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7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Kate Southwood

5. If you let life get in the way, it will. I finished my MFA knowing that I would be moving to Oslo with my Norwegian husband right after graduation. I had allowed myself to stop writing while I was preparing for the move, rationalizing that I was busy selling or shipping all my worldly possessions. I said this to my advisor one afternoon when he called and I was knee-deep in boxes and packing tape. “I’m packing,” I said. “Why aren’t you writing?” he asked me, and I laughed and yelled, “I’m moving to Norway!” There was silence from his end for a moment, and then he simply said, “Write, Kate.”

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,”where writers (this installment written by Kate Southwood, author of FALLING TO EARTH) 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.

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falling to earth

Kate Southwood received an M.A. in French Medieval Art from the
University of Illinois, and an M.F.A. in Fiction from the University of
Massachusetts Program for Poets and Writers. Born and raised in
Chicago, she now lives in Oslo, Norway with her husband and their
two daughters. FALLING TO EARTH (Europa Editions, March 2013),
a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick, is her first novel.
You can find her at katesouthwood.com, and on Facebook and Twitter.

1. You have to show up. During the writing of my debut novel, I heard Per Petterson, author of Out Stealing Horses, give a talk in Oslo. During the Q&A portion of the talk, a woman asked Mr. Petterson about his writing habits and how he gets his work done. His answer was candid and brief: You have to show up. There is no magic pill. You have to show up and do the work. A great idea is a nice thing to have, and lots of people out there have great ideas, but not many of them do the work and bring them to life.

2. Talent is not enough. When I was a beginning MFA student, I looked at my fellow students—all those aspiring writers of fiction and poetry—and wondered how there would be room for us all in publishing. Multiplied by all the other MFA programs across the country, the answer was simple: there wasn’t enough room.

If only a handful of us were going make it into print statistically, the rate of attrition would have to be high, and the problem wouldn’t be talent, it would be getting the work done. Life and circumstance would get in the way for some, others would write intermittently, allowing themselves to be distracted by minutiae, by a lack of confidence, by anything, until they no longer even called themselves writers, and some of us would get into print. We would have to do the work.

(Adapt your book into a movie script -- here's how.)

3. If you’re not sure it’s good enough, it’s not.  Your writing isn’t going to be good enough because you want it to be, or because you’ve been at it so long it should be by now. Similarly, you’re not going to be finished writing something because you want to be, or because you should be by now. If you have any lingering doubts about a piece of writing, that’s your gut talking and your gut is probably right.

When you can honestly say that you couldn’t have worked on or thought harder about a piece of writing, that you haven’t sidestepped any difficulty or pain, then you’re done. It might not be what you would have written a decade later with more experience, but it is your best work now.

4. “Write what you know” doesn’t mean writing thinly veiled autobiography. This advice is almost universally misunderstood by beginning fiction writers. I misunderstood it, too, and it held me back for years. “What you know” is not something that actually happened to you with all the names changed. Rendering real events in their correct order is documentary and rarely makes a good fictional narrative. Using what you have learned about people and life in a story gives you emotional truth, and that makes good fiction.

5. If you let life get in the way, it will. I finished my MFA knowing that I would be moving to Oslo with my Norwegian husband right after graduation. I had allowed myself to stop writing while I was preparing for the move, rationalizing that I was busy selling or shipping all my worldly possessions. I said this to my advisor one afternoon when he called and I was knee-deep in boxes and packing tape. “I’m packing,” I said. “Why aren’t you writing?” he asked me, and I laughed and yelled, “I’m moving to Norway!” There was silence from his end for a moment, and then he simply said, “Write, Kate.”

6. Publishing decisions are usually made by committee.Editors rarely, if ever, acquire books on their own anymore. Gone are the days of the gut reaction. Acquisitions go through committees of editorial staff, which now often include marketing and sales people. In my experience, this resulted in my agent’s getting enthusiastic emails from editors eager to acquire my book only to have the same editor backpedal the next day after the sales people had entered the conversation and said that my book was not upbeat enough to sell.

There is a general climate of hesitancy in publishing that makes it harder for debut authors to find someone who will take a chance on them based more on artistic merit than on numbers.

(Why agents stop reading your first chapter.)

7. Read good writing. Another writer once told me that if you have four hours to write, you should spend one of those hours reading. I think that the proportion should vary according to the individual, but I agree wholeheartedly with the premise. I always make time for reading in my writing schedule, and then I only read novels that make my jaw drop to the floor, force me to read slowly, and make me ask how on earth the writer did that.

More often than not, reading a terrific book actually gets me writing faster than I might have on my own. I laugh each time I fling aside a great book in favor of my laptop because I suddenly need to write. Reading time, like writing time, is precious. Don’t waste it on mediocre books.

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