7 Things I've Learned So Far, by Melissa DeCarlo

Melissa DeCarlo, author of THE ART OF CRASH LANDING (Sept. 2015, Harper), shares the 7 most important lessons she's learned while writing.
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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 Melissa DeCarlo, author of THE ART OF CRASH LANDING) 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.

Melissa DeCarlo, author of THE ART OF CRASH LANDING (Sept. 2015, Harper), was born and raised in Oklahoma City, and has worked as an artist, graphic designer, grant writer, and even (back when computers were the size of refrigerators) a computer programmer. THE ART OF CRASH LANDING is her first novel. Melissa now lives in East Texas with her husband and a motley crew of rescue animals.

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Parts of this originally appeared on weheartwriting.com.

1. Over-commit (but just a little)

Many writers wish they could write full-time, and I was no exception. But, I’ve looked at that cloud from both sides now, and I’m here to tell you that having some time-pressure is not always a bad thing. When I’m busy, the writing I squeeze in feels like a guilty pleasure, but when writing is what I’m supposed to be doing all day, it feels like what it is—work. Sometimes I think I get more writing done in ninety stolen minutes than I do in five wide-open hours. Maybe it’s because I let my subconscious noodle around on the book while I’m doing other things, so when I sit down at my desk I’m full of new ideas. Or maybe it’s because I posses a limited quantity of self-discipline, and when I’ve only got ninety minutes I don’t waste it watching cat videos.

(When can you finally call yourself a writer?)

2. Make your bed

I don’t do this every morning, but I will swear that on the days I do, I get more writing done. I’m sure a psychologist would postulate that it sets a tone for the day, or organizing pillows calms my mind, or some other logical theory, but I remain unconvinced. Analyze it all you want, but I’m pretty sure it’s magic.

3. Don’t say what you mean

I’m always hearing people say that a novel has great dialogue because it’s so realistic, which means, of course, that it wasn’t realistic at all. Anyone who’s ever had to slog through a direct transcription of meeting notes will back me up when I tell you this: we are boring. And I’m not referring to the … uhhhh …space fillers, I’m talking about how we give direct answers to questions, and over-explain, and try to be polite. Good dialogue isn’t a polite back and forth; it’s a strategic encounter between characters with differing agendas—a sparring match rather than a verbal handshake.

4. Sharing is caring

Here’s what nobody told me about signing a publishing contract (or maybe they did and I couldn’t hear it over the Hallelujah Chorus ringing in my ears): once you sell your book, it isn’t entirely yours anymore. Having a good agent helps, but remember, you are selling something. Thankfully, everyone on my book’s publication team was terrific to work with, but there were compromises. They wanted the title changed, so it was changed, and when it came to the cover—while I’m happy with the design—the final say was theirs, not mine. In the end, I had to stop thinking of it as my book; it’s our book. I put a lot of work into it, but so did the people on my publishing team, and we’ve all got a stake in its success.

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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.

5. What goes around comes around

Writing is a solo activity, but as a writer you’re also a member of a community. Yes, we have to promote our own work, but don’t let that keep you from promoting the work of other writers. It’s not always easy, but I do my best to rejoice for others’ successes even if (who am I kidding—when) I’m painfully envious. I just let myself steep in self-pity for a minute (or five) and then I knock that shit off and congratulate my colleague and pass along the good news in any way I can to be helpful. I believe that the more often I can pour open-hearted celebratory love out into the world for others, the more likely it is that someday it be headed in my direction. Besides, I sleep better when I’ve been a good-guy than when I’ve been a jerk, so its win-win, right?

6. Hurts so good

Reviews. Sigh. I can’t tell you to never read reviews because it feels a little bossy-pants to give advice I didn’t take myself, but be careful, because they are going to mess with your head. The bad ones will be painful (duh) but in addition to the ouch factor, they’ll also tempt you to second-guess yourself on future projects. And the good reviews? For me they brought along a different burden, one along the lines of: “Oh, my God, how will my next book ever live up to that one?” So, yeah, go ahead and take a peek at your reviews, but trust me on this: don’t stare.

(When can you refer to yourself as "a writer"? The answer is NOW, and here's why.)

7. Joy is in the doing

Having my book on bookstore shelves was a huge bucket-list item for me, and I’m beyond thrilled to have had that experience, but I’ve discovered a problem with thinking of publication itself as a goal. Now what? Better goals would be to continue enjoying the time I spend honing my craft, and to learn how to better live with professional and creative uncertainty. Remember, the joy is in the doing, not in the having done.

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