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7 Things I've Learned So Far, by Steve Toutonghi

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

A native of Seattle, WA and Soldotna, AK, Steve Toutonghi studied fiction and poetry while completing a BA in Anthropology at Stanford. After pursuing a variety of interests including an acting internship at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, work as an IT systems manager, and teaching English in a public school in Japan, he began a career in technology that led him from Silicon Valley back to Seattle. JOIN (April 2016, Soho Press) is his first novel. You'll find him on Twitter and at his website.


1. The story is its own best guide.

During revisions, I sometimes wasn't sure whether specific changes were helping or hurting. It’s easy to believe that a revision is an improvement, but it often isn’t. My book, JOIN, has unusual characters—individuals created by the union of multiple people, who experience life through multiple bodies. A part of the work was imagining what it might be like to live as such a person. I worked best when I paid attention to the story as it was taking shape, rather than following a plan.

(Literary terms defined -- the uncommon and common.)

For example, feeling one’s own heart beat is intensely personal and intimate, but someone with multiple bodies has multiple heart beats. I was deep in the story when I first thought to ask how one of my characters would experience their heart beats. The question felt arrestingly urgent, and seemed particularly relevant to the part of the story I was working on. The scene I ultimately wrote, in which an character creates a meditative moment by working to synchronize its heart beats, created an interesting story point. There were many moments like that. The novel became the best guide to its own structure and my plans became secondary.

2. Trust the process.

There are too many things going on to try to consciously direct them all. Character, structure, tone, environment, rhythm, diction—breaking it all down can be paralyzing. I prioritized momentum during early drafts and trusted the process. I made progress by focusing on a specific sensation or emotional response and developing narrative out of that. As questions arose, I trusted that the character was clearly enough imagined to allow me to fill in details as they were needed.

3. Get used to being an author on social media.

I feel a lilt of concern when publishing on social media. In fiction, ideas are rooted in context and story. They can be experienced slowly, considered as long as necessary, and imagined from different perspectives. On social media, I tend to type something and hit publish, so I can continue to think about other things. On any given day, my sense of what’s interesting oscillates. What might seem publishable at 8 AM may annoy me by the afternoon. Follow-on thoughts about my posts can pile up in a distracting way for hours afterward, like the scattered dishes and slumping stacks of paper that accumulate in a home office.

4. Insecurity has many faces.

And writing a novel is a sure way to discover a few more. I don’t mean the kind of cartoon insecurity that bounces off walls and is always at least a little entertaining, though that kind may drop in for visits as well. I mean the kind that ties knots in your intestines and tests close relationships.

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5. Curiosity is essential.

Taking the work seriously enough to listen for odd thoughts or shy perceptions, to examine them closely, and interrupt other activities (like sleep) in order to record and respect upwellings of language led to several of my favorite moments in the book. It also led to days of zombie-like fatigue and a few tense interactions with family members who accused me of seeming distracted. While working on the story, I didn’t know whether or not it would become a book, or what it would mean for me if it did. It sometimes felt nutty to be entertaining an unfolding phantom narrative rather than focusing on the real events that were really happening in my real life.

What kept me going was a desire to see it through and a deep curiosity about where the story might lead. That curiosity led me to explore rather than dismiss ideas that first appeared in surprising and unlikely shapes. Those explorations often turned out to be valuable.

6. Reviews help the book find its audience.

Positive reviews and glowing, quotable comments are great, and negative reviews can be difficult to read. But any respectful review that helps readers decide whether they might like the book is a good thing. That’s a difficult idea to accept. Reading negative reviews is painful and some writers ignore them, but I haven’t unlocked that achievement yet. However, reminding myself of that truth helps me focus attention where it should be—on the work.

(What does that one word mean? Read definitions of unique & unusual literary words.)

7. There are two names on the book’s spine.

My name and my publisher’s logo are both on the book’s spine. In fact, lots of people—my family, early readers, agent, publisher, editor, publicist and many others—have bet on the book. Those are meaningful markers. No matter how I feel things are going—and there are days that are easy and days that aren’t—gratitude survives.


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