“7 Things I’ve Learned So Far” (this installment written by Margaret Rogerson, author of AN ENCHANTMENT OF RAVENS) is a recurring column where writers at any stage of their career can talk about writing advice and instruction, as well as how they got their literary agent—by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning.
1. Seek the company of other writers.
As with anything in life, it’s an indescribable relief to surround yourself with other people who understand exactly what you’re going through. While hopefully your friends and family are supportive of your writing, you may find, like me, that the best most of them can do in response to your bookish woes is bob their heads indulgently and try to stick a bagel in your mouth—which admittedly may be the only reason why I’m still alive. (Thanks, guys.) But talking to writers will keep you not only alive, but sane. Whether they’re still seeking publication or have a dozen novels under their belt, you’ll find shared wisdom and a level of support from fellow authors that you can’t find anywhere else.
Margaret Rogerson is a young adult fantasy writer and author of AN ENCHANTMENT OF RAVENS (Simon & Schuster, September 2017). She lives near Cincinnati, Ohio, where she makes pudding and watches more documentaries than is socially acceptable, according to some. You can find her online at her website or on Twitter.
2. Learn from others, but listen to your gut, too.
For me, this was a tough lesson. The first manuscript I started under contract felt like it was plotting my murder, but so many of the authors I’d spoken to had shared their own hair-raising sophomore novel horror stories that I convinced myself the agony was perfectly normal, and I just needed to keep pushing forward with this flawed project in which I’d invested so much blood, sweat, and tears. In reality, my problems didn’t have much to do with the infamous second book grind. The manuscript itself just wasn’t working on a number of levels, and deep down, I knew it. I even suspect I clung to those other authors’ experiences as an excuse not to face the fact that this story’s problems were internal, rather than an inevitable casualty of deadline stress and writer’s block. Ultimately, I spoke to my agent and started over with a new project that I love. The deadline’s tight, but it’s absolutely worth it. My only regret is that I didn’t trust my instincts earlier. Which leads me to the next thing I learned…
3. Don’t be afraid to throw something out and start over.
As a serious writer, you’ll probably end up with more scrapped projects than completed ones. There’s something viscerally horrifying about tossing a manuscript you’ve spent months on into the trash—it feels like wasted time. But as a lot of people who are way smarter and more experienced than I am have said, in far more beautiful words, you can’t get better at something until you’ve failed, and failed so often and so miserably that you felt like giving up was the only option until you dragged yourself back to work anyway. The truth is that all writing is valuable experience, even if you delete it permanently from your hard drive. An echo of it will live on in everything else you write for the rest of your life. Sometimes, you need to set a project aside to focus on the one that’s right.
4. Talk to your agent.
This one seems obvious, but I think a lot of freshly agented authors (especially if you’re as anxiety-ridden as I am) worry about revealing to our agents that we’re secretly high-strung disasters, just one hysterical email away from becoming the biggest regret of their careers. But while it’s great to put one’s best foot forward with agents and editors, trying to be too self-sufficient is a recipe for unnecessary suffering. The problem that’s been stressing you out might turn out to have a simple solution, or not be nearly as big of a deal as you imagined during your 3 AM panic attack. Trust your agent—they’ve seen it all, they’re used to authors being high-strung disasters, and they know a lot more about this business than you do.
5. That said, wait 24 hours.
This is one of the simplest but most valuable things I’ve learned since getting published. Before firing off a frantic email to your agent or editor about how, for example, your book isn’t working and it’s never going to work and you might as well vanish into the Alaskan wilderness and get eaten by wolves, stop yourself and sleep on the matter. Don’t let yourself hit “send” until at least 24 hours have passed and you’ve had some time to reflect. Chances are you’ll have a much clearer head by that time, and you’ll be able to approach the problem more reasonably. Maybe you’ll even have thought of a solution on your own. Or, at the very least, you can edit the email to remove that part about the wolves.
6. Don’t compare your current project to your previous one. Set yourself free.
Personally, I’m still trying to take this lesson to heart. Glancing between your current rough draft and that gorgeous edited manuscript speeding toward publication (all right, crawling tortuously toward publication) is a harsh experience. If you’re anything like me, you might spend hours of your writing time staring out the window, wondering if your talent has evaporated overnight. You may also find yourself bewildered by the fact that your sophomore novel isn’t thriving on the same process or hitting the same milestones as the one that landed you a publishing deal.
Here’s an embarrassing story with a happy ending. After writing my own debut novel, I thought I had everything figured out, that I’d landed on the magical formula I was destined to rely on for all future works. It worked so well for the first one, why not the rest? I can’t describe how devastating it felt when everything proceeded to fall through—a meticulously plotted, forty-page outline rendered useless within the first few chapters of drafting by weak characters and overcomplicated worldbuilding, fatal defects the outline failed to reveal. As it turns out, I was trying far too hard to replicate my previous success, convinced everything had to go exactly the same way as before for this book to work. My expectations were holding me back. After scrapping that manuscript, I’m doing something I never would have predicted: dabbling in part-time pantstering, and finding it perfect for the needs of my current project. Setting myself free from my formula was the best thing I ever could have done to move forward.
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7. Keep writing.
Remember you write because you love it, because some ineffable, frustrating, exhilarating force compels you to pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Never forget that it’s the best work on earth, even when it’s the worst. Especially when it’s the worst.
If you’re an agent looking to update your information or an author interested in contributing to the GLA blog or the next edition of the book, contact Writer’s Digest Books Managing Editor Cris Freese at firstname.lastname@example.org.