7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by J. Aaron Sanders

J. Aaron Sanders, author of SPEAKERS OF THE DEAD (March 2016, Plume) shares the seven most important lessons of his writing and publishing career.
Publish date:

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,”where writers (this installment written by J. Aaron Sanders, author of SPEAKERS OF THE DEAD) 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.

J. Aaron Sanders is Associate Professor of English at Columbus State University where he teaches literature and creative writing. SPEAKERS OF THE DEAD (March 1, 2016, Plume) is his first novel. Sanders holds a PhD in American Literature from The University of Connecticut and an MFA in Fiction from The University of Utah. His stories have appeared in Carolina Quarterly, Gulf Coast, Quarterly West, and Beloit Fiction Journal, among others. Follow him on Twitter.


1. Don’t write scared. In my novel, SPEAKERS OF THE DEAD, I was afraid of writing Walt Whitman as a character. He loomed too large in my mind, and I was afraid of getting him wrong precisely because I revered him so much. I buried myself in research and that only made it worse. During a desperate phone call to my agent, he told me to put the research away and just write the character. From that, I learned that even when writing about Walt Whitman, I had to remain true to my voice and style.

(4 ways besides query letters you can contact literary agents.)

Colum McCann once told me to paste this Samuel Beckett quote above my desk: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

2. Write every day. Or not. But find your ritual. The most common writing advice I’ve heard is to write every day. And for me, this works. I like writing every day. I look forward to getting up early in the morning, making coffee, and starting the work. If I can’t write in the morning, I’m irritable and discontent. So naturally I tell others to do this too. Only the problem is: not all writers work this way. I once asked the writer Phillip Lopate if he still writes every day. He said, “No, but I’ve never written every day.” Given that Lopate is one of the most productive and accomplished writers, I would amend the advice to this: find your ritual.

3. Read. Read, read, read. If you’re not reading, you’re not really writing. Reading has many practical benefits for writing. One I didn’t anticipate occurred during my novel’s submission process. My agent had me put together a list of comp titles for SPEAKERS OF THE DEAD, and during my phone meetings with different editors, we discussed how my novel fit in with these books. Later, I used the list to generate possible endorsers for my book.

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4. When you find good readers, pay them. Asking someone to read your novel is no small thing, and when that someone says yes, then you have to wait to see if he/she actually reads it. If he/she actually read it, then you hope to God he/she gives you something useful in his/her comments. And in my experience, although these someones around me mean well, the times when they are a) willing to read my novel, b) actually read it, and c) give me useful feedback are rare. So now, when I find a good reader, I pay them. It’s not much, but it works. This moves us away from favor-land and into a business transaction. It also means I can use good readers multiple times. I suppose it’s also worth saying here that you should listen to good readers. If two or three readers point out the same problem, well then crap—

5. Always start the next project while waiting for feedback. For me, when I submit a manuscript to a reader, agent, or publisher, the waiting nearly kills me. So I begin the next project right away. This helps with the waiting, but it’s also what writers do. Nothing relieves the anxiety like working on something else, and when publishers start to pay attention to your work, then you have the next project.

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

6. Be nice. I was raised to be nice. I’ve been accused of being too nice. But being nice goes a long way, and when you’re working with agents, editors, and PR people being nice goes even further. These people are busy, stretched too thin, and being nice and work-with-able can make things easier for everyone. Just be nice for God’s sake.

7. Enjoy the process. Publication does not make you happy. I heard this more than I cared to, and truth be told, I didn’t believe it. Now, I get it. It’s not that being published isn’t awesome—it is—but it doesn’t suddenly change the way you feel about anything. If you don’t enjoy the process of writing, the ritual of it, the reading, the everything, then being published ain’t going to change that.


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