7 Things I've Learned So Far, by Jan Underwood

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 Jan Underwood. Jan Underwood teaches and writes in Portland, Ore. Her novel, Day Shift Werewolf, winner of the 2005 International Three Day Novel Contest, was published by 3DayBooks in 2006.
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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 Jan Underwood, author of DAY SHIFT WEREWOLF) 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.


Jan Underwood teaches and writes in Portland, Ore.

Her novel, Day Shift Werewolf, winner of
the 2005 International Three Day Novel Contest,
was published by 3DayBooks in 2006. When she's
not seeking a home for her next novel, she can
be found at www.blogatrix.org and www.janunderwoodwriter.com.

1. The best cure for writer’s block is writing. Write anything. Get some prompts and write outside your genre. Write something that has no stakes for you. If you’re really stuck on a big project, write in your journal. There’s no purgative like a long, bitter, ranting, self-pitying journal entry; it’s kind of like a cleanse, but without all the trips to the bathroom.

2. The second best cure for writer’s block is other creative endeavors.
Most writers I know are accomplished in other arts as well. I used to think it was “cheating” to draw or dance when I “should” be writing. Now I understand: The arts all nourish one another.

3. Don’t let anyone convince you there’s only one way to work. Some writers use outlines; some don’t. Some write an entire draft and then edit; others edit as they go. I was stymied for years by a throw-away bit of advice that you shouldn’t try to write a novel until you’d written short stories. I didn’t especially want to write short stories, and now, several finished novels later, I still don’t feel the need. But it took the sage advice of another trusted writer to get me unstuck. He told me to write whatever the hell I wanted to.

4. Don’t write in isolation.
For one thing, you need the feedback; the collective smarts of the group are greater than those of the smartest individual member. For another, pretty much everything you need to know has already been figured out by someone else, so don’t reinvent the cliché. Finally, a writing group will help keep you accountable. Writing resembles exercise in this way: you’re more likely to roll out of bed and go running if you know your buddy’s waiting for you at the door, especially if his spandex is as awkward as yours.
Know that writing groups don’t all look the same. My current crew is a not a critique group, per se, but rather a half-dozen women who keep a weekly six-hour writing date. We read only when moved and give feedback only when asked, and we gather because the synergy of the group is a tremendous boon to the work of each member. I’ve also belonged to groups of creatives who do their work off-stage but meet regularly to talk about their process, set goals, and keep one another on task.
Know, though, that at some point you are going to need to seek editing. Support is not a substitute, but a complement, to critical feedback. Which leads me to my next point:

5. Don’t kill the messenger. Sometimes the messenger is a jackass. But sometimes he or she has a point. The novel I just finished was made enormously stronger by some advice I didn’t want to hear and that was delivered in a most unskillful way. It took me six months to recover. But it turned out that what the critic had to tell me was spot-on.

6. On the other hand … Good critiquing is a practice that has to be learned like any other. Some people who are willing to comment on your manuscript may have underdeveloped critiquing skills. Some may even want to take you down a notch. Try to surround yourself with capable critics who are rooting for you and your writing.

7. The best thing you can do for your writing is keep showing up to it. Less experienced writers tend to have bursts of inspiration followed by drought and by stretches when they long to write but are “too busy.” Make a regular writing date—once a week at a minimum—and keep it.

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