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7 Things I've Learned So Far, by Jacqueline West

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 Jacqueline West. Jacqueline West is the author of the NYT bestselling The Books of Elsewhere, a middle-grade fantasy series that debuted from Dial/Penguin in June 2010 with Volume One: The Shadows.

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,”where writers (this installment written by Jacqueline West, author of THE BOOKS OF ELSEWHERE) 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.


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Jacqueline West is the author of the NYT
bestselling The Books of Elsewhere, a middle-grade
fantasy series that debuted from Dial/Penguin in
June 2010 with Volume One: The Shadows. Visit
her at jacquelinewest.com, or learn more
about the books at thebooksofelsewhere.com


1. Know that you know nothing.
I’m sort of paraphrasing Socrates by way of Bill and Ted here, but it is wisdom either way. Once you’ve finished your English degree, or your thousandth poem, or your tenth novel, you will still have so much to learn about writing. Fortunately, you will be surrounded by things to learn from: great books, terrible books, publishing professionals, teachers, editors, writers and readers. Never decide that you know enough. That’s when the universe will roll over and crush you.

2. Learn what inspires you. You will need a few tricks for those days when your writing feels about as beautiful and fluid as that crusty yellowing grout around the base of the toilet. Reading the work of your favorite authors may remind you of what compelled you to write in the first place. A long walk or drive or a good conversation can open fresh channels of thought. Working in the same spot at the same time every day can help; so can working someplace new. You might find yourself unknotting tangled plotlines while playing fetch with a dog. (You’ll have to get your own dog for this one, although my dog would happily play fetch with you, too, if he knew you.) If all else fails, there’s always coffee.

3. Be patient. It takes a long time to write a novel: months, years, possibly decades. When you complete your 82nd draft and the book is as good as you can make it, you’re still not done—not if you want it published. It will take you months (or years) to find the right agent. It will take several more months (or years) to find the right publisher and editor. You’ll spend another year on the editing process. Then there’s designing and printing and marketing and promotion … and suddenly, you’re much, much older than you were when you wrote the first line. The best thing about all of this is that by the time your book finally comes out, you will have gained enough objective distance from it that you won’t want to eat a box of rat poison when it gets its first bad review.

4. Pretend no one is watching. Once you’ve started the publication process, you’ll begin to imagine your savvy agent and your brilliant editor standing over your shoulders as you type, eager to read and judge each line. Slowly, you realize that your agent and editor aren’t the only ones; in fact, the room is filled with reviewers and teachers and readers, all waiting to see your work so that they can sadly shake their heads and wonder what they saw in you in the first place. Writing in order to live up to imaginary expectations will paralyze you. You must tell yourself that no one will EVER read what you’re writing—unless (or until) you want them to. This way they won’t take away your computer and forbid you to write anything more complex than grocery lists from now on.

5. Remember that you’re working in clay, not stone. You will not write a perfect first draft. You will not write a perfect second draft. Or third. Or fourth. Sometimes, as much as it hurts and frightens you, you will have to tear your work apart. You will have to rewrite huge portions. You will have to cut lines, paragraphs, chapters, entire sections. You may have to blot out half the book and start over. But you’re not going to break it. You will only make it stronger. You will find solutions.

6. Find people who believe in you. It helps if they believe in you even more than you believe in yourself. Your family, friends, agent, editor, and fellow writers will critique, compliment, and challenge you because they want the best for you and your work. And if they also send you funny t-shirts or refill your coffee cup in the morning, you’ve got it made.

7. Write. This one is so important, it could be the only thing on this list. Writers write. Every day. They practice, they revise, they finish what they start. Many people tell me that they want to be writers. When I ask what they write, if they look confused and talk about ideas for stories, I know they haven’t learned this lesson. What makes someone a writer isn’t good ideas, and it isn’t publication—it’s the stuff in between. It’s the act of writing: the daily, unglamorous, terrifying, magical process of creating a world out of words. If you do this, then you already are a writer. You may not feel brave enough to admit it to anyone until you’ve sold your first book, but you’ll know.

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