7 Things I've Learned So Far, by Ann Jacobus

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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 Ann Jacobus, author of ROMANCING THE DARK IN THE CITY OF LIGHT) 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.

Ann Jacobus is the author of YA thriller ROMANCING THE DARK IN THE CITY OF LIGHT(Oct. 2015, St. Martin’s Griffin) as well as a suicide prevention volunteer and mental health advocate. She has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts, teaches writing, and has published short stories, poetry and articles in anthologies, magazines and journals. She lives in San Francisco with her family.

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1. Read Picture Books and Fairy Tales to Learn About Plot and Story

All fiction writers need THE THREE BILLY GOATS GRUFF. Yes, the goats are sort of a collective character, but could it be any clearer what they want? To get to the other side of the bridge. What stands in their way? An ugly troll. Tension rises as each goat crosses. The power of three is illustrated as the story climaxes when the last goat and the troll butt heads, so to speak. Resolution comes with journey’s end in green clover. Clear as a glass slipper.

(How long should you wait before following up with an agent?)

The plot of picture book BLUEBERRIES FOR SAL by Robert McCloskey is simple, like DNA is simple. It’s an elegant double helix of a story, brilliant and classic, that has much to teach any story creator. Read it. Break it down. Learn.

While we’re at it, read, period. Widely, voraciously, and occasionally outside of your comfort zone. Like, picture books.

2. Learn the Way You Work Best

Knowing where, when, and how you work best can help maximize productivity when life is full of things besides writing. Everybody’s different. Try writing in a café with rap music in the early a.m., or after midnight curled up in a broom closet. Outline first—or don’t; determine the story milestones; write in short or long bursts; by the seat of your pants; favorite scenes first; or one perfect chapter at a time. I vote for quiet solitude, long bursts, and favorite scenes. But that’s just me.

3. Show Up for Work but Refill the Well

We all know it’s impossible to be a writer without writing A LOT. Show up, butt-in-chair, etc. But we must also, to use Jane Cameron’s (THE ARTIST'S WAY) commandment, “refill the well.” At least once every week or two, make sure to get out in nature, and/or see other artists’, filmmakers’, writers’, curators’ and musician’s work. Wander, travel, meet new people, volunteer. These activities will feed your creativity and keep you flowing, inspired and sane.

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4. Court Surprise

We’re neurologically hard-wired for the unexpected. The nucleus accumbens, located in the frontal lobe, responds pleasurably to surprising stimuli. It’s evident from birth. Just play peek-a-boo with a nine month old to test it. A surprise makes us laugh or feel tense, both good reactions to our writing. Clichés are the expected. Like cracking a cage-free egg on someone’s head, come up with something original and fresh (but organic to the story) and you’ll surprise.

5. Push Your Story Further

The other part of the brain to consider is called the binary operator. It’s responsible for our ability to divide and simplify relative and complex concepts into opposites. Like: big/small, isolation/integration, mature/immature, Luke Skywalker/Darth Vader. Don’t settle for lukewarm, middling or gray characters, settings, and situations. If we think in terms of opposites in our writing, and push at least certain elements as far out on the poles of extremes as possible, we’ll get more energy, impact and surprise.

6. Understand That Readers Are Looking for Meaning.

Yes, we like drama, action, humor, romance, and always conflict and tension. But stories are how we all make sense of the world. Subconsciously we are ever searching for answers. As storytellers, it is our job to endow experience with meaning and pass on wisdom. Show readers a path by which they can truly understand that Love Conquers All. Or whatever. Show us The Truth.

(More Tips on Writing a Query Letter.)

7. Learn to be Open and Patient

In the film, Shakespeare in Love, remember how the theater troupe was always one step from disaster? Financial, creative or legal? But the production would always come together beautifully, even transcendentally, in the end. The players had faith that things would work out. As Philip Henslowe says, "Strangely enough, it all turns out well."

Creating is an awesome mystery for sure. But the most important thing I’ve learned in the writing life is patience. Patience for learning the craft; patience with the mysterious process; patience for a “finished” work; patience, lord knows, for publication. And faith all along the way.


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