7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Bill Peschel

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 Bill Peschel. Bill Peschel is the author of Writers Gone Wild, a collection of true stories about authors published by Perigee Books. Book reviewer and novelist Claudia Leavitt (Pictures of You) called it a "hilarious and witty compendium of writers acting badly. (What? We act badly?)."
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This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,”where writers (this installment written by Bill Peschel, author of WRITERS GONE WILD) 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.

Bill is excited to give away a free copy of his book to a random commenter. Comment within one week; 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: Dee won.)

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Bill Peschel is the author of Writers Gone Wild, a
collection of true stories about authors published by
Perigee Books. Book reviewer and novelist Claudia
Leavitt (
Pictures of You) called it a "hilarious and witty
compendium of writers acting badly. (What? We act
badly?)" and Malena Lotta at Bookgasm called it "a great
read for writers and lit-lovers alike." Bill can be
contacted via his website and on Twitter.

1. Get the words down, no matter what.
Take this essay. You'll never see the first draft, because—as my kids would tell me—it blows. It read like it was written by someone for whom English was barely their first language. Or more accurately, someone with a flu so bad he could have auditioned for “The Walking Dead” zombie corps. In addition to a cramping stomach, a throbbing vein in the eye and neural pathways stuffed with cotton (metaphorically, I hope), my thoughts were jumping among lashing this article together, my cold cup of coffee, an earworm caused by a “Smells Like Teen Spirit” / “Rockin’ Robin” mashup, and worry about my website’s developer inability to do any work for which she’s already been paid. The urge to find something, anything, to do is powerful, but Stephen King taught us that the first draft is best done behind a closed door. Even if it's the worst garbage in the history of the printed word, it's better to get it on the page—where it can be operated on, or put to sleep with a shovel—than to play Frisbee golf on Wii Sports Resort until the right moment comes along.

2. I’m competing with myself.
I used to think that writing professionally was like playing baseball. To win, you gotta beat the other guy. There’s only so many slots per year at the publishing houses. They have to pick and choose. So it must be competitive, right? Wrong. Writing is more like golf. Everybody's shooting for the same goal, but their performance doesn’t necessarily affect yours. When Tiger Woods dominated the sport, he wasn't beating the other golfers. He was beating the course. Realizing this opened a door in me. It meant that I didn’t have to try and write as well as Bill Bryson, Sarah Vowell or Dave Barry (much as I would like to). Instead, I had to become the best Bill Peschel, whoever that is.

3. Authors can be helpful. The writing world is full of legendary feuds: Gore Vidal over William F. Buckley Jr.; Mario Vargas Llosa over Gabriel Garcia Marquez in a KO (one punch); Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy (which Hellman defaulted by dying); Norman Mailer with everyone. With that record, it's easy to imagine the literary world as a cross between the snake pit in Raiders of the Lost Ark and a mixed martial arts bout. Instead, writers went out of their way with advice and praise. One told me about the local bookstore managers and how best to approach customers at a signing. A bookstore owner and I had a great chat after an event in which a dozen people turned out. Online, publicity people have responded to my questions and arranged some great interview opportunities. It was one of the great unexpected pleasures to find people who enjoy their work, who are enthusiastic about books and reading, and who can share their knowledge and time with you.

4. Ch-ch-ch-changes (with apologies to David Bowie). What I didn’t realize until I had started the journey for Writers Gone Wild, from proposal to finished product, just how much rewriting was involved. The proposal went through several drafts before an agent saw it. The agent asked for changes before she would show it to an editor. The editor asked for alterations before she presented it to her bosses. The same thing happened to the manuscript. Tightening to limit the short stories to about 300 words. Adding smaller bits to the end of each chapter. A tag line for each chapter heading. The manuscript came back from the editor with suggestions, corrections and questions.But what surprised me most was my attitude to the manuscript. At each pass, I kept finding new ways to tighten the material, recast sentences to reflect what I meant it to say, and sometimes new jokes or dramatic phrases. Even while reviewing the final production draft, I found myself still making changes. Without knowing it, I had become Thomas Wolfe, only without the talent.

5. The distractions are everywhere. Before the Internet, writers had to get drunk, bitch at each other or have affairs to distract themselves from writing. Now, we have Angry Birds and Facebook. Even the experienced writers suffer from this malady. One best-selling sci-fi writer regularly announces on his blog when he’s pulling the plug on his cable modem so he can get some work done. Another urban fantasy writer tells her readers that the site's going dark for a few days until a book gets done. It’s a comfort of a sort to realize that accomplished pros have the same problems that I do, but it leaves behind the disturbing problem that still has to be solved, particularly when you realize, as I did, that after publication, you’re on your own. So you have to find out what works for you. It could be making a list and checking it off. It could be resolving to write a certain number of words before opening your e-mail. It could be using a program such as Getting Things Done or Remember the Milk or a timer to keep you on track. The point is to find whatever works, no matter how peculiar, and use it. And if it fails, try something else.

6. The publicity bubble will pop, and so will your ego. It’s good to know that publishing a book can still inspire excitement and interest. In the months after Writers Gone Wild appeared, I’ve been interviewed several times, including Australia's Book Show. I’ve made a few local appearances and have had the pleasure of seeing my mug in the local newspaper. I even made The New York Times' Paper Cuts blog promoting a soundtrack based on the book. The reviews on Amazon have been great. Now, all that is in the past, and while sometimes I feel my ego whining softly for the attention, I also realize that it's up to me to keep drawing attention to the book.

7. Should work be this much fun? For most of my life, work meant waking up, going to a job, and staying there until the whistle blows and going home. Weekends meant doing anything that didn’t feel like work. What’s unexpected is to find work that can be frustrating, depressing, require great effort, and yet can be so enjoyable that I can willingly spend more time at it. Even on weekends. Sure, having the book published feels good, but it was more fun to create it. To find the story no one had heard before, to dig up a great quote, and turn a mush of facts into a meal of an essay. It’s talking to readers and interviewers about the book, and com
ing up with a promotional idea that requires creative thinking.
In the end, there was one expectation I had about chasing my dream that did come true. That’s the quiet satisfaction of earning the professional title of "writer." No matter what happens, nothing can take that away.

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