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7 Things I've Learned So Far, by Steven Raichlen

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers at any stage of their career can talk about seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning. This installment is from writer Steve Raichlen. GIVEAWAY: Steven is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the bookby mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Carol won.)

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,”where writers (this installment written by Steven Raichlen, author of ISLAND APART) 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: Steven is excited to give away a free copy of his 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: Carol won.)

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Steve Raichlen is the author of ISLAND APART, a debut novel
(June 2012, Forge Books) set on Chappaquiddick Island in Martha's
Vineyard. Booklist said of the book, "A sweet grown-up love story ...
Raichlen packs a lot into his first novel … the passages of locally
harvested food and intense cooking are gorgeous ... A beach book
for smart people." Before this novel, Raichlen was a New York Times
best-selling author of several cookbooks.

For 30 years, I’ve made my living as a food writer (particularly with books about barbecue). I always wanted to write fiction. On June 5, 2012, Forge Books (Macmillan) will publish my first novel, Island Apart. I wish I could say it came easily, but while I wrote my first draft in six months, it took me fifteen years to get around to writing that first draft and five years to turn it into a publishable manuscript. Here are seven things I learned about writing in the process. (Incidentally, fiction writing has made me a better food writer.)

1. Writing requires equal parts inspiration and endurance. (Perhaps even more of the latter.) Novels are hard work (a lot harder than cookbooks) and part of that hard work is keeping yourself in a chair long enough to crank out the 300, 500, or 1,000 pages that will eventually become your story. It’s supposed to be hard work. If it were easy, everyone would write a novel instead of talking about it.

(Why agents stop reading your first chapter.)

2. Your first draft won’t be your last. You just might not realize it at the moment. (So savor your “whew” moment because it won’t last,) When I finished the first version of Island Apart, I firmly believed I had written the proverbial great American novel. Seven figure advance offers would soon clog my in-box. I wrote and scrapped an additional 500 pages in the nine revisions that followed to end up with the 288 page that comprise the bound book.

3. The first chapter—or even the first 200 pages you write—may not be the beginning of your ultimate story. My first draft of Island Apart opened with a trip from New York City to Martha’s Vineyard. I wanted to take the reader on the same journey I’ve made so often—queuing up with all the other cars at Steamship Authority Ferry Terminal in Woods Hole; driving up the rickety ramp onto the boat; feeling the sea breeze in your hair crossing Vineyard Sound; and finally, the surreal calm you experience on arriving on Chappaquiddick. There was just one problem: The guy whose journey I chronicled was one of my secondary characters and I wasted sixty pages to get to my protagonist and the real story. Once I cut the first two chapters, the book took off.

4. Your working title may not wind up on the cover. Initially, I called my book The Hermit of Chappaquiddick (the name of my male protagonist). I thought it was a brilliant title: the mysterious qualities of “hermit”; the political controversy surrounding the Kennedy tragedy at Chappaquiddick’s Dyke Bridge; the sense of loneliness and melancholy when you put the two together. To which my veteran editor, Bob Gleason, replied that this was the worst title he had heard in forty years of publishing. After much back and forth, we settled on “Island Apart,” which is what “Chappaquiddick” means in the language of the island’s first settlers, the Wampanoags. Seventy-five million baby boomers may have strong associations with Chappaquiddick, but an equal number of Gen-Xers, Millennials, and other young people give you a blank look when you mention it. Much as I hate to admit it, Island Apart works better.

5. Don’t worry too much about fleshing out or outlining the plot. When I started Island Apart, I knew how the story would begin and how it would end. I had no idea how to get through the middle. Fortunately, I had good guides: The characters themselves showed me what had to happen.

(Ever want to adapt your novel/memoir into a screenplay? Here are 7 tips.)

6. Write in the active voice. In my first draft I used a lot of passive constructions—“it must be said,” for example, or “if the truth be told” or “the Hermit was seen walking down Litchfield Road.” Rewriting the story in the active voice gave the novel a lot more energy and power. Similarly, in real life, people may declare, opine, state, explain, cry, laugh, or chortle. Characters say or ask. Anything more than “he said” or “she asked” is distracting.

7. Be extra nice to your spouse or significant other. The deeper you get into the story, the more you’ll withdraw from everyday life. Your spouse will miss you and complain that you seem absent—even when you’re sitting together the dinner table. Your significant other may get jealous. When you write a novel, you need all the help and support you can get from your loved ones. Make sure you love them back.

GIVEAWAY: Steven is excited to give away a free copy of his 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: Carol won.)

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Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:

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