7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Ben Stroud

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Ben Stroud, author of the short story collection, BYZANTIUM) 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: Ben is excited to give away a free copy of his collection 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: SammySammo won.)


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Ben Stroud’s stories have appeared in Harper’s, One Story, and Boston Review,
among other magazines, and have been anthologized in New Stories from the
South and Best American Mystery Stories. A native of Texas, he now lives in
Ohio and teaches creative writing at the University of Toledo. His debut story
collection, BYZANTIUM (July 2013, Graywolf) is the winner of the Bread Loaf
Writers’ Conference
Bakeless Prize. Find him on Twitter. Credit: Bering Photography


1. Writing Routines Are Only So Valuable. I used to be a stickler for routine. My desk needed to be just so. I needed the room (and preferably the apartment) to myself. I needed non-vocal music (classical or soundtracks). Then I moved to a one-bedroom apartment in Germany. I couldn’t get a good radio station—this surprised me. The only option for a desk in my furnished apartment was a slatted folding table not much larger than one square foot that I had to stick in the corner of the living room. Gone were all the little things I depended on. But I worked that year, every day, and learned that all that other stuff was unnecessary. I needed only the desk.

2. However, a Schedule Is Key. Writers get this advice a lot, and I’ll put it here, because it’s true. I write every morning. A few hours, the exact number depending upon the other current demands on my time. This is the way stories and novels get built. You can have a good day, a bad day, but so long as you’re there, you’re producing, you’re learning. The lesson here—schedule trumps pretty much everything.

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

3. Residencies Can Be As Much Harm as Help. I’ve been lucky to spend time at Yaddo and MacDowell. On the plus side, while at these place I learned to revise my work in a deeper way—to sit longer with it, to have the patience to test each sentence out. On the minus side, with the day sprawling ahead of me at a residency, I would linger over breakfast, have long morning conversations, and I brought the bad habit of sitting around too long in the morning (subbing the internet for conversation) back home. A problem, since back home I didn’t have full days to give to my work. So the lesson here, for me, is that a residency can be good to shake things up, to learning something new about your work. But there’s great value in having a steady schedule and a steady place to write and not messing with that too much.

4. The Agent Will Come When The Agent Will Come. When I was a college student, I asked my writing professor about agents. He told me to not think about them, to focus on that other stuff and that getting an agent would take care of itself. In my case, he ended up being right. Now, it’s true, at a certain point you’ll have to worry about this. But the main thing is the writing, making sure it’s good. If that’s your focus, then eventually the other stuff will work itself out, too.

5. The Writing World Works in Hidden Ways, and Can Surprise You. I never thought I’d be able to sell a story to a magazine like Harper’s. It was a dream, of course, but one I thought impossible. Then one day I got an email from my agent. A Harper’s editor had read some of my stories in a few other magazines (stories that I thought had largely gone unnoticed) and wanted to read some of my work. It took two years and four tries, but eventually I got a story to him that he and the other editors liked. I couldn’t have planned that. I couldn’t have made this happen through strategy. All I could do was write the stories and hope that someone on the other end liked them.

(Check out a growing list of writing events nationwide.)

6. That Said… That said, while luck and chance are involved in everyone’s career, the most important thing is that you keep doing the work. It was through writing those early stories that I caught this editor’s attention. And it’s because I kept at it, day in and day out, that I was able to produce those four stories to show him. (The other three all found homes as well.)

7. Write What You Want to Write. This is a lesson I learned early on as a writer. It seems self-evident, but every year I have students struggling with this. One of the important tasks of a young writer is to discover what she or he wants to write. You can only figure this out through a heavy combination of reading and writing and following your own taste. If you don’t know what you want to write and where it fits in the writing world, then your just going to struggle and struggle.

GIVEAWAY: Ben is excited to give away a free copy of his collection 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: SammySammo 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?
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media, public speaking, article writing, branding,
and more.
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26 thoughts on “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Ben Stroud

  1. melanie1

    Hi I’m from Australia. a new writer, still trying to find what I really want to write about, trying a few things.
    I’m keen to see a list of magazines that will publish short stories as I think it is a good way for me to try may hand at a variety of styles before commiting to a novel.

