7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Olivia Newport

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Olivia Newport, author of THE PURSUIT OF LUCY BANNING) 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: Olivia 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: Kaylyn won.)




Olivia Newport‘s novels twist through time to discover where
faith and passions meet. She chases joy in Colorado at the foot
of the Rockies, where daylilies grow as tall as she is. Her
husband and two twentysomething children are welcome
distractions from the people stomping through her head
on their way into her books. Find her on Twitter or on Facebook.
Her latest book is the May 2012 historical romance,


1. Take the long way. Shortcuts rarely pay off when it comes to research and preparation. Grabbing a quick fact here and there results in an unpersuasive random sensation in the finished text—which then turns out not to be finished after all. Writing is about more than crafting and reshaping the words that make it to screen or paper. It’s about wisely sifting the possibilities of what to write about in the first place.

2. Be your own nemesis. Writing leaves little time for preening. Criticize yourself. Someone else is going to do it anyway. Being tough on yourself is your best defensive move. Even when you’ve written something to be proud of, outline three ways it could be better.

(How many agents should you contact at one time?)

3. Unpeel the truth. Just because something happened in real life doesn’t mean it belongs in your novel. The catalyzing event is more likely to become the germ of a character’s experience, rather than a verbatim account. The final value may be emotional or spiritual, rather than factual. The truth the novelist seeks goes beyond accurate details.

4. Play chess well. Think three plays ahead. Or four. Or six. How is your character going to respond to the next event you plan to drop into the plot, and how will you counter that reaction by upping the tension? Anyone can learn the rote rules for moving a bishop or a rook or a knight, but the winner patiently waits for the angles to converge.

5. Sign your work. One valuable reason to write multiple manuscripts before trying to publish is pumping up your novelist muscles. Your own review, or the opinions of a few trusted readers, may reveal signature strengths that you can employ strategically in the manuscript you finally sell. Do you excel at creating tension? Unpredictable plot complications? Sympathetic characters? Suspense? Romance? Historical detail? Rather than rushing toward the exuberance of seeing your name on a book, relish the satisfaction of leaving a particular, distinguishing mark.

(Literary agents share helpful advice for new writers.)

6. Wear a consistent hat size. Admire, analyze, and adjust, but don’t compare. Avoid reading the work of other authors and thinking you could do sooo much better. If you like an author’s writing, articulate what you can learn from it for your own work. If you don’t like it, be specific about what disappointed. From every reading experience, find the takeaway that will make your own writing stronger. No matter your degree of success, keep a level head about steady hard work.

7. Stuff cards up your sleeve. Always have something else to move on to. The market is not always ripe for the idea you have, and you can’t expend all your creative energy dragging it around from agent to editor. Or you may get 20,000 words into a project and realize the trajectory is into the dumpster. Move on. When you do sell a project, be ready with six more ideas. Always have something up your sleeve that you’d love to write.

GIVEAWAY: Olivia 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: Kaylyn won.)


Agent Donald Maass, who is also an author
himself, is one of the top instructors nationwide
on crafting quality fiction. His recent guide,
The Fire in Fiction, shows how to compose
a novel that will get agents/editors to keep reading.


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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41 thoughts on “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Olivia Newport

  1. Kaylyn

    #2 is me, but sometimes I cross the line from critical critique to “bad writer.” Then it takes me a while to step back and take a serious look at my script.

  2. Jasmine Evans

    I like #6. I’m constantly reading good books and wishing I could write like other authors. But I see the value in analyzing other works for things that I like and dislike. And I know in doing that, it’s important to be specific.

    Thanks for posting.


    1. Olivia Newport

      Thanks for dropping by. I do sometimes have to try to turn off the analytic brain and just let myself enjoy a book! But even then, I like to figure out why I liked it.

  3. whynot1956

    I am not a seasoned writer yet, but I have found myself having to concede that the story was not going anywhere and toss it. That hurts! I think at this point I am better suited to the short story or even short, short story. I am hoping that practice will make this easier at some point and I can write the novel I have planned all of my adult life. Thankfully I haven’t gotten to the 20,000 mark before realizing I was dead in the water.


  4. Sean Durity

    This comes across as well-seasoned, well-tried advice. That increases its value and usefulness for me – a part-timer and recent writer. I have to concur with #3. I had a great nugget life event (a 67 year late picture from my grandfather to my grandmother), but it was when I thought about what he could have been saying that the emotional hook emerged. I think that is what got me the popularity and awards for that piece. Thanks for sharing your time and expertise with us.

  5. Marianas Ygona

    I go for advice number 2, Be Your Own Nemesis. I’m currently writing a novel that I started in 2002. I’m still re-writing, editing, and editing.

    1. Olivia Newport

      Sometimes we have to be brutally honest with ourselves! I find myself asking, “Would I want to read that in someone else’s book? Why would I think anyone wants to read it in mine?”

    1. Olivia Newport

      The publisher (or someone they hired) designed the cover. Didn’t they do a great job? They did show me the dress and the model ahead of the photo shoot and I got to select the had and the bag from among the options they found that were authentic to the era.

    1. Olivia Newport

      I have that one experience of tossing it all out at 20,000 words. But I’ve also breathed new life into a plot by putting more at stake for the main character and adding a couple more plots that get in the way. But I don’t think you can do this in a cut-and-paste way. It’s fairly major surgery on the manuscript because it takes you right back to your character’s motivation and what is at stake. If you change the stakes, you have to look at how this one change ripples through the people and events of the novel.

