7 Things I've Learned So Far, by A.B. Westrick

1. Stop trying to find time to write. Instead, make time. When you’re in “trying-to-find” mode, you’re not giving priority to your writing. Identify the time of day when you’re the most creative, then claim that time. Show up at the page. Get up early if you have to. Lock a door if you have to. Turn off your phone and Internet. Whatever it takes for you to carve out your time—do it. Make writing happen. GIVEAWAY: A.B. is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: leadrian won.)
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This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,”where writers (this installment written by A.B. Westrick, author of BROTHERHOOD) 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.

GIVEAWAY: A.B. is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: leadrian won.)

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A.B. Westrickis the daughter of southerners who sought to leave the South
behind. Raised in Pennsylvania, she later moved with her husband to Virginia
and spent hours walking Richmond’s brick streets, wondering how her ancestors
had fared during and after the Civil War. Her debut novel, BROTHERHOOD
(Viking, Sept. 2013). grew from those wonderings. She has been a teacher,
paralegal, literacy volunteer, administrator, and coach for teams from Odyssey
of the Mind to the Reading Olympics. A graduate of Stanford University and
Yale Divinity School, she received an MFA in writing from Vermont College
of Fine Arts in 2011. She and her family live in Virginia. Find her on Twitter.

1. Stop trying to find time to write. Instead, make time. When you’re in “trying-to-find” mode, you’re not giving priority to your writing. Identify the time of day when you’re the most creative, then claim that time. Show up at the page. Get up early if you have to. Lock a door if you have to. Turn off your phone and Internet. Whatever it takes for you to carve out your time—do it. Make writing happen.

2. Keep handy a to-do list. It’s for jotting down all of the extraneous details that pop into your head while you’re writing, such as remembering to pick up a loaf of bread… making an eye doc appointment… returning a library book… whatever. Yes, these things need to happen, but not during the sacred time you’ve carved out to write. Jotting down these details allows the brain to let go of them, knowing they won’t be forgotten. Tell your brain you’ll attend to them as soon as you’ve finished that day’s writing.

(What to write in the BIO section of your queries.)

3. Show Don’t Tell = Action. Early-on, I thought “show don’t tell” meant showing every little detail in a character’s life. It doesn’t. It means that when you’re writing a scene, you describe—physically—what your characters are doing. You don’t interpret the characters’ actions for the reader. You don’t label their emotions, such as, “Stephanie felt sad or angry or frustrated or confused.” Instead, you show what Stephanie does and let readers infer the meaning of her actions. So you might write, “Stephanie slammed her fist into the wall” or “chewed the left side of her lip until it bled” or whatever. You draw the reader into a scene using the five senses—taste, smell, sound, sight and touch.

4. Sensory details beat writer’s block. And speaking of the five senses, they’re a great way to get yourself unstuck if you experience writer’s block. When I’m stuck, instead of walking away from a manuscript, I’ll try to move more deeply into it. I’ll identify the odors in my character’s life… the textures… the sounds… air stirring in an overhead duct… a mosquito feasting on an ankle… dogs barking in the distance… etc. I’ll give my character something to eat, then I’ll savor the taste. I’ll notice the angle of light, the quality of air, the temperature of skin. I’ll write down everything my character experiences through the five senses. Then I’ll consider my character’s desires in that particular moment… and I’ll relish them… and see what emerges. I don’t necessarily insert all of those details into the scene, but the exercise of identifying them loosens me up, getting me unstuck. Sometimes insights emerge. Sometimes the character takes the story in a new direction.

5. Voice is all about having the confidence to claim the page. I used to think “voice” meant opening a novel with a character who was super strong or engaging, sarcastic or kick-ass, funny or idiosyncratic—whatever the trait, it was in your face. I thought this awesome “voice” would hook readers and keep them turning pages. But whenever I tried to write such a “voice,” it sounded forced. I’ve since come to realize that’s not at all what “voice” means. Rather than pertaining to a character, “voice” pertains to the writer and the writing. It has to do with a writer’s confidence to claim the page—a confidence that comes from knowing the characters inside and out, believing in their story, and daring to tell it as honestly as possible. The writer must believe that s/he was meant to tell this story, or that this story called to him/her, or that it’s the story only s/he can tell. The qualities of confidence and honesty in the writing will grab readers and hold them fast, infusing the manuscript with “voice.”

(Headed to a conference? Learn how to approach an agent.)

6. Think of chapter one as an invitation. An author invites readers to enter into a particular character’s story at a particular time. A book is like a party: it’s great when you arrive and the place is already hopping. No one cares that an hour before start-time, the hostess was still scrambling to dust windowsills, or stuffing biscuits with ham. Arrive too early, and you’ll wish you hadn’t. Arrive in the middle of the action, and you won’t want to leave.

7. Writing is more passion than talent. My dad used to say things like, “So-and-so got stuck behind the door when God was giving out the [insert talent here]” … brains… or athleticism… or whatever. I grew up thinking that writing was a God-given talent, and my failure to produce perfect pieces off the top of my head was proof that the Big Guy hadn’t bestowed this particular ability on me. But I couldn’t stop writing. I had a passion for it, if not the talent, and eventually I came to realize Dad’s little quip had its limits. Writing can be learned. There are techniques. It’s an art, a craft, a discipline, a practice. There’s a lot to be said for the wisdom of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and the idea that we need to put in the hours. Sure, talent is nice, but if you’ve got talent, you risk falling into the trap of believing that writing comes easily. It’s not easy. It requires butt glue. Perseverance. Focus. Talent will tease you, and passion will propel you toward success.

GIVEAWAY: A.B. is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: leadrian won.)

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