7 Things I've Learned So Far: Jane Higgins

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Jane Higgins, author of the acclaimed YA debut, THE BRIDGE) 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: Jane 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: threetuis 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 Jane Higgins, author of the acclaimed YA debut, THE BRIDGE) 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.

(Look over our growing list of young adult literary agents.)

GIVEAWAY: Jane 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: threetuis won.)

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Jane Higgins is the author of the debut YA novel, THE BRIDGE, (Tundra
Books, 2012), a post-apocalyptic story about young people caught up
in a war. It won the 2010 Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s
Writing (Text Publishing) and the YA Readers’ Choice award in the
2012 New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards. In her day job,
Jane is a sociologist specializing in youth studies and writing nonfiction
about young people in transition from school. Recently she has turned
to writing fiction for young adults. She is currently working on a sequel.

1. Read great writing. Remember that book you loved so much as a kid that you reread it until the binding collapsed and now it’s a mess of loose pages with half a cover and no spine, but you still can’t bear to throw it out? That experience of being completely lost in a book is what made me want to write. It still does. Every time I read a wonderful piece of writing I get a rush of energy and think I want to write something good. Reading is the best way I know to get inspired, and to learn about writing.

2. Give your imagination space. In his Introduction to the wonderful collection Dandelion Wine, the late, and truly great, Ray Bradbury wrote: “like every beginner, I thought you could beat, pummel, and thrash an idea into existence. Under such treatment, of course, any decent idea folds up its paws, turns on its back, fixes its eyes on eternity, and dies.” Sometimes, looking away from an idea you are struggling with is the most creative thing you can do with it. Your subconscious is primed with that idea but you’re not trying to pummel it into shape. Surprisingly often, that’s exactly when it makes itself known, like something glimpsed in the corner of your eye. It can work for plot problems too. When I get stuck in front of a blank page and can’t think how to go forward, I go for a walk in the hills around my city. I say the problem to myself at the beginning of my walk, articulating it as clearly as I can, then I walk and let my mind wander. It’s intriguing (and helpful!) how often the answer has arrived by the time I trek down the hill.

(How to pitch agents at a writers' conference.)

3. Go off the net – regularly. It’s part of giving your imagination room to breathe.

4. Write and write and write some more. Suppose I’ve read some great writing and got inspired, I’ve gone off the net, I’ve paced around the hills, and now I’m sitting at my computer trying to write. But what I’m writing is awful. Of course it is. First drafts are almost always terrible – at least mine are. But if I can get the writing down so that there’s something on the page or screen, then I figure I’ve done the hardest part. Now it’s time to play: it’s time to revise and rewrite until the story is approaching what I wanted it to be in the first place. Often, that’s good fun. It’s like being a potter working with a lump of clay: its early shape is rough and indistinct and it takes a lot of careful crafting to produce that final, polished ceramic jug or vase or sculpture.

5. Listen to reader feedback. When I’ve finished a draft (at last!), I revise and revise until I can’t see how I can make it any better. Then I give it to people to read (people who’ll be honest with me). And surprise! They come back with a whole lot of ways it can be improved. I go off and revise some more, until (again) I can’t make it any better, and I give it to them once more. With The Bridge, I went through that process three times. Ursula Le Guin says: “A story is a collaboration between teller and audience, writer and reader. Fiction is not only illusion, but collusion. …The reader makes it happen just as much as the writer does.” (The Wave in the Mind, Shambhala, p. 230). In giving these drafts to readers I’m trying to honour what Le Guin is saying. That means not clinging to what I’ve written, but rather seeing the manuscript as something independent that those readers and I can work on together to make the collaboration work.

(How to Seek Quality in Your Beta Readers.)

6. Enjoy. Why do we write? Because we love to, we’re driven to, we’re obsessed. So, don’t forget to enjoy every good sentence/paragraph/page that you craft.

7. Once it’s out there, it’s out there. It doesn’t belong just to you any more – as Le Guin observes (see 5 above). And because reading is a subjective process, not everyone’s going to like what you write. With luck some people will – you’ll connect with them and engage them and it’s fantastic when that happens. But the next story is beckoning. Time to get on with it.

GIVEAWAY: Jane 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: threetuis won.)

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