7 Things I've Learned So Far, by Alexander Yates

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers at any stage of their career can talk about seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning. This installment is from writer Alexander Yates. Alexander Yates grew up in Haiti, Mexico, Bolivia and the Philippines. His first novel, Moondogs, (Doubleday; March 2011) was given a starred review by Kirkus, which called it “accomplished ... unusually involving.”
Publish date:

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,”where writers (this installment written by Alexander Yates, author of MOONDOGS) 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.

Alexander is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the print book by mail. You

can win a blog contest even if you've won before. (Update: Kirkus won.)

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Alexander Yates grew up in Haiti, Mexico, Bolivia and
the Philippines. His first novel, Moondogs, (Doubleday;
March 2011) was given a starred review by Kirkus,
which called it “accomplished ... unusually involving.”
His other work has appeared in American Fiction,
FiveChapters.com and the Kenyon Review Online.
Alex has a website and is on Twitter.

1. Revision is important, but finishing your draft is more important. I learned this the hard way. It took me five years to finish writing my novel, but in retrospect two of those years were wasted (or at least used very ineffectively) on obsessive over-revision. I wrote my first few chapters and, realizing they weren’t very good, I began rewriting. And rewriting. What I didn’t realize at the time is that first chapters are supposed to stink. How could they not? By the time Moondogs was finally picked up for publication I’d deleted virtually all the early material I’d agonized over for years. Just because I’d been reluctant to hold my nose and push through to the end of the book.
My takeaway: Nothing compares to the perspective that a full draft (stinky though it may be) will give you. For all you know that scene you are pouring hours into revising doesn’t even belong in the book.

2. There is no substitute for time at the keys. This, of course, is a cliché. But it also can’t be overemphasized. Sometimes work needs to simmer away in your head, but the process of discovery happens much quicker when you’re struggling with your own raw sentences. Some writers will tell you: “Treat it like a job.” This is maybe a little extreme—writers like George Saunders and Charles Yu have written brilliant books while working full time at office jobs. But whether it’s eight hours a day, or two, you need to make them happen. Time at the keys is no guarantee of success, but it is a precursor to it.

3. The Internet is not your friend … unless you are way better at time management than me. But if you’re like me (read: a big and distractible baby) then the Internet is a major enemy to productive writing time. I got around it by writing my novel on a 90’s era laptop with busted Ethernet ports and no wireless. Even as I write this, my modem and router are unplugged. If they weren’t, I’d probably be watching videos of kittens wrestling puppies. Or ferrets, wrestling anything.

4. Listen to what people tell you. Here is a list of people who have told me things about my novel that I didn’t want to hear: my wife, my friends, my classmates, my professors, my agent and my editor. All of these people have been right. Not only that—they are right most of the time. The trick is to get far enough out of your own ego to see that. Sharing your work with friends or writers’ groups (formal and informal, they are run virtually everywhere) is an essential step. Not everyone will be helpful, but you’ll be tremendously served if you find even one careful reader whom you can trust.

5. Do not listen to what people tell you. Obviously, the point above goes both ways. Any writer who shares their work is bound to have experiences that are not only unhelpful, but flat-out discouraging. I once spent a half hour listening to a classroom full of people discuss the marketability of my novel. Four storylines? Set outside the United States? Over—wait, did you say over a hundred thousand words long? They told me confidently that in this market, the project was doomed. I was better off picking my favorite storyline of the bunch and cutting the other three. If (when) you hear stuff like this, it is up to you to say: Thanks, but no. Not helpful. Moving along.

6. Read more. Read better. This is not to assume that you don’t. But I didn’t. I feel like I am forever catching up, always trying to be a more careful and precise reader. More than a few aspiring writers have told me: “I don’t have time to read. I’m focusing on my writing.” It’s like a cook who refuses to eat.

7. Don’t be afraid of your fears. I’m not talking about your fear of rejection (though don’t be afraid of that, either; that is inevitable). I’m talking about the stuff it scares you to write about. The scenes you avoid with some clever exposition. The too-personal subject matter that you only dare hint at. As a writer, I’m capable to doing some preposterous acrobatics just to keep two characters out of the same room. Which is usually a sign to me that those characters need to get on stage together, and mix it up.
Of course, there’s good reason to be afraid. There’s a whole lot of crappy prose between you and that thing you’re avoiding. The trick is to trust that when you get there, when you really hit it right, it’ll be worth it. The trick is always to trust.

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