This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,”where writers (this installment written by Audrey Vernick, author of IS YOUR BUFFALO READY FOR KINDERGARTEN) 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.
Audrey Vernick is the author of Is Your Buffalo
Ready for Kindergarten?, which received a starred
review in Publishers Weekly, and its 2011 sequel,
Teach Your Buffalo to Play Drums. She also wrote
She Loved Baseball: The Effa Manley Story, to be
published in October 2010. She is a two-time
winner of the New Jersey Arts Council’s fiction
fellowship. See her website and other works here.
For many years, I wrote literary short fiction, where a big success is “selling” your story to a literary magazine that pays you with free copies of the magazine. A magazine nobody’s ever heard of except other writers of literary short fiction. Now I write children’s books and get to hang out with cool and funny kids at readings. Good call. I’ve figured a few things out along the way. I also continue to make the same mistakes over and over.
1. Apply for fellowships and grants. I always thought fellowships were for other people, like second homes and well, clean homes. Until I applied for a fiction fellowship and actually got it. That fellowship, more than any single other milestone, made me feel like a writer. Do not think a fellowship or grant is beyond you. I’ve also served as a juror for an arts foundation, evaluating manuscripts, and trust me: your work can definitely stand up to the rest.
2. Find good readers for your work. I always have a few people read my work before I send it to my agent. I’ve been lucky to meet people along the way who get what I’m trying to do and point out when I might be missing the mark. Time and experience have taught me to gratefully accept the suggestions that work for me and cast aside those that don’t. This did not come easily, naturally, or quickly. See #3.
3. Do not let critiques hurt you. I learned this with tears and pain and possibly a voodoo doll or two. Maybe you can do better. My first workshop in graduate school nearly killed me. I’m not sure there’s a way to protect yourself from that pain. If you’re writing honestly and earnestly and someone is nasty, it can hurt. As I’ve gotten older and nastier myself, however, I’ve gotten better at dealing with it. Remember that this whole business is subjective. Find the readers who get you; try to disregard the rest.
4. Don’t underestimate luck. I think it’s vitally important to continuously work at craft, to improve, to revise with vigor. But on the publication side of things, I can’t get over the amount of luck one needs. Maybe it’s a combination of luck and timing. This year’s hottest trend might have been rejected two years ago as too out there. I advise having good luck, not bad.
5. Obsession doesn’t help. I’m not completely sure this is true, as I think I’ve willed some things into being. But I do know that checking one’s email more than three times a minute is not healthy and won’t make an agent respond faster. And I learned this month that there’s a correlation between descending into pure madness and watching your Amazon ranking. That said, I think obsession is, by definition, kind of hard to stop. So take note of it, make fun of yourself, and try to work yourself down to checking your email twice a minute.
6. Keep learning. Whenever I can, which isn’t that often, I take a writing class. I always learn something. I seek out classes taught by writers I admire. I also learn by reading, but I assume all writers are voracious readers.
7. Everyone wants to write a picture book. I don’t think I have yet met a person who hasn’t told me about the picture book he is going to write. Or the one she wrote that’s going to be published as soon as she sends it out. It makes sense. There are so many bad picture books, and invariably, those are the ones our children want to hear over and over. It’s reasonable to conclude that if you write one that’s not bad, it will be published. But I’m not sure it works that way. Still, I smile and wish them luck. And you, too.
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