“7 Things I’ve Learned So Far” (this installment written by Andrew Roe, author of WHERE YOU LIVE) is a recurring column where writers at any stage of their career can talk about writing advice and instruction, as well as how they got their literary agent—by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning.
1. There’s no “right” way.
For far too many years, I banged my head against the wall about this. I heard stories of writers who composed a first draft, then chucked it away and started completely anew. I heard tales of revision strategies and immersion techniques and how some writers composed elaborate backstories about their characters, knowing everything from dietary preferences to the names of elementary school teachers. Had I ever done any of these things? No, I had not. But eventually (yes, it took a while) I realized that’s okay. Everyone’s method is different. There’s no one way to write a book or story. It sounds so simple, but this was truly liberating for me. I still beat myself up, though, which leads me to…
This guest post is by Andrew Roe. Roe’s latest book is WHERE YOU LIVE, a collection of short stories. His debut novel, THE MIRACLE GIRL, was a Los Angeles Times Book Award finalist. His fiction has been published in Tin House, One Story, The Sun, Glimmer Train, Slice, The Cincinnati Review, and other publications, as well as the anthologies 24 Bar Blues (Press 53) and Where Love Is Found (Washington Square Press). His nonfiction has been published in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Salon.com, and elsewhere. He lives in Oceanside, California, with his wife and three children. Find out more at andrewroeauthor.com.
2. Be nice to yourself.
There are countless reasons for a writer to succumb to spells of regular/semi-regular lamentation: rejection, meager productivity, the success of peers, book deals for celebrities, the fact that what you’re writing always falls short and feels less than what you envisioned at the outset. A wonderful writer named Roy Parvin (check out his collection of novellas, In the Snow Forest, or his short story collection, The Loneliest Road in America) once gently advised me to be nice to myself after one such lament. I’ve never forgotten that. And I try—I try to do a better job of savoring the victories, whether it’s getting published or finishing a chapter or page—or even improving a single paragraph or sentence.
3. Writing is, for better or worse, tied to my personal happiness.
Is it the same for other artists, other avocations? I often wonder about this. Maybe this phenomenon isn’t unique to writers, but I have a hunch that it is. If I have a bad writing session, then I have a bad day. The writing bleeds over, the frustration and doubt creeps into other areas of my life (as a parent, as a husband, as a person). This is another thing that I fought against and struggled with for a long time. Now I’ve accepted it (for the most part, that is) as writerly collateral damage.
4. There’s never a perfect time to write.
Don’t wait for that glorious eight-hour stretch of uninterrupted writing time. Don’t wait for the right mood or creative mental state or lightning-like inspiration. Because if you do, and if, like me, you have kids and a day job, you’ll never make significant progress. Even if it’s only fifteen minutes—take advantage of any time you can devote to writing. This is time you could have spent online or watching TV or extracting lint from a dryer. But instead you wrote! You got some momentum, forward movement, a feeling of engagement. And building and maintaining momentum is especially crucial when working on a longer project.
5. Write as often as you can, but don’t stress if it isn’t every day.
This relates to “There’s no ‘right’ way,” above. To be a real writer, I used to think you had to write every day. It’s so liberating whenever I hear a writer say she doesn’t write every day, even if she can. You might go on a good jag of writing daily; however, after a while you’ll need a break or else you run the risk of burning yourself out—and the work will suffer. So it’s okay to miss a day or two. Hell, take the weekend off. Longer, sustained breaks can be beneficial, too, giving you some distance and perspective about what you’re working on. Also, writing doesn’t necessarily have to be time “in the chair.” You get credit for things like taking notes, figuring out structural problems, thinking about a character or scene or sentence while commuting to work or standing in line at the store. I’ve found that this helps alleviate the stress of feeling that I’m not going fast enough, not making enough progress.
6. Be happy that anyone reads your book.
Sure, it’s hard to shrug off a one-star review on Amazon or Goodreads. But at least they read your book. A mixed three-star review, full of a combination of praise (“I loved the prose!”) and criticism (“I hated the prose!”), can get your head spinning, too. But at least they read your book. Even three stars is a positive, Ebertian thumbs-up review. Be thankful that, in this day and age, with so many options available and myriad distractions and ways to spend our time, someone took the time to read something you wrote.
7. Support your fellow writers.
Let the world know about your good news and bask in any time you have in the spotlight. But also celebrate and share the success of other writers. Evangelize the authors and works that touch you and better the world. Buy their books. Attend their readings. Post about them on social media. Send them a quick note of appreciation. Call it kindness, call it literary karma, call it whatever you like. It’s so important to be part of and engaged in a larger community.
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