7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Steven Raichlen

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Steven Raichlen, author of ISLAND APART) 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: Steven is excited to give away a free copy of his 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: Carol won.)


Steve Raichlen is the author of ISLAND APART, a debut novel
(June 2012, Forge Books) set on Chappaquiddick Island in Martha’s
Vineyard. Booklist said of the book, “A sweet grown-up love story …
Raichlen packs a lot into his first novel … the passages of locally
harvested food and intense cooking are gorgeous … A beach book
for smart people.” Before this novel, Raichlen was a New York Times
best-selling author of several cookbooks.

For 30 years, I’ve made my living as a food writer (particularly with books about barbecue). I always wanted to write fiction. On June 5, 2012, Forge Books (Macmillan) will publish my first novel, Island Apart. I wish I could say it came easily, but while I wrote my first draft in six months, it took me fifteen years to get around to writing that first draft and five years to turn it into a publishable manuscript. Here are seven things I learned about writing in the process. (Incidentally, fiction writing has made me a better food writer.)

1. Writing requires equal parts inspiration and endurance. (Perhaps even more of the latter.) Novels are hard work (a lot harder than cookbooks) and part of that hard work is keeping yourself in a chair long enough to crank out the 300, 500, or 1,000 pages that will eventually become your story. It’s supposed to be hard work. If it were easy, everyone would write a novel instead of talking about it.

(Why agents stop reading your first chapter.)

2. Your first draft won’t be your last. You just might not realize it at the moment. (So savor your “whew” moment because it won’t last,) When I finished the first version of Island Apart, I firmly believed I had written the proverbial great American novel. Seven figure advance offers would soon clog my in-box. I wrote and scrapped an additional 500 pages in the nine revisions that followed to end up with the 288 page that comprise the bound book.

3. The first chapter—or even the first 200 pages you write—may not be the beginning of your ultimate story. My first draft of Island Apart opened with a trip from New York City to Martha’s Vineyard. I wanted to take the reader on the same journey I’ve made so often—queuing up with all the other cars at Steamship Authority Ferry Terminal in Woods Hole; driving up the rickety ramp onto the boat; feeling the sea breeze in your hair crossing Vineyard Sound; and finally, the surreal calm you experience on arriving on Chappaquiddick. There was just one problem: The guy whose journey I chronicled was one of my secondary characters and I wasted sixty pages to get to my protagonist and the real story. Once I cut the first two chapters, the book took off.

4. Your working title may not wind up on the cover. Initially, I called my book The Hermit of Chappaquiddick (the name of my male protagonist). I thought it was a brilliant title: the mysterious qualities of “hermit”; the political controversy surrounding the Kennedy tragedy at Chappaquiddick’s Dyke Bridge; the sense of loneliness and melancholy when you put the two together. To which my veteran editor, Bob Gleason, replied that this was the worst title he had heard in forty years of publishing. After much back and forth, we settled on “Island Apart,” which is what “Chappaquiddick” means in the language of the island’s first settlers, the Wampanoags. Seventy-five million baby boomers may have strong associations with Chappaquiddick, but an equal number of Gen-Xers, Millennials, and other young people give you a blank look when you mention it. Much as I hate to admit it, Island Apart works better.

5. Don’t worry too much about fleshing out or outlining the plot. When I started Island Apart, I knew how the story would begin and how it would end. I had no idea how to get through the middle. Fortunately, I had good guides: The characters themselves showed me what had to happen.

(Ever want to adapt your novel/memoir into a screenplay? Here are 7 tips.)

6. Write in the active voice. In my first draft I used a lot of passive constructions—“it must be said,” for example, or “if the truth be told” or “the Hermit was seen walking down Litchfield Road.” Rewriting the story in the active voice gave the novel a lot more energy and power. Similarly, in real life, people may declare, opine, state, explain, cry, laugh, or chortle. Characters say or ask. Anything more than “he said” or “she asked” is distracting.

7. Be extra nice to your spouse or significant other. The deeper you get into the story, the more you’ll withdraw from everyday life. Your spouse will miss you and complain that you seem absent—even when you’re sitting together the dinner table. Your significant other may get jealous. When you write a novel, you need all the help and support you can get from your loved ones. Make sure you love them back.

GIVEAWAY: Steven is excited to give away a free copy of his 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: Carol won.)



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11 thoughts on “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Steven Raichlen

  1. Carol Phillips

    I have yet to find the endurance to write my novel, though I have the inspiration. I’m working on finding the motivation to build up my endurance. (There are too many distractions to work through.)

