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7 Things I've Learned So Far, by Jill Kelly



Over the last 15 years, I’ve become a prolific writer. I started my writing career in 2002 when I took a first workshop and began writing narrative memoir essays. In 2007 I published my memoir, Sober Truths: The Making of an Honest Woman, which was a finalist for the prestigious Oregon Book Award. Since then I’ve written four novels and published three of them, and I’ve written two nonfiction books and published one. Here are 7 things I’ve learned so far about building a writing life.

1. Write something every day. I write in the mornings after I feed the cats and give them five minutes of laser tag and do my meditation. I write sometimes for 15 minutes, sometimes for an hour, but seldom longer than an hour because writing isn’t my whole life. I have a job, I have friends, I have errands. But I write something every day. It’s a priority for me, and the pages pile up and the books come together.

2. Build longer writing times into your schedule. Early on in my writing life, I learned the value of writing days, writing weekends, and writing retreats. Taking advantage of my flexible work life, every quarter I go away for a week or 10 days to the coast or the mountains with other writers and write all day every day.

3. Surround yourself with support. I get a lot more writing done when I’m in the company of other writers and artists. There’s a synergy that occurs when we are each working on our own projects but in proximity. Every Friday when I’m home, I host a writing day for other women from 10 am to 4 pm. We work in silence before our brown-bag lunch and then again afterwards, closing with a reading circle. It’s hugely powerful to work in the company of others.

4. Take time to read widely. As a long-time teacher of writing, I know that there are only two ways to get better at the craft: Write a lot and read a lot. I spend a lot of time reading: all kinds of fiction, poetry, essays. I have a soft spot for mysteries and thrillers and just about every other book I read is one of those. Lately, I’m spending time with translated works because the rhythm and phrasing, while still in English, is often unusual, reflecting the original language. I learn a lot from them.

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5. Challenge yourself. Every January I make a list of creative intentions for the next year. This year, I’ve challenged myself to write 300 poems. Not only am I interested in knowing more about poetry, but I’m pretty sure that that kind of succinct and thoughtful word work will enhance my fiction. PS: They don’t have to be good poems.

6. Use prompts if you get stuck or if your writing goes stale. When I was preparing to write my first novel, I didn’t read a lot of technical books about the genre. Instead, I wrote 600 fictional prompts. I’d sit down with a timer (10 minutes) and a prompt (say, “package on the porch”) and I’d write the opening paragraphs to a story. For 65 of the prompts, I wrote about the same fictional character. It was one of the best things I ever did for my writing. Check out Judy Reeves’s Writer’s Book of Days for many great prompts.

7. Write what interests you most. There is always a temptation to write what we think will sell most easily. It’s true that some of the biggest-selling authors write formulaic fiction. They find something the public enjoys and just keep doing it. For me, that wouldn’t be very much fun. And if I’m going to spend an hour a day of my precious life (and more when I’m on retreat), then I want to have a lot of fun. I want to explore issues and characters and situations that are meaningful for me.

My long-term goal is to write and publish 15 books by 2026. I’m finishing up numbers 6 (a sequel to my thriller Fog of Dead Souls, Skyhorse, 2014) and 7 (an exploration of recovery from sugar addiction). I can hardly wait to get to the others.

Jill Kelly, PhD, is a former college professor of writing and literature; she makes her living as a freelance editor and book doctor. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with three cats, who do the chores so she can write more. Her latest novel is When Your Mother Doesn’t (Skyhorse, April 2015). Find her online at

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