This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Kelsey Miller, author of BIG GIRL: HOW I GAVE UP DIETING AND GOT A LIFE) 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.
Kelsey Miller is the author of BIG GIRL: HOW I GAVE UP DIETING AND GOT A LIFE (January 2016, Grand Central). Kelsey graduated from Boston University with a B.S. in Film & Television and began her career in the film production industry before transitioning to full-time writing. Soon after joining the staff of Refinery29, she created The Anti-Diet Project, one of the website’s most popular franchises. In addition to her work in this area, Kelsey specializes in cultural commentary, entertainment writing, humor, feminist issues, advice, and personal essays. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. Follow her on Twitter.
1. Write on the bad days.
You know that feeling when you step into a shower and the water pressure is amazing? Sometimes the words flow like that—easy and awesome. Then there’s the feeling when you turn on the water and get barely more than a lazy dribble, and you kind of hate the world that day. But sorry, you’ve still got to take a shower. You’ve still got to write on the bad days too. When writing is your job, you’ve got to treat it like that: something you do every day. Not only is this crucial for the fundamental things, like staying on deadline, but it’s also important to get good at working through that discomfort. No one likes to write when it’s not flowing, but if you sit down at the keyboard and make something happen (even if it’s just half a page), then you’re sending an important message to your brain: I can do this. My skill is there, even when the magic is not.
2. Don’t be precious (but don’t be thoughtless either).
Because writing is such a solitary task, we writers often forget that our work is only half the battle. Our patient, thoughtful editors are tasked with seeing the forest through the trees. And, as we all know, when you’ve been slogging through a draft for a week (or a month, or a year), you’re pretty much lost in those trees. That’s why it’s important to listen when your editor says, “I don’t think readers will understand what you mean by ‘a cacophonous, tangled beauty in her eyes.’ Can you rephrase?” That’s not to say you should acquiesce to every tiny suggestion without thought. If you’re sure that the only way to describe her beauty is as cacophonous and tangled, then be prepared to fight for it. But always, always consider your editor’s input first.
3. Make writer friends.
There are some things only another writer will understand. That’s why it’s so important to make writer pals. If you’re someone who writes about personal experiences, this is even more crucial. I went through a real rough patch (then another, then a third) while writing my book. Turns out, revisiting and retelling the most difficult chapters of your life is hard! After a day spent time-traveling through my childhood, I felt completely disoriented and alienated from my current, adult social circle. Thank God, I had one friend—another memoirist, Kelsey Osgood—who understood. I could email her with all my worries, asking, “Is this normal?” and she’d always respond with empathy. Without her, I think I might have spiraled into a really dark and isolated place. All my friends kept me afloat during this time, but as a fellow writer, she was the one who was able to show me the light at the end of the tunnel, because she’d walked through it herself.
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4. Question your habits.
Five months into writing my book, I paused mid-sentence while typing the word “wildly.” Ah, I do love that word, I thought. Maybe a little too much? A quick Command + F revealed that I had used the word nine times—in six chapters. When you’re in the groove, it’s hard to see the habits you’ve fallen into. But readers will easily notice your pattern of relying on the same metaphor, the over-dramatic adjective, or the rule of threes—a habit I’ve yet to break, cleary. That’s why it’s important to know thyself and thy crutches. Take a step back and scan for them before you submit the essay or finish the chapter. No need to eradicate them entirely. (Just because it’s a habit doesn’t mean it’s bad technique.) But it’s worth challenging yourself to find a different word, phrase, or rhythm.
5. Listen to your critics (not your trolls).
This is an obvious point, perhaps, but we could all use a reminder on this one (myself included). You don’t need to read every comment on your essay or review of your book, but when you’re feeling confident, take a look at what your critics are saying. Of course, you can and should ignore the obvious trolls, but if a reader has taken the time to write their thoughts on your work, they may have something of value to say. And if you see a lot of readers saying the same thing over and over about your work, you might consider that as well. Again, you don’t need to bow to every nasty comment on an essay, nor should poor reviews influence your decision to write another book. But it’s worth learning to be able to listen to these voices, not flinch away from them. If you can take them to heart without being mortally wounded, you’ve gained a valuable skill that will only serve you well the next time around.
6. Doubt is part of the process.
There are days when I have something close to complete confidence in myself, my story, or my book idea. I have yet to discover why or how these magic days appear, but I usually spend them writing like mad, knowing that at any moment, a cloud will pass before this perfect sun and the essay I am so enamored with will turn puny and juvenile before my very eyes. Still, I now understand that self-doubt is a normal, unavoidable part of the process. And there’s a fine balance between fighting it off (which is futile) and letting it control your every word (which is dangerous). I try to remind myself that it’s okay, even healthy, to ask, Is this really a good idea? A good draft? The right angle? But the best I can do is answer that question to the best of my ability and invite no follow-ups from my own brain. I could so easily talk myself out of a story that way, but I choose not to, because it’s simply not productive. Ultimately, you just have to do the best you can, then send that sucker out the door.
7. You can’t force ideas to come, but you can invite them.
The muse makes her own hours, and if it’s her day off, then oh well. I released my first book six months ago, and I’ve been thinking about Book Number Two since the moment I finished the proof pages. But you can’t force your brain to generate another Big Idea on command. It just doesn’t work like that. What you can do is make your brain an idea-friendly environment. That means giving it time for rest, nurturing it with good books and good conversations, and letting it get bored. Boredom is a hard commodity to come by in these overstimulated times. It’s easy to let yourself stay busy and distracted. But if you clear away the unnecessary clutter (by turning off Netlflix or, ugh, limiting your phone time), you make space for something new. Then, your only job is to be patient—and be ready.
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- Feb. 11, 2017: Writers Conference of Minnesota (St. Paul, MN)
- Feb. 16–19, 2017: San Francisco Writers Conference (San Francisco, CA)
- Feb. 24, 2017: The Alabama Writers Conference (Birmingham, AL)
- Feb. 25, 2017: Atlanta Writing Workshop (Atlanta, GA)
- March 25, 2017: Michigan Writers Conference (Detroit, MI)
- March 25, 2017: Kansas City Writing Workshop (Kansas City, MO)
- April 8, 2017: Philadelphia Writing Workshop (Philadelphia, PA)
- April 22, 2017: Get Published in Kentucky Conference (Louisville, KY)
- April 22, 2017: New Orleans Writers Conference (New Orleans, LA)
- May 6, 2017: Seattle Writers Conference (Seattle, WA)
- May 19-21, 2017: PennWriters Conference (Pittsburgh, PA)
- June 24, 2017: The Writing Workshop of Chicago (Chicago, IL)
- Aug. 18–20, 2017: Writer’s Digest Conference (New York, NY)
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Other writing/publishing articles and links for you:
- What does it mean when an agent says “This isn’t right for me”?
- Create a Better Novel: Writing with Emotion to Draw Readers In
- New literary agent Beth Phelan is looking for clients
- 8 Rules For Writing in Bed
- The Writer’s Promise: How to Craft a Book’s Pitch
- Follow Chuck Sambuchino on Twitter or find him on Facebook. Learn all about his writing guides on how to get published, how to find a literary agent, and writing a query letter.