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7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Sarah Alderson

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 YA writer Sarah Alderson. 1. Trust your instincts. My brother taught me to trust my instincts. Actually my mother tried to drill this into me too when I was a kid, telling me a story about hitchhiking aged 18 in France, which ended with the lesson: Always listen to the voice in your head or you might get killed by a serial killer. But it’s not just relevant for hitchhiking, it’s also important for writing. Listening to your instincts (or some might call it intuition) is probably the best advice I can give.

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

(How NOT to start your story. Read advice from agents.)

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Sarah Alderson’s debut young adult novel, Hunting Lila,
was published by Simon & Schuster on August 4, 2011.
A second novel, Fated, is due for release in January 2012.
See her author website here.

1. Trust your instincts. My brother taught me to trust my instincts. Actually my mother tried to drill this into me too when I was a kid, telling me a story about hitchhiking aged 18 in France, which ended with the lesson: Always listen to the voice in your head or you might get killed by a serial killer. But it’s not just relevant for hitchhiking, it’s also important for writing. Listening to your instincts (or some might call it intuition) is probably the best advice I can give.

It’s the voice in your head that says no, edit that, or no that’s not working. Most clearly I can describe it as a gasp of butterflies in my stomach when I hit on something—a new idea—and I know instantly I’m onto something. If that feeling doesn’t come I drop the idea and keep meandering through my thoughts until that feeling does come. And it’s never failed me yet.

2. Write what you want to write. I wanted to write a book. My publisher told me it probably wasn’t a good idea because paranormal was "on the way out." And it was at that point, as I was umming and arring about whether to write it or to focus on something more dystopian / set in space / about zombies (maybe combining all three) that I was given advice by someone who works in the video games industry.
He told me of that many times he was warned not to invest in creating a new game because "that idea’s been done to death." He always went ahead and did what he wanted, just making sure it was the best game in that genre that had ever been made. "So write that book," he told me. So I did. You need to write what you need to write.

(If an agent rejects you, are they open to reviewing your revised submission?)

3. If you want to get published, you do need to think commercially. Having said number all that, if you really are desperate to get published, if that’s your be all and end all, thinking commercially is important, and this might require you to think twice about writing what you want to write. I wrote what I wanted to write partly because I needed to write it but also because I weighed it and thought it a worthwhile use of my time. It only took me one month to write it for starters, not a year or a decade and secondly, I think I will be able to sell that book because I’ve already sold the first one in the series.

I’m an author. I need to make a living from what I write because that’s all I do. I can’t afford to take three months out to write something that probably won’t sell. If I’m investing my time in a project I need to be fairly sure that what I’m writing about is going to be something that publishers will jump at, not something they’ll sigh over and toss to the bottom of the pile.

4. Word count matters. YA should be 40-80K words if you’re a debut author (though there are exceptions)! I wish I’d known that when I finished my first manuscript. Instead I had to spend three months editing 40,000 words off it.

5. The universe gives you all the ideas you need exactly when you need them. I have this written on a post it over my desk. And it’s true. It helps me when I enter panic mode. I also find that sitting down and just writing dialogue between the characters is the best way of getting a chapter rolling if I’m struggling. I’ve written five books in less than two years, the universe has definitely provided the ideas.

6. Get yourself some writing cheerleaders. Writing’s a lonely business. There are days I wake up and find I’ve scrawled in CAPS all over my MS "SARAH REALLY? REALLY? THIS IS THE BEST YOU CAN DO?" and it’s days like those you really rely on your writing buddies to tell you that you rock, that your latest work is pure genius. My writing buddies aren’t writers actually, they’re friends. My best friends. And very early on I told them I didn’t want criticism (I’ll save that for my agent and editor thanks), I want cheerleading rah rah pom pom pep talks about how great my stories are. And they provide this. In spades. I am lucky that they do actually like what I write. At least I think they do. Because it keeps me going.

(Hear a dozen agents explain exactly what they want to see the slush pile right now. See if your work is a match.)

7. Good karma exists. Doing good stuff for people pays dividends. It’s true what they say about what goes around comes around. Every time I’ve done a favor—promoted another author, given them a review, encouraged a new writer, just been kind and positive in general—something good has happened to me in return. Taking the time to tweet, post a review on goodreads or amazon, email another writer and tell them how much you enjoyed their book is firstly a really lovely thing to do but as Hayley Joel Osment told us, if you pay it forward they will come. Or something.

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Writing a novel for children? Literary agent
Mary Kole, who runs the popular KidLit.com
website, has a new guide out for writers of
young adult and middle grade. Pick up a copy
of Writing Irresistible Kidlit and get your
children's book published.

Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:

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