7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Ben Stroud

1. Writing Routines Are Only So Valuable. I used to be a stickler for routine. My desk needed to be just so. I needed the room (and preferably the apartment) to myself. I needed non-vocal music (classical or soundtracks). Then I moved to a one-bedroom apartment in Germany. I couldn’t get a good radio station—this surprised me. The only option for a desk in my furnished apartment was a slatted folding table not much larger than one square foot that I had to stick in the corner of the living room. Gone were all the little things I depended on. But I worked that year, every day, and learned that all that other stuff was unnecessary. I needed only the desk. GIVEAWAY: Ben is excited to give away a free copy of his collection 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: SammySammo 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 Ben Stroud, author of the short story collection, BYZANTIUM) 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: Ben is excited to give away a free copy of his collection 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: SammySammo won.)

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Ben Stroud’s stories have appeared in Harper’s, One Story, and Boston Review,
among other magazines, and have been anthologized in New Stories from the
South and Best American Mystery Stories. A native of Texas, he now lives in
Ohio and teaches creative writing at the University of Toledo. His debut story
collection, BYZANTIUM (July 2013, Graywolf) is the winner of the Bread Loaf
Writers' Conference
Bakeless Prize. Find him on Twitter. Credit: Bering Photography

1. Writing Routines Are Only So Valuable. I used to be a stickler for routine. My desk needed to be just so. I needed the room (and preferably the apartment) to myself. I needed non-vocal music (classical or soundtracks). Then I moved to a one-bedroom apartment in Germany. I couldn’t get a good radio station—this surprised me. The only option for a desk in my furnished apartment was a slatted folding table not much larger than one square foot that I had to stick in the corner of the living room. Gone were all the little things I depended on. But I worked that year, every day, and learned that all that other stuff was unnecessary. I needed only the desk.

2. However, a Schedule Is Key. Writers get this advice a lot, and I’ll put it here, because it’s true. I write every morning. A few hours, the exact number depending upon the other current demands on my time. This is the way stories and novels get built. You can have a good day, a bad day, but so long as you’re there, you’re producing, you’re learning. The lesson here—schedule trumps pretty much everything.

(How many agents should you contact at one time?)

3. Residencies Can Be As Much Harm as Help. I’ve been lucky to spend time at Yaddo and MacDowell. On the plus side, while at these place I learned to revise my work in a deeper way—to sit longer with it, to have the patience to test each sentence out. On the minus side, with the day sprawling ahead of me at a residency, I would linger over breakfast, have long morning conversations, and I brought the bad habit of sitting around too long in the morning (subbing the internet for conversation) back home. A problem, since back home I didn’t have full days to give to my work. So the lesson here, for me, is that a residency can be good to shake things up, to learning something new about your work. But there’s great value in having a steady schedule and a steady place to write and not messing with that too much.

4. The Agent Will Come When The Agent Will Come. When I was a college student, I asked my writing professor about agents. He told me to not think about them, to focus on that other stuff and that getting an agent would take care of itself. In my case, he ended up being right. Now, it’s true, at a certain point you’ll have to worry about this. But the main thing is the writing, making sure it’s good. If that’s your focus, then eventually the other stuff will work itself out, too.

5. The Writing World Works in Hidden Ways, and Can Surprise You. I never thought I’d be able to sell a story to a magazine like Harper’s. It was a dream, of course, but one I thought impossible. Then one day I got an email from my agent. A Harper’s editor had read some of my stories in a few other magazines (stories that I thought had largely gone unnoticed) and wanted to read some of my work. It took two years and four tries, but eventually I got a story to him that he and the other editors liked. I couldn’t have planned that. I couldn’t have made this happen through strategy. All I could do was write the stories and hope that someone on the other end liked them.

(Check out a growing list of writing events nationwide.)

6. That Said… That said, while luck and chance are involved in everyone’s career, the most important thing is that you keep doing the work. It was through writing those early stories that I caught this editor’s attention. And it’s because I kept at it, day in and day out, that I was able to produce those four stories to show him. (The other three all found homes as well.)

7. Write What You Want to Write. This is a lesson I learned early on as a writer. It seems self-evident, but every year I have students struggling with this. One of the important tasks of a young writer is to discover what she or he wants to write. You can only figure this out through a heavy combination of reading and writing and following your own taste. If you don’t know what you want to write and where it fits in the writing world, then your just going to struggle and struggle.

GIVEAWAY: Ben is excited to give away a free copy of his collection 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: SammySammo won.)

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Agent Donald Maass, who is also an author
himself, is one of the top instructors nationwide
on crafting quality fiction. His recent guide,
The Fire in Fiction, shows how to compose
a novel that will get agents/editors to keep reading.

Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:

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