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

Publish date:

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.

Image placeholder title

Hook agents, editors and readers immediately.
Check out Les Edgerton's guide, HOOKED, to
learn about how your fiction can pull readers in.

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.


Check Out These Great Upcoming Writers' Conferences:

Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 3.39.23 PM

Your new complete and updated instructional guide
to finding an agent is finally here: The 2015 book
GET A LITERARY AGENT shares advice from more 
than 110 literary agents who share advice on querying, 
craft, the submission process, researching agents, and
much more. Filled with all the advice you'll ever need to
find an agent, this resource makes a great partner book to
the agent database, Guide to Literary Agents.

Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:

Personal Essay Awards

Announcing the First Annual Personal Essay Awards Winners

Congratulations to the winners of the first annual Writer's Digest Personal Essay Awards!

From Script

Movie Theatres Return While Indie Cinema and TV Turns to Horror and Beyond (From Script)

In this week’s round-up brought to us by ScriptMag.com, read movie reviews from cinephile Tom Stemple. Plus, exclusive interviews with Amazon’s Them creator and showrunner Little Marvin, horror film Jakob’s Wife director Travis Stevens, a history lesson with Dr. Rosanne Welch about trailblazer screenwriter Anita Loos, and much more!

April PAD Challenge

2021 April PAD Challenge: Day 17

Write a poem every day of April with the 2021 April Poem-A-Day Challenge. For today's prompt, write a waiting poem.


Your Story #112

Write the opening line to a story based on the photo prompt below. (One sentence only.) You can be poignant, funny, witty, etc.; it is, after all, your story.

Self-Published Ebook Awards

Announcing the 8th Annual Self-Published E-book Awards Winners

Congratulations to the winners of the 8th Annual Self-Published E-book Awards! Discover the titles that placed in the categories of contemporary fiction, fantasy, memoir, mystery, and more.

Greg Russo: On Writing a Film Based on a Video Game

Greg Russo: On Writing a Screenplay Based on a Video Game

Professional screenwriter Greg Russo discusses the joy and challenge of converting a popular video games series into a screenplay and the balance of enticing a new audience while honoring a franchise's fans.

April PAD Challenge

2021 April PAD Challenge: Day 16

Write a poem every day of April with the 2021 April Poem-A-Day Challenge. For today's prompt, write a city poem.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Under the Influence

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Under the Influence

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, let a character fall under the influence of something or someone.


Suspended: Writer's Digest Personal Essay Awards Winner

Congratulations to J.E. Stamper, grand prize winner of the Writer's Digest Personal Essay Awards. Here's his winning essay, "Suspended."