote, promote, or back down we go with the rest of them.

But much of this struggle is self-imposed. We’re on this mountainside but choice, and we can stow the rock away from time to time. Each of the steps above is a hugely impressive achievement for any writer. Each deserves to be celebrated.

We love to write, remember? Why else are we putting ourselves through this?

4) Be wary of reviews.

My book has gotten great reviews so far and I’m thrilled with its reception. And thank goodness. I have neither the willpower to avoid reading reviews completely nor the Bodhisattvan detachment required to resist their pervasive psycho-physical effects. Still, preventative measures must be taken. To safeguard my mental well-being, I’ve bought my first video game console in years and a selection of games likely feature in some future House Committee hearing.

(How many literary agents should a writer send their work to?)

5) Editing your work is not selling-out.

“They made you change it?”

The guy at the party is surely a literary giant–or will be, he seems to think, just as soon as he finishes his manuscript.

“Yes,” I say, “And thank goodness.”

Sell-out, he’s thinking (I can tell from his sneer). I’ve let “them” alter my artistic vision.

Sure, maybe a little. But so what? Readers are not privy to the unwritten back story, excised scenes, and mental images behind each of our written words. Every manuscript can be improved by external review, unless the writer is content with a readership of one.

(See how another middle grade author — Allan Woodrow — found his literary agent.)

6) It’s really kind of a crapshoot anyway.

The guy at the party did finish his novel, and then he asked me to read it. It was good–very good–and with the help of an editor(!) he made it even better. But no luck. Agent after agent have passed. The manuscript is back in the drawer, and he’s back to his bitter self-righteousness.

I’ve read many, many manuscripts–most good, and some great–and none have gone on to be published. This is no surprise, of course. Wonderful novels get rejected all the time.

It seems pretty arbitrary. Randomness plays a bigger role than would hope. We happy few–we published authors– should be humble. We should helpful, when we can. And we should acknowledge our luck.

7) There’s absolutely nothing the matter with kids today (at least nothing that wasn’t wrong with kids yesterday or the day before).

The foxtrot did not destroy the greatest generation, MAD Magazine did not dissolve the moral fiber of our parents, and the PS3 will not rob our children of their souls. Every school I’ve visited on my book tour–public, private, rich, and poor–has shown me that kids are still the critical, curious, contemplative creatures they’ve always been. And they also still love to read.



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