BY STEPHANIE FELDMAN
1. If you’re doing it right, the writing never gets easier.
I sat down to write my second novel with a naïve optimism. I’ve done this before, I thought, and along the way I’ve learned so much about how fiction works and how I write. Even so, it took five drafts to find the right voice and structure. At first, I was disappointed in myself. (The writer’s first instinct.) After all this time, how could I find myself still so lost? Then I realized I was lost because I was trying something new. It might be easier if I was rehashing the same plots and settings and characters, but I don’t want to do that. All of that stumbling and grappling doesn’t mean my skill-level is stagnant—it means I’m developing even more as a writer.
2. If you need validating, then you’ll never receive (enough) of it.
It’s hard—impossible, maybe—not to want proof that your writing is good. Messages from readers who love your work, critical reviews that deem you legit, the first Nobel Prize for Debut Novel, etc. And I’m a firm believer in enjoying those moments—we write, after all, to share, and connecting with a reader is something to celebrate. At the same time, I’ve learned not to rely on those moments as justification or motivation. A writer’s career is full of ups and downs, successes and setbacks, and waiting for another’s approval is not sustainable. I try to always remember why I do this in the first place—the writing itself.
3. Never stop working.
I’ll never be the writer who sets aside a religious 45-minutes a day to write. My life is too hectic, and my creative rhythms are too volatile. I’m a firm believer, however, in always having a project simmering away. As soon as I send a draft to a friend, or a final piece to an editor, I start working on something new. Then, even if I discover that a story’s just not going to work, or come home to another rejection, I don’t spend too much time wallowing. There’s another great project, another exciting idea, waiting for me.
4. Find trusted readers and listen to everything they say.
I never dismiss negative feedback out of hand, even when your initial instinct is that the reader is completely wrong. Every criticism is an indication that, somewhere, there’s a gap between my execution and my reader’s understanding. That doesn’t mean I always take my reader’s advice. For example, she might tell my first chapter is slow and I should cut it. Instead, I might keep the events of the first chapter but introduce a character earlier. Even when I ultimately determine that a reader’s objection is a matter of taste, I’ve gained a better sense of who my ultimate readers should be.
5. Keep your reading diverse.
It’s easy to get stuck in a reading niche, and for a little while, it’s even ok. But I think it’s important challenge myself with new reading experiences. I keep a list of what I read, and periodically go back and review it, and then shake up my to-read list. I consider both authors—gender and sexuality, race and cultural background—and genre. If I’ve been reading American authors, I’ll pick up a book in translation; if my bedside table is stacked with contemporary fiction, I’ll take a trip back to the 19th-century; if I’ve given up on thrillers, I’ll still check out the new thriller my friends are raving about. Varied perspectives invigorate me as a person and a writer, and my taste will never evolve if I don’t give it a chance.
6. Keep your writing diverse.
At some point I decided that I’m a novelist—my brain is naturally suited to long-form fiction, and that’s all I do. I still think that’s my form, but I’ve begun to see the value in writing other genres. Short stories and essays let me flex different muscles, and keep me nimble. I also think it’s important to try new voices, new settings, and new devices. When authors set aside our own points of view and explore the world through new eyes, it’s good for readers, for literature, and for ourselves.
7. Don’t write what you know; write what you want to know.
I always hated that mantra: write what you know. I began writing precisely to escape my every-day life! I understand now how important it is to mine my own experience—to write through my own struggles, with honesty—but I still believe that writing is most exciting when it’s an act of discovery. And that excitement is sometimes the greatest motivation to get back to work.
Stephanie Feldman’s debut novel, The Angel of Losses (Ecco), is now available in paperback. It’s a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, winner of the Crawford Fantasy Award, and finalist for the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award. Stephanie teaches fiction writing at Arcadia University, and lives outside Philadelphia with her family.