7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Sharon Short

3. Your opening is probably not your opening. My least favorite part of creative writing is drafting that opening scene. It always feels so forced, so awkward. I have to get pretty far into the story before I know how it really should begin, and to realize (for the millionth time) that ‘dumping backstory’ is not an opening that will hook readers. As I wrote what I thought was the beginning of chapter 18 for MY ONE SQUARE INCH OF ALASKA, I realized I’d just written the opening paragraphs. Fortunately, I didn’t have to toss out everything I’d written for chapters 1-17. But I did have to write that much before I discovered the real hook of my novel. GIVEAWAY: Sharon is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: greenurlifenow won.)
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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 Sharon Short, author of MY ONE SQUARE INCH OF ALASKA) 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.

GIVEAWAY: Sharon is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: greenurlifenow won.)

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sharon-short-author-writer

Sharon Short is the author of the novel MY ONE SQUARE INCH OF ALASKA
(Penguin Plume, 2013) in which a pair of siblings escape the strictures of their
1950s industrial Ohio town on the adventure of a lifetime and learn about the
power of embracing, and following, one’s dream. Opening chapters of this novel
earned Sharon a 2012 Ohio Arts Council individual artist's grant. Sharon is the
Literary Life columnist for the Dayton Daily News, directs the renowned Antioch
Writers' Workshop in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Learn more on Sharon’s web page,
Facebook page, or Twitter feed.

1. Follow your heart. Are you passionate about your idea? About your story? Fantastic! Write that! Early chapters of MY ONE SQUARE INCH OF ALASKA helped me earn a local literary artist’s grant; I used the award to attend a conference for writers of YA fiction. There, an editor (not mine!) told me that fiction set in early to mid-20th century America never, ever sells. (That afternoon, it was announced that a wonderful novel set in the late 1930s Midwest America won the Newbery Award.) I was not thrilled by her comment, but knew that my story had to be set in the 1950s, and I also knew that I just had to keep working on it. It was a story of my heart.

2. But also thoughtfully consider constructive advice. On the other hand, that same editor told me that she thought my novel’s concept and theme were better suited to an adult audience, with crossover appeal to older teens—if I’d think more carefully about my protagonist’s story goal. On my drive home, I realized that on this point she was right. I pulled off the highway to a rest stop and re-thought my novel, then went home and revised. That revision became MY ONE SQUARE INCH OF ALASKA. So, listen to feedback, dismiss what doesn’t resonate, but also carefully consider constructive criticism truly aimed at making your project a stronger piece.

(Meet agent Elisabeth Weed, who seeks writers of women's, literary and upmarket novels.)

3. Your opening is probably not your opening. My least favorite part of creative writing is drafting that opening scene. It always feels so forced, so awkward. I have to get pretty far into the story before I know how it really should begin, and to realize (for the millionth time) that ‘dumping backstory’ is not an opening that will hook readers. As I wrote what I thought was the beginning of chapter 18 for MY ONE SQUARE INCH OF ALASKA, I realized I’d just written the opening paragraphs. Fortunately, I didn’t have to toss out everything I’d written for chapters 1-17. But I did have to write that much before I discovered the real hook of my novel.

4. Be persistent. When my daughters were younger and disheartened by all the “No!” responses to their attempts to sell Girl Scout cookies, I told them that one gets more “noes” in life than “yeses,” and to get to the “yeses,” one has to get through the “noes.” Selling books is a lot harder than selling cookies. Of course, now when I complain ‘writing/publishing is so hard!’ my adult daughters remind me of my cookie-selling advice. (And I also say yes to any Girl Scout who comes to my door, so at least I have cookies to help me through the woes of the ‘noes.’)

5. But also be realistic. On the other hand, if your project has received so many ‘noes’ that it really looks like it is time to move on… then move on. I know of a few writers who have spent literally decades revising the same project. At some point, you’re spinning your wheels. When you sense that is happening, review what you’ve learned from the experience of that project, and then move on to another one and apply those lessons.

6. …and open to change. I’ve been in the writing business in some form or another for more than twenty years, and the best opportunities haven’t been ones I planned or could foresee. For example, if someone had told me while I was writing contemporary mysteries that I would eventually write a mainstream novel, and a historical one at that, I would have scoffed, thinking I couldn’t plot without a mystery backbone. But once the idea for MY ONE SQUARE INCH OF ALASKA came to me, I just couldn’t let it go, or perhaps it wouldn’t let go of me. So, I committed to seeing it through. I’m so glad I did.

(Writing a synopsis for your novel? Here are 5 tips.)

7. Above all, breathe. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by large goals—write a novel! find a publisher!—or to feel distracted by too much writing/publishing advice. When that happens, slowly inhale, exhale, relax, and remind yourself that in this moment, you’re simply writing a new paragraph, or revising a page, or sending out one query letter. Focus, and remember why you got into writing in the first place—the sheer joy of creating a story or poem or article that will touch another human. Breathe, focusing on the moment. Those moments eventually add up to complete projects and a lifetime of the best journey I can imagine—the writing life.

GIVEAWAY: Sharon is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: greenurlifenow won.)

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