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7 Things I've Learned So Far, by Jeff Zentner

Jeff Zentner, author of THE SERPENT KING (March 8, 2016, Crown Books for Young Readers), shares the 7 lessons that have had an impact on his writing career.

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,”where writers (this installment written by Jeff Zentner, author of THE SERPENT KING) 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.

Jeff Zentner is a singer-songwriter and guitarist who has recorded with Iggy Pop, Nick Cave, and Debbie Harry. In addition to writing and recording his own music, Zentner works with young musicians at Tennessee Teen Rock Camp, which inspired him to write for young adults. He lives in Nashville with his wife and son. THE SERPENT KING (March 8, 2016, Crown Books for Young Readers) is his first novel.


1. You will never, ever harm yourself by promoting and lifting up the work of others.

I genuinely struggled for a long time with this one, out of sheer insecurity. Here was my internal dialogue: If you lift up the work of writers who are better than you, people will go buy their books instead of yours and you’ll be shooting yourself in the foot. Sounds reasonable enough, right? It’s not, because that’s not how it works. Publishing is not a zero-sum game where your success equals another person’s failure and vice versa. Sure, people have finite disposable income. But I’ve never once had someone say “well, buddy, I was gonna buy your book until you recommended your friend’s, and now I’ve spent the last book dollars I’ll ever spend in my life.” I don’t mean to get hippy-dippy about it, but the universe seems to reward generosity and positivity. It seems to reward authors who lift up others.

(The skinny on why to sign with a new/newer literary agent.)

2. Get a team.

It’s no fun to go at publishing alone. You’ve got to get yourself a team. Find two to four other writers who you love as human beings—who make you laugh, who offer words of comfort when you’re feeling down, who genuinely rejoice in your successes—and whose writing you sincerely love, and make yourselves so inseparable that nobody ever buys just your book without buying theirs too; so inseparable that Amazon lists your books together even though they’re only of passing similarity because even Amazon’s computer brains know you ride together and die together.

3. Rejoice in the bad reviews of others.

“What?!” you say, incredulously, this piece of learning apparently at direct odds with the previous two. Let me explain. You’re going to get bad reviews. It’s inevitable. But to inoculate yourself against the heartbreak, go to the Goodreads page of your favorite books and read the (inevitably) several hundred one-star reviews there. You will see that no novel—no matter how great, no matter how firmly entrenched it is in the Canon, no matter how much you loved it, no matter how many awards it won—is above people’s awful opinions. So why should you be? Let this knowledge be freeing. Let it be comforting. Rejoice in it.

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4. There will be something better.

Kerry Kletter, a friend and author of the luminous and lyrical THE FIRST TIME SHE DROWNED(see numbers 1 and 2) pointed out this phenomenon to me: Every time you desire something in publishing you don’t get, something better will come along. That doesn’t mean something objectively better. I mean something that makes you, subjectively, not sad anymore about the thing you didn’t get. So you might not win the National Book Award or make the New York Times bestseller list, but you will get that heartfelt letter from someone whose life your book changed for the better, and it’ll put things in perspective. This phenomenon occurs with such reliability that it’s almost creepy.

5. It takes time.

There’s this expectation, I think, unrealistic though it may be (and even holders of this expectation know this), that the day your book comes out will be the best day of its life, and if it’s not a smash right out of the gate, it never will be. But people discover books years after they’re released. I’ve read that it takes people hearing about a book three times to finally decide to check it out.

6. Be friends with people to be friends, not to network.

Networking is great. It’s a helpful thing to know people in publishing who can help you do things and promote your work. But the only people I’ve ever seen to successfully network are the people who care the least about networking and the most about making genuine friends out of people. Everyone can smell a networker a mile away and no one likes a networker—even other networkers.

(Everything you need to know about signing with a new/newer literary agent.)

7. Nobody’s really watching you.

Here is something that many authors might find discouraging, but that I find liberating: no one really cares who you are. You’re not famous. Authors aren’t actors or rock stars. I wouldn’t recognize James Patterson at the grocery store. If you’re in the publishing business for fame, this probably comes as bad news. But if you’re in it to tell stories, it’s great news, because it frees you to put your head down and work without worrying about people looking over your shoulder. Tell the stories you need to tell and don’t think about what anyone will think because not that many people are thinking about you. None of this applies to George R.R. Martin. Hurry it up with the next Game of Thrones book, dude.


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