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7 Things I've Learned So Far, by Mary Knight

Mary Knight, author of SAVING WONDER (Feb. 2016, Scholastic), shares her advice for writers based on the lessons she's learned through her writing career.

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,”where writers (this installment written by Mary Knight, author of SAVING WONDER) 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.

Mary has always enjoyed the power of a good story, whether it’s been as a children’s librarian, a freelance writer or a writer-in-residence teaching kids how to write. Several years ago, she decided to go back to school to learn how to write a novel. After graduating in 2013 from Spalding University’s MFA program in Writing, Mary completed her middle grade novel, SAVING WONDER (Feb. 2016, Scholastic), found the agent and editor of her dreams, and is now a published author with Scholastic. She and her husband now live in Lexington, Kentucky. Follow her on Facebook.

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1. Practice, practice, practice.

I was once married to a jazz drummer. He and his musician buddies often talked about “chops,” as in, “He’s got great chops,” meaning that the musician showed proficiency on his instrument. Likewise, writing for nonprofits, newspapers, magazines and video productions for most of my professional life gave me pretty good chops. When I was finally ready and financially able to turn towards the writing of my heart, I had a facility with words and an established work ethic to take the next step. For me, that was going back to school to learn how to write novels, specifically for children and young adults.

(How can writers compose an exciting Chapter 1?)

2. Learn your craft from those who have written the kind of books you like and respect.

I was already a big fan of Sena Jeter Naslund (AHAB'S WIFE, FOUR SPIRITS), so when I saw that she had founded and was directing Spalding University’s MFA in Writing program in Louisville, I knew that was the program for me. Although I’m crazy about Spalding’s program, I believe there are lots of opportunities for developing your writing that are not tied to a graduate degree, including attending workshops and conferences and mentoring with established writers. “Reading like a writer” is also beneficial, looking for novels in your genre that illuminate the craft. For future success, I firmly believe a writer’s money is better spent—less on pitch and marketing workshops—and more on learning how to write a really good book.

3. Your first novel may not be the first one published and that’s okay.

My first novel—the one I cut my teeth on—is lovely and sitting on an office shelf. After a heart-crushing half-a-dozen “declines,” I shifted my focus onto my second novel, one that my mentors at Spalding insisted I start before I left the program. Oh, the wisdom in that! And so, the summer after graduation, I submitted the first twenty pages of my second novel, SAVING WONDER (at the time under a different title) to an SCBWI Midsouth writing contest.

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4. Like miracles, there are no small opportunities.

I can still remember the moment at that SCBWI conference when my name was called. My heart raced with excitement as I rose up to receive the award, and yet . . . I was also disappointed. I had received “just” an honorable mention. It was not first place. However, the judge of the contest—an editor with a major publishing house—wanted to see my full manuscript. That was the real opportunity and just the incentive I needed to finish my novel—which, at that moment, was only sixty pages long!

5. Ask for who and what you want. You might just get it.

The same day I sent my manuscript to that editor, I also sent it as an exclusive to the agent I wanted above all others, Brenda Bowen. Within three minutes of hitting “send,” I got two emails—one from the editor saying she was excited to read my manuscript, and the other from Brenda who wrote: “Mary! What an enticing query!” Four days later, she called. As soon as she introduced herself, I knew the door had opened. Agents don’t call to say “no.”

The contest editor who saw my manuscript would eventually decline it, but within a few short months, my novel SAVING WONDER had found its perfect home with Scholastic and the perfect editor in Lisa Ann Sandell.

6. Write the novel you want to write.

Listening to the advice and instruction of other writers is an important way we learn and grow in our craft. However, it’s equally important to remember that feedback is sometimes a matter of taste. I know of many manuscripts I’ve changed to meet the opinions of others, only to find that it is a story I no longer even like.

What is the novel you want to write? As I wrote SAVING WONDER, I explored the answer to this question in great detail, not only considering the plot and characters I wanted to create, but also what I wanted my readers to feel and know and experience. I invite you to do this as a writing exercise and then use it as a touchstone—to remind you to stay true to the story you want to tell.

(What types of novel beginnings get an agent or editor to keep reading?)

7Listen to your “people.” They want the best for you.

This may seem counter to the above advice, but it’s important to remember (and be grateful) that your agent, editor and publisher know the business better than you do. For instance, I was asked to change my original title and boy, am I glad. Why? SAVING WONDER best expresses the heart of the story I wanted to tell. Trust the people you’ve said “yes” to, and then keep on writing!

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