    I find your #5 to be the most useful for me. My husband keeps telling me that I have to create a storyboard. To be honest, that’s what’s hanging me up. As you said, “I knew how the story would begin and how it would end. I had no idea how to get through the middle. Fortunately, I had good guides: The characters themselves showed me what had to happen.” Once I really get into writing, the story just unfolds. All of this business of plotting out scenes and characters and settings and plots is really distracting.

    Thank you for sharing your insight!

  2. cctyping

    My favorite from your list: Don’t worry too much about fleshing out or outlining the plot. Because I can’t plot for squat. I know the beginning and the ending. The rest just appears.

  3. Kaylyn

    #6 is exactly what I struggle with. When writing I want to spice it up with cried, shouted, laugh, etc. He said/she said seems so boring but you’re right; anything else is distracting.

  4. whynot1956

    I haven’t written a lot in the last few years (probably should qualify that with more like last 25 years), but I always went for fancy dialogue. I used synonyms and other words to try and change up the dialogue so it didn’t say said or asked. Imagine my surprise to see tip # 6 several times in my current reading. Guess that will make my writing much easier if I don’t have to search for all those different words to make it different. Thank you for the tips. They are very much appreciated.


  5. HuffmanHanni

    Numbers 3 and 5-7 really struck a chord with me. Especially #7! As a new writer, I’ve warned my very supportive husband that I think I’ll need a lot of time to write; more than I had anticipated. We’ve kind of worked out a schedule where I’ll have about 2 hours in the evening Monday-Friday and most of Saturday and Sunday to write. This is flexible but I think it’s what will keep us both sane.

    Number 3 scares me. I’ve tried to outline a historical fiction novel at least 4 times now and it’s about 105 chapters. I’m thinking it’ll be cut quite a bit before I even think about submitting it to a publisher but when I look at it, I can’t see where to without turning the plot into something nonsensical. It’s confusing seeing some advise outlining while others advocate not outlining. I can see the logic in both but I guess it depends on what you are working on but ultimately, it should be the characters that drive the plot.

  6. eponine

    Great tips, especially numbers 6 & 7. My husband and I are huge fans of your BBQ books and shows and are looking forward to reading your first novel!

  7. Wm

    Dear Steven,

    First of all your short biography above is not fair. I do not consider you “A New York Times best-selling author of several cookbooks”. You are the BBQ & Grilling authority in the United States. You have travelled extensively and investigated the world`s oldest and universal cooking method: cooking over live fire. If I recall correctly, Oprah called you “The BBQ Gladiator” and she was correct.

    In 2008, I wrote a book in my native tongue which is Spanish on marinades (Marinadas Prácticas destapando un frasco, una botella y una lata). I had a lot of fun going to the nearest Walmart and buying ALL the different jars, cans and bottles available so that I could concoct my own marinades. I wanted people to spend less than 5 minutes preparing a marinade for food to be grilled. The fun dissipated when the endurance (rule No. 1) started with all the corrections! I had 20 different drafts (each one was better than the one before and it was the last draft – Yeah, right). My title is like your Hermit of Chappaquiddick BUT I did not have a publishing house behind me to tell me other wise. I only had my desire to publish it and I did on my own. And finally your rule No. 7 is correct. My wife thought I was spending too much time with my project – but hey, it was my baby ;-). A friend told me that I would get better at about the 5th book 
    If writing fiction has made you a better food writer, would you have started your BBQ trail investigation and documentation by writing fiction? And question No. 2: How was writing fiction made you a better food writer? (I can imagine why but I would love to read your answer).
    I admire your work, I have all your BBQ books and of course I will order Island Apart and read it when I head off to the beach this summer.
    Kind regards,
    William Archer
    Your No. 1 fan
    Mexico City

  8. JanSchroder

    These are great tips and I especially appreciate number 5. Although there goes one of my excuses for not actually starting that novel I have in my head. But it’s only been two years for me!

  9. robinp

    I resonate with half endurance half inspiration! You need the inspiration to get started and the endurance to keep at it when the inspiration runs out – very good article!

  10. Patchi

    Your list really spoke to me, especially 2, 3 and 7. I took 10 years to go from idea to paper, then another 5 years to type a first draft. After 3 drafts (and a very patient spouse), I realized I had started the story in the middle. I completely agree that writing a novel requires endurance.


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