7 Things I've Learned so Far, by Amy Gustine

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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 Amy Gustine, author of YOU SHOULD PITY US INSTEAD) 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.

Amy Gustine is the author of the widely praised story collection YOU SHOULD PITY US INSTEAD (Feb. 2016, Sarabande Books), which received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus and Booklist and which the New York Times Book Review called an “ affecting and wide-ranging debut.” Her work has also appeared in The Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, The Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, North American Review, Black Warrior Review and several other journals. Gustine is the recipient of an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award for 2016 and her fiction has been awarded special mention in the Pushcart Prize anthology. Follow her on Twitter.

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1. Section Breaks Are a Big Deal

We notice chapter breaks, but how many of us note the extra white space that divides blocks of text within a chapter, a story or article? The humble section break allows the author to leap forward and back in time, create or shift emphasis, and change point of view mid-chapter or mid story. When you are reading, whether fiction or nonfiction, pay attention to where, how and why the author uses section breaks and your ability to organize a long work will be transformed.

(Hate writing queries? Here are 4 other ways you can reach out to agents.)

2. Verbs Energize Comparisons

While explicit similes and metaphors have their place, many times a great verb simultaneously draws a more vivid comparison, respects the reader’s intelligence and produces more muscular prose. In the example below from Jonathan Franzen’s THE CORRECTIONS the verb “ambushed” is carrying forward an extended metaphor in which Alfred and Enid’s domestic life is compared to a civil war.

“At the eastern end Alfred’s calculator was ambushed by floral print pot-holders and souvenir coasters...”

3. Don’t Just Read for Pleasure

When you want to be a professional writer you can’t exclusively read for pleasure. Often, you have to read analytically. There are two ways to do this. You can read a novel first for pleasure, then read it a second time to understand how the book is put together. Alternatively, you can read analytically the first time. Both methods have their pros and cons. Reading twice can seem like a waste of time, but you’ll learn more because it’s easier to analyze craft if you aren’t getting caught up in the story. A third option is to split the difference: read the book for pleasure first, noting the craft elements you can, then page back through the text methodically, though not word-for-word. However you do it, note things like where (and thus why) the author divided the text into chapters and sections; how she used setting and activities to keep dialogue scenes interesting; how she employed authenticating details (i.e. research); where she put flashbacks and exposition; how she uses point-of-view and where the major complicating actions happen. These things, and many more, are learned by reading, and because there’s so many different ways to do them successfully, you have to read most books like a veterinary student dissects a cat; it may seem cruel, but in the long run it’s necessary.

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4. Keep a Book Journal

Write down a summary of the plot and your craft observations (based on that analytical reading in #3). Also note the copyright, the publisher and, if available, the agent and editor. Many authors thank agents and editors in the acknowledgements. If they don’t, you can find this information online or via Publishers Marketplace (for a fee). When you’re ready to query agents or submit to publishers, these records of similar (or different books) will be very valuable. Your craft notes will prove valuable for preparing lectures, writing articles and planning your own novel or story.

5. Keep Every Name and Email

Go to a conference and work with an author, agent, editor and other aspiring writers? Save their contact information and make a note of your time with them, including the work you shared, their response, and other details about the interaction that might prove useful later. Even years on these contacts can result in valuable advice, recommendations, book blurbs, and supportive friends.

6. Accept the Randomness

Of course you should do your homework before you submit work. No sense sending a romance novel to someone who only represents thrillers. But within the big categories, like literary fiction, it is impossible to predict what a specific agent, literary magazine or book editor will get excited about. Accept that it’s a little like dating: the magic, and the mystery, of chemistry. You’ll likely have to submit the same work to several places. Don’t get discouraged when an editor or agent you thought “was perfect for this” declines your piece. Just try again, and if no one wants it....

(Hate writing queries? Find agents through contests, referrals, critiques and conferences.)

7. Rejections Mean Nothing and Everything

This is the sweet barb at the heart of all creativity. Artists must take seriously the notion that their work could be better and stay open to criticism in order to actually make it better. They must also take seriously the notion that no work will appeal to everyone and that great writing is always, on some level, idiosyncratic. Walking this tightrope between pursuing one’s own vision and constantly trying to improve is the hardest part of being an artist. Stick your arms out and accept the probability of a fall. If you’re relaxed when it happens, you’re more likely to bounce right back up.

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