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7 Things I've Learned So Far, Kathy Flann

Kathy Flynn, author of GET A GRIP 92015, Texas Review Press), shares the most influential lessons she's learned during her writing career.

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Kathy Flann, author of GET A GRIP) 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.

Column by Kathy Flann, author of GET A GRIP (Nov. 2015, Texas Review Press). Her fiction has appeared in Shenandoah, The North American Review, The Michigan Quarterly Review, New Stories from the South, and other publications. GET A GRIP won the George Garrett Award and was named a top book of the year by Baltimore Magazine and Baltimore City Paper.

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1. Start your story on page one.

(Tips on how to find more agents who seek your genre/category.)

When you’re courting a reader, don’t be coy. Don’t expect the reader to wait around until page five. My work as an editor and a creative writing professor helped me grasp the need to hook the reader on the first page. I��m reading manuscript after manuscript. When someone has an electric first page, I’m so grateful. It’s a relief. Here’s someone who’s thinking about me, the reader, helping me understand why I should turn the page. As a writer, I’ve been on the receiving end of plenty of rejections. Almost always, when I tighten the first page of a story, I find success with it.

2. Write in scene.

Writers are dreamers. So it’s pretty easy to write pages and pages of inner monologue. That’s the way reality seems to us – a running narrative about events that sometimes feel distant even though they’re right in front of us. But, boy oh boy, this does not make for the most interesting reading. I now know that I must work to highlight what’s happening outside the character, to provide scenes with some kind of action. Why is today the day of the story? Did a woodchuck somehow get into the house? Is there a car problem? What’s going to put the character under pressure? Providing insight into the character’s interior life is only half of the equation. Try to create a scene on the first page.

3. Learn to disappear.

Why does it matter, for this particular person, that there’s a woodchuck in the house? Did the character just get fired and that’s why he/she is at home in the first place? What was he/she doing just before this happened? What got interrupted? In other words, I have to sink into this person so deeply that I forget myself. While there’s certainly a lot of ego in choosing a writing life – the belief that we have something to say that others want to hear – there’s also humility. In order for this character to live and breathe, I have to step back and let her make her own choices.

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4. Find a community.

People think of writing as a solitary pursuit. There are romantic notions of writers in cabins. But while there are phases of the writing process that take place in isolation, there are other parts that aren’t possible without others. Good editors give us some sense of whether our work is doing the things we hope. Rejections are important in this way. But before this point, I’d also advise any new writer to seek a community to provide feedback. It not only makes the process faster, but more rigorous. Many of my published stories would not have been as good without suggestions and guidance from writer friends. It is difficult to see one’s own work as clearly as we see each others.

5. Writers are nice people.

Writers are sometimes portrayed as lone wolves or prima donnas. While there may be individuals who fulfill the stereotypes, the vast majority of writers are empathetic and generous. Even though we’re all competing to get published at the same places, writers help each other—feedback, introductions, promotion on social media, you name it. As an introvert and the daughter of self-sufficient Midwestern stock, it took me a long time to reach out. Now I wish I’d gotten over that sooner. Being on this road with others is not only crucial, but fulfilling.

(Classifying Your Book: How to Research & Target Literary Agents.)

6. Write even when (or especially when) you don’t feel like it.

Much of writing is about getting out of my own way. As a result, I avoid the very thing I want to do the most. I am constantly devising ways to trick myself out of writing. Maybe I need another snack. Maybe I have some grading to do. Maybe I need to email five people. I have learned all of my own tricks, though, and I have to be firm (but kind) as if with a child. You aren’t hungry and you deserve to write today. You deserve to be happy.

7. Be your own biggest fan.

The ability to criticize one’s own work is essential. We can’t do our best work without it. But we have to learn the difference between constructive and destructive criticism. Sometimes when we don’t have the success we’d hoped, we turn on ourselves. What made me think I was any good at this? But criticism should be craft-oriented. For example, Might this piece have been stronger in the third person? What’s the point of telling one’s self that the whole enterprise is unworthy? The writing life is certainly challenging, but each of us has something to contribute. We have to learn to name our strengths, meditate on them, and hold onto them like friends.

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