  6. ancalaway


    Thanks so much for this! I am writing the second draft of my first novel while pursuing an MFA at the University of Maryland. I am bombarded with so much advice about the writing life, and some of it even contradictory, that it’s wonderful to read succinct, little snip’its like this. It’s easy to get overwhelmed! I’m constantly worried that I will never get #4 down though. Yes, I have a fairly detailed outline that I’m working with, but I still find scenes popping up that I didn’t expect, or characters presenting themselves as much more significant that I thought they would be! Is that okay, since I’m only in the second draft? I figure I will be on draft 8 or 9 before I query any agents or publishing houses, at least. Do you think I should spend more time at the proverbial drawing board or charge ahead? Thanks again, Olivia!

    1. Olivia Newport

      When my own characters surprise me, I think of it as getting to know them better. It’s okay if they do things you didn’t expect. What’s important is that they are believably consistent within themselves. You don’t want the readers saying, “She would never do that!” So look at all the surprising things they do, and make sure you can draw lines that connect motivations with behaviors in consistent ways.

  7. Perilous1

    #7 is particularly well put. When I’ve had the ‘move on’ principle explained to me, it’s always sounded like more of a stall tactic. Something to the effect of: “While you’re waiting around for one of the many agents you’ve queried to find you fabulous, you might as well be working on the next book.” I made the mistake of writing a first book that would be a hard sell, and I’ve come to accept that I’ll probably have to build a platform with book #2 first, and work backward later. But while working on #2, I got an idea for a 3-book series… So onward I go. 🙂

    1. Olivia Newport

      Onward and upward! Most novelists do not sell the first book they write. Move on, but keep writing. I’m glad the ideas are flowing for you.

  8. Doris Swift

    Thank you for sharing your gift of encouraging words. It’s a good reminder for me to strive for excellence in- the-making, rather then it being about a race to the finish line… I especially liked tip #5 on writing multiple manuscripts…I’m currently working on two manuscripts in two totally different genres; one is a Christian fiction novel for women, and the other for YA… I’m wondering if I’m burning the candle at both ends…Olivia, what are your thoughts on a writer working on multiple projects at the same time? I’m thinking you might say finish one first…

    1. Olivia Newport

      Actually, I’d say it’s okay to work on multiple projects. First, if you’re not sure which genre you love, you’ll learn something from the process. Second, the market swings, so it can be good to be ready with something else. Third, successful published writers are ALWAYS working on more than one project, because they will be promoting one, editing one, writing one, and concepting one all at the same time. So the question is not so much multiple manuscripts as it is multiple genres. That becomes a branding question. You might have to commit to one genre for a time and get established and then be able to branch out.

  9. ReginaJennings

    #1 is so important. I’d hate to have considerable time invested in a novel and then realize that the scenario wouldn’t be possible for that time or location. It’s easy to run with an idea before looking it over from every angle.

  10. Calliopenjo

    All of that is sound advice. Something we should keep in mind. The trick is though to not lose yourself while preparing to write a novel. By that I mean, If you happen to write by the seat of your pants then, I think, there would be a way to integrate all of that and still remain you.

  11. radulovich

    Well, that’s it! I’m up a creek without a paddle – I’ve never cared for chess. Will my study of human nature suffice? I have been an observer since the day I was born, and there’s nothing I like better than creating believable characters and putting words in their mouths. Although my novel (119,000 words) contains romance, it’s not a romance novel. Even though it contains some history, it doesn’t fall into that category either. It is simply a drama, a life many women have lived, are living. So, bereft of knights, rooks or pawns, I commend you for encouraging unpublished writers.

    1. Olivia Newport

      Writing a great story is terrific. Eventually the question arises about how to position it in the market. In both cases, a study of human nature is a great tool!

    1. Olivia Newport

      In #3 I am speaking of the facts of personal experience–for instance, your uncle hiked down a mountain with a broken leg and met a recluse who helped him. Telling that story exactly as it happened may not serve your novel, even though it happened, but some element of the experience may be what you need to set a scene. If you’re dealing with history, it’s better to stick to the best version of facts you can find and place your characters within it.

  12. mobrien

    Thanks for the great advise! Rule 7 was a hard lesson to learn, but I think ultimately, may be the the most valuable one in the bunch, at least for me. I only wished I only had 20,000 words in my project before I finally made it okay to let it go.

    Thanks again!

    1. Olivia Newport

      It’s a tough move, Mike, and I still think about the characters I abandoned, but it was the right decision as far as pursuing publication.

  13. JR MacBeth

    Every one of these is very helpful. I especially liked number 7: “20,000 words into a project…” This is a hard one, but as with the other points, it’s about being real with yourself, accepting the way it is, and most importantly, moving on when you realize that your project isn’t working, for whatever reason. I think this is my biggest takeaway here. Your advice will help me now to MOVE ON! (I guess I already knew I should have done it a while ago, but no more excuses…Lots of other fish to fry!)

  14. jessy31

    Great blogpost, Olivia! I don’t play chess but love the idea of thinking three plays ahead. Or four. Or six. This advice sounds like the makings of a great outline. I also like the thought of having something up my sleeve that I’d love to write, but be ready with six more ideas? Do you mean all fleshed out and ready to pitch? Gasp! That sounds downright scary!

    Thanks for some fantastic tips!

    1. Olivia Newport

      I have several ideas that are or could be a couple pages of synopsis pretty fast if I needed to. I’m fortunate to have an agent I can run things by. Talking with someone helps.

  15. Lina Moder

    Wonderful advice, especially about doing excellent research and always trying to make everything better.

    Thanks so much:)

    linamoder at gmail dot com


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