  2. terranova

    Discipline is so hard, isn’t it. There are so many other things calling us, sometimes shouting at us and to ignore them, turn them all off and sit down and dig into our minds, our hearts and drag words onto a page… it’s easier to turn all those things back on.
    Thanks for reminding me of this.

  3. Sunsette

    Thanks for all the great advise. I think the most important thing I learned is that I need to be more disciplined in my writing and get myself on some sort of schedule. I have read this before, but reading about your experiences helped it sink in, so thank you!

  4. Carl Palmer

    REFERENCE #3 (I agree completely)
    Have you ever given yourself a retreat, Ben, where you spend an entire day or maybe a couple days in a self made home residence? Perhaps set up shop in a new corner of the house, alone, no internet.
    I scheduled myself an eight hour ” other room getaway”, no phone, comfort food, music and saved the stress of to/fro, a new bed and most definitely a few bucks.
    You shared with us, so I wanted to share with you. That’s what we do.

  5. AnnieMac

    Congratulations, Ben.

    I have found that with all of the noise around me, the dream of a secluded garret with fast Internet has fallen by the wayside. Thanks for validating the importance of schedule regardless of venue. Like all habits, good or bad, we need to keep at it until it becomes as necessary as breathing.

    I did discover that when the muse strikes, I have to be prepared so I have a little handheld voice activated recorder which helps me hold onto those tasty little dialogue treats we overhear or describe a scene that might work perfectly in some writing, somewhere, someday. My only issues is organizing them.

    Again, congrats. Though I am sure you must have felt pressure at times,, your retrospective advice is calm.


  6. jdmstudios

    Scheduling is so important…I have a tendency to waste time all over the internet. I need to commit myself to writing time and stick to it. Thanks for the great advice!

  7. SammySammo

    Scheduling and Writing What You Want to Write are the best tips here. But they’re also a bit contradictory. What about Write When I Want to Write??? Just won’t work!!!

  8. TracyRiva

    Great advice Mr. Stroud and I have to agree that there is a need to have a routine, but not to get so caught up in your schedule that you become inflexible, or worse burn yourself out. A day with 500 words written, even if your goal is 2000 words a day, is better than a day with absolutely no writing accomplished.

  9. donnamom

    This was a very encouraging column. The best advice was not to worry about an agent or publisher if you don’t have anything to show them, but you’ll never have anything to show them if you don’t write every day. Routine is everything.
    And write what you want to write. I have to keep telling myself that.
    Good job,

  10. evelyne@holingue.com

    Collection of short stories are so difficult to sell (and to write!) that I applaud your success.
    The advice list is great, and although I’m sure most writers follow many, I love that you remind us to write what we love. Now days with so much competition to be visible, writers feel the urge to write for a trend, a niche that seems popular. In the end it rarely works. So thank you for #7.
    Cheers to your writing!

  11. pulcetta

    Thank you for all the pieces of advice. I am particularly sensitive to #7 right now, because after a few years of writing about a certain thing, I now find myself wanting to write about something different and I am intrigued and scared at the same time. On a bad day, I am mostly scared. On a good day, I tell myself exactly what you wrote. I will remember that.

  12. oneluckylady

    On the cover of a writer’s journal, the advice reads, “If you want to be a writer, write.” You made the point numerous times, Ben. I am working on being disciplined about writing every day. Your encouragement helps. Thanks!

  13. lsteadly

    I hear you when it comes to the writing schedule. Time allotted for my writing has just taken a drastic turn, as both of my boys have left for college. Now faced with space unfilled by varsity games, college searches, etc I no longer have the excuse of no time to write!

  14. Trave Heath Lien

    I’m working on a novel that has been my baby for a while. I write anywhere from 3,000 words to 15,000 words a week and try to keep to that schedule. I know exactly what you mean about residential distractions. I’ll be in the middle of working on a scene when my dog demands we go for a walk right now, not later, now.

  15. vrundell

    Definitely good advice. Since I work on my laptop, I don’t even worry about the desk–but the schedule is KEY!!! Writer gotta write. Nothing else matters than that!


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