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7 Things I've Learned So Far, by Liam Walsh

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

Liam Francis Walsh is a cartoonist, writer, and illustrator, originally from northern Wisconsin. He grew up on a dairy farm with lots of siblings and books and a pet crow. His award winning cartoons appear regularly in The New Yorker, and his first book, FISH, a wordless picture book about words, was published on May 31, 2016. He lives in the Italian region of Switzerland.

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1. Hard work trumps talent. There are millions of gifted people watching TV or endlessly scrolling Facebook right now. If you’re working, you already have a leg up on them. And don’t use lack of inspiration as an excuse for not working. Inspiration is like gelato: it’s a wonderful treat, but you can’t live on it. Putting in uninterrupted hours working, every day, is meat and potatoes.

(Without this, you'll never succeed as a writer.)

2. Your project should be something you’ll be excited to get out of bed for every morning. Make something that thrills you. When you get an idea that excites you, don’t rush off and tell somebody about it, keep it to yourself. Not because you’re paranoid somebody will steal it, but because they won’t see it in all its glory and richness the way you do. To them it will just be words; they won’t get it. You’ll start to question if it is a good idea after all. Keep your amazing idea to yourself. Enjoy it. Feed it. Get to work on it. And don’t revise until you’re done. It’s too easy to keep revising and revising and never finish. Your goal should to finish something imperfect. Then go back and make it perfect.

3. Set short term goals. For me it was submitting ten cartoons every week to The New Yorker. If I could do that, I had met my goal. The mountaintop is so far off that you might want to give up and turn back, but you can at least push on to the next cairn.

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4. Ideas are everywhere. Multitasking is their enemy. Go for a walk without anything to listen to. Let your mind wander. Give yourself time to be bored, to daydream. Always carry your pocket notebook and pen.

5. Education doesn’t end when you graduate. When I decided to be a New Yorker cartoonist, I read absolutely everything I could find about the history and culture of the magazine, I read the cartoon collections over and over, everything. Same thing when I decided to write a kids book. If you need some inspiration, go to the library, go online—seek it out. I look at other people’s artwork all the time. I read all the time, watch movies, observe, study.

6. Don’t wait to start. You may feel you’re not ready yet, and maybe you’re not, but the experience will be invaluable. Your first effort may be garbage, but if your second is great, it will be because of what you learned from the first. I submitted cartoons to The New Yorker for five years before I sold one. Looking back at my first year, my work hardly qualifies as cartoons, but they were the first rungs on the ladder. Don’t wait. When opportunity knocks, be ready. After I’d been cartooning for a few years I got an email from an agent, asking if I was interested in doing picture books. I was able to send him the one I’d just written for my nephew. After revisions, we sold it in a six-house auction.

(Why writers must make themselves easy to contact.)

7. When you work with agents and editors, be humble, be pleasant to work with. You may not always agree with them, but you all have the same goal—to make the book better. Be open to suggestions and changes every step of the way, even if it means a lot more work for you. More work? Great! Remember, just a couple years ago this was your biggest dream